The bombers finally arrived in force in Dresden in the final months of the war. On the night of Feb. 13 to 14, the engines of 770 British Lancasters and 330 American B-17 "Flying Fortresses" droned over the so-called "Florence on the Elbe," so named for the baroque beauty of old Dresden. Before the planes left, they had dropped more than 3,100 tons of explosive and incendiary bombs on the city. The resulting firestorm immolated the city center and many of the neighboring districts. Up to 40,000 people lost their lives, many of them refugees from eastern Germany who had escaped the advancing Soviet army. A more exact count is impossible; many victims had been reduced to ash by the fire's heat.
The Aerial Reconnaissance Archives of Keele University in England have made previously unpublished aerial photos of Dresden available to SPIEGEL ONLINE. The photos, taken on April 18, 1945 and showing the complete decimation of the city, belong to a collection that the British Ministry of Defense passed along to the university six months ago. "In the coming months, we are going to analyze six million images," said Allan Williams who is in charge of digitizing the pictures.
The bombing of Dresden was the culmination of years of bombing raids on German cities by British and American bombers. Cities such as Hamburg, Cologne, Berlin, Pforzheim, Kassel and dozens more had already been destroyed. But the first indication of what might be in store for Dresden came on the night of March 28 to 29 in the northern German city of Luebeck. Hundreds of bombers dropped 25,000 incendiaries on the city's militarily unimportant old town, famous for its centuries old Hanseatic architecture, starting a firestorm and killing 300 people.
But it wasn't just practice that made horrifically perfect in the case of Allied air raids. Once they realized that fire was a more effective method of doing damage to German cities than explosives, all research began focusing on the creation of firestorms from the air. In 1943, the US government contracted architect Erich Mendelsohn, an immigrant from Germany, to build exact duplicates of German houses -- complete with identical wood and building materials -- in the Dugway Proving Ground in the desert of Utah.
The lessons learned led to the strategy followed by British Air Marshal Arthur Harris:
* First, large and highly explosive bombs were dropped to blow out windows, break open roofs and topple walls.
* Next, tens of thousands of small incendiaries and phosphorous bombs were scattered over the city, thus starting hundreds of small fires that caught quickly due to the drafts blowing through the openings created by the explosives.
* In following waves of attacks, British heavy bombers would drop more explosives and fragmentation bombs in an effort to prevent fire fighters from being able to extinguish the fires. The hope was also to destroy those water pipelines not annihilated by the first wave.
* The hundreds of fires would eventually join to form one raging inferno. A gigantic column of heat rising from the firestorm would create hurricane force winds and suck in oxygen surrounding the fire to feed the blaze. The heat was intense enough to melt asphalt. Thousands of people in air-raid shelters died from the heat, from carbon monoxide poisoning or from asphyxiation.
In Dresden on that fateful Tuesday in February, the strategy worked to perfection.