(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)
The name of this blog – So It Goes – is taken from his book.
When I was in my early teens – maybe even when I was ten – I read a description of the air raid on Dresden in 1945 and the firestorm which was intentionally created to destroy it.
The one detail that stuck in my mind when I read it was that, when the second wave of British bombers crossed the English Channel, they could see a glow on the skyline and that was Dresden burning far, far, far away in the far east of Germany.
When I saw the BBC’s then-banned documentary The War Game, I remember the fact being stated that most of our knowledge of the effects of a nuclear attack on an urban area comes not from Hiroshima and Nagasaki but from the bombing of Dresden and Hamburg and the firestorms created by the creative use of ‘conventional’ bombing.
At the time, in March 1945, in the closing months of the War, the Germans estimated around 200,000 people had died in the Dresden bombing. Some later guesstimates put the possible figure (no-one can ever know) at nearer 500,000; the RAF figures of the time are fantasies; the firestorm destroyed 15 square miles of the city centre.
Yesterday at the Soho Theatre in London, I saw 92-year-old former rifleman Victor Gregg chatting about his life.
He grew up in the 1920s in London’s King’s Cross where, pretty much, all the young boys were in street gangs because, with entire families living in one room, you had to go out onto the streets during the day; staying in your home was no option.
When he was older and the gangs were more mature, he hung around Soho, where gangs from North and East and South London had cafés in various streets and, if there were any territorial disputes, you resorted to cut-throat razors.
One day in 1937, when he was out of work, aged 18, he was standing at Horse Guards, watching the guards change and an older man asked if he wanted to come with him and have a free tea and a bun. He said yes. The man took him to Great Scotland Yard and, within half an hour, someone had chatted to him, a doctor had felt his testicles and he had one shilling in his hand and a railway pass for the next day to a military depot.
“That’s how they got people into the Army in those days,” Victor shrugged.
He fought in the front line at the Battle of El Alamein in the North African desert, including the Snipe Action where, according to Victor, 500 men with 19 six-pounder anti-tank guns were surrounded by and held off massed attacks by German and Italian armoured divisions and destroyed “about a third of Rommel’s tanks”. The British commanding officer won the Victoria Cross.
Frankie was killed in a truck in the North African desert, hit by enemy shelling.
When Victor got to him, the truck was burnt out but Frankie’s body was still sitting there at the wheel of the vehicle.
When Victor pulled Frankie out, the bottom half of the body fell off onto the ground.
At Arnhem (subject of A Bridge Too Far), Victor was dropped by parachute on the second day which meant that he was landing on the bodies of the first day’s paratroopers. The 600 men he was with were soon reduced to 80 and, with their supplies mistakenly dropped 10 km away (roughly the distance from Soho to Wimbledon in London) they were hungry for most of their nine days there and praying it would rain so they could drink water from the puddles.
After being captured at Arnhem, he ended up on Tuesday 13th February in the centre of Dresden in a building with a glass dome roof. He had been sentenced to death for sabotage after trying to escape from a POW camp and burning down a factory.
When they heard the sirens and even when they heard the bombers overhead, they did not think Dresden could be the target. They thought, under their glass dome, that it must be another one of the almost nightly air raids on Leipzig.
The first incendiaries were about two or three feet long and came through the glass dome, showering people underneath with sharp glass shards. They had something like a liquid glue in them that stuck to people’s skin so people who already had glass sticking into them were also burning alive.
“And if you ran out of the building,” Victor explained, “it was like running out into an oven at Gas Mark 7; everything was on fire.”
When the second wave of bombers came – the bombers I later read about as a teenager – the ones which, coming over the English Channel saw Dresden burning on the distant skyline…
When the second wave of bombers came, they were dropping bigger incendiaries and 4,000 pound and 8,000 pound bombs.
To create a firestorm, you drop the secondary incendiaries and bombs into the fires caused by the first wave of attacks.
“Dresden was full of old people,” Victor said. “Old people, women, children, sick people, babies; there wasn’t a soldier in sight.”
And then the winds came. The fires burnt so intensely, the oxygen was being eaten-up so quickly at the heart of the firestorm, that air had to be sucked in to prevent the creation of a vacuum, so hundred-mile-an-hour winds blew along at ground level, sucking people and rubble into the centre of the firestorm.
“You had to try to walk into the wind,” Victor said. “or you’d end like the people who were being dragged up into the air or sucked into the fire. People who were in shelters roasted to death.”
He reckons he survived through pure luck and because he was wearing wooden clogs. The water was steaming, parts of the River Elbe were on fire, the pavements melted leather shoes and feet.
“There was an air raid shelter near the railway station,” Victor said, “There were 5,000 people in it. The doors had been locked to avoid over-crowding. When we opened the doors, there was just glue left inside. Everyone had been turned to jelly. There were no bodies. An occasional bone here and there. But it just looked like it was full of glue.
“The Yanks came on the second day. By then, they had fighter planes which could fly all that way into Germany. They strafed the women and children as they ran on the ground. I’ve seen it written that it never happened, but I saw the fighters doing it.”
After the War, he says, “I was OK for about 18 months, then I became a psychopath. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel any responsibility to anything or anyone. It took me about 30 years to get over what I saw in Dresden.”
He wrote his autobiography Rifleman with Rick Stroud.
He had a look of faraway resignation in his eyes when he talked, except when he told the story about the death of his friend Frankie in the North African desert, seventy years ago, when the bottom half of the body had fallen onto the ground as he lifted it from the burnt-out truck.
Then he had tears in his eyes.
The death of one person can matter.
So it goes.