Tag Archives: holocaust

Could the Allies have bombed Auschwitz?

Photo of the Nazi extermination camp at Auschw...

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.

The Soviets

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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Treblinka Survivor by Mark S. Smith

The title of this book suggests just how unique this story is – no-one was supposed to survive Treblinka. While the more infamous Auschwitz is estimated to have killed over a million people, it was also a work camp – hence a proportion of inmates, against the odds, managed to survive. Yet Treblinka – and its Operation Reinhard counterparts Sobibor, Chelnmo, Belzec and Madjanek – were established with the sole purpose of murdering millions of people on an industrial scale. Therefore, the term ‘Treblinka survivor’ is almost a contradiction, so rare is Hershl Sperling’s story. In the region of 800,000 peole were killed there. Yet survive he did.

Born in pre-war Poland, Sperling experienced anti-semitism in Polish society before the Nazi’s invaded in September 1939. After being herded into Ghettos he and his family were transported to Treblinka, where Hershl was selected to survive and work in the sonderkommando, slave labourers at the camp. The rest of his family were murdered soon after arrival. Hershl’s work largely involved cleaning out the filthy cattle wagons that transported the Jews to Treblinka. His account describes untold brutality – of forced boxing matches for the pleasure of the SS, of an attack dog trained to bite a man’s genitals, and of how when off duty the SS men were provided with their own zoo.

The sonderkommando were intended to be murdered when their work was done. However, they staged an uprising, and after torching the camp many of them managed to escape. Most were re-captured very quickly, but Sperling managed to escape by train to Warsaw – an incredible feat for an escaped Jewish prisoner in occupied Poland. He was soon picked up by the Gestapo, but crucially he was never discovered to have escaped Treblinka. If the Nazi authorities had realised this, he would no doubt have been killed very promptly.

After being held at a prison near Radom, Hershl Sperling was sent to Auschwitz. Interestingly, he referred to Auschwitz as a ‘walk in the park’ compared to Treblinka. This is even more remarkable, when we consider that it is believed that he spent time in the ‘care’ of the infamous Dr Josef Mengele. Although he did not write or talk about what happened to himself, Sperling passed on stories such as men being castrated without anaesthetic. Also while at Auschwitz Sperling spent time in a penal gang, and the length of his sentence suggests that he was being punished for trying to escape.

From Auschwitz, Sperling and many others were sent to Dachau near Munich, and it was here where he was liberated by the US Army in 1945. After an unhappy to return to Poland, where he encountered anti-semitism, Hershl met his wife Yadwiga, a fellow holocaust survivor, and eventually to Scotland. Sadly, he suffered from depression for many years, and committed suicide in later life. It appears that many holocaust survivors have suffered from the condition known as survivors guilt.

His story has been pieced together in this book by a friend of his son. Hershl Sperling left an understandably patchy memoir, and passed a few snippets of information onto his sons. The author also travelled to Treblinka and Auschwitz, and consulted with Historians. Unfortunately all books relating to the Holocaust will always come under the close scrutiny of those who seek to belittle or deny it, but Hershl Sperling’s story is beyond doubt.

This is a vey important book – after all, it is estimated that only some 60 people survived Treblinka. And Sperling must be one of very few holocaust survivors who was recaptured after escape and lived to tell the tale. This is also an insightful, hard hitting and moving look at the events leading up to, during and after the holocaust – how anti-semitism was rife in Poland, the thoughts of the author and Sperling’s sons, and the emotional journey by which his story was pieced together.

This book deserves to rank alongside holocause testimonies by Primo Levi, Rudolf Vrba and Anne Frank.

Treblinka Survivor is published by The History Press

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Auschwitz sign ‘irreplacable’

The theft of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Work Sets You Free – sign that hung over the entrance gate to the Auschwitz camp was nothing less than a desecration, writes Rabbi Andrew Baker on the BBC News website.

The announcement came on the same day that the German Government announced that it was planning to contribute 60 million Euros towards the upkeep of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Whether this was a coincidence remains to be seen.

Auschwitz has become a representative symbol for the Holocaust as a whole. Although Jews and other oppressed groups were murdered in other places – Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Madjanek, and many other places – there is something about Auschwitz that remains in public consciousness. The anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz serves as International Holocaust Memorial Day. The main camp at Auschwitz is actually much smaller than Birkenau, the much larger camp, but there is something about the ‘Arbeit macht frei’ sign that acts as a stark warning of where you are, that you are walking in the footseps of evil and suffering.

The Auschwitz State Museum, responsible for the preserving the site, had recently embarked on a major campaign to raise more than 100m euros to ensure the permanent protection and preservation of the site and its contents – from victims’ suitcases, and inmates’ graffiti, to wooden barracks, barbed wire fences, rail platform and crematoria.

But all this is really secondary. The visitor to Auschwitz knows he is walking along that same platform where half a century ago Dr Mengele was directing victims to the gas chambers. He is looking at the same electrified fence that had imprisoned countless slave labourers.

And he is walking through the same gate and beneath the very same sign that cynically offered hope, but in reality promised only destruction. Or at least he was until Friday.

Apparently the people who stole the sign broke into the camp through a drainage channel, removed the sign, and then made their escape by cutting through the barbed wire. Surely I am not the only person who thinks there is something particularly disrespectful about people breaking IN to Auschwitz and then cutting through the wire to get OUT. Just how many thousands of people would have wished every second to escape that place back in those dark, dark days?

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Auschwitz sign stolen

The infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign that overlooks Auschwitz concentration camp has been stolen.

The haunting landmark, which translates to ‘work sets you free’, was stolen overnight from the camp in southern Poland. Whether it was taken for scrap, or as a collectors item, is unclear. It has been replaced by a replica.

What is also unclear is how they managed to get away with it. The gate is off the main road, through a car park and down a drive. To get up to it, take it down and get away without being noticed suggests that security was pretty lax to say the least.

Mind you, whoever has it might have trouble if they try and sell it for scrap or as an antique, it is just a bit recognisable. Hppefully it will turn up sometime soon.

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