Kurt Vonnegut and the Dresden Bombings

Posted on February 13, 2012
By Charles J. Shields

The winter weather in Dresden lifted abruptly on Shrove Tuesday, February 13, 1945, ushering in a hint of spring. On this last day before the beginning of Lent, small children begged to be allowed to wear their costumes early for the traditional Carnival Night, and teenage girls hurried to hem their dresses in time for visits to relatives’ homes. North of the Elbe River, the Circus Sarrasani finished erecting its huge domed tent, expecting a full house because the skies promised to be clear. The POWs were vaguely aware of the holiday, but everything seemed to be happening far away.

That night, air raid sirens sounded at 9:51 pm. Many of the Shrove Tuesday celebrants returning home barely hurried. Looking up, they saw no bands of blue-white searchlights crisscrossing the darkness overhead and no antiaircraft guns pounding at enemy planes, because there were no searchlights or antiaircraft guns remaining in the city at all. They had been dismantled and taken by trucks to protect the industrial areas of the Ruhr Valley.


Ten minutes after the air raid sirens began moaning, brilliant magnesium parachute flares fell from the sky—“Christmas trees,” some romantic-minded Germans called them. Dresden’s buildings, fountains, statues, trees, rail lines, the zoo, the Circus Sarrasani—the Elbe River itself—were all illuminated for the last time, in a kind of flickering snapshot of seven hundred years of European civilization.

Looking down, RAF crews of eight hundred Avro Lancaster bombers saw their target crystallized by the flares and got ready to drop 1,400 tons of high-explosive bombs and 1,180 tons of incendiary bombs on the city. The first would devastate the railway yard, a meeting place of main lines to eastern and southern Germany, Berlin, Prague, and Vienna, and destroy Dresden’s roads and telephone lines; the second would melt the rubber and lubricants on the machinery in factories, rendering them useless. Thirty-five miles away to the southwest, over Chemnitz, an equal number of bombers were pounding more railway yards and factories, and smaller groups were attacking Böhlen (a town south of Leipzig), Nuremberg, Bonn, and Dortmund. With the infrastructure destroyed in key places, the Red Army would have an easier time advancing east. Regardless, the Russians would lose 405,000 troops in the last forty-two miles approaching Berlin, about the number of American army soldiers who died during all of World War II.

At 10:05 pm, the target finder over Dresden in a howling Mosquito bomber dropped a red flare and called out into his headset, “Tally ho!” The first attack had begun.

One Lamp Louie roused the POWs out of their bunks, hurried them across to the yard, and then sent them down the precipitous steps of the storage building toward the lower basement, sixty feet underground. A German corporal and three privates rushed behind, shutting the steel door after them.

There was room for everyone on the floor between the sides of beef hanging in rows from the ceiling on tenterhooks. Vonnegut listened, as “Giants stalked the earth above us. First came the soft murmur of their dancing on the outskirts, then the grumbling of their plodding towards us, and finally the ear-splitting crashes of their heels upon us.” Each convulsive blast overhead shook the rows of beef, making them dance, and white calcimine dust fell from the ceiling.

Even at eight thousand feet, it was hot work for the RAF bomber crews. Thousand-degree heat scorched the bellies of the planes, and smoke rose to fifteen thousand feet, making the aviators wet with perspiration. The intensity of the firestorm below created superhot tornadoes, mile-high vortexes ripping oxygen from the air to feed their roaring, thermal engines. The torquing effect on the atmosphere hurled people, animals, and furniture skyward, up from a city that was falling down underneath them.

The director of the Historical Museum and Weapon Gallery ran through the streets hoping to save a truck loaded with 154 paintings and irreplaceable items that had been due to leave the next day ahead of the Russian advance. The  truck had left , but when he reached the museum, where forty-two large paintings still hung on the walls, too large to be moved, the building was in flames.

Below ground, thousands of Dresdeners became terrified at the thought of being buried alive. A seventeen-year-old girl cowering in her nightgown, “didn’t even feel the cold, for the light went out, the children immediately began screaming again, then three of the women began to scream and rage like mad, while one old woman stood in a corner and prayed to God from the bottom of her heart.” In another basement, an eleven-year-old girl saw her father plant his feet and push with all his strength against a wall beginning to collapse.

