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Alexander Paul Charrier McKee OBE

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Book Titles.

  1. Against The Odds:Battles At Sea 1591-1949
  2. A Heritage of Ships
  3. A World Too Vast: The Four Voyages Of Columbus
  4. Black Saturday
  5. Caen: Anvil of Victory
  6. Death Raft
  7. Dresden 1945: The Devil`s Tinderbox
  8. El Alamein:Ultra And Three Battles
  9. Farming The Sea
  10. From Merciless Invaders
  11. Gordon of Khartoum
  12. History Under The Sea
  13. How We Found the Mary Rose
  14. H.M.S. Bounty
  15. Ice Crash, Strike from the Sky
  16. Into The Blue
  17. King Henry VIII's Mary Rose
  18. Race For The Rhine Bridges
  19. Strike From The Sky
  20. Tarquin`s Ship
  21. The Coal Scuttle Brigade
  22. The Friendless Sky
  23. The Golden Wreck
  24. The Mosquito Log
  25. The Queen`s Corsair
  26. Vimy Ridge
Dresden 1945: The Devil`s Tinderbox


DRESDEN was a famous massacre from the start. At that time I was a soldier with the 1st Canadian Army; I entered Germany in March 1945, about a month afterwards. In the spring and summer, when I was with the British 2nd Army in the Rhineland and Ruhr, I heard the first whispers. Something very terrible had happened over there in the East near the war's end, I was told, but no one could explain why it had been so much more cruel than the fate which had engulfed most of Europe, burnt with fire from heaven or turned into rubble by the passage of the armies.

The Blitzkrieg, theirs and ours, had spared some tracts of countryside and all the Western capitals. Paris, Brussels and Rome were almost untouched; even London was only lightly damaged. But seen from the air, most of the great cities of Europe were jagged scars on the landscape, with the survivors gone to ground, huddled in cellars under the wreckage, coughing. The bones of dead cattle lay in the meadows by the Channel coast and the towns of Normandy were fields of debris. The Dutch dykes had been bombed and broken, and the sea had conquered Holland. The cities of the North German plain were husks. Warsaw was a pile of bricks and bodies. From the Channel coast and on into Russia, to Kiev, to the Don and the Volga; from the Bay of Naples through Cassino to the Baltic and the Gulf of Finland - the 'red hot rake' of total war had passed over them all. Not with fire and sword as in the old tales of the Thirty Years War, but with thermite bombs, blockbusters, multi-barrel mortars, massed artillery and the stabbing rash of small-arms fire.

The master had read the lesson, and the pupils had learnt it well.

In some towns, such as Emmerich and Arnhem, I was present while their final destruction took place. In Emmerich I saw no building whatever intact, although here and there the gutted shell of a house, one wall of a church tower, still stood. And it was German artillery fire now, which vied with the British and Canadian guns in ploughing over the ruins. This process, when the town was an Allied one, we referred to with bitter mockery as 'Liberation'. When you said that such-and-such a place had been 'liberated', you meant that hardly one stone still stood upon another.

But on 8 May 1945, or thereabouts, the guns fell silent, more or less. Officially, peace had been declared, according to the writers of history books, who were not there, or too remote to know the real state of things, or would prefer to forget.

It was a strange peace and, in the great cities, very terrible. In July I was driven through Cologne. We all fell silent as mile after mile we drove through nothing but ruin and still only ruins lay ahead. 'In all that devastation,' I wrote:

I only saw about a dozen buildings which were intact, though several hundred had been damaged and repaired, and still stood. The destruction and damage in the very considerable area of Cologne through which we toured must have been in the neighbourhood of 98 per cent. All through these streets there was a peculiar smell, similar to that borne on the breeze between Elst and Arnhem after the battle, so long stationary, moved on; it was fainter but quite recognisable. The smell of human flesh, long dead, decomposing in the heat.

But in that barren moon-world there was life in spite of death. If you looked closely, you could see that there were narrow paths newly trodden through the heaped hills and mountains of rubble, and when winter came, there was smoke from fires. Men and women were living there, sheltering in caverns excavated in the hillocks of ruin, which had been their homes. Apart from a few favoured cities, Europe had been reduced to a continent of cave-dwellers. Against such a background, what could possibly have been so special about Dresden?

