Year
1945

Firebombing of Dresden

On the evening of February 13, 1945, a series of Allied firebombing raids begins against the German city of Dresden, reducing the “Florence of the Elbe” to rubble and flames, and killing as many as 135,000 people. It was the single most destructive bombing of the war—including Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and all the more horrendous because little, if anything, was accomplished strategically, since the Germans were already on the verge of surrender.

Among the conclusions reached at the February 1945 Yalta Conference of the Allied powers was the resolution that the Allies would engage in concerted strategic bombing raids against German cities known for war-production and manufacturing, in an effort to bring the Nazi war machine to a crashing halt. The tragic irony of the raid on Dresden, a medieval city renowned for its rich artistic and architectural treasures, is that during the war it had never been a site of war-production or major industry. Both Allies and Germans alike have argued over the real purpose of the firebombing; the ostensible “official” rationale was that Dresden was a major communications center and bombing it would hamper the German ability to convey messages to its army, which was battling Soviet forces at the time. But the extent of the destruction was, for many, disproportionate to the stated strategic goal—many believe that the attack was simply an attempt to punish the Germans and weaken their morale.

More than 3,400 tons of explosives were dropped on the city by 800 American and British aircraft. The firestorm created by the two days of bombing set the city burning for many more days, littering the streets with charred corpses, including many children. Eight square miles of the city was ruined, and the total body count was between 35,000 and 135,000 (an approximation is all that was possible given that the city was filled with many refugees from farther east). The hospitals that were left standing could not handle the numbers of injured and burned, and mass burials became necessary.

Among the American POWs who were in Dresden during the raid was novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who conveyed his experience in his classic antiwar novel Slaughterhouse Five.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

First Medal of Honor action

The earliest military action to be revered with a Medal of Honor award is performed by Colonel Bernard J.D. Irwin, an assistant army surgeon serving in the first major U.S.-Apache conflict. Near Apache Pass, in southeastern Arizona, Irwin, an Irish-born doctor, volunteered to go ...read more

Dresden devastated

On the evening of February 13, 1945, the most controversial episode in the Allied air war against Germany begins as hundreds of British bombers loaded with incendiaries and high-explosive bombs descend on Dresden, a historic city located in eastern Germany. Dresden was neither a ...read more

Galileo in Rome for Inquisition

On this day in 1633, Italian philosopher, astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei arrives in Rometo face charges of heresy for advocating Copernican theory, which holds that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Galileo officially faced the Roman Inquisition in April of that ...read more

Johnson approves Operation Rolling Thunder

President Lyndon B. Johnson decides to undertake the sustained bombing of North Vietnam that he and his advisers have been contemplating for a year. Called Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign was designed to interdict North Vietnamese transportation routes in the ...read more

Additional troops ordered to South Vietnam

As an emergency measure in response to the 1968 communist Tet Offensive, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara approves the deployment of 10,500 troops to cope with threats of a second offensive. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had argued against dispatching any reinforcements at ...read more

ASCAP is founded

“If music did not pay, it would be given up.” So wrote Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1917. Holmes wasn’t referring to musicians themselves in that statement, but to places of business in which copyrighted musical works could be heard, ...read more

Cinema burns in Turin

On this day in 1983, 74 people are killed when a fire blazes through a cinema in Turin, Italy. The Statuto Cinema in Turin had a capacity of just over 1,000 people on two levels, though the show on Sunday, February 13, was not nearly full. A fire began on the ground floor and ...read more

Serial killer strikes in Colorado

A 21-year-old woman named Mary accepts a ride from a man in the ski town of Breckenridge, Colorado, and is raped and severely beaten with a claw hammer. The attacker, Tom Luther, was traced through his truck and apprehended. Luther told a psychiatrist thatMary reminded him of his ...read more

Chernenko becomes general secretary

Following the death of Yuri Andropov four days earlier, Konstantin Chernenko takes over as the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, the ruling position in the Soviet Union. Chernenko was the last of the Russian communist “hard-liners” prior to the ascension to power ...read more

John Rawlins born

On this day in 1831, Union General John Rawlins is born in Galena, Illinois. Rawlins was a close personal aide to General Ulysses S. Grant and was reported to have kept Grant from drinking heavily during the war. Rawlins’ family was originally from Virginia but had settled in ...read more