Three hours after the first attack, the second wave of RAF bombers flew over as survivors, rescue squads, and firefighters scurried through the streets, lured above ground by a false notion that the bombing had ceased. Five hundred Lancasters released one thousand tons of explosives. At the Dresden train station, with its huge, vaulted roof, where thousands of people had crammed into the city’s largest shelter during the first bombing wave, still more tried forcing their way in during the second raid, creating strata of corpses from the platforms to the bottom of the shelter.

At dawn on Wednesday morning the fourteenth, approximately eight hours after the first attack, Vonnegut and the others climbed the steps, Lazarus-like, to see what had happened. Overhead, P-51 Mustang fighters zoomed over streets and bridges, strafing anything that moved, adding fatalities like pebbles to the mountain of sixty thousand dead.

Blocking the top of the stairs was a side of beef, blown out from a locker and flash-cooked. The men rushed forward and tore off pieces, shoving them into their mouths and pockets. One Lamp Louie ordered them to stop, but they ignored him, grunting to get at the food. Shouting, he drew his Luger and fired several shots in air, getting them to back off , still chewing. He instructed them to find a wagon and a tarpaulin to cover the meat. If they were seen stealing, there’d be trouble. They got a wagon, loaded it with meat, and then covered their treasure with blankets and pots.

The guards ordered everyone to fall in. They had a predicament to solve: what to do with an enemy band of 150 men. The prisoners had practically no identity. They had emerged from the grave, so to speak, and if they were never seen again, it would be assumed that they had been turned to ash.

Vonnegut waited like the others, a skeletal survivor with ulcerated legs, swaying in the wind that was bleak and raw, or warm and shimmering, depending on whether it came over the river at his back or from a fire. There was no sound except the brush of freezing air against his filthy clothes and the susurration of buildings burning.

If he still had any feelings of being unique— the myth of invincibility typical of young people—despite the Battle of the Bulge, his capture, and incarceration, the dregs of those feelings must have drained off now, replaced by a profound loneliness and sense of almost cosmic isolation. Hours passed, the morning of the fourteenth wore on, and the men were finally permitted to mill about, until word came down that all of Arbeitskommando 557 would be housed with the British South African troops in the suburb of  Gorbitz, four miles to the west. The prisoners spent the rest of the morning commandeering enough carts and wagons for the journey.

The first men exiting the gate of the compound gasped in surprise. There was a nude woman with a beautiful figure, lying on her back, arms upraised. It was a mannequin, they realized, the pattern of its torched dress tattooed on its plaster thighs. All that morning, the effects from volcanic blasts of high explosives and the firestorms continued to present freakish tableaux as the POWS struggled through the streets pushing or dragging their carts. They passed the corpse of a boy with his burned dog at the end of a leash; bodies of children dressed in party clothes; blackened drivers slumped at the wheels of their cars; couples who had leaped into fountains for safety and plunged into boiling water instead. The Dresden zoo, blown open by direct hits, had released its park of animals into the wild. The men spotted a llama mounting slopes of debris. Exotic birds, with no trees to sit in, preened themselves on twisted iron railings. A chimpanzee, once popular with children, sat alone without hands.

The procession staggered on. The wheels of the wagons, iron-rimmed, banged over rubble and slid through sticky, melted asphalt. The hubs and axles became clotted with reeking pitch. Heaps of fallen bricks and burning vehicles sometimes rendered the way ahead impassable, and then the caravan would have to turn back and find another route. Behind them, they heard explosions as a third wave of bombers at midday, this time consisting of three hundred American Eighth Air Force B-17s, dropped eight hundred tons of high explosives on the railway yards.

The last half mile of the trek was a Sisyphean push up a steep brick street. To keep the wagons from rolling backward, the wheels had to be chocked every few feet with rocks. At last they arrived, welcomed by the British South Africans who had spent three years in captivity and were eager for news. One Lamp Louie assigned the bunks, two men in each one. It was strictly the luck of the draw, and Vonnegut got a spot in the front row near two toughs from New York who made it clear nobody had better mess with them.

With everyone settled, the old sergeant went home. One of the prisoners later heard One Lamp Louie had lost his parents in the bombing. Thursday morning, February 15, Arbeitskommando 557 was herded back into the city under guard to begin cleaning up Hell. Several times the column had to scramble behind heaps of rubble when a P-51 swung in and fired long bursts from its six .50-caliber machine guns, stitching the road with geysers of dirt. As they reached the outskirts of the city, gauntlets of incensed Dresdeners jeered and threw stones at them.