The British Zone of Germany, in which I was to work for the next seven years, had an area approximately the size of Ireland and a population far greater - some 18 million people. In 1939 the population had been housed in 51/2 million buildings. By May 1945, 11/2 million had been totally destroyed and a further 11/2 million severely damaged. The German population were starving and many millions of Hitler's former slave workers, ill-treated and armed, were on the loose. The bureaucrats, prim to the last, called them 'displaced persons', but truly, most of them were Russians, Ukrainians and Poles, forcibly uprooted from their homes in the East. War material of all kinds, from Tiger tanks in drivable condition to guns and ammunition, littered the countryside. The sounds of shooting began at nightfall and continued until dawn. Martial law was in force and was enforced. The apocalyptic pre-war visions of H. G. Wells and other pacifist prophets had come true, although even they could have hardly imagined the tragic plight of the Ukrainians and Russians, freed from the Nazi slow- death camps only to be sent back, whether they willed or no, to the USSR of Stalin and the Siberian gulags.

It was in these surroundings that I heard those whispers of something unimaginably dreadful having been done at Dresden.

Even when I left the Ruhr and Rhineland and came to Hamburg in the north, even there they spoke of what had occurred in Dresden as having been something cruelly apart. Hamburg was a very great city indeed. Every morning we drove to work through some five miles of almost total devastation, past landmarks such as the collapsed department store under which still lay, they said, some 400 bodies, mainly of children. Out of some 556,000 homes in Hamburg. 455,000 had been destroyed or severely damaged; but there was more beyond that, for the port area lay in ruins also and out of the water reared the wrecks of 55 ships, 3,500 barges, 16 floating docks. It was difficult to compute the area of total destruction, almost impossible to count the dead. Only if nothing much has happened, can reasonably accurate casualty figures be produced (and even those are sometimes suspect). In Hamburg, it took six years of painful detective work to arrive at what was called an 'estimated minimum' figure for the dead. This was not a complete head count, utterly impossible, but included a matching of known previous inhabitants before the raids with present population, taking into account those who had merely moved away. In a fire-storm, people simply vanish into dust and ashes; others again were still under the uncleared areas of rubble. After six years of counting and calculation, the estimated minimum figures were at last arrived at: 48,000 dead in the raids of July 1943, and a total for the whole war of not less than 55,000 killed. In one German city alone, nearly as many killed as in the whole of Great Britain during the entire war - British losses are more precisely known at 60,595 over 51/2 years.

The proud people of Hamburg did not ask for sympathy or pity. They accepted that there had been some reason for the Allies to try to level the city to the ground. But for Dresden, they said, there had been no excuse at all.

This was unusual. I can recall nothing like it in southern England, where we tended to be naively boastful. Your bomb was always bigger than the next man's, or nearer, or more spectacular. 'X' had taken far more of a pasting than 'Y', because naturally it was far more important to the war effort; Hitler obviously realised that (and anyway, you lived there). This is the reason why the London 'blitz' looms large in many histories - it was the home of press and radio, the people who were telling the stories. People were proud, not cowed, as they should have been, according to the theories of the RAF bomber marshals who, undismayed, looked on and decided to ignore the facts that did not suit.

When for the first time you see and hear - hear because the flames roar and hiss - a city burning apparently from end to end, a great and terrible spectacle in the night, it seems the end of the world; nothing can be worse. Yet, when days later the smoke pall has lifted, although the acreage of ruin impresses, it can be seen that only a shopping centre has been destroyed, a dozen or so unimportant streets turned to blackened skeletons and hills of rubble. Not much mileage for Hitler in that. Hardly worth Goering's petrol bill. That was what I saw at Southampton in November and December 1940, and at Portsmouth in January and March 1941. The civilian casualties in such typical night blitzes tended to be around 100 killed, a little less or a little more. Coventry, with 554 people killed and great damage done to twenty-one aircraft production and other war factories, was exceptional. A combination of circumstances had led to an intense concentration of the bombing, with remarkably effective results. This was to be noted by the RAF bomber marshals, then almost impotent because their small force of defenceless, inefficient aircraft still bombing by 'Stone Age' techniques was not then a factor to be reckoned with in the war.

