These are just two from a wide range of personal histories that McKay weaves together with considerable literary flair. Life and death in Dresden take on a solid quality. The firestorm and its aftermath formed a traumatic finale to the city’s six years of war, one etched in the public memory of its citizens — and indeed still visible on the fire-blackened stones of the Elbe bridges. Unlike the Americans, who aimed to hit the railway yards, Bomber Command deliberately aimed for the residential centre and the mass of civilians On the broader history, McKay is on shakier ground — the 1943 firestorm in Hamburg killed 18,000 in one night, not 37,000; James Doolittle, not Ira Eaker, was in command of the US Eighth Air Force bomber squadrons; the Soviets did not request the bombing of Dresden at Yalta, despite continuing efforts to blame them for the decision, and so on.
This is not a book for the squeamish, but neither is it war porn, a mere catalogue of hideous death. McKay recounts the story of Dresden’s destruction through the recollections of those who miraculously survived, creating a kaleidoscope of experience enhanced by the deep affection these people felt for their city. His prose, even when describing gruesome destruction, is often breathtakingly beautiful. This superbly rendered story allows the reader entry into the soul of an extraordinary city.
So where, in the end, do McKay’s sympathies lie? With all sides, it seems. “War”, he writes, “creates its own nauseous gravity, and towards the end of a six-year conflict, with millions dead, all sides exhausted, could it be that these city bombings were not vengeful or consciously merciless, but ever more desperate reflexive attacks launched to make the other side simply stop?” This, in my view, is too generous. Harris was convinced that area bombing helped to shorten the war – ignoring all evidence to the contrary – and, unlike Churchill, he never regretted Dresden.
The author, who achieved bestsellerdom with his earlier account of Bletchley Park’s codebreakers, has here written a much more troubled and troubling book, about one of the most controversial events of the Second World War...Some 25,000 people perished in the firestorm that raged through the city. I have never seen it better described. McKay writes of the fate of the magnificent domed Lutheran Frauenkirche on the evening of February 14, amid “the fires that had washed through the city... As dusk fell the soot-blackened sandstone could in places be seen glowing with a dull ruby light... There was a sound like that of an old ship creaking and yawing, as though swaying in the night”, until at last the entire structure collapsed.
McKay’s book grips by its passion and originality — there is no “wizard prang stuff” here.
Now in the spirit of the Middlebrook accounts comes this most comprehensive, revealing and moving book of them all, Sinclair McKay’s Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness. This is a substantial addition to the genre because it describes in almost unbearable detail the deliberate destruction of a major city, a beautiful and historic place the size of Manchester, one that had little or no military value, and was more or less undefended. It was crammed with refugees fleeing the advance of the Soviet Army. No single preceding book on the bombing war has so succinctly summed up the complex responses felt by people directly involved, but also by the world at large.