They arrived at the slaughter house, where the SS captain with the Hitler mustache met them ready with new orders: the Arbeitskommando would be divided into work details often to fifteen. Some would clear rubble; some carry bodies; some retrieve what could be salvaged from the meat lockers. The punishment for looting was death by firing squad.

Eager for the work to get under way was Junior, bayonet affixed to his rifle, already rattling off his usual litany of invectives. To show he meant business, he punctuated his hectoring by jabbing a few of the men for good measure.  One of the prisoners, seeing the guards’ backs were turned, suddenly wrenched the rifle out of Junior’s hands and pushed him against a wall, the tip of the bayonet pressed to his heart.

“Get the fuck out of here!”

The teenager slid sideways along the wall until he reached the corner and then ran away. No one saw him after that.

Vonnegut’s job was finding the remains of residents smothered in basements by the firestorms. Superheated tornadoes had sucked out the oxygen and turned hiding places into tombs. Basements, he said, “looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead.”

Teams from the Arbeitskommando passed through a cordon of German soldiers to begin what Vonnegut called a “terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt.” Some Dresdeners couldn’t contain their rage and grief as they watched the bodies of neighbors and family members, dragged by ropes around their ankles, disinterred from homes that had become their graves. A German officer grabbed one of the Americans, threw him against a wall, and put a pistol to his head, shouting, until the guards finally managed to calm him down. In the streets, corpses were stacked high on wooden ricks, sprinkled with lime, and set afire.

To reach flooded basements accessible by narrow stairs, the guards formed the prisoners into relays, sending one captive down at a time. “Encouraged by cuffing and guttural abuse, wade in we did,” wrote Vonnegut. “We did exactly that, for the floor was covered with an unsavoury broth from burst water mains and viscera.” Down there, the captives fought off hysteria when limbs of corpses snapped off or yanking a gas mask hose pulled off a head.

Weeks passed, and the funk everywhere indicated that the bodies burned on pyres represented a fraction of what still remained below. The captain assembled the Arbeitskommando for new instructions: they were to recover items of identification and valuables only. Once the prisoners had resurfaced with everything they could find, German troops, some of them with experience in the death camps, stepped forward with flamethrowers. The ceremonies associated with respecting the dead had ended, and jets of ignited gasoline converted former sanctuaries for the living into catacombs.

By going into cellars day after day, a POW named Michael Palaia saw what all the other prisoners did, too. There were subterranean pantries of pickled asparagus, pickled onions, apple butter, cherries, string beans, beets, carrots, jams, jellies, sausage, pie fillings, and berry syrup—groaning shelves of sealed jars that a starving man could steal if he were careful.

Palaia was one of the older prisoners and unable to withstand the deprivations as well as the younger men. While he was in a basement on the last day of March, someone shouted down at him, “Hey, the SS troops are coming, you better get your ass out of there, if there’s anybody in there!” Selecting a jar of pickled string beans, he stashed it under his coat and walked back out into the street. The  Arbeitskommando was about to begin the return four-mile march to Gorbitz, and he was looking forward to sitting on his bunk and eating the beans.

The SS officers who spotted him might have passed him by except he had made himself conspicuous through an earlier, fatal choice. From the frozen pile of overcoats inside the gate at Stalag IV-B, he had grabbed a heavy one that was different from most. On the back were the letters CCCP— the Russian abbreviation for Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The SS ordered him to stop and unbutton his coat. There was nothing he could do—the contraband was a good-sized jar, and they plucked it out. Later that night, said Vonnegut, Palaia was court-martialed and ordered to sign a document he didn’t understand, admitting he was guilty of looting.

The next morning, April 1, Palm Sunday, guards issued shovels to Kurt and three other prisoners and took them to a rise within sight of the camp so the rest of the Arbeitskommando could see the example being set. The four men were ordered to dig graves while Palaia and a Polish soldier stood nearby. When they had finished, an officer turned Palaia and the Polish soldier around by their shoulders, stepped back, and shouted an order. A firing squad shot the prisoners in the back; the Germans reloaded and shot them again. Vonnegut and the others were ordered to pick up the bodies and place them each in a grave. One of the Americans, knowing Palaia had been a Catholic like him, placed a rosary in his hands and said a prayer. Refilling the graves took a matter of minutes.

Later, when telling his family how impassively the executions were carried out, Vonnegut burst into tears. “The sons of bitches! The sons of bitches!” He would model a character in Slaughterhouse-Five on Palaia, Edgar Derby, the forty-four-year-old English teacher executed for stealing a teapot.

