Photo: Martin in Yalta, February 1990, while filming the BBC Churchill series
700 words / 3 ½ minute read
On February 4, near Brandschied, American forces breached the outer defences of the Siegfried Line. That day, in the Crimean resort town of Yalta, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met to discuss the political problems of post-war Europe, and in particular, Poland. After considerable pressure from the two Western leaders, Stalin gave a series of assurances that free elections would be held, and that all Polish political parties could participate. These assurances were to prove valueless.
The Big Three also heard a plea on February 4 by the Deputy of the Chief of Staff of the Soviet forces, General Antonov, for British and American bombing help, “to prevent the enemy from transferring his troops to the East from the Western front, Norway and Italy.” What Antonov asked for was “air attacks against communications.” This Soviet request for Anglo-American air support was presented to the Big Three at their meeting on the afternoon of February 4, when Antonov told the meeting that the Germans were even then transferring to the Eastern Front eight divisions from the interior of Germany, eight from Italy, three from Norway and a further twelve from the Western Front, in addition to six already transferred. Antonov’s exaggerated assignment – only four divisions were transferred from Italy, for example – led Stalin to ask what Churchill and Roosevelt’s wishes were “in regard to the Red Army,” to which Churchill replied that they would like the Russian offensive to continue.
The urgency of the need for some Anglo-American air action to help that offensive was made clear by a sentence in the British Cabinet’s War Room Record that day, in which it was pointed out that “between the Oder bend north west of Glogau and the Carpathians all Russian attacks failed in the face of strengthened German resistance”. On the following day, in a memorandum for the Combined Chiefs of Staff, the British Chiefs of Staff agreed “to do what is possible to assist the advance of the Soviet Army”. That same day, at a meeting of the joint British, United States and Russian Chiefs of Staff, General Antonov went so far as to warn the Western generals that if the Allies “were unable to take full advantage of their air superiority they” – the Russians – “did not have sufficient superiority on the ground to overcome enemy opposition.”
The British and American Chiefs of Staff at once agreed to deflect some of their bomber forces from the attack on Germany’s oil reserves and supplies, then the current priority, to attack on the German Army’s lines of communication in the Berlin-Dresden-Leipzig region. They also agreed, at Antonov’s suggestion, that these three specific cities should be “allotted to the Allied air forces,” leaving the Russian bombers to attack targets further east.
Thus at Yalta, in an attempt to help the Red Army halt the flow of German troops through Dresden and other cities to the Eastern Front, the fate of Dresden – which for “bomber” Harris remained one of the few major unbombed cities – was sealed. It was Harris who, in his capacity as head of Bomber Command, had for so long resisted the call to focus his strength against Germany’s oil resources, preferring to put his faith, which all Allied Intelligence including Ultra had shown to be misplaced, in the creation of firestorms and rubble.
On the night of February 13, as part of the Anglo-American plan, agreed at the Yalta Conference, to delay for as long as possible German troop reinforcements being transferred from Norway, Italy and Holland to the Eastern battle zone around Breslau, 245 British bombers struck at the city of Dresden, followed three and a half hours later by 529 more. Their purpose was to destroy the city’s railway marshalling yards. During the first of the two raids, a firestorm, created in a single hour’s bombardment, burnt through eleven square miles of the city.
The British raid on Dresden was followed the next morning by an American raid, also aimed at the marshalling yards, in which 450 bombers took part. Dresden, whose ancient city centre had hitherto been untouched by war, was now on fire; some of the fires were to burn for seven days and nights.
Excerpt from Second World War
Join Esther on zoom on February 13, the anniversary of the bombing raid, reading from 6 of Sir Martin’s published works on the planning and carrying out of the bombing of Dresden.
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Read: The Second World War