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Allied Bombers Obliterated One of Europe's Most Beautiful Cities

Allied bombers obliterated one of Europe's most beautiful cities — photos of the bombing of Dresden

By Christopher Woody, Business Insider

World War II was more than three years old when Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and other Allied leaders met at Casablanca in January 1943, but the decisions made there would shape the rest of the war in Europe.

During the conference, Allied leaders settled on a policy of unconditional surrender. To that end, they agreed on a strategic bombing plan to bring the Axis powers to their knees.

For the US, bombing would focus on daytime raids against strategically valuable targets — factories, ports, military bases, and other infrastructure involved in the war effort. For the British, who had suffered during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, the air war would target German cities in nighttime raids.

In the following months, numerous German cities would crumble beneath the Allied onslaught, but perhaps the most heinous destruction was in Dresden, a historic city in southeast Germany.

Dresden had avoided the destruction wreaked on major urban centers like Berlin and Hamburg.

But on February 13, 14, and 15, 1945, more than 1,200 British and American heavy bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the city.

The intensity of the bombing devastated the city's historic center. The fire that raged during the bombing made superheated air rise with such force that it created a vacuum on the ground, ripping trees out of the ground, sucking people into the fires, and suffocatingthose spared the flames.

Roughly 25,000 people, many of them civilians and refugees, were killed, and more than 75,000 buildings were destroyed. The scale and ferocity of the bombing, coming so late in the war, has led many to believe the attack was a war crime.

Below, you can see some of the devastation wrought by Allied forces 73 years ago:

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Dresden was a cultural and architectural gem in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The city is located on the river Elbe River, and the Dresden Frauenkirche, a Lutheran church, and the Katholische Hofkirche, the city's Roman Catholic Cathedral, can be seen below.

A view across the river Elbe, toward Augustus Bridge and Dresden Frauenkirche, on the left, and the Katholische Hofkirche, right, in Dresden, 1875. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The interior of the city was just as stunning. Dresden, known as "the Florence of the Elbe" before the war because of its architecture and museums, had little involvement in the German war effort.

The State Opera House in Dresden, Germany, around 1930. Fox Photos/Getty Images

After nearly six years of brutal war, Nazi Germany was staggering in February 1945. In the east, Soviet armies had reached the Oder River, roughly 50 miles from Berlin. In the west, the US had recently triumphed in the Battle of the Bulge, erasing the salient created by Hitler's last-ditch attempt at a breakout in the Ardennes forest. The Nazi Luftwaffe was a shell of itself, able to to little to contest Allied control of the air over Europe.

During the first days of February, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin met in Yalta, in what was then the USSR. Their focus was dividing up German territory, but the Western leaders did promise Stalin that their air forces would continue bombing eastern Germany to aid advancing Soviet forces.

Bodies in the street after the allied fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, February 1945. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Source: History.com

Allied "area bombing" targeted all Germany industry, civilian and military alike. Civilian areas of cities were targeted as well as industrial and military ones.

Source: History.com

The German military contingent there was minimal, as most of the Nazi's remaining forces were devoted to the defense of Berlin, farther north. Many refugees fleeing the Soviet advance had also settled in Dresden.

A woman's corpse in an air-raid shelter in Dresden after the city was bombed in February 1945. Deutsche Fotothek/Wikimedia Commons

Source: History.com

Dresden's defenders put up little fight as the bombing began on the night of February 13. Of the hundreds of British bombers that swarmed over the city, just six Lancaster bombers were downed. By the morning of February 14, some 800 RAF bombers had dropped over 2,500 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs.

Source: History.com

Survivors of the first wave of attacks emerged from the city's ruins on February 14 and were greeted by hundreds of US bombers targeting the city's railways, bridges, and transportation infrastructure. The next day, more US bombers continued the attack on the city.

