MUNICH — The enviably vital old gentleman wearing shirt and tie and sitting in the office of the London publishing house Bloomsbury seems so even-keeled that it's difficult to imagine him as a psychopath. But Victor Gregg had become a very "dangerous and even violent" man after World War II.
"What I saw in Dresden transformed me into a psychopath," he explains, referring to the Allied bombings on the German city toward the end of the war. But he says later that "the hatred just runs out eventually." A lot of time has passed since Dresden, after all.
Gregg, a native Londoner and World War II veteran, is 95 years old. But that's easily forgotten given how energetically and coherently he talks about his eventful life.
A 2013 BBC appearance coinciding with the the 68th anniversary of the Dresden bombings brought him to the attention of the British public. Gregg said in his interview that "Churchill should have been shot" for the bombings. Because Churchill is celebrated as a kind of British national saint for having defeated Hitler, many Britons were dismayed by these words.
Did he exaggerate just a little? "No," he says emphatically. "The carpet bombing of Dresden was a war crime. I am not blaming the boys of the Royal Air Force (RAF) for anything. They lost 55,000 men and had their orders. But Churchill should have been shot for that. He ordered it in the name of the British people. I think we stand for something better than attacking civilians. We were the good guys!"
Friends dead in action
If anyone but Victor Gregg had uttered those criticisms about Churchill, it would have sounded like historical revisionism, but his case is different. Not only does Gregg have a Cockney accent, he fought in the war from the very beginning to the very end against the Nazis. From El Alamein to Arnheim, he was there and lost all of his friends in action. He was also the only Briton to have witnessed the bombing of Dresden in Dresden itself.
Victor Gregg — Photo: Bloomsbury Publishing screenshot
He has broken his decades of silence and has taken every opportunity to talk about his experiences of February 1945, even writing two books in the process.
But resurrecting the details of those days isn't a symptom of wanting to reappraise the past and deal with a personal trauma. It's instead the result of an urge to pass on lessons learned.
Having joined the parachute regiment after his African tour, Gregg was then captured in the Netherlands with a friend and sentenced to death on the day they sabotaged a factory in Dresden in which they were forced to work. This was on Feb. 13, 1945.
Up against a wall
While Gregg and his friend Harry were cramped into a hall in the middle of town, together with other POWs who had been sentenced to death, the sirens started to blare. Through the hall's glass roof, they could see the flares being dropped by warplanes.
Panic reigned, and moments later four incendiary bombs dropped through the glass roof. Gregg and Harry pressed themselves against the wall, managing to avoid the phosphorous and glass shards. Then an air bomb detonated and blew up the wall, against which they were standing, to pieces. It killed Harry instantly. Gregg was buried under the rubble but survived unharmed except for a burn.
With a small group of survivors, Gregg managed to leave the ruins and fled the burning city for the open fields around it. There, a band of German soldiers intercepted them, and their troop leader ordered them immediately into the rescue service. Two prisoners who refused to re-enter the conflagration were shot on the spot. "I had been on the front lines for six years, and that seemed perfectly normal to me at the time," Gregg says. "You had to uphold discipline."
The asphalt had melted
Gregg says that to this day he's unable to describe accurately what he witnessed. "When you see women clinging to their children, and these children are then dragged out of their arms by the backdraft and ripped into the flames …" His voice trails off for a moment. "There where about 20 people on the other side of the street trying to escape the fire, and to do so they had to get to our side. A few tried to run, but the asphalt had melted with the heat of the fire and they got stuck in it halfway. At some stage their bodies imploded from the heat. Your brain is not able to process something like that."
A pile of bodies in Dresden in February 1945 — Photo: Bundesarchiv
Gregg also survived the third, American attack the next day. Then the clearing-up operations began. The German commander ordered the prisoners to open the air raid shelters, in which residents had sought shelter. Asked whether it took conscious effort to help the enemy with dangerous work, Gregg says, "I didn't even think of that. You don't do it because you are in any way brave but because you have no alternative."
When he felt like a hero
The only time he felt like a hero during the war, he says, was when he recovered a woman and her daughters alive. It only happened once. Otherwise, he found only the dead in the air raid shelters. "Some had suffocated, others had been burned," he says. "In one cellar the floor was covered in what looked like wax out of which bones were sticking out. That wax was the body fat of the people who had barricaded themselves in there. They had melted."
After five days of hard work near the white hot remains of the city center, Gregg fled at dawn. He turned east against the steady stream of refugees fleeing the Red Army. Finally, the Russians picked him up and treated his wounds, gave him food and took him back west. Two months later, he reached an Allied camp. His war was over.
Dresden cityscape in 1945 — Photo: Beyer G./Bundesarchiv
To pass on memories
But in the mind of a person who survived this "by pure luck," the war never ends. "You wake up during the night, and another memory suddenly resurfaces. A memory that was buried for decades. I want to pass these memories on, so that we will never do something like that to one another again."
There are many British-run reconciliation initiatives such as the town partnerships between Dresden and Coventry, the British city that suffered most. Nonetheless, many still think Churchill's strategy was justified. The British Royal Air Force pilots are still considered heroes who risked their lives to defend global freedom.
Gregg's criticism of Churchill has caused a wave of countercriticism. "I can't argue with people anymore," he says. "I'm too old. But I say what I think, and I don't care what others think of that. They even called me a Nazi lover, though I wanted to dispose of Nazis as quickly as possible. When we found out what was happening to Jews in Germany, it became clear that we had to fight Hitler. But I never demonized the German people."
Gregg would like to return to Dresden, "but my wife won't let me. It's too far, she says."
Europe as a joint nation
Gregg thinks it's too late for an official British apology. "We should concentrate on getting along in the future," he says. "And I'm not talking about the regularity of shape and size of bananas within Europe. We have to understand Europe as a joint nation." The 95-year-old also stands firm against the notion of Britain leaving the European Union.
At the end of the very long conversation, which leaves Gregg as fresh as before, he does remember something positive about Churchill. "If there is one thing that speaks for him, it is this: He wanted a united Europe."