When the burghers of Dresden, Germany, marked the 47th anniversary earlier this year of the Allied incendiary attack on their city-in which an estimated 60,000 civilians died, many by suffocation-they did so against a reignited controversy over the British air chief marshal who ordered the firestorm.
On Feb.13, 1945, three months before the end of World War II, Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris ordered an air attack on railway marshalling yards through which Wehrmacht troops were being transported to the crumbling eastern front. A sortie of 772 RAF bombers set off a conflagration which consumed 15 sq. km of the historic Elbe valley city-hitherto untouched by the war. Ten hours later, 331 American Flying Fortresses hit the target again, followed by a further strike on Feb.15.
At the time, Dresden was swollen with refugees who had sought a safe haven in what was a non-strategic city. Of the 1,223 bombers which flew over the city, only eight were shot down. Most of the city's antiaircraft batteries had been redeployed to protect the industrial Ruhr. Luftwaffe fighters based nearby didn't have enough fuel to fly without authorization, and that came too late.
The devastating attack shocked the British public. Prime Minister Winston Churchill said after the raid: "The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing." The novel Slaughterhouse Five by American POW Kurt Vonnegut, one of the survivors of the attack, became a classic anti-war statement.
Popular revulsion, particularly after the war, centered on Harris, who had masterminded the carpet bombing of Hitler's Third Reich.
The air marshal, called Butcher Harris by Nazi propaganda, had vowed to turn Germany into a desert and win the war by 1943 by "de-housing" the German people. His strategy succeeded in destroying large parts of major cities but failed to shorten the war. Vital industries were located underground. As in the German Blitz against London, aerial bombing stiffened rather than broke civilian resistance.
Unlike other senior officers in the fight against Nazism, Harris was knighted only in 1953, eight years after the war ended. He died embittered in 1984.
Convinced that Harris was treated badly, the 7,500 members of the Bomber Command Association, a British veterans organization, have collected $200,000 to erect a statue of him in London. They want the memorial to stand opposite one of Lord Dowding, commander-in-chief of the Royal Air Force's fighter command, in St. Clement Danes, the RAF church in the Strand.
Dresden deputy mayor Reinhard Keller called the proposed monument "the wrong signal at the wrong time" while the city's mayor went to the British Embassy in Bonn this fall to express his pretest.
Authorities in Dresden may call on twin city Coventry, almost completely razed by a Luftwaffe attack on Nov.14, 1940, to help prevent the statue from going up. A spokesman for the Coventry City Council indicated a request from Dresden would be given serious consideration.
The Times of London has urged that the project be abandoned, calling Harris a "fanatical believer in the carpet bombing of civilians."
But Bomber Command Association spokesman Ray Gallow insists the statue is appropriate. "When we started area bombing, we were losing on all fronts. The public didn't find a thing wrong with bombing German cities then."
Gil Kezwer is a Toronto writer.