Goering's Luftwaffe, designed as a force for precision bombing in daylight of targets designated by an army, had not the weight to make much impact on the war economy of the British Isles. When, as sometimes happened, the night bombing went wrong and fell on mainly residential rather than mainly industrial or port areas, the results were unimpressive, particularly where shopping centres were concerned. Burning Woolworth's to the ground during the night is unlikely to win anyone a war. The civilian casualties ran at a rate rather less than double that inflicted normally in road traffic accidents.

The difference between these few fire-blitzed streets and a great city which has been almost totally destroyed is titanic, and not to be apprehended by the intellect; it is a matter of emotion. And yet the survivors in the fire-stormed cities of Germany, which had been between 75 and 95 per cent erased from the earth, spoke after the war of what happened in Dresden as if it had been infinitely worse.

I wondered why. My qualifications for asking the question were various. I came from a Service family - navy, army, and connections with the Royal flying Corps and RAF - and was brought up with the array of values normal to such a background then, but which may need explanation now. One aspect certainly does. A professional soldier, sailor or airman went to war as ordered by his government, presumably in the national interest, regardless of his own opinions and with no distinction made between aggressive or defensive war. His professional contemporaries on the enemy side not only did the same but were expected to do so. The people on the other side were probably splendid chaps. The fact that you happened to be fighting them was purely a matter between your two governments; there was nothing personal in it.

This was the basis of what used to be called 'chivalry', which started to go out of fashion when war came to be waged by mass, conscript armies backed by a vast labour force in munitions factories. To make the masses eager to fight, 'hate' propaganda was widely employed: the entire enemy nation (with whom you had previously been allied, and might be allied again in the war after this one) were devils, fiends incarnate, right down to the babes in the womb. Hitler's anti-Semitic propaganda was simply a variation on this evil theme. That is, the enemy are not people, they are monsters: destroy them all, utterly.

I learned to fly at the age of fifteen and wanted to become a fighter pilot because I felt that air power would be vital in the war, which was almost certainly coming. I wanted to fly fighters partly because I was an individualist but partly also because I was morally soft. I assumed that bombing would be directed only at the key points of an enemy's army or industrial system, but I was aware that the inevitable near-misses must kill women and children, and from this I flinched. Selfishly, I did not want their blood on my conscience.

I was interested in the books of the air power theorists, which I still have on my shelves; but I was naive. Re-reading them now is like browsing through a British 'Mein Kampf'. The horror to come is all there between the lines. What they are really advocating is an all-out attack on non-combatants, men, women and children, as a deliberate policy of terror.

I made then and I make now a distinction between non-combatants killed so to speak by accident - as in a road crash - from the 'overs' and 'unders' aimed for military or industrial objectives, and a policy of making the civil population the actual target of attack. Moreover, I did not then and do not now believe that the latter policy is an efficient method of making war.

Failure to pass an RAF aircrew medical (half-vision in one eye) ensured that I would fly neither fighters nor bombers. I therefore escaped the dilemma of those who volunteered for bombers, believing that they would be serving their country's military aims, and found themselves carrying out mainly massacres of civil populations.

Instead, I was to amass almost five years' experience of air raids in five different countries, topped by seven years' residence in post-war Europe. I didn't just tour the ruined cities; I lived in them, albeit in semi-privileged conditions. My experiences on the receiving end began in May 1940 and continued into March 1945, with the last fling of the Luftwaffe against our Rhineland offensive - the German air force defending Germany itself from invading armies. In between I had witnessed the daylight Battle of Britain, including high-level pattern bombing and Stuka attacks; and also the night 'blitzes' in Southampton, Portsmouth, London and Bristol during 1940 and 1941; sporadic South Coast bombing in 1942 during which my own home was hit; the last London raids of late 1943 and early 1944 (in one of which I was blown twenty feet through the air by a bomb); the first V.1 flying bombs into London in June 1944; and the first V.2 stratospheric rockets into Antwerp in October 1944.

