It’s 75 years since British and American planes levelled the German city of Dresden – an act some describe as a war crime. Yet many other terrible killings were carried out by allied troops. Writer at Large Neil Mackay finds that now is a fitting time to take a long, hard – and honest – look at our military past

LAST night, 75 years ago, British and American bombers returned from the skies over Dresden, leaving the German city a smoking wasteland and 25,000 civilians dead.

Debate has raged ever since over whether the bombing of Dresden, which happened between February 13 and 15, 1945, was an allied war crime. Was it justified in order to help bring the most brutal war in history to a speedy end? Or was it a deliberate and unnecessary act of terror inflicted on a civilian population?

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Dresden was strategically vital, with sites of military importance, but the attack was also indiscriminate, and the very definition of overkill. It was inevitable there would be mass civilian deaths.

One particularly unsettling aspect about the post-war discussion of the Dresden bombing is that the far-right, and Nazi apologists, have tried to use the attack as proof that the allies were no better than Hitler’s regime.

It’s equally disturbing that as there were no effective international humanitarian rules covering aerial bombardment at the time of the bombing, some in Britain and America have claimed Dresden can never be described as a war crime as laws defining it as such hadn’t been written when the attack occurred. However, a horrific act is a horrific act regardless of whether laws exist or not.

Laws on aerial bombardment were only updated after the Second World War in the wake of events like Dresden. That’s why no Nazi or Japanese officials were prosecuted at war crimes trials, such as Nuremberg, for attacks including the Blitz over Britain. However, as we’ve seen from Vietnam to Syria, these new rules of war have done little to protect civilians from aerial bombardment.

It is hindsight which allows us to view horrors like Dresden with something approaching perspective. Two wrongs can never make a right, but even if events like Dresden are taken into account, it’s hard to logically draw any moral equivalency between war crimes by Britain and America, and the atrocities of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

In purely utilitarian terms, if you add up civilians killed by the allied powers and civilians killed by Germany and Japan, there’s a mountain on one side and a hill on the other – and that’s with the inclusion of events such as the atomic attacks on Japan, and Soviet reprisals on ordinary Germans.

That said, though, it remains deeply troubling that the British and American people, in particular, know so little of the truth when it comes to the reality of the conduct of our troops in wartime.

After the war, the Germans rightly had it drummed into them from childhood that enormous crimes had been committed by the country under Hitler.

However, in Britain and America we enjoyed a victor’s peace. The story we told ourselves was that crimes had been committed only by Nazi and Japanese troops. British and American soldiers were heroes to the last man.

However, in war, the truth is much more complex. Many British and American soldiers were indeed heroes, but a tiny minority weren’t – and sometimes that meant they were criminals. Of course, we need to remember that the US and the UK were fighting that rare thing, a just war – a war of democracy against murderous tyranny – but in order to win that just war some very unjust actions had to be undertaken.

But it’s not just that dreadful and regrettable choices had to be made in the face of Germany waging “total war”, in the words of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The emotional toll of war on ordinary men also led to allied soldiers carrying out acts that were clearly illegal.

Think of the young allied soldier, overcome with horror and rage at the sight of a newly liberated death camp, who shoots an unarmed Nazi guard taken prisoner. Perhaps any court should be lenient on the grounds of diminished responsibility, but nevertheless the allied soldier has still committed a war crime in the eyes of the law.

Some acts point to psychological trauma on the frontline, such as the collection of enemy body parts. However, in other cases, it must be recognised that acts of violence were deliberate and wanton, and not down to mental illness.

There are allied war crimes that are as appalling as Nazi or Japanese atrocities. The Red Army raped an estimated two million women and girls, as Soviet troops advanced towards Germany. The crimes were bestial, and have gone unpunished and largely unexamined in Russia.

Evidently, the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima stand as the most terrifying mass killings in history, with a total of 226,000 lives lost at the upper end of the estimated death toll.

Debate continues whether the atomic attacks were war crimes or justifiable. Was such ghastly violence the only way to end a global war which had already killed around 85 million people, or 3% of the entire world’s population? Certainly, Imperial Japan would have fought on, claiming many more lives, if it hadn’t been forced into peace.

By 1945, the world had been bled white and millions of ordinary people across the planet just wanted war to end, no matter how that was to be achieved. Many accepted that the cost of saving lives was a temporary suspension of conventional morality. Extreme violence was seen to be needed to end extreme violence. Perhaps it’s best left to each individual and their conscience to decide if such a moral compromise is justifiable or criminal. It’s self-evident truth, however, that the world is a far better place for the fall of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

This 75th anniversary of Dresden offers a chance for some honest reflection on the events of the past which still shape us today. We may have fought a just war, but a mature nation must have a full and proper sense of its own history if it’s to have any moral integrity – and that means confronting issues in our past which are dark and shameful as well as noble and heroic.


It’s an uncomfortable position to start from, but if the bombings of German cities such as Dresden, Hamburg and Cologne are set to one side, then the war crimes carried out by British troops pale into insignificance compared with those of Nazi Germany and Japan. Nevertheless, these crimes took place, and for the victims they were very real.

There were certainly acts of looting by British troops. There were also isolated acts of reprisal, such as the burning of homes by British soldiers carried out against German civilians who had hidden Nazi soldiers. Nazi PoWs were also tortured at the so-called “London Cage” detention facility in Kensington, and during interrogation in Germany after the war.

