Human Folly and Resilience have co-existed from the beginning and are often displayed, and
remembered, in single locations. Today’s examples are numerous and worldwide, yet we continue to
treat the symptoms rather than the human-made root causes. Belated progress is growing. The fear is
great that it is not soon enough nor sufficient. So, while I still can, let me concentrate on Dresden
because, back in 08-09 February 1945, I was there.
I had stumbled into a travel agency that I cannot recommend. I had been locked into a very
crowded boxcar that offered a single view of the outside world through a small slit in its wooden frame.
We were a mixed lot of aircrew of the Royal Air Forces whose activities had led us into captivity
by the Luftwaffe. We and our German captors were now hapless migrants fleeing the Soviet advance, having left the relative comfort of the famed Stalag Luft III, in Sagan, Silesia, home of the Great
Escape. My group was the last to leave the 5 compounds that had housed 11,000 Allied POWs, mainly aircrew. We had tramped in the snow and cold for a day and a night before reaching, late at night, a railroad siding that contained the last train and driver left.
For two weeks before we were ordered to evacuate, I had been in the camp hospital that also
contained Soviet prisoners and the camp doctors, one South African and one Luftwaffe. So, we were
the last POWs to hit the road. Our tramping column was followed by a lone young woman carrying a
baby. We inferred she was the Luftwaffe doctor’s wife. All family members of our guards had been
ordered to remain behind to face the mercies of the oncoming Soviet troops. She had followed for a last view of her husband up ahead.
The 73-year-old German guard for my section of about 100 POWs discarded his heavy rifle, so I
picked it up to carry it for him with others taking turns. Reaching the siding, the German officers were ordered into the first carriage as it had seats, the rest were all boxcars. The tearful girl gave a last hug to her husband as he boarded the carriage, then she stood all alone in the falling snow while the rest of us were being herded into boxcars with one Luftwaffe guard per boxcar of 54 POWs.
My group gave our guard his rifle back, then cautiously swarmed out in the dark to surround the
girl and baby, shove an RAF greatcoat over her shoulders and an RAF hat over her head while pushing her and the baby into our boxcar that had a floor-covering layer of straw and a pail in one corner for a toilet. We POWs were all amazed at how docile the Germans were in obeying orders.
Our engine, old with many aches and pains, protested loudly at being called out of retirement. It
needed frequent stops for repairs, one of which was an overnight stop in Dresden. Our tired driver,
whose family lived in Dresden, grumbled that engine repairs prevented him from visiting them.
In the morning our guard unlocked the boxcar door to allow us to talk to our driver and view the
immaculate station crowded with civilians, mostly women. We saw no one in a military uniform.
That night, having pulled out of Dresden, we heard the wail of air-raid sirens then the terror of
exploding bombs. They seemed to be all around us. But these were Soviet attacks.
Later, we learned that the Commonwealth Bomber Command, followed the next day by the USAAF had devastated Dresden. This, plus all the other devastation we saw en route to eventually reach Munich and Nürnberg, made us ashamed of being humans. For several days the only one of us not starving was the breast-fed baby. The war was, in fact, over, so we could assume that the only reason our heartless leaders had to cremate so many thousands in Dresden was to impress Joe Stalin with our might, so that he would not bring communism too far into capitalist Europe.
Much later we learned Dresden’s statistics. We had known from German newspapers that, on the
night of 25 July 1944, Bomber Command had created an inferno in Hamburg that took 37,000 lives (the atomic bomb on Nagasaki took 40,000 lives). Dresden lost 35,000. Over 8 months in the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe killed 39,000.
From 13 to 15 February 1945, 722 RAF, RCAF, RAAF, etc night bombers followed by 527
USAAF day bombers dropped 39,000 tons of bombs on Dresden, Germany’s 7th largest city. They
created a firestorm that rose to 1,500 degrees centigrade, demolishing 12,000 homes, 640 shops, 39
schools, not to mention 26 pubs. The Dresden story is well told by two POWs who survived the
slaughter and helped with rescue work. Victor Gregg, a British paratrooper captured at Arnhem,
describes the 7 hours it took his team to dig into an air-raid shelter that had held 1,000 civilians. No
survivors. Bodies had all melted into a huge green-brown slimy liquid with a few bones in it.
American Kurt Vonnegut, who became a novelist, claims he is the only one who benefited from the
bombing as he made a profit selling the book he wrote about it.
Many of us Bomber Command veterans still suffer a painful guilt complex as scruples vanished with the difficulties of finding at night and bombing only military targets. Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, after a more humane start, embraced area bombing. We called him “Butcher” Harris. Many crews risked taking extra time amid the flak and fighters to attempt to visually distinguish well-concealed military targets. Our electronic navigational aids were all jammed by German counter measures. We did lose 55,573 of our 125,000 aircrew. At least 125 cherished friends remain vivid in my memory.
Today, Dresden is once again a charming city but you cannot appreciate it without knowing the
burned and mangled corpses everywhere, the immense piles of rubble, the blown-up sewer, water, and electrical lines - a fate endured by far too many cities. Dresden survivors then endured Soviet
occupation, followed by being part of the Soviet-sponsored East Germany that denied reconstruction in order to leave Dresden an example of Western brutality. After the fall of the Berlin wall and
Gorbachev’s benevolent rule, Dresden residents, including thousands of women, began rubble clearing. In 1993 they started the rebuilding of the fabled Frauenkirche, finishing it in 2005.
Today, Dresden is again a tourist attraction with its old charm restored, but you must include the
museum to realize what a miracle of rebuilding has been accomplished. Of course we can say the same for cities elsewhere, even Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Human resilience is awesome, yet . . . .
Homo the Sap remains with us in his millions. Those who suffered the most, including defeat,
oppose the return of military non-solutions. A few of the victors still waste billions if not trillions of
dollars on weapons of destruction, basking in the profits, but neglecting the real threats of man-made
over-population, global warming, income inequalities, nuclear extinction, control-resistant bacteria and viruses, and so on.
Finally, Al Gore can now tell us that the train has left the station on the route to curbing global
warming but Donald Trump nullifies this by axing environmental laws, and insisting the “Western”
world devotes 2% of GDP to enriching those billionaires who control the arms industries.
Yes, we do have enemies, but we created them, with the help of countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel,
and Egypt. Rather than addressing root causes like despotism, corruption, greed, ethnic hatreds, and
resistant bacteria and viruses, we build smart bombs and drones that, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and
Yemen, kill far more innocent civilians than do those we call Terrorists like the Taliban, Al Qaida, and Daesh. Even Kim Jong Un, a menace also to his own country, is a product of our senseless and
devastating bombing of North Korea. Who really deserves the sanctions?
The pen still has a long way to go to replace the sword. But it must for our species’ survival.
Most encouraging are: the co-operation and interchanges of personnel among universities worldwide, the Russia-West joint participation in space and in physics such as the new, world’s largest, X-ray facility hear Hamburg, the world-wide recruiting of talent by the Perimeter Institute of Waterloo, Ontario, now a world-leading theoretical physics centre, and all those famed world research centres.
The outpouring from millions of help, money, foods, and goods to victims of droughts, fires, and
floods reveals what is best in our species which still needs to fully accept how delicately balanced our
atmosphere is. Much safer than devoting ever-more money to the military with no permanent solutions.