An aerial photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau, taken by the US Air Force (Image via Wikipedia)
Somebody asked me recently what I think about the debates about whether the Allies could have bombed Auschwitz, in order to prevent the mass murder of millions of people during the Second World War. Theres always been a very heated debate about the subject, quite understandably given the massive number of victims, and the tragedy that we now know the Holocaust to be.
Historical Debates tend to align into two points of view. Firstly, the ‘Abandonment of the Jews’ – that the Allies knew what was going on, that they could have bombed the death camps, but for whatever reason they chose not to. On the other hand, many historians feel that the Allies only had patchy intelligence about the exterminations; that wartime propaganda made it difficult to know what was true and what was embellished; and that the long range and the risk of killing the prisoners in particular made it impossible to do anything.
The strategic situation in 1943-4
Whilst draconian measures against the Jews in German occupied Europe had begun as soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933 (the 1934 Nuremberg laws, Reichkristallnacht in 1938, the ghettos in the East), it was in 1943 and 1944 that the ‘Final Solution‘ – the extermination of the Jews – was put into action. In particular, 1944 saw the extermination of the large population of Jews from Hungary.
By 1943 and 1944, the Western Allies had received enough intelligence to know that mass murder was taking place in occupied Europe. Reports had reached Britain and the US from prisoners who had escaped from Auschwitz, particularly the Vrba-Wetzler report which surfaced in 1944. Earlier in the war Britain had received intelligence from Polish sources, and later in the war Auachwitz was inadvertantly photographed by the US Air Force, although analysts failed to realise the sites significance. There was no doubt that seriously unpleasant events were taking place in eastern Poland, the only arguments seem to have been focussed on the number of victims, where they were taking place, and what if anything could be done about them.
The Death Camps
One problem with our understanding of the Holocaust is that for many people, Auschwitz IS the Holocaust. Over a million people are estimated to have been killed there, but millions of people died in other extermination camps elsewhere in Poland – Sobibor, Chelmno, Madjanek, Belzec and Treblinka for example. But in the debate about Bombing Auschwitz, these camps are always overlooked. The Holocaust was taking place on such a wide scale, with a thorough administration, stretching back to the SS and the Reich Main Security Office in Berlin, and with people such as Heydrich, Eichmann and Kaltenbrunner involved. Simply bombing one camp would not have ended the whole programme of murder: persecution of the Jews was a fundamental tenet of Hitler and the Nazi party, it would have been akin to chopping one tentacle off a squid. Given the lengths the Nazis were willing to go to, and the complexity of the mass murder machine, the only way the Holocaust could be totally stopped would be to defeat Nazi Germany once and for all.
The problem of precision Bombing at long range
We also need to bear in mind the problems of bombing such a precise target. We assume that the RAF would have been able to drop bombs on a sixpence, neatly destroying the administration block, the gas chambers, and the railways lines, without harming any of the inmates. Cruise missiles with GPS and laser guiding might be able to achieve that level of accuracy, but in 1943 and 1944, the picture was somewhat different. The RAF and USAAF were bombing Germany by night and day throughout 1943 and 1944, but suffering huge losses in aircraft and crews in the process. Even with advances such as GEE, Oboe, H2S, and pathfinding tactics, the only way that the Air Forces could seriously damage targets was to area bomb them – to drop huge amounts of explosives and incendiaries over a wide area. This was clearly a tactic that could not be used against Auschwitz or any other camps, as it would have resulted in the deaths of thousands of prisoners, and might not have been sure to succeed in any case. Some precision bombing raids did take place in the war – the Dambusters raid on the Ruhr Dams, for example. However this involved a Squadron spending much time and resources working on a specficially designed bomb, with countless hours of scientific research and special navigational aids. And although the raid succeeded, it suffered high losses.
If it was not possible to bomb the camp itself, might it have been possible to bomb the railway lines going into the camp? Railways lines were a very difficult target to hit – being extremely narrow, even more so from 10,000 feet up. It would have taken an awful lot of planes, dropping many bombs, to give a good chance of destroying the railway lines. But even then, railways lines were relatively easy to repair – they consist pretty much of aggregate stone, sleepers and the track itself. Even if the line was hit and cratered, it would take little time for the Germans to make slave labourers fill in the craters and re-lay the lines.
