I wasn’t new to murder and bloodletting. I had enlisted two years prior to the outbreak of the second world war and by the time I was 21 I had taken part in one major battle and various smaller ones. I had been in fights where the ground in front of me was littered with the remains of young men who had once been full of the joy of living, laughing and joking with their mates. As each year of the war went by, the fighting got more ferocious, new weapons were introduced and fresh young men became the targets. How I remained a sane person through all this I don’t know.
Then came the evening of the 13 February, 1945 — 68 years ago this week. I was a prisoner of war held in Dresden. At about 10.30pm that night, the air raid sirens started their mournful wailing and because this happened every night no notice was taken. The people of Dresden believed that as long as the Luftwaffe kept away from Oxford, Dresden would be spared. The sirens stopped and after a short period of silence the first wave of pathfinders were over the city dropping their target flares.
As the incendiaries fell, the phosphorus clung to the bodies of those below, turning them into human torches. The screaming of those who were being burned alive was added to the cries of those not yet hit. There was no need for flares to lead the second wave of bombers to their target, as the whole city had become a gigantic torch. It must have been visible to the pilots from a hundred miles away. Dresden had no defences, no anti-aircraft guns, no searchlights, nothing.
My account of this tragedy, Dresden: A Survivor’s Story, was published on the day of the anniversary this week. I gave a number of interviews around the publication, in which I insisted that the affair was a war crime at the highest level, a stain upon the name Englishman that only an apology made in full public view would suffice to obliterate.
Many — including some writing comments underneath articles on this site — have criticised me for this. Reading through the criticisms I have to admit that some of the things I have written have caused many people some hurt, but to these people I would say that as a person I still suffer at times the memories of those terrible events.