My reactions were purely personal, and probably bound up with my background. I was unmoved by the interior of a Heinkel bomber drenched with the blood of the bomb aimer - a young man in uniform had died doing his duty to his country, as millions had before him, and millions would in future. And shortly after, seeing two RAF men lying dead on a balloon barrage site, which had been dive-bombed and strafed, my reaction was the same as it had been to the Luftwaffe youth. That was the way we would all go. They had just gone a little before us.

When my own house was bombed and my father injured, I felt real rage for the first time. For a week, I hated the Germans, then I went back to normal. (The stick of bombs which did the damage were an undershoot, aimed for a troop train and missing by 150 yards.)

I must confess an apparent illogicality which I shared with many people. During that part of the war when Britain's survival was in doubt, I actually preferred that enemy bombs should fall on shops and offices and houses and kill non-combatants rather than destroy military or industrial targets vital to our ability to resist. This distinction would not have been clear to the air power theorists because they did not accept the judgement that bombs falling on the innocent were simply wasteful. I thought so, however; and still do.

I had no idea of what Bomber Command was doing in Germany (and elsewhere), and would not have believed it had I been told. I believed (mistakenly) that the damage done by the Luftwaffe in Britain represented the high peak of destruction by air power and I told bomb stories with the best of them until in September 1944 I was in an army vehicle bumping over roadways bulldozed through the rubble of Caen in Normandy. I saw what massed heavy bombers could do to a city containing the women and children of our friends. Three Germans had been killed, and 5,000 French, we were told. The figures may have been amended since, but what I will never forget is having to look into the faces of the survivors, standing on the pavements as we drove past, knowing that it was our side which had done this.

And in Lisieux shortly after, the same scenes again and on an even greater scale, 90 per cent destruction instead of 80 per cent, with some fire damage in addition to the high-piled ploughed wasteland of stone produced by high explosives in mass; and in the market place the burnt, red-brown remains of a British bomber. For the airmen at that moment, it was difficult to feel sympathy.

Here we stopped and talked to some of the victims and I recorded in my notebook:

Lisieux and Caen are examples of the inflexibility of the four-motor heavy bomber: it cannot block a road without bringing down a city. I'm not surprised that our troops advancing between Caen and Lisieux were fired on by French civilians. No doubt many Frenchmen found it hard to be liberated by a people who seem, by their actions, to specialise in the mass murder of their friends.

This reaction from British soldiers was by no means unusual; it even alarmed the British government, or so one heard. In the battles for the Channel ports, now about to begin, an artillery officer closely related to a future British prime minister refused to obey the fire order on the grounds that the shells were bound to kill many French civilians. This was a brave gesture. but had no immediate, practical effect: the officer was removed from his command, court-martialled and sent to serve a spell in an English prison. Someone else fired the guns.

The type of deed causing such a reaction did not have to be on a large scale, as far as I was concerned. The next emotional impression, following a natural progression from these earlier ones, registered when we reached Belgium a few days later and I learned how the Gestapo had actually operated; in one prison they had gutters in the floor to let the blood flow away. This was not a newspaper story; I was told so by someone who had seen it. I think it was the partial insight this gave into the true nature of the Nazi system, which was chilling. With it came the realisation that one essential aspect of efficient modern interrogation methods was to take away the dignity of the victim as a first preliminary. I found this horrible, utterly vile. It echoed my violent rejection of the stories we heard of women's heads being shaved in public by so-called Resistance groups.

I thought then and think now that such acts are barbaric, far worse than killing the victim outright. There is a case in British history where the same value judgement was made by a mass of men. In the naval mutiny at Spithead, 1797, an officer was about to be summarily hanged by the mutineers, when a few of the rebels started to jeer at and insult the wretched man. Almost instantly, they were shouted down by the majority. Executing him for his crimes was all right; insulting him at the moment of death was not. These were anything but sophisticated men acting as a result of long deliberation. They spoke from some instinct of what was right and what was not.

