The firebombing campaign was supposed to begin with an USAAF Eighth Air Force raid on Dresden on February 13 but bad weather over Europe prevented any American operations. So it fell to RAF Bomber Command to carry out the first raid.
During the evening of February 13, the RAF bombers 796 Avro Lancasters and 9 De Havilland Mosquitoes were dispatched in two separate waves and dropped 1,478 tons of high explosive and 1,182 tons of incendiary bombs in the early hours of February 14.
The second attack, 3 hours later, was an all-Lancaster attack by aircraft of 1, 3, 6 and 8 Groups, with 8 Group providing standard Pathfinder marking. The weather had by then cleared and 529 Lancasters dropped more than 1,800 tons of bombs with great accuracy.
Later on the 14th 311 American B-17s dropped 771 tons of bombs on Dresden, with the railway yards as their aiming point.
Part of the American Mustang-fighter escort was ordered to strafe traffic on the roads around Dresden to increase chaos. The civilians were fleeing the firestorm engulfing Dresden. During this raid there was a brief, but possibly intense dogfight between American and German fighters around Dresden.
The Americans continued the bombing on February 15, dropping 466 tons of bombs.
During these four raids a total of around 3,900 tons of bombs were dropped.
The firebombing consisted of dropping large amounts of high-explosives to blow off the roofs to expose the timbers within buildings, followed by incendiary devices (fire-sticks) to ignite them and then more high-explosives to hamper the efforts of the fire services. This eventually created a self-sustaining firestorm with temperatures peaking at over 1500°C. After the area caught fire, the air above the bombed area became extremely hot and rose rapidly. Cold air then rushed in at ground level from the outside and people were sucked into the fire.
After the main firebombing campaign between 13th and 15th, there were two further raids on the Dresden railway yards by the USAAF. The first was on March 2 by 406 B-17s which dropped 940 tons of high-explosive bombs and 141 tons of incendiaries. The second was on April 17 when 580 B-17s dropped 1,554 tons of high-explosive bombs and 165 tons of incendiaries.
Out of 28,410 houses in the inner city of Dresden, 24,866 were destroyed. An area of 15 square kilometres was totally destroyed, among that: 14,000 homes, 72 schools, 22 hospitals, 18 churches, 5 theatres, 50 banks and insurance companies, 31 department stores, 31 large hotels, 62 administration buildings as well as factories such as the Ihagee camera works. In total there were 222,000 apartments in the city. 75,000 of them were totally destroyed, 11,000 severely damaged, 7,000 damaged, 81,000 slightly damaged.
The city was around 300 square kilometres in area in those days. Although the main railway station was destroyed completely, the railway was working again within a few days.
The precise number of dead was a mystery by the fact that the city and surrounding suburbs was with a population of 642,000 in 1939 and was crowded at that time with up to 200,000 refugees, and some thousands of wounded soldiers. Some of them might have been killed and incinerated beyond recognition in the fire-storm. Earlier reputable estimates varied from 25,000 to more than 60,000, but historians now view around 25,000-35,000 as the likely range with the latest research by the Dresden historian Friedrich Reichert in 1994.
The ideal weather conditions at the target site, the wooden-framed buildings, “breakthroughs” linking the cellars of contiguous buildings and the lack of preparation for the effects of air-raids made the attack in Dresden a devastating. For these reasons the loss of life in Dresden was higher than many other bombing raids during World War II.