London , Wednesday, April 19, 2000
Dresden strafing myth is shot down
FROM ROGER BOYES IN BERLIN
A GERMAN scholar has debunked one of the most bitter legends of the Second World War: that British and American aircraft strafed civilians as they fled along the banks of the River Elbe to escape the firestorm engulfing Dresden in February 1945.
Helmut Schnatz's findings have not made him a popular man. In Dresden - where stories of a British and American attack on fleeing civilians are widely believed and reported - there have been strong polemical attacks on his work and he has had death threats.
The historian does not deny or trivialise the force of the 1,000 strategic bombers that flattened the city on the night of February 13-14, killing at least 35,000 Germans.
Herr Schnatz quotes a Dresden woman as saying: "The planes circled around the tree tops. The pilots looked out of their cockpits and aimed their machine-guns at us." Herr Schnatz says in the book, Tiefflieger über Dresden? (Low flying aircraft over Dresden?) published by Boehlau, Cologne, that hundreds of similar accounts are untrue.
He has charted the flight paths of all aircraft from Britain, studied take-off and return times, cross-checked weather conditions and trawled through first contact reports from German radar stations. In the end, he says, there is no choice but to absolve the British and Americans.
Of the hundreds of RAF aircraft over Dresden that night only Mosquitoes could conduct low-level attacks. "The overwhelming majority of Mosquitoes did not fly against Dresden itself but peeled off far away from the city and returned as soon as their guiding mission was over."
Of those Mosquitoes that accompanied the bombers to and from Dresden, most did not have time to strafe people on the ground. Other planes were too high. None of the Mosquitoes had a strafing mission. Herr Schnatz calculates that only three pilots could have had the opportunity but the firestorm would have made it impossible to distinguish people on the ground.
A similar line of argument is pursued against a daytime Mustang attack on civilians by the Americans. Again limited fuel supply and difficult weather conditions made it highly improbable. The Americans were under explicit orders not to carry out lowlevel attacks even on strategic targets.
Far-right historical researchers, notably David Irvine [sic], have drawn on these sources in an attempt to show that Britain and America also committed war atrocities. The mystery is why so many should have testified to the strafing.
Herr Schnatz believes it is the power of suggestion. As resident cowered in the grass they would have heard gunfire from dogfights or other explosions and given credence to someone shouting "They're shooting at us".
The myth seems to have arisen from an early Nazi account taken over by East German historians anxious to show the heartlessness of the "Anglo American imperialist" forces.
Herr Schnatz won praise from British experts yesterday. Andrew Roberts, the historian, said: "It's the last great taboo of the Second World War. It takes courage for a German historian to tackle it. It's the one area where Jorge Heider (the Austrian leader) feels safe - that Dresden was a war crime. It's a sacred cow. But he shouldn't stop there. He should look at the value of the city as a protection against attack from the east. We look forward to his second volume when he can address this issue." Sir Michael Howard, Emeritus Professor of History at Oxford University, said: "It seems to me instrinsically nonsense. The bombing of Dresden was done by high-level bombers and strafing is done at low level by fighters.
"Fighters would not have had the range to be deployed at that distance."
Comment: There were no dogfights, as all Luftwaffe fighter squadrons were grounded those two days. Remarkable, how "hundreds of" eye-witnesses can get things wrong. The History Channel TV programme researchers found in US archives last year clear evidence of the orders given to the US VIIIth Air Force escort fighters to strafe gound objects of all kinds during the raid: Inferno, The Truth about Dresden. As for Andrew Roberts, he is a peddler of untruths.