Rapes were also committed before and during the advance into Germany. In the town of Neustadt am Rubenberge, for instance, on one day in April 1945, three women were raped. In the village of Oyle, two British soldiers tried to take two girls into nearby woods. When one refused, she was shot.

Military police found that rape and other sexual assaults were frequent during the invasion of Sicily in 1943. In Belgium and the Netherlands, there were reports of sexual assault by British soldiers against children.

In some cases, officers who discovered men guilty of rape took no action rather than subjecting them to a court martial. When cases were investigated and dealt with legally, there was little or no publicity at home.

German prisoners were also murdered. There are cases of British sailors killing dozens of shipwrecked Germans. One naval commander, Anthony Miers, whose crew shot shipwrecked Germans, was only reprimanded, despite breaking the 1907 Hague Convention forbidding the killing of survivors at sea.

Historians have concluded that rape, looting and prisoner executions by British troops happened on a smaller scale than among other armies during the war – but nevertheless the crimes happened.


In December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, as the German army pushed back against advancing American troops in Belgium, 84 US soldiers were captured by the SS and machine-gunned near the town of Malmedy. The crime was dubbed the Malmedy Massacre.

In the wake of the atrocity, a regimental US army order stated that no SS troops were to be taken alive, but shot on sight. After the war, Major General Raymond Hufft, who told his troops not to take prisoners, admitted that “if the Germans had won, I would have been on trial at Nuremberg instead of them”.

In Canicatti on Sicily, after the successful allied invasion, a group of civilians were seen to be looting bombed-out buildings. A US Lieutenant Colonel, George Herbert McCaffrey, fired into the crowd. Eight were killed, including an 11-year-old girl.

In the Biscari massacre, also on Sicily in 1943, around 73 prisoners were killed in two incidents by US soldiers. In one shooting, Sergeant Horace West machine-gunned 37 prisoners. It was reported that he “stopped to reload, then walked among the men in their pooling blood and fired a single round into the hearts of those still moving”.

General George Patton wrote in his diary that after he was informed about the Biscari murders he told one officer “to certify that the dead men were snipers or had attempted to escape or something, as it would make a stink in the press and also would make the civilians mad”. When Patton learned that the killings had been carried out in cold blood he changed his mind and said: “Try the b*****ds.”

A court martial found West guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. However, in November 1944 he was restored to active service. He ended the war with an honourable discharge.

There were many such cases. In Audouville-la-Hubert, 30 German PoWs were killed by US paratroopers. At Chenogne in Belgium, 80 Germans were executed. During the Jungholzhausen Massacre, between 13 and 30 SS and Wehrmacht PoWs were killed. Near the end of the war, at Treseburg in Germany, nine unarmed Hitler Youth were captured and murdered.

The Lippach massacre saw 24 SS soldiers killed, and 20 women raped. American GIs carried out multiple rapes during the war. Torture, although infrequent, also occurred to extract information.

Many of these offences are unknown to the public – although the same cannot be said of the Dachau Reprisals. In April 1945, US troops liberated the concentration camp Dachau near Munich. What they found was a mountain of bodies and proof of the Holocaust. Troops vomited, broke down in tears, and were overcome by rage and horror.

Between 35 and 50 Nazi guards were executed summarily, and GIs turned a blind eye to inmates killing SS men in revenge.

An investigation overseen by General Patton dismissed charges. Colonel Charles L Decker, an acting deputy judge advocate, said that while there had probably been violation of international law “in light of the conditions which greeted the eyes of the first combat troops, it is not believed that justice or equity demand that the difficult and perhaps impossible task of fixing individual responsibility now be undertaken”.

Soviet Union

Russia suffered enormously during the Second World War at the hands of the Nazis, and the regime was intent on revenge. The result was that Red Army war crimes stand out as by far the worst committed by the allies.

However, the Red Army didn’t just carry out atrocities against the Nazis. In spring 1940, around 22,000 Polish officers and members of the intelligentsia were killed by Soviet troops. The killings were known as the Katyn Massacre, after the name of the Russian forest where mass graves were found.

The victims were taken prisoner after the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. Investigations were carried out by the Russian Federation throughout the 1990s, but the massacre was not classified a war crime.

During the advance towards Berlin, Soviet troops looted, and murdered civilians and refugees. In the town of Treuenbrietzen in Germany, for example, in May 1945, at least 88 civilians were shot, although the true number may be much higher.

The Gegenmiao Massacre in August 1945 saw around 1,000 Japanese civilians, mostly women and children, killed during the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, by Red Army and Chinese troops. Some child survivors were sold in local markets.

However, it is the use of rape as a weapon of war which most defines Soviet war crimes. Historian Richard Overy has said that Russian authorities refused to acknowledge the crimes “because they felt that much of it was justified vengeance against an enemy who committed much worse”.

But acclaimed historian Antony Beevor has questioned the idea that revenge against the German people was the sole motivation. Polish women, and other non-German women, were also raped.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin is said to have commented on those who condemned such atrocities, asking could they not “understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman and takes some trifle?”

The Soviet war correspondent Natalya Gesse took a differing view to her leader. She said: “The Russian soldiers were raping every German female from eight to 80. It was an army of rapists.”