DRESDEN, Germany – The Soviet troops were pressing into Germany from the east and the other Allies from the west, but for 12-year-old schoolboy Eberhard Renner the war seemed far away.
Dresden had been spared the destruction suffered by other cities like Berlin and Hamburg, and Renner clung to the hope that the Saxon capital would stay off the target list with the war so near its end.
Even as air-raid sirens started screaming 70 years ago Friday, Renner's father dismissed the attack as another reconnaissance mission. Then the bomb fell into Renner's backyard. It blew the thick oak door off the basement shelter where the family had taken refuge, slamming him and his mother to the ground. Somebody yelled that the roof was on fire, and they ventured out into the streets as the bombs rained down.
The Allied decision to firebomb Dresden — immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Slaughterhouse Five" — has long been a source of controversy. At the time, the Allies hoped the bombing would hurt the Nazis where they would feel it most, and help force their capitulation. Some historians, however, said the destruction was a tragic waste of human life and cultural patrimony — with little to no effect on the outcome of the war.
By the time the raid was over, the city was littered with corpses and tens of thousands of Dresden's buildings had been turned to rubble, including its famous opera house and museums in the historic old city. The baroque Church of Our Lady appeared initially to have survived, but, weakened by the intense heat, it collapsed two days after the bombing under its own weight.
As Renner wandered the streets of Dresden after emerging from shelter, he saw a dead body for the first time in his life. In the days to come, he would see many more. Renner still remembers stumbling across the corpse of a woman in a street littered with bodies a week after the attack.
"She was burned to a cinder, had become very small, but her hand was held up and on it was her gold wedding band, shining, not blackened at all," said the 82-year-old retired architecture professor. "I will never forget this scene."
It was not just the bombs dropped by the waves of British and U.S. bombers that wreaked devastation. The fire made superheated air rise rapidly, creating a vacuum at ground level that produced winds strong enough to uproot trees and suck people into the flames. Many Dresden residents died of collapsed lungs.
Renner's family made it safely to the home of one of his dentist father's patients. They were able to stay the night and regroup. After that they moved in with an uncle.
Nazi propaganda from 1945 put the death toll at 200,000 and after the war some scholars estimated as many as 135,000 were killed — more than the combined total of those immediately killed by the nuclear blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After neo-Nazis began inflating the figure further, talking of 500,000 to 1 million victims of a "bombing Holocaust," the city established an expert commission to investigate. It concluded in 2008 that closer to 25,000 people were killed in the attack.
Whatever the number, Renner mourns the victims as friends, schoolmates and neighbors. Even if the Allies thought it would shorten the war, he said he thinks of the bombing as unjustifiable.
"To sacrifice 25,000 woman and children, innocent people for that? That's a war crime," he said. "We started the war, but it is a war crime."
Rising reported from Berlin.