The bombing of Dresden – the nightmares come true

On 13 February 1945 Dresden was destroyed by Allied bombs. British and American planes brought death from the sky. 25,000 perished. This had a traumatic impact on both of my grandparents, Fred and Rike. Fred loved Dresden and the people of Dresden, and he had prophetic nightmares that the city would be destroyed by fire and the people he’d come to love would be killed. He was devastated when, in India, he had heard that these nightmares had come true. Rike was lucky in some respects as she was working on a farm outside the city on that fateful night. Her family home was in Langebrück, a village also outside the city. But she would witness firsthand the devastation brought by the bombs. The following excerpts from “Dreams of Dresden” tell their stories in more depth.

Prologue – India 1942

The dark night sky was illuminated by a thousand fires burning. Dresden was burning, a terrible firestorm. Explosion followed explosion. Above the roaring of the flames, he could hear the screams of those who were fleeing, calling for their children down streets that had become volcanic rivers of burning debris. The searing heat and smell of charred flesh permeated his skin.

“Are you alright, Clayton?” a concerned voice came from the bed across the room.

Fred sat up with a start. He was drenched in sweat. He looked around and took a while to reorient himself. He was in a commandeered villa that he shared with other Allied officers, on the Aurangzeb Road, India. He was many miles away from home, and that family that he’d grown to love.

It was 1942 and the world was at war. Squadron Leader Clayton (RAF Intelligence) was a breaker of Japanese Codes (although he had no knowledge of Japanese) at the Wireless Experimental Centre (WEC) at Anand Parbat, on the outskirts of Delhi, India. Small, slight, with piercing blue eyes, Fred was 29 and, like many other codebreakers both in Bletchley and in India, a classics scholar from King’s College, Cambridge, who had had an astonishing academic career so far. This was interrupted, as it had been for many other men and women of his generation, by the outbreak of the second world war. Fred was part of a nerve centre of intelligence from military wireless sources against Japan. Situated on the site of Ramjas College, a Protestant Hindu foundation which had been evacuated elsewhere and taken over by the Allied armed forces, the centre’s hilly and isolated position on the edge of the Thari desert made it ideal for its role as a wireless station, although the thousand or so people who were based there – from Intelligence Corps, RAF Signals Wing, Women’s auxiliary corps, Indian airmen and many others, including civilians – lived with the perpetual fear of being caught in the anhi – the dust storm. Now, Fred needed to utilise all of his skills and talents to fight the Japanese. War, one might say, made guessing his game, if you call it guessing and not the imagination and logic of a verbal mind pushed to the limit. The work entailed doing what he had unconsciously done with Latin unseens – pushing the deciphering of messages to the furthest limits with combined logic and imagination, and practically no Japanese. He worked on the premise ‘the only thing he can be saying next is …’ eliminating alternatives, and he was good at it. When the task was given to another young man in Barackpore while he was away in Delhi, he was whizzed back to Barackpore, losing much needed leave in the process.

“Clayton,” the voice was more insistent this time, “What’s the matter with you?”

“Oh, sorry. Nothing,” Fred replied, “It was a nightmare, that’s all.”

“Well, try and hold it together, won’t you? You probably woke up half the mess with that bloody racket you were making.”

“Yes, I’m sorry about that. I’ll try and keep it under wraps.”

It was the same nightmare. Night after night. He dreamed of Dresden being bombed and those boys in the Kreuzschule being killed.

Fred was still in India when he heard about the fate of Dresden. How would he react?

