By the end of World War Two, Rifleman Victor Gregg had become accustomed to bloodletting and death.
Yet nothing – not the massacre of friends on the frontline, nor countless killings by his own hand in the name of Queen and country – could have prepared him for the sheer horror he witnessed during the Bombings of Dresden between 13 and 15 February 1945.
Victor told UNILAD, 73 years later, why he still sees the Dresden bombings as genocide:
Victor Gregg isn’t like a lot of war veterans; the straight-talking 91-year-old has little time for the pomp, ceremony and glory of war, memorialised by later generations through rose-tinted spectacles.
Gregg was 18 and searching for employment in 1937, when an army representative offered him a cup of tea and shelter from the streets he walked in his hometown.
As he wrote in Rifleman: A Front-Line Life from Alamein and Dresden to the Fall of the Berlin Wall, next thing he knew he’d fallen for the ‘con trick’, with the warrant paper in hand and a sinking feeling he’d just signed his life away, never having tasted the warm brew he was promised.
By the time he reached his twenties, Rifleman Gregg had fought his way across Africa, in bloody battles like Beda Fomm, where Vic – as he prefers to be called – along with his cohorts, ‘learnt how to kill with our bare hands’.
They began to accept the daily dose of death and ‘killing another human being while looking into the man’s eyes’ as part of war; the tragic but necessary collateral damage of their job.
By his own admission, Dresden was different.
After being captured at the Battle of Arnhem, Gregg was held as a Prisoner of War alongside his mate, Harry, in a central Dresden Prison.
The comrades were sitting underneath the glass cupola, incarcerated, when British and American bombers dropped the first round of incendiary devices.
Harry was killed immediately.
Alone, Victor witnessed three subsequent raids and the resulting firestorm which destroyed over 1,600 acres (6.5 km2) of the German city centre, populated almost exclusively by old folk and children.
Miraculously, Victor survived the air strikes which engulfed the whole city in a firestorm and killed 25,000 people, in what’s thought to be a conservative estimate.
Speaking to UNILAD, Vic described the first bombs dropping:
Down came the flares. You hear all the bombs dropping and the planes come over. There were hundreds of them, hundreds, and you hear all these big crashes and it’s getting warmer.
We could see the glow through the glass and then this bomb – a cluster – come down and smashed the cupola. About a third of the inmates are alive, but burning. They died.
About ten minutes after, there was this enormous crash as this blockbuster [bomb] landed outside the building and blew it to bits. I’m underneath debris which knocked me out. But I survived.
After the second raid, the straight-talking nonagenarian was visibly pained to say, everything was set ‘alight’ and the city was turned into an ‘inferno’.
Fleeing the firestorm, Vic watched civilians resort to jumping in the reservoirs, not realising the water was boiling. Unable to escape, ‘dozens and dozens boiled alive’.
Vic saw women carrying their children get stuck in the roads, which had turned into ‘molten tar’. He described how their bodies, cemented into the ground, overheated and exploded.
Destruction and cruelty of this level was commissioned by the British and US military, inflicted by bombs specially designed to create hell on Earth.
Vic, a military man almost his whole life, explained:
They had hundreds and hundreds of these incendiary bombs and when they hit the ground, anything within 400 yards was immediately incinerated. It really got above what you would call an inferno.
People weren’t killed by bomb blast. They were burnt alive. They were roasted.
In four raids between 13 and 15 February 1945, 722 heavy bombers of the British Royal Air Force and 527 of the United States Army Air Forces, dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city.
At the time, British and American military argued Dresden was an important ‘transport and communications centre’ for the German army troops and a centre of industry, which supplied aircraft components as well as poison gas.
However, several researchers have asserted not all of the communications infrastructure, such as the bridges, were targeted, nor were the extensive industrial areas outside the city centre.
According to historian Donald Miller, ‘the economic disruption would have been far greater had [the British] Bomber Command targeted the suburban areas where most of Dresden’s manufacturing might was concentrated’.
At the time, the Germans had just lost the offensive at the Battle of the Bulge and Europe-wide their armies were resisting but retreating.
In the aftermath and with the benefit of hindsight, many have criticised reasoning for the two-day raid as falsified, instead calling it mass murder designed to have a ‘detrimental effect on German morale’ and ’cause great confusion in civilian evacuation’, as well as ‘show the Russians…what Bomber Command can do’.
Vic, who has PTSD as a direct consequence of what he saw in Dresden, believes the bombings and their unnecessary cruelty, should be considered a war crime.
Putting it simply, Vic said:
We started the war to stop all that and in the end we became worse than the people we were trying to eliminate. The act of witnessing what was going on was enough to destroy anybody’s sanity. It certainly destroyed mine.
It was genocide. There’s no other name for it.
Sitting in his leafy back garden in Wiltshire on a hot summer day, talking of death and destruction the likes of which many of us cannot fathom, was jarring.
This has been Victor’s challenge every day for the past 73 years: to reconcile the horror which played out in front of his eyes with post-war patriotism.
At this time, in particular, when wars are being waged against terrorism and civilians are still caught in the crossfire, we must learn from men like Vic, who lived to tell the tragic tale.
While we can all agree what happened in Dresden was horrific, the debate over its morality and alleged criminality is still hotly contested among military historians and humanitarians.
No one involved was ever charged with a war crime.