Commentary Magazine


Bombing Auschwitz

To the Editor:

In “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed” [May], David S. Wyman tells a story without including the main characters. His article explains how a policy was carried out, not how it was arrived at. One leaves the piece wondering why Mr. Wyman fails to mention President Roosevelt, except in passing.

Aaron Lerner
Takoma Park, Maryland

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To the Editor:

David S. Wyman’s interesting and well-researched article on the hands-off attitude of the War Department regarding the bombing of Auschwitz may have missed a crucial point: aerial bombardment during World War II simply was not as accurate as civilians were led to believe by Air Force propaganda—pinpoint accuracy was achieved more by accident than by design. Therefore, it would have been extraordinarily difficult to destroy the gas chambers, located as they were so close to the people we were trying to save; nevertheless, it could have been done.

The aircraft most capable of success in a low-level attack needed for this type of mission was the British de Havilland Mosquito, which in fact carried out a similar undertaking, Operation Jericho, on February 18, 1944, when Mosquitoes raided the Amiens jail, enabling many French Resistance fighters awaiting execution to escape.

Lawrence H. Blum
Beaumont, Texas

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To the Editor:

In 1944 I was an inmate of the so-called “Gypsy” camp at Auschwitz, which was located about 200 yards from the crematoria. During the first week of October 1944, the day after one of the crematoria had been sabotaged and all the inmates involved had been hunted down and killed by the SS, I heard intense anti-aircraft fire and instinctively sought cover. My first thought—and my hope, in spite of my proximity—was that Allied bombers had finally come to put an end to this inferno. They didn’t. That was thirty-four years ago. Today, thanks to David S. Wyman’s excellent article, “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed,” and my own research, I know that priorities to save Jewish lives were very low. There are, however, a few observations I would like to add to Mr. Wyman’s article.

During World War II heavy fighter escort was essential to protect Allied bombers on daylight bombing missions. Night raids needed less, if any, protection, but remained inefficient because of poor target visibility. Here, Auschwitz was the exception. While all of Hitler’s Europe hid from Allied bombers under a strict and ruthlessly enforced blackout, Auschwitz killing installations remained brightly lit, night after night, for the following reason: the fumes emanating from the crematoria chimneys reignited into a bright red fiery plume, each one about 75 feet long. These flames lit up the night sky and surrounding landscape and could be seen for miles.

The German military high command received continuous complaints from the German air-defense headquarters to stop these night cremations, because the fires could act as a navigational beacon for enemy bombers. Having seen the flames myself and having been a pilot, I would estimate that against a blacked-out landscape and from a height of 23,000 feet, on a clear night, Auschwitz must have been visible from a distance of at least 75 miles. Since many bombing raids were flown into this highly industrialized area, Allied pilots must have seen these fires. I believe it to be relevant to Mr. Wyman’s article to investigate whether pilot reports and aerial photographs of this macabre period exist.

The killing installations were clustered in a relatively small area and were clearly visible at night, so that a few B-17′s during a single night raid could, at best, have eliminated Auschwitz as a killing center. At worst, they could have prevented the Germans from using the “ovens” at night. This limitation alone would have saved many lives.

Herbert Loebel
Sherman, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

I flew as radar navigator-bombardier on the first Auschwitz raid from Fifteenth Air Force bases in Italy on August 20, 1944; as David S. Wyman notes in his article, we hit the refinery and the synthetic rubber plant in the factory areas of Auschwitz. It was the practice to brief bomber groups to steer clear of prisoner-of-war and concentration camps. During my combat tour, and in my later service as a staff operations officer at Fifteenth Air Force headquarters in Bari, Italy