On the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden

March 17, 2015 12:20 PM

John, Lord Shipley, spoke in a debate in the House of Lords about the 70th anniversary commemorations of the bombing of Dresden.

He said : I thought the commemorations were sensitive in their handling and appropriate in tone. They reflected a common set of values between Dresden and Coventry today and, through those cities, between Germany and the United Kingdom.

I think everyone recognises that the bombing of Dresden was a terrible event and that it did not shorten the war. Those two conclusions seem today to be self-evident, but new generations need to understand what happened, which is why we have to keep discussing it. It is very important that the twinning relationships

that exists between our country and Germany, in particular between Dresden and Coventry, continue those discussions. However, we should beware the application of too much hindsight to what was happening in the early weeks of 1945. At the end of January 1945, two weeks before the bombing of Dresden, the Russians had entered Auschwitz-Birkenau, revealing its horrors to the world. In the west, allied troops were still trying to cross the Rhine and the Ruhr. Even though it was clear that Germany would lose the war, it was unclear how long it might take and how many allied troops would lose their lives in the process. There was, therefore, an understandable desire to push Nazi Germany closer to collapse as quickly as possible.

Dresden lay in the centre of the land area that Nazi Germany controlled. It had a significant productive capacity, a munitions centre-not that large, but it had one-and it was a major communications centre, with a railway system that could funnel troops to the Eastern Front. It was inevitably, therefore, a target, even though the people in Dresden thought that they were not because of their cultural heritage.

Dresden, as we know, had been left unprotected. All its defensive guns had been moved east on the railway system that it was at the centre of. The bombing on 13 and 14 February 1945 left 13 square miles of destruction, and 25,000 people were killed. Some 200 factories were damaged and, although there was serious damage to goods and marshalling yards, it was only in April that further bombing destroyed the railway system fully.

Because so much damage was done to the cultural heart of Dresden, as we have heard in this debate, it is clear that no real distinction was made at the planning stage between, on the one hand, civilians and their homes and Dresden's civic and religious buildings, and, on the other hand, industrial and communications installations. For that reason, and given the impossibility of precision bombing in World War II, the destruction of so much of central Dresden must have been understood and accepted in advance. We have to remember that fact and that decision. As we heard in the quotations from my noble friend Lord Lexden, that issue came to the fore in the days after the bombing of Dresden. That is why the remembrance that takes place each year between Dresden and Coventry remains so important.

We can argue, and some do, that we were simply responding to what Nazi Germany had done to us. The problem with that argument is that we were fighting for a set of values that would not target innocent people and destroy buildings for the sake of it. Such destruction is what happened in Coventry. The city of Coventry was bombed 40 times from November 1940. On 14 November 1940, over 500 German planes bombed the city, including the new use of incendiary bombs. It is difficult to conclude anything other than that the Luftwaffe was trying to destroy Coventry and its people. Some 500 tonnes of high explosives were dropped on Coventry and 30,000 incendiary bombs. Over 550 people were killed. This was, at that time in World War II, a new level of attempted destruction. The Germans in fact created their own word for any town or city receiving a similar level of destruction. They said that that town or city was coventriert-coventrated.

My father was an auxiliary fireman during the worst of the attacks on Coventry. Teaching by day in Bromsgrove, he was in Coventry at night. I recall as a child his talking about it occasionally at mealtimes. I realise now that he missed out a great deal of the detail to spare us some of the things that he must have seen.

I think we all would conclude that war is a terrible thing. As we have heard, 55,000 aircrew in Bomber Command lost their lives in World War II. In the months from September 1940 to March 1941, the Luftwaffe bombers launched many raids across Britain, including on Liverpool, Portsmouth and Glasgow, killing over 40,000 British civilians; 14,000 were killed in the London blitz, and London was attacked on 57 separate nights.

In the immediate post-war period, many town and city twinning initiatives were put in place, as I referred to earlier. Most have lasted well. One that has lasted well is that between Dresden and Coventry to remember, through such a twinning relationship, a conflict that had such terrible consequences. I pay my own tribute to the work of the Dresden Trust, which has done so much to help the recent truly impressive restoration work in Dresden. The twinning of the Frauenkirche with Coventry Cathedral symbolises a lasting rejection of Nazi ideology and a love of peace, democracy, tolerance and friendship between peoples. We should thank the people of Coventry and Dresden for the leadership that they show us.