There had been two American daylight attacks on Dresden, one in October 1944, one in January 1945. The latter was somewhat heavier and we knew that Dresden wasn't going to come out of it untouched. Nevertheless, we had no idea what we were in for; we didn't have the experience they had in Hamburg, Berlin, Kassel, or the Ruhrgebiet.
I got myself a grid map of Germany. You could listen in on a radio channel—we called it the flak channel but it actually came from the headquarters near Berlin—which transmitted coded air intelligence. Whenever I was home I listened to this channel and marked the flight paths on the large map which I'd covered with onionskin paper. I still have this map.
And that's how it was on the evening of February 13, which happened to be Mardi Gras. You could determine the approach of a massive raid far into central Germany, beyond Leipzig. When the alarm sounded, it was approximately 20 minutes before 10:00 P.M.
The city was already filled with refugees; everything was a dull, war gray. The train stations were bursting with people. I had already participated in some so-called refugee aid there. We received refugees from Silesia and tried to get them and their baggage out of the city as quickly as possible. They were taken to old dance halls, ballrooms, and cinemas in the suburbs, but some always remained in the city center—those who'd just arrived and had not yet been accommodated.
According to certain city documents, Dresden had approximately 640,000 inhabitants, and I'd estimate that there were perhaps a million people in the city, so there were about 300,000 refugees. There were no bunkers at all—not one public air raid shelter. At Dresden's main train station, luggage storage rooms and basements had been set up as shelters.
People thought Dresden would be spared. There were rumors that the British thought a great deal of Dresden as a cultural center. The story also went around that an aunt of Churchill's lived in Dresden, and in 1945 the rumor circulated that the Allies intended to use Dresden as their capital. Even by then, we expected partition; we thought the Russians would occupy the eastern half and the others the western half. Finally, people said, Dresden is full of hospitals.
All of this was wrong. All these claims, including the one that Dresden was protected because it was a "hospital" city, were false. Dresden was completely unprotected. The flak had been withdrawn during the winter. Half the guns were sent to the Ruhr to strengthen the air defense there, only to be lost when the Americans overran the area. It was ridiculous. The Dresden anti-aircraft troops weren't killed in Dresden, but died fighting against the Americans.
As I listened to the flak channel, I had a feeling of ever-increasing dread, but layered with excitement. You could compare it to what every soldier feels before he has to leave the trench. You're afraid, yet at the same time very excited, wondering what's going to happen. Talk about butterflies! I took my radio down to the air-raid shelter and tried to tune into the flak channel. Our shelter warden was outside.