Out of Dresden's ruins, hope

IT WAS one of the finest baroque churches in the world until the night of 13 February 1945, when Allied bombers destroyed the city of Dresden and up to 100,000 of its inhabitants. After the war, the city's Frauenkirche was left as a blackened ruin to remind the world of that terrible night.

Now is being rebuilt with the help of British funds, London silversmiths and a master craftsman whose father flew one of the Lancaster bombers in the war's greatest non-nuclear aerial atrocity.

The British team has spent the past six months handmaking exact replicas of the 23ft-tall golden orb and cross that topped the stone dome of Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) - a building once as potent a symbol to the city as St Paul's is to London. The fruits of their painstaking work will be presented by the Queen to Germany's President Roman Herzog at Windsor on Tuesday.

"The aim was to create something tangible and physical which would be the ultimate symbol of reconciliation and forgiveness," said Peter Nardini, senior lecturer in conservation at London's South Bank University. Mr Nardini was closely involved in raising British funds for the project and co-ordinating the construction work.

"Many British people feel a personal link with the bombing through family members affected by the war," he said. "The rebuilding of the Frauenkirche will be a lasting memorial to the victims of aerial bombings in all countries."

The Dresden raid, by 796 Lancasters and nine Mosquitos, was the culmination of Bomber Command chief Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris's policy of "saturation" bombing German cities, aimed at breaking the morale of the civilian population. Estimates of the number of dead have ranged wildly, from 35,000 to 135,000. The city was packed with refugees and many corpses were consumed entirely by the firestorm which followed the bombing.

The reconstruction of the Frauenkirche is being funded through public donations from around the world. The cost of the orb and cross - just under pounds 500,000 - has been raised by a British charity, the Dresden Trust, with more than half of the total coming from individuals. Overseeing the British craftsmen is Alan Smith, 51, master silversmith at London silversmiths Grant Macdonald, whose late father, Frank, took part in the raid.

"My father was a bomber pilot in 57 Squadron. When I heard about the project I knew I had to get involved," he said. "Although my father never spoke to me of the Dresden bombing, after his death my mother told me he was a changed person as a result. I suppose you'd call it post-traumatic stress - it filled him with horror for years. This was a chance to put something right."

Mr Smith has been working on the project seven days a week for the past six months. The work had to match exactly the original 18th century designs and be done by hand, using traditional techniques.

"It took 12 weeks alone to hand-beat the sheets of copper needed to form each half of the hollow orb on which the cross stands," he said. The ornate cross was made from stainless steel, again crafted by hand. Together the cross and orb, weighing around two tonnes and coated in 24 carat gold leaf, will stand 300ft above the ground, atop the stone dome of the church, which is due to be completed by 2004.

The orb and cross are due to go on show to the public at Coventry, Liverpool and St Paul's cathedrals before arriving in Germany in early 2000.

They must eventually be bolted together in situ - at the top of the dome. This will involve Mr Smith scaling the building, climbing inside the orb and securing the cross from the inside. He will then re-seal it, applying a final coating of gold leaf to cover the join.

"It's something I felt quite strongly about. I've never built a monument before, and I want to follow things through to the end." It is, he said, a way of saying sorry which would have had his father's approval.

The Dresden Trust is fundraising to complete the facade of the Frauenkirche. For further details contact 01903 884070.