Bombing of Dresden, Crowded prisons and others

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The Independent Online

With Germany beaten, the bombing of Dresden was a crime

With Germany beaten, the bombing of Dresden was a crime

Sir: You might have at least added a question mark to your heading "Dresden, 1945: a legitimate target", on David Cesarani's book review (13 February).

I can't refute every claim said to have been made in Frederick Taylor's book Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945. It may be that Dresden did have strategic importance to the eastern front. But I do know that the town was crowded with refugees from the eastern front and I find it difficult to believe that any intelligent person in Europe wasn't well aware by mid-February that the German army had been irrevocably defeated.

As a British "other rank" prisoner of war I spent the winter of 1944/45 at a working camp (Arbeitskommando 1145, from Stalag IVb) in Zittau, a smallish town in eastern Germany, some 60 miles east of Dresden.

There were just thirty of us there and we went out in small working parties each day and many nights to load and unload railway wagons, to help deliver groceries and other goods, to sweep the streets, dig graves and do any heavy job going. We mixed freely with the German civilians and conscripted foreign workers. Our guards were, on the whole, relaxed and friendly; they knew they'd got one of the cushiest jobs in the German army at that time!

From the end of 1944 we had heard first the murmur, then the distant roar, then the thunder of artillery fire from the ever-nearing eastern front, and throughout that bitter winter there came a flood of refugees from the east through the town. There were old men and women, women with children, scores of foreign workers and Allied PoWs. Some came in battered old lorries propelled by holzgas (a fuel produced by smouldering wood chippings in a cylinder attached to the vehicle), some on ox-wagons, and many trudging through the snow on foot dragging all their worldly goods on hand-carts.

They were heading for Dresden, the natural centre for the reception of refugees, where they could be sorted, registered and distributed to the few relatively safe areas left in Germany. The flood of refugees continued up to 13 February.

I have never forgotten those refugees, most of them neither fanatical Nazis nor sufficiently foolhardy to be outspoken anti-Nazis. They were just ordinary people, like ourselves, who had hoped to keep their heads down and see the war out. And, of course, like everyone else in Zittau - including our guards - they knew perfectly well, even if the Allied high command didn't, that Germany was thoroughly defeated and that the end was only weeks away.

It is neither excusing nor remotely justifying the crimes of the Nazis to suggest that we and our allies were - and are - capable of heinous war crimes. We committed an act of terror, beside which "nine-eleven" pales into insignificance, on 13 February 1945.

Clacton-on-Sea, Essex

Crowded prisons put the public at risk

Sir: The record prison population of 74,543 poses a serious threat to public safety (report, 18 February). The threat arises from its likely impact on reoffending by ex-prisoners.

An estimated one million offences a year (18 per cent of all crime in England and Wales) are committed by released prisoners. The courts' increasing over-use of prison makes it harder for an over-stretched prison system to rehabilitate offenders, thereby increasing the risk of even higher reoffending rates.

Many offenders are now being imprisoned who 10 years ago would have received fines, probation or community service orders. Such offenders are more likely to be diverted from crime by community supervision programmes which combine work to change offending behaviour with practical help to tackle employment, housing and drug problems. Courts can combat crime most effectively by reducing their excessive use of prison and making fuller use of alternative sentences.

Chief Executive
London SW9

Sir: The news item on the large number of people imprisoned makes truly grim reading.

Many will argue that as they cannot reoffend while in prison so the public is protected from crime by their detention. However, all prisoners not given life sentences will be released one day and will be back with the public. Only if prison can prevent reoffending will prison protect the public from crime.

Everyone going to prison receives a thorough "job" training, since prison is the school, university, technology college and labour exchange of crime. Only if a thorough "counter training" takes place, enabling ex-prisoners to cope with legal work, may reoffending be prevented and the public protected.

The present overcrowding, and the unwillingness of the Government to fund and promote such initiatives, makes this impossible.

London N22

Splits in Iraq

Sir: Fergal Keane (Opinion, 14 February) refers to a stark choice - delaying elections and risking a Shia rebellion or pressing ahead and running the risk of an escalating Sunni insurgency.

The truth is that democracy can flourish only in a society in which people are prepared to accept the verdict of the ballot box, even if it means being ruled by "the other lot" for several years. In a country as deeply divided as Iraq such acceptance is unlikely. Quite apart from the Sunni-Shia split, the Kurds are unlikely to agree if this means losing the autonomy which they have enjoyed for more than 10 years.

It must have been obvious to politicians (even American ones) that a country made up of widely differing groups can be held together by a brutal dictator, but once the lid is lifted the country will break apart. Iraq is no different in this respect from the former Soviet Union or the former Yugoslavia.

Harrow, Middlesex

Religious wars

Sir: My dictionary describes atheism as "the theory or belief that god does not exist". It does not flatter the word with a capital, as David E Flavell does (letter, 18 February), nor associate it with any particular practitioners.

Setting aside the lack of evidence to support the existence of any of the various gods man worships, one could choose any of them at random and list a catalogue of associated horrors, perpetrated by man.