The ruins of Dresden after the Allied bombing raid. Evening Standard/Getty Images

Source: History.com

The US Eighth Air Force dropped more than 1,200 tons of bombs, the majority of it high-explosives. Before the war in Europe ended with Germany's surrender in May, the Eighth Air Force would carry out three more raids on Dresden, dropping another 2,800 tons of bombs.

Source: History.com

Allied forces and other have argued the bombing was necessary to disrupt German communications and supply lines that could have hindered the Soviet advance. While the British did not tout their targeting of civilian infrastructure, some acknowledged it. "For a long time, the government, for excellent reasons, has preferred the world to think that we still held some scruples and attacked only what the humanitarians are pleased to call military targets," the head of Britain's bomber command said in November 1941. "I can assure you, gentlemen, that we tolerate no scruples."

The legitimacy of the attack on the city continues to draw questions, in light of the scale of the destruction and nature of the targets. It has been condemned as a war crime by many, including Allied prisoners of war who were there.

"As the incendiaries fell, the phosphorus clung to the bodies of those below, turning them into human torches. The screaming of those who were being burned alive was added to the cries of those not yet hit. There was no need for flares to lead the second wave of bombers to their target, as the whole city had become a gigantic torch," Victor Gregg, a British paratrooper held in the city during the bombing, said 68 years later. "Dresden had no defences, no anti-aircraft guns, no searchlights, nothing."

Dresden volunteers continue to help clear the bomb damage debris, March 1946. Fred Ramage/Keystone Features/Getty Images

Gregg was captured at Arnhem in the Netherlands in 1944. He was sent near Dresden to work in a factory, which he was caught trying to sabotage. He was sent to Dresden to be executed on the day the bombing began.

Source: The Guardian

After the war, various estimates of the death toll in Dresden were often influenced by the political motivations of the assessors. An official German report issued in 2010 put the tally at 25,000 lives. For decades afterward, the East German government refused to rebuild the Frauenkirche church, a dominant and historic feature of the city. It stood untouched and in ruins as a symbol and memorial for those killed. It was finally reconstructed after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A group of volunteers working to rebuild Dresden. Two elderly Germans, Gustav and Alma Piltz, are assisting in the clearing of rubble. Fred Ramage/Getty Images

The bombing and the war have had lasting effects on the city, which is now more than eight centuries old. In years past, neo-Nazis have marched there on February 13 to mark the bombing. At times they have been met by a human wall of counterprotestors, who've blocked the neo-Nazis from reaching the city center.

Women form a human chain to carry bricks used in the reconstruction of Dresden in March 1946 after allied bombing destroyed the city in February 1945. The steeple of the wrecked Roman Catholic cathedral can be seen in the background. Fred Ramage/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"Witnesses who witnessed the inferno, still carry memories to places and people they never met again," German President Joachim Gauck said on the 70th anniversary of the bombing. "We know who started the murderous war. And that's why we want and will never forget the victims of German warfare when we recall here and now the German victims."

Women workers remove debris from the shell of the Hof Kirche, the Catholic cathedral in Dresden, Germany, February 1946. Fred Ramage/Keystone/Getty Images

"I really did go back to Dresden with Guggenheim money (God love it) in 1967. It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has," Kurt Vonnegut, a prisoner of war in the city, wrote in his novel "Slaughterhouse-Five," which depicted the bombing. "There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground."

Women in Dresden clear debris from the floor of the Zwinger art gallery during post-war rebuilding of the bomb-damaged city, March 1946. Fred Ramage/Getty Images

A combination photo shows the statue of German religious reformer Martin Luther in front of the ruins of the Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, in Dresden, Germany, in March 13, 1967, left, and a similar view of the statue in front of the restored building on February 9, 2005, right.

A combination photo shows August Schreitmueller's sandstone sculpture "The Goodness" from the Rathausturm, or town-hall tower, overlooking Dresden in 1945, left, and on February 12, 2015, overlooking a parking lot.

AP Photo/ADN, Jens Meyer

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