Auschwitz was at the very extreme limit of the range of Bombers such as the Lancaster and the Flying Fortress, flying from Britain. The bombers were not able to fly from anywhere in liberated Europe until virtually the end of the war, although some bases in southern Italy were available, these were at about the same range. Whilst it would have been possible to fly Bombing missions of that range - the US Air Force did carry out a few small raids on industrial targets in Southern Poland - it was at the very extreme range of what was possible. Flying to Bomb Auschwitz would have entailed an extremely long flight across Germany itself, and – in all likelihood – massive losses from flak and nightfighters. The distance might have limited the bombload that could have been carried. And we should not underestimate the challenge of bombing accurately after such a long flight.
The long range might have not been such a problem, had British and American aircraft been able to land in Soviet occupied territory to refuel. However, the Soviet authorities were not keen to allow the western allies to do so. When the British and Americans wanted to land planes in soviet-held territory in order to drop supplies to the Polish Resistance during the uprising in August 1944, Stalin refused to help until it was too late.
There have also been suggestions that Britain and the US could have dropped the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade on the camp. This would have entailed a flight of the same distances of a bombing raid, in C-47 Dakota’s with less range, which were also unarmed and unarmoured. The lightly armed Polish Paras would have been hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, and would have had to fight a well prepared SS Guard, who probably numbered the same as them, with the ability to call in reinforcements quickly. They might even have liquidated the prisoners more quickly. In any case, even if the Polish Parachute Brigade had landed and liberated the camp, what then? Auschwitz was almost certainly going to be liberated by the Red Army, who were not happy for the British-supported Parachute Brigade to be used anywhere in their sphere of influence.
Whilst the British and Americans might be seen to have had the means to take action over Auschwitz, the Soviet Union was fighting on the Eastern Front, and was much closer to liberating Auschwitz. In February 1945, it was soldiers of the Red Army who discovered the camp, it having been abandoned by its SS Guards. They also liberated the other extermination camps in the East. But the Russians possessed a negligible Air Force compared to Britain and the United States.
Although Bombing might be able to impact upon the enemy, the only way to completely end the atrocities of the Holocaust was to defeat the Nazis, liberate occupied Europe and Germany itself – only by doing so could the mass-murders really be stopped. Anything else could only have a short-term effect, and as we have seen, even as the Third Reich was collapsing, the Nazis were still determined to exterminate the Jews.
Neither should we forget that the Soviet Union under Stalin was capable of committing some terrible crimes. With the Great Purges, the liquidation of the Kukaks and the massacre of Polish Officers at Katyn, it has been argued by some historians that Stalin is ultimately responsible for more crimes than Hitler was. This is an important point to consider. Whilst some might feel that the western allies did not do enough, all the evidence suggests that Stalin and his subordinates, if they knew about the Holocaust, in all probability did not see it as a priority to stop it. Such was the disregard for human life that Stalin had. Indeed, when photographs appeared of what the Red Army had found, many refused to believe it, seeing it as Communist anti-Nazi propaganda.
This is such an emotive, and, difficult subject to write about. No matter what conclusion you come to, you are bound to upset somebody. But on the balance of history and evidence, for that is what we must deal with, I do not think the Western Allies could have done much to prevent the Holocaust by bombing the camps. I feel that the possiblity was looked into, but rightly the planners concluded that it was just not possible to enact. Winston Churchill, a long-time supporter of Jewish groups, even at one time ordered the RAF to look into launching a bombing raid, offering his own personal influence if others tried to prevent it. But Churchill himself accepted the problems that his officers had come up against. I believe that any historian would want the allies to have been able to do something, and would want them to have done it. But it just could not be done. Of course, now it would be impossible, with high-tech sattelite observation, for such genocide to take place on such a scale unhindred, and with precisiom bombing and advanced special forces, we have more options for prevention.
I don’t think the myth of an allied abandonment of the Jews holds water. The Jewish lobby had great influence in both Britain and the US before, during and after the war. Britain had been the main instigator, via the Balfour decleration, of the call for a Jewish homeland. British forces liberated Belsen, and US forces liberated Dachau, and both camps saw considerable disaster relief efforts. If the western allies were guilty of anything regarding the holocaust, it is of not doing enough when they had the chance, prior to 1939 when all the signs were there that the persecution of the Jews was not going to stop and was likely to get worse. More effort to help Jews escape mainland Europe would have lessened the number who ended up in the death camps. Or, better still, standing up to Hitler in the first place might have prevented him having the opportinity to commit mass murder.