I had seen the slaughter-sites of the innocents in Caen and lisieux during September 1944, had heard about the torture of individuals in the Gestapo prison of Breendonck soon after, and had loathed all these manifestations of the twentieth century. In October 1944 I was in a British military hospital in Antwerp, and still young and impressionable. Yet another V.2 rocket, with its sonic double-boom, thunderclapped into the city so close that most of the windows fell in and the walls, floors and ceilings exuded choking clouds of dust. The rocket had exploded in front of a girls' school 300 yards away, and a few minutes later the first, huddled, blood-stained child was carried into the hospital by a soldier. I found myself trembling, for the first time in an air raid. I was full of hate and the desire to hit back. Although I knew the rockets were intended for the docks and was aware of the vital importance the Antwerp port area had for the entire Allied war machine in northwest Europe, I could not forgive this atrocity inflicted on the individual. Given the wide range of error associated with the V-weapons, how could anyone justify such a deed? That was my reason, or so I like to think. It may be, however, that my reaction had no rational base, and that it was an emotional response to having been helplessly on the receiving end for so long, because I had not then pressed a trigger in earnest. It may have been that I was, after five years, sick at seeing the results of explosive assaults on cities. There was a wounded German soldier in our ward, along with the Canadians and British, but I did not blame him, nor did anyone else; he was far below the level at which such decisions were taken.

Of the battle area experience I was later to gain, the most horrible by far was the discovery in and around a shattered farm-house on the Dutch-German border of the long-dead, ruined bodies of Canadian and German soldiers probably killed the previous year. One body at least was booby-trapped, the entire place and the surrounding fields were mined, and there were snipers in the area; I think why I remember this incident above all others was the thought of being shot down or mutilated and left to lie amid this pollution. like so many, I feared mutilation far more than death. Here was the final degradation, not only to be denied a decent death, but to be used, putrefying, to further the obscene ends of war.

I did not see inside a concentration camp until after it had been cleaned up, but a few weeks before the end of the war the Canadians to whom I was attached interrogated two unusual prisoners - a camp doctor and a high-grade cipher operator. I entered the results in my diary:

The Doctor explained that the concentration camps came under a ministry for the elimination of persons unfit to live. A painful injection, causing death only after several minutes, was the method he used. He had injected 17,000 persons, and ordered the injection of about 100,000 after he had been promoted to chief doctor in the camp. Before injections could take place, the victims had to be passed by a board of doctors as fit to die (or rather, as unfit to live). He remarked, casually, that they could deal with about a hundred a day.

A number of different categories might be considered: those of Jewish blood, of course; but also slave labourers no longer able to work - many nationalities involved, but most were probably Russian; Germans, too - mental defectives, confirmed criminals, homosexuals, pacifists, defeatists, political and religious opponents, people guilty of 'careless talk', and so on. All to be eliminated by injection, or by gassing or by shooting. It was difficult to think of a parallel to this conception, even in the technological twentieth century; the Russians had a similar machine (later to become widely known as the 'Gulag'), but its aims were more old-fashioned and inefficient.

The final rounds of destruction which I witnessed included as much artillery as aerial bombardment, at the Rhine crossing near Emmerich and in the capture of the Dutch town of Arnhem in April 1945. Arnhem, too, seemed to be on fire from end to end under the hammering of the guns, but like parts of the Rhineland it had been sanitised - there were no civilians there at all.

These forced evacuations of key fighting areas, the one carried out by the Germans, the other by the British and Canadian armies, reflected the orthodox military view - civilians were a damned nuisance but you couldn't very well kill them off. A totally different attitude prevailed at times in some air forces, particularly RAF Bomber Command and in the war's closing stages, the USAAF. Rarely did they apologise for or excuse what they had done, but in the case of Dresden they made an exception. At once, almost everyone connected with it at a decisive level politically or militarily was trying to prove either that he was entirely innocent or entirely right. Some of the documents were classified for up to thirty-three years afterwards. Amid the categories of common horror, there certainly had been something very special about Dresden.