So Mr Flavell's anxiety is misplaced. If we should not teach atheism for concern at the harm done in its name, we should exclude all religions too. Atheism does not feature on a daily basis, but "religion"is inexorably linked with some of the most appalling current news.

Ampthill, Bedfordshire

Teachers' plight

Sir: "There's no rest" for Johann Hari's specimen teacher (Opinion, 18 February). Really? How about the almost one third of the year that is the (paid) school holidays ?

Those who say teachers have such a bad lot always gripe on about the pay levels, but usually refer to the remuneration of junior teachers - actually it does go up. Several of the teachers I know are unwilling to shoulder the responsibility that would bring higher pay, such as deputy headship or heading a department. In most other careers greater responsibility is the accepted "price" for getting more money.

And let's not forget the decent pension, funded by the taxpayer, that awaits on retirement, and the support of a powerful union that sets its face against any and all proposals for change.

Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Migrant workers

Sir: Your article "Beaten, starved and denied wages" (13 February), highlights the growing problem of trafficking for forced labour in the UK.

The current Asylum and Immigration Bill does contain an offence of trafficking for exploitation, which marks a step forward as it will allow for the prosecution of traffickers. Also, Jim Sheridan MP has tabled a private member's Bill to establish a licensing procedure for all gangmasters, a positive initiative that we hope the Government will support.

However, we also need to ensure that migrant workers themselves are protected and supported. We urge the Government to ratify the 1990 United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families, which aims to reduce irregular migration and protect migrants from human rights violations and labour exploitation.

Director, Anti-Slavery International
London SW9

Country of the fat

Sir: While it is tempting to take your editorial line of personal responsibility over obesity (leading article, 12 February), the truth is that the Government does have a major role to play.

People used to get adequate exercise not by playing sports or going to expensive gyms, but in walking and cycling to work, to school, to the shops, including to and from bus stops and stations. This gave them the basic fitness to enjoy more strenuous activity in their spare time; playing football, digging the allotment or going on a hike.

Even for the willing, to build into one's life this all-important daily threshold of exercise is extremely difficult if society around you is predicated against it. If you work in a "business park" on the ring road, you have little choice but to drive there. If the only hardware shop is in a shopping-shed city next to the edge-of-town supermarket, you cannot walk down to the shops to buy a few screws. If your local streets are the playground of speeding motorists, it's horrible walking anyway. The alternative of the gym not only turns exercise into another car journey that makes proper exercise even more difficult for others.

Government policy at every level, economic, planning and transport is needed to address the problem.


Sir: It is hardly surprising that Britons are getting fatter when you cannot even buy a tin of baked beans from any major supermarket that does not contain added sugar (even weight-loss brands). Some even have added vegetable oil. Why?

London W6

Sir: Reading the words of Tobias Smollett and relating them to the paintings of Thomas Rowlandson, covering roughly the same period, we are exposed to a picture of real obesity. One character eats two dozen hard-boiled eggs together with a proportionate quantity of bread, butter and honey. And that was only his breakfast.

Croydon, Surrey

Political funds

Sir: Simon Carr (Sketch, 12 February) is quite wrong to allege that government's proposed £5m to £10m union modernisation fund is an "investment", helping unions repay their £6m donation to the Labour Party. Unions are legally prohibited from using their general income from subscriptions, or any form of government aid (most of which is for unions' education and training programmes) for political purposes.

Unions can spend money on party political purposes only from a union political fund. These can be set up only after a ballot of the membership, and have to be funded from a separate political levy on members, which they can choose whether or not to pay.

Head of Organisation and Services Department
Trades Union Congress
London WC1

Just the facts

Sir: Jonathan Allison's letter (17 February), asking Robert Fisk to make some positive suggestions about the Middle East, misses the point. What Robert Fisk does, excellently, is report the news and the stories behind it. That is the purpose of a news reporter. What I do not want from the media is opinion and speculation. I can provide that myself.

Caxton, Cambridgeshire

Cloning morality

Sir: Eoin Woods declares himself against self-evident answers in the cloning debate (letter, 17 February). Why then does he think we should redescribe a single-cell zygote as a "tiny human being"? He seems to think the facts of biological continuity of human gestational development and the absence of any point of decisive qualitative change have indubitable moral consequence. Maybe they have. But such consequence derives from the moral perspective from which we view them, not, as he seems to suppose, the logic of the biological facts themselves.


Mobile rage

Sir: I feel your correspondent's suggestion of flashing one's headlights and sounding the horn to discourage drivers using mobile phones (letter, 17 February), besides being in breach of Highway Code rules, is unlikely to have the required deterrent effect. It has one advantage though: the usual one- or two-fingered response would be less likely since the offender's hands would already be occupied.

Waterlooville, Hampshire

Pay for parents

Sir: The Tory party's draft plans regarding childcare appear from your article to benefit parents of either gender. Yet your headline "Conservatives may pay mothers to stay at home with children" (18 February) implies only women would take up such an offer. The Conservative Party more PC than The Independent? Some mistake, surely?