The Firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo: The History and Legacy of the Allies’ Controversial Bombing Campaigns Near the End of World War II

Written by Charles River Editors
Category: · History

*Includes pictures
*Includes contemporary accounts
*Includes a table of contents

In the middle of February 1945, the Allies were steadily advancing against the Germans from both east and west, with British and American forces having repulsed the German offensive during the Battle of the Bulge and the Soviet Union’s Red Army pushing from the east. Indeed, the war would be over in just a little more than 2 months. Nonetheless, it was during this timeframe that the Allies conducted one of the most notorious attacks of the war: the targeting of Dresden. As a Royal Air Force memo put it before the attack, “Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany and not much smaller than Manchester is also the largest unbombed builtup area the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westward and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium, not only to give shelter to workers, refugees, and troops alike, but to house the administrative services displaced from other areas. At one time well known for its china, Dresden has developed into an industrial city of first-class importance…. The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front… and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.”

In the span of about 48 hours, Dresden was targeted by over 1,200 Allied bombers, which dropped nearly 4,000 tons of explosives on the town. The firestorms caused by this pounding hollowed out 1,600 acres and killed at least tens of thousands in gruesome ways. Ironically, many of the victims in Dresden had fled from the eastern front as the Soviets advanced, understandably worried about what kind of punishment the Soviets would dole out to captured Germans in response to the atrocities committed in Russia during the war.

As the RAF memo noted, Dresden was relatively unscathed before the attacks, and the bombing was justified by the Allies based on Dresden being the home of hundreds of factories and a crucial railway. However, the widespread devastation immediately compelled the Nazis to use the attack as propaganda, and it has been condemned in the nearly 70 years since, with arguments still debating whether Dresden should’ve been attacked in the manner it was, and whether it was a disproportionate bombing.

The first serious air raids over mainland Japan came in November 1944, after the Americans had captured the Marianas Islands, and through February 1945, American bombers concentrated on military targets at the fringes of the city, particularly air defenses. However, the air raids of March 1945, and particularly on the night of March 9, were a different story altogether. In what is generally referred to as strategic or area bombing, waves of bombers flew low over Tokyo for over two and a half hours, dropping incendiary bombs with the intention of producing a massive firestorm. The American raids intended to produce fires that would kill soldiers and civilians, as well as the munitions factories and apartment buildings of those who worked in them. 325 B-29s headed toward Tokyo, and nearly 300 of them dropped bombs on it, destroying more than 267,000 buildings and killing more than 83,000 people, making it the deadliest day of the war.
The firebombing that night and morning left 25% of Tokyo charred, with the damage spread out over 20 miles of the metropolis. In fact, the damage was so extensive that casualty counts range by over 100,000.

As with dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firebombing of Tokyo has remained controversial since the end of World War II. Japan had wisely spread out its industrial facilities across Tokyo so that one concerted attack could not deal a severe blow to its military capabilities. However, by spreading everything out, as the Germans had also done, Allied planes hit targets in residential zones, greatly increasing the casualties.


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