India, 1945

Many miles away, tragedy had come to Dresden. The city had been bombed. His nightmares had come true. Fred’s full reaction to the news was delayed. He rationalised it – of course the day of reckoning had to come. It could not remain forever the one miraculously spared city. But then, as he’d heard news of other German cities being bombed, Fred had almost come to believe that the Allies were deliberately forbearing to destroy it, and that was wise and fine and magnanimous, worthy of a man of feeling like Churchill. But now, like a princess in some grim ancient myth, it appeared that Dresden had been saved up only for the war masters’ final feast, saved up to show how ruthless in all his righteous wrath, the lion could be, that the wicked had so recklessly roused. But it was, after all, as he saw it, only a final touch, nothing more, to the whole hideous business. Fred found with a sort of shamed shock, that he did not really care. He wanted to. He ought to. But his heart was dead. He felt no longer capable of love or caring. He longed for the end, longed to be out of it all, back home. Dresden was just an item in the utter dreariness of life.

As Fred thought about the destruction of his beloved city and his time in Dresden, which, along with his whole pre-war world, felt unreal and remote, one thought at the back of his burned out mind was, “Back in Dresden, I argued for the virtue of our democracy and values. I argued that we were the nobler for it. Now, barbarism on our side as well as theirs has beaten tolerance.” Fred was less ashamed of his very non-combatant war, believing there may be some reason for his sort to survive, but that thought gave him very scant consolation.


Rike meanwhile left school after Easter 1944 and made her contribution to the war effort, working on a farm in Hochweitzschen as part of the compulsory Labour Service devised by the Nazis to support the war effort. She relished the freedom that this life away from home gave her. The setting for her labour service was beautiful; Rike fell in love with the hills that surrounded her, and found peace in her work; the war felt a long way away. But then, in February 1945 the war broke in brutally.

Hochweitzchen and Dresden 1945

Rike would never forget hearing the sound of the planes that night. It was like a humming that got louder and louder. And then next morning, 16th February 1945, came the news that Dresden, her home city, had been bombed. As the war had progressed, she heard news of other German cities being devastated by the British bombing campaigns, but Dresden remained untouched and Rike, like many other Dresdeners, had begun to hope, to believe that “Florence on the Elbe”, their beloved city, would be spared. The Americans and British after all, loved the city so much, attracted by the fine buildings, Baroque palaces and pleasant landscapes; it was harmless, a city of culture that played no significant part in the war effort. The Allies were planning to use Dresden as their administrative base after the war. And didn’t Churchill have a favourite aunt who lived in Dresden? He had spared the city for her sake.

All their illusions were shattered that day. A press release from the German News Bureau said that “cultural and residential areas were deliberately attacked and destroyed,” although there was no clear indication about the full extent of the devastation. Rike worried for Mädi and her young family, and was grateful that their home was outside the city limits and unlikely to have been affected. Nine days later, on 25th February everyone was sent home. The situation in the east had worsened so much that they would be better provided for at home. It was every man and woman for themselves.

She had to wrench herself away from the sanctuary of the farm and confront whatever reality faced her back in Dresden. On the train home she didn’t know where she was; it looked like she had entered another country. It was a dull day and the clouds were still hanging over the city. The shock was tremendous: the sights – of the city’s skeletal, still smoking ruins; and the smell – the stench of corpses, of burning flesh; threatened to overwhelm her as she clambered over the rubble. The smoke made her throat constrict and her eyes burned hotly. She didn’t see anybody – there was no life at all. The city that she’d loved was gone. It was a dead town, just rubble. She had never suffered as much physical and mental pain as then, overwhelmed by a great fury against the war.

She was still in shock when she got home. Chaos and devastation was all around her. Difficult weeks followed. Rike learned that an aunt and a cousin had been killed in the bombing. Another Aunt who had lived near the Hauptbahnhof had lost everything. They had tried to dig in the rubble where their home once stood to recover something, anything, but found nothing – it had all been destroyed. Anger flared up as Rike heard stories of the atrocities that had been committed by the British and Americans – on the second day of bombing, the animals broke out of the zoo and ran towards the river, and so did the people running away from the fire. According to these stories the aeroplanes had machine guns and they shot the animals and the people. Rumours spread of tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands dead. Heaven had become hell. It was an outrage.

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