Prague World War Two Bombings
On the Walking Tours people invariably ask that given the stunning beauty and historic architecture, was Prague bombed in the war? So, specifically the Old Town was not bombed but the city was bombed on a total of 3 occasions.
Setting the Scene
The tide has turned. The allies are now advancing on the eastern, southern and western sides. Hitler is losing land and men but he can still make and distribute weapons so the allies expand their central Europe bombing campaign to include Prague. Prague wasn’t an industrial target but it was a transport hub coming from industrial towns so the effort was to try and disrupt rail traffic. On November 15th 1944 the allies bombed the Smichov railway yards. On March 25th 1945 they bombed the Liben railway yards. Both fair targets of war. But it’s the bombing on February 14th 1945 that this post is about.
On February 8th the Russians had crossed the river Oder putting them a mere 70Km from Berlin. It was thought that the war could possibly be over within a month. The allies planned to smash whatever weapons capacity still existed and create a wall of confusion to help the Russian advance so plans were put in place for a series of bombing raids. The one for Dresden was planned from the night of February 13th to the 15th. I’m not going into the politics of the raid, only what happened. The three biggest factors were the weather, that this second raid would be during the day and that the lead bomber sets the target.
The ST Valentines Day Massacre
431 B-17 Flying Fortresses were supposed to fly a dead reckoning course (flight time, direction and distance allowing for wind) to a certain town and then turn south towards Dresden. The weather was “broken cloud”. 115 of those planes somehow became separated from the main bombing raid and turned too far south. 61 of them apparently followed the river but did not realise that they were on the wrong side of Dresden because they’d been blown 100Km south by stronger winds than expected and had turned at the wrong town.
At approximately the correct time the city came into view, partially obscured by cloud. You imagine the guy on the bomb site coming in from the north following the river, he’s expecting a city and in the distance there is a city with the river snaking through it. He has the time to targets on the left bank. It doesn’t matter now if the target will be obscured by cloud as this will be a “blind” attack. But as a bombardier it’s possible he would have looked down the sight, there is the bend in the river, industry on the left, park on the right, the four bridges on the bend. A couple of seconds and then at around 1pm on the afternoon of February 14th, 152 tons of bombs are dropped. They fell largely in two groups although there were a few stragglers, one group on Vysehrad by the river and the other in Vinohrady.
The city was unprepared, after all there was no strategic value in bombing the city and even when it had been bombed it was a single raid of a railway yard in 6 years. They didn’t even think it was necessary to evacuate children. A hundred houses, apartment buildings and historical sites (including the largest synagogue in the country) were destroyed and hundreds more damaged, more than 700 killed, more than 1100 injured. There is a memorial in Charles Square on the hospital where many of the injured were brought. An underpass in the park being used by people seeking cover took a direct hit.
I Wonder Why
It’s a case of tunnel vision. You trust the pilot and the navigator to be at the right place at the right time. In fact another navigator in another group had already warned that he thought they were too far south but the lead plane in the lead group makes the decision. For me this comes down to smoke or the lack of it. In the first night raid the previous evening nearly 1500 tons of bombs including thousands of incendiary bombs were dropped on Dresden. These caused fires that burned for a week and people said you could see the smoke from the Polish border 100Km away. Yet on the approach to Prague, warned by another navigator of a potential wrong target, did it not occur to them that there was no smoke over the city. Maybe it was the fog of war.