The aerial bombing of cities began during World War 1 and grew to a vast scale during World War 2.
The list of wars that used, or continue to use, this method of combat is formidable: The first Italian War of Independence. The Balkan War. The Mexican Revolution. The second Italo-Abyssinian War. The Spanish Civil War. The second Sino-Japanese War. The Korean War. The Vietnam War. The Arab-Israeli conflict. The war in Afghanistan. The Iran–Iraq War. The Gulf War. The Iraq War. The Chencen Wars ….
Today, February thirteen, is the anniversary of the aerial bombing of Dresden. I commemorate the victims of all aerial bombing with this extract from A Quilt of Dreams.
“Across the ocean and land mass, on the night of February thirteen 1945, Lily Rosenberg, the object of Gershon’s first feelings of love, sat with her mother-in-law in the fully booked, two-thousand seat, permanent big top of Dresden’s Circus Sarrasani, at the Carolaplatz, on the Neustadt side of the river Elbe.
All places of entertainment and artistic activity had been closed since 1944 and the Dresden philharmonic orchestra and operatic choir disbanded. Dresden’s famous circus was allowed to perform only because it was considered by the Nazis to be an amusement suitable for entertaining troops and therefore vital to war service.
The circus still hosted lavish spectacles and, on this night, the two women, weary of war-time hardship, decided to have a few hours respite from its rigours, sitting among refugees who were seizing a rare interlude of light and spectacle on their wretched walk westward.
No searchlights probed the skies above the unprotected target city, for the guns had been moved east to counter the Russian advance. Who was to know that an elite British force of fourteen squadrons totalling two hundred and forty four heavily laden Lancaster bombers, together with eight Mosquito marker aircraft, had commandeered the night sky from the stars, and were heading towards Dresden to make a show-of-lights of another sort? Who could have imagined that this flock of fire-lighters (as though not sufficient to destroy a city or birth and feed a monstrous, rapacious firestorm) would be followed by a second and then a third force of bombers, so that in the space of twelve hours more than enough incendiary and explosive material would be dropped to ensure that the circus performed no more.
Those seated in the magical big top did not see the first eight marker aircraft highlight with great care and precision the aiming points for the initial bombing wave. The design began with green flares to delineate the perimeter of the city, then with the first of almost a thousand white magnesium parachute flares, and finally with red flares to guide the bombers in their attack.
The marker flares fell, like candles from heaven, like illumined Christmas trees. At first they seemed to be a sight of wonder, of light and delight, these, the light bearers of the apocalypse. One might have reflected that these were the steps of a fire-dance, a choreography of fall positions. And then one might have asked whether the master bomber, the place marker, the one-who-shows-where-the-foot-is-to-be-placed would be afraid one day, of this which he had orchestrated, this sequence of movements which was neither waltz nor ballet.
No one in the circus audience could know that before the night was over the fuse of their own day of reckoning would be lit, turning this night of acrobats and wonder, of performing animals and carnival, of trapeze, into the very pit of hell.
The master bomber, he who flew in first and low, he who oversaw, was not a master of literature, nor one of art and fine music, nor even was he master of his own soul. He forsook true mastery that night.
As the first bombs exploded, the clown ran out from the circus tent. He shouted upward. He threw his voice up into the thundering, up towards the whistling of the falling bombs to stop any further discharge, to correct what he knew to be a monumental error. He called out, ‘Here is antiquity! Here is art! Here are the thousand-thousand works of hewn stone and cut marble.’
But there are certain words that mean nothing to the architects of war: Roccoco. Baroque. Romanesque. Byzantine. Gothic. These are just five of them.
The second wave of bombers, a stream of aircraft more than one hundred and twenty miles long, which came in when the first wave was well and away, also dropped markers, though there was hardly need, for the city was clearly visible, brightly aflame and aglow from high in the sky.
Tears spoilt the clown’s red-and-white painted face. His voice and harlequin pantaloons turned to naught as the firestorm became a life force unto itself. Nothing stood before the flames. The fountains and water tanks, and even the river were of no use. Everything was destroyed: Tigers. Dappled horses. Acrobats. Performing dogs. Lions. Women. Babies. Fugitives from the east. Even the angels, the city’s stone and marble angels; those of bronze; those of light and love; those commissioned to care for human souls; those sent to warn; those sent to lead the children out from the valley of death; even they were consumed.
From the eastern front, where the Russian advance was pushing back the German army, the fire-glow could be seen in the night sky. And those there, those caught in the pincers of the God of War, might have asked later (if they survived their own horror, and if they lived to see the utter destruction of this city of art) who it was who had planned the birth of this all-pervading monster. Who pinned the directive ribbons on the wall-map, delineating this target city? Who sent the uniformed young men with flasks of tea and packs of sandwiches to make manifest this terror from the air? Who had filled and packed the incendiaries? Were they indeed young and pretty women doing war-work for the good of mankind?
The bombers felt the heat, three thousand feet up. One of them might have wondered what it was they had unleashed. Another of them might have felt remorse fifty years later, as an old man, on the anniversary of this cataclysmic destruction. All were relieved when their duty was done, pleased to return home to their bombers’ breakfasts. They were mere boys trained to do their war-work without question, but with valour and courage. Some among them were virgin-bombers, for whom this had been a first mission.
In the end, there remained only the pulverised, the charred. Only cinders. Only ash. Yet still the third wave of bombers came, by daylight next morning, when fire had already done its work, so that their incendiaries spluttered out, for there was nothing for their flames to grasp.
Gershon was at Auntie Pearl’s, in her living room, when he heard the BBC’s report of the bombing of Dresden. He heard the news alone while his aunt and wife and daughter were in the conservatory. He went out into the garden and stood under the guava tree, disturbing a hadeda which flew away screaming raucously, while he placed this new and terrible knowledge into the pit of his stomach, for his heart could not hold it. He thought of Lily. Of his father’s body which he had not buried, and he doubled over in an agony of sorrow, adding something more to his already burdened soul, and about which he would never speak.
He turned his attention even more stoically to his business and investments and became increasingly implacable and withdrawn.”
A Quilt of Dreams
Published by Black Swan
Available on Amazon.co.uk