Friday, March 13, 2015

Dresden: A Survivor's Story by Victor Gregg

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: February 5, 2015

In 2011, Victor Gregg published Rifleman about his time on the front line in World War II. The experience of writing that memoir sparked long buried memories of his experience during the Dresden bombing. Whilst Kurt Vonnegut's acclaimed Slaughterhouse-Five draws on his experience as a Prisoner of War imprisoned in a deep cellar in Dresden while the firestorm raged through the city, wiping out generations of innocent lives, Victor Gregg remained above ground. This is his story. In four air raids between 13 and 15 February 1945, 772 Lancaster bombers of the British Royal Air Force and 527 of the United States Army Air Forces dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden. The resulting firestorm destroyed 15 square kilometres, or 6 square miles, of the city centre. 25,000 people, mostly civilians, were estimated to have been killed. Post-war discussion of whether or not the attacks were justified has led to the bombing becoming one of the moral issues of the Second World War. An established soldier turning his uniform to the 10th Parachute Regiment in 1944, he was captured at Arnhem where he volunteered to be sent to a work camp rather than become another faceless number in the huge POW camps. With two failed escape attempts under his belt, Gregg was eventually caught sabotaging a factory and sent for execution. Gregg’s first-hand narrative, personal and punchy, sees him through the trauma and carnage of the Dresden bombing. After the raid he spent five days helping to recover a city of innocent civilians, thousands of whom had died in the fire storm, trapped underground in human ovens. As order was restored his life was once more in danger and he escaped to the east, spending the last weeks of the war with the Russians. Harrowing and vivid, Gregg draws us in to the heart-wrenching, often futile attempts to save lives, and the tentative friendships and near-misses along the way.

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Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I like Victor Gregg's Dresden a lot, but I can't justify giving it more than three stars. First hands accounts such as this are priceless, but the book is not a complete memoir nor is it a comprehensive study of the bombing of Dresden and as a reviewer, I have to factor more than content alone.

Others have noted the writing is a little rough and I agree, but I liked it. Adding the spit and polish of clean crisp prose would have diminished Gregg's voice and stripped the account of its personality. My only complaint is that the publisher put a play by play of Gregg's entire experience on the jacket, leaving nothing for readers to discover on their own or reviewers to comment on without sounding like a broken record. 

Stark, but powerful, Dresden is an interesting volume for history buffs and a particularly noteworthy piece for those interested in the atrocity. Again, it is not a comprehensive analysis of the event, but the perspective it affords is both meaningful and unique.

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I have every respect for the brave lads of the RAF who flew the bombers, they were under orders and, as a soldier, I know that orders are there to be obeyed. But, it is my belief that in the act of destroying the evil of the Third Reich we employed further and more terrible evils...
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