The Devil's Tinderbox
He killed people. He was no more
than a boy, flying in a box with wings.
Four times (he said) the box went down, each time
with the other crew on board and so he missed
becoming one more number and survived
to spend life holding numbers to account.
The simple honesty which later marked
his handling of business affairs
would have been with him then: he must have killed
reluctantly but well. I only heard
him talk once about his thirteenth mission,
on February Thirteenth—he said
if ever his number was up
that should have been it, but by 1945
even daylight raids were almost unopposed—
with the Luftwaffe beaten they bombed more or less
The paradox he faced was clear enough:
to do his job well, as he knew he must,
meant killing ever more effectively
those who were neither enemies nor friends,
whose weakness robbed the fliers of all excuses
but that they followed orders, the defence
that wouldn't serve at Nuremburg. On the
night of the Devil's Tinderbox
they knew what they were doing. The target,
all but unguarded, had no strategic value
but its railway, and was swelled with refugees
from Stalin's push west. Poor bastards, he said
all those years later, in a voice
I had never heard before. The war was won
and Dresden was still beautiful as my father
settled in the belly of the plane,
a wheel-hub (all bomb-aimers did this)
shielding his private parts from the chance caress
of a lucky shell from the untrained
flak guns of the terrified men below.
The Devil’s Tinderbox is a nickname given to the Allied bombing raids on Dresden on the nights of February 13-15 1945 in which up to 25,000 German civilians died.
My father Bob (Robert Arthur Rust) died in June 1974 of heart failure, aged 51, a belated consequence of an infection contracted on a troop ship during the Second World War.
This poem was slightly revised and re-presented in 2023 after Bob's 100th birthday.
© Godfrey Rust 1985, email@example.com. See here for permissions.