Hundreds of bombers opened their bellies and thousands of bombs tumbled out, screaming earthwards and landing willy-nilly on the medieval German city of Dresden.

The first bombing took place on the night of Feb. 13, 1945, but the attack continued throughout the next day. British bombers flew at night; American aircraft worked the day shift.

The city burned and tens of thousands died, mostly civilians.

Dresden burns still. History has been revised, lowering the number of dead from more than 100,000 to less than half that and unveiling the city’s military role that had been denied for decades.

The firebombing of Dresden 60 years ago still symbolizes the horror aerial bombing can impose on a civilian population.

“It seemed as if the very air was on fire,” one survivor recalled in a memoir.

The very idea of bombing from the air was so horrific it was outlawed even before it existed. At the Hague Conference of 1899, a ban was placed on dropping bombs from balloons or “any other new method.”

“These were visionaries that could foresee what might happen,” said Peter Murton, a historian at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, England.

When World War I began in 1914, aviation was a tool for reconnaissance. The war would be won on the ground, commanders on both sides believed.

The bloody stalemate of the Western Front forced a rethinking. The Germans had built a long-range bomber and in 1918 their attacks on London struck mostly at British morale.

“The (physical) damage was out of proportion with the psychological damage,” said Bridget Pollard, who researched strategic bombing for the Duxford museum.

The tide had turned. Aviation was a viable weapon. For the rest of the war, more attention and money were directed at developing air forces capable of dropping bombs.

In the 1930s, both Germany and England developed bombers for the coming conflict. When fighting began, each was capable of bombing the other. The problem, however, was the crude method of dropping heavy explosives from above.

“A hit was sort of getting within a mile,” Pollard said.

Technology did improve. Navigational equipment and bombsights made it easier to find a specific target on the ground below.

But bombs still fell from aircraft and were ultimately guided by gravity and air currents. Civilian deaths and damage to nonmilitary sights were tremendous.

That wasn’t accidental. Leaders from both sides believed bombing civilians would break their spirit and force an end to the war. Civilian deaths from bombing continued during wars in both Korea and Vietnam. The bombers themselves had been improved. Targeting was more exact thanks to aerial photography.

But bombs were still “dumb iron,” said Tom Hughes, professor of military history at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell AFB, Ala.

“Through the 1940s and 50s and most of the 1960s, bombing was pretty much the same as it was in World War II,” Hughes said in a telephone interview.

An enduring image of the Vietnam War is that of bombs raining from the undersides of B-52s over North Vietnam. North Vietnamese interviewed after the war said they trembled in fear at the mere sound of the bombers.

By the end of the war, precision-guided munitions were part of the arsenal. With them came a new philosophy. Killing women and children on the ground, destroying schools and hospitals, was no longer a necessary part of war.

For America, the first large use of precision-guided munitions was in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Even then, however, only 10 percent to 12 percent of bombs were “smart” ones.

“The American people don’t get a sense of that,” Hughes said, because so many cockpit videos of smart bombs played on television screens.

Now, he said, the percentage has flipped. Nearly all munitions dropped from aircraft in the battles for Afghanistan and Iraq have been precision-guided.

Civilian casualties still occur. The organization Iraq Body Count estimates between 16,000 and 18,000 civilians have been killed since America invaded Iraq in March 2003.

In Iraq, the Air Force is continually upgrading its ability to strike targets with enough precision to minimize or eliminate unintended damage and deaths.

“We don’t carpet bomb anymore,” said Col. Bob Chapman, director of operations for Central Air Force Command at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.

With aerial bombing a central part of America’s battle strategy — the war in Kosovo was fought exclusively from the air — the technology makes a repeat of Dresden nearly impossible.

Yet a comment about bombing raids from an Iraqi man reported in news accounts — “Nowhere felt safe and there was nothing we could do,” could have come from London or Tokyo or Hanoi in wars past.

Furthermore, Dresden was not unique for World War II. Scores of German and Japanese cities endured the wrath of Allied bombs.

Pollard said, “Dresden is a raid at the end of the war where everything goes right. They find the target. They hit the target. The target burns.”

That, she said, is what they’d been trying to do all along.

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