During the years I was in Germany it was impossible to visit Dresden and ask questions on the spot. The city was 170 miles inside the Russian Zone of Occupation near the post-war borders of Poland and Czechoslovakia. I was able to visit in the West places as diverse as Strasbourg and Heligoland; I was able to see over the remains of Belsen-Bergen concentration camp; I was able to get into Berlin along the Autobahn the Christmas after the Russian blockade was lifted; I even got back to Normandy to revisit Caen and the beaches where we had landed. But Dresden proved impossible until I was a civilian again and back in England. I was then writing freelance feature scripts for the BBC and in 1956 I put up the idea of a documentary programme on the Dresden raid. It was turned down.

In 1958, this time considering the idea of a book, with my wife I visited Dresden for the first time. Little of the city had then been rebuilt but much of the rubble had been cleared away - ten million cubic metres of it - and so it was possible to look across miles of rough grassland intersected by cracked road surfaces still scarred by the bombs of 1945. This vast, empty space was what remained of the Altstadt, the mainly non-industrial 'Old Town, area of Dresden. Destruction here had been total. The acreage at a guess was less than that laid waste in Hamburg, but Hamburg was by far the larger city. Guidebooks later were to give the area of total destruction in the centre of Dresden as fifteen square kilometres. It was difficult to compare directly with Hamburg because the distinction between total destruction and severe damage was less clear-cut in the Hanseatic seaport; for Hamburg the two grades lumped together amounted to an area of about 22 x 18 kilometres (say 14 miles x 12 miles of perhaps 80 per cent destruction). But it was not the actual area of devastation which had marked out Dresden as special.

In 1958 rebuilding had begun along the sides of the Altmarkt, the Old Town Square, and this too was still scarred, the flagstones bearing the marks of their disturbance. It made me shudder a little to look at it, for I now knew what had happened on this spot during the raids and in the following week. I had talked to people who had seen it thirteen years before. No one then knew what the casualties had been. I was given a number of estimates, each one accompanied by a statement as to how it was arrived at; they varied widely and it was obvious that certain peculiar circumstances would make a firm figure impossible ever to attain. In any case the actual figures, even if known, would not have been very important. The massacre at Dresden was marked out by other factors as a special event. However, it seemed that I had wasted my time, as I could not in 1958 interest a publisher in a book on the subject.

Then in 1963, five years later, David Irving produced his book, 'The Destruction of Dresden'. This created a tremendous furore. Undoubtedly there were still some sensitive nerves about. However, Mr Irving's approach was so historically balanced and precise that I felt he had failed to bring out to the full the terrible truths of the story as I had understood it. Even so, some of his many critics accused him of writing at length of horror for horror's sake, particularly as regards the aftermath of the raids. To me, this reaction seemed to show either that the critics had failed utterly to realise what had actually happened in Dresden or, alternatively, that the spectacles it conjured up were simply too shocking to be borne.

What happened there is not for the squeamish to read, although the worst naturally enough will never be told. The people who could have told it died that night: not quickly, and not kindly, but in the most horrible ways. Yet there were some who welcomed the raid - to them, because of their special circumstances, the tragedy was a personal good fortune. Others, again, saw it as their revenge. To many airmen, flying four miles above, the burning city was just a spectacle of awe-inspiring beauty; it was hard to conceive of the loveliness as being a furnace fuelled by people.

The story of Dresden can be told only in the testimony of survivors. Barely half of those who lived through the raids were residents; they consisted mainly of women, children and old people. As many again were refugees trekking in from the overrun lands in the East. There were Allied prisoners of war, also on the march towards the city, or actually working in Dresden for their German masters. And there were wounded soldiers from the battlefronts, some helpless and immobile, directed to one or other of the hospitals in Dresden, many of which were in newly requisitioned buildings all over the city, such as schools. All these people, together with the crews of the bombers who would attempt to destroy them, were either in or converging on Dresden at the material time. That time was the evening of Tuesday, 13 February 1945. In Dresden it was Fasching night - Carnival Night - when in normal times children dressed up and the adults took a holiday. The Russians were still seventy miles away from a graceful and as yet virtually intact city. It was winter and very cold.

For the Allied war leaders what was plotted for that night and the following morning was to be one of a series of terrible blows struck against German cities on the Eastern Front. Appropriately, the scheme was code-named "Thunderclap".

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