By mid-April 1945 there were signs that the war was ending. A furtive Dresdener in a dark suit passed the work gangs regularly and whispered the latest news while looking straight ahead: “The Allies are at Freiburg” (a day’s march away) or “the Rhine.” The German authorities, thinking ahead to the Allies’ arrival, gave the POWs an unprecedented two consecutive days off and arranged for their clothes to be washed while the men were deloused and stood around, naked beneath their greatcoats.

One of them, James Mills, yellow with jaundice, was transported to Reviere Hospital at Görlitz, fifty-five miles east of Dresden. Lying on a cot across from him was Joe Crone, the Hobart College undergraduate who had wanted to be an Episcopalian minister. He had never given up trading his food for cigarettes, in a childish gesture of defiance. The cigarettes he had craved, but he was sure he wouldn’t be allowed to starve. So he had held out, expecting the scales would be balanced out somehow through compassion, decency, or Christian charity. Now he was dying of the “thousand yard stare,” Vonnegut heard later. “When one chooses the thousand yard stare, this is what happens: the person sits down on the floor with his back to the wall, will not talk, will not eat, and just stares into the space in front of him.”

He was nearly dead, but he only once asked Mills for help. “He was so skinny and weak and sick—he had to go to the bathroom during the night and all of us went over and tried to help him. We had to raise him up, get him at the angle, and somebody stick a can under him. He just absolutely couldn’t do nothing and it took all of us to get him up so he would take a leak.”

The next morning he was dead.

Life no longer made any sense to Crone, Vonnegut said. “And he was right. It wasn’t making any sense at all. So he didn’t want to pretend he understood it anymore, which is more than the rest of us did. We pretended we understood it.”

The Germans buried him in a white paper suit because they had taken away his uniform while he was in the hospital. To Vonnegut, “he was beautiful,” a kind of holy fool.

On Friday, April 13, a passing tradesman whispered to some prisoners that President Roosevelt had died. That night, the guards informed Arbeitskommando 557 that the prisoners would be leaving the city in the morning. The guards seemed agitated, as if fearing that some tectonic shift was about to happen.

For the next two days, the column of hundreds of POWs, British and American, marched southeast along the Elbe River to the town of Pirna, and then up into the high mountains along the border separating Germany and Czechoslovakia to the village of Hellendorf, fifty miles in all. From the direction of the march, and the remoteness of the village, it was clear that the Germans wanted to lay low until they could be certain of surrendering to Allied forces and not Russian. For three weeks, the Dresden prisoners waited without enough to eat. They foraged in the fields for grass and dandelions.

The last straw for the guards came when Russian aircraft , roaring in low, machine-gunned anything on the ground, including cows grazing in fields. The Germans disappeared into the woods, leaving the British and American POWs to their fate.

Vonnegut, Bernie O’Hare, and four other men commandeered a horse and wagon, painted a white American army star on the sides, and plodded back in the direction of Dresden. Vonnegut couldn’t remember why they headed back to the city, but once they arrived, he said, they were captured by Russian troops, taken in rickety Model A trucks to the Elbe at Halle, and traded one-for-one for Soviet prisoners in the custody of the Americans. Some of these, Vonnegut later heard, were Gypsies and collaborators. The Soviets shot or hanged hundreds of them.

At Camp Lucky Strike in Le Havre, France, the POW repatriation center, Vonnegut stood in line, tossed his clothes into a pile, was deloused and issued a fresh uniform. He had lost forty pounds from a frame that was already thin; his legs were ulcerated; and a few of his teeth were loose from symptoms of scurvy. There were days of red tape and waiting. Getting out of Germany, he complained to O’Hare, was like walking in sand.

During the trip home aboard a troopship, Vonnegut and O’Hare had time to talk. In Le Havre, O’Hare said, he had heard Mass and received communion for the first time in five months. But it didn’t take, he told Kurt. Like Joe Crone, who saw with his thousand-yard stare a landscape where there was no God, O’Hare had lost his faith.

“I didn’t like that,” Vonnegut wrote later. “I thought that was too much to lose.”


Excerpted from And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Fields.

Copyright © 2011 by Charles J. Fields.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.

CHARLES J. SHIELDS is the author of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A LifeMockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, the highly acclaimed, bestselling biography of Harper Lee, and I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers). He grew up in the Midwest and taught in a rural school in central Illinois for several years. He has been a reporter for public radio, a journalist, and the author of nonfiction books for young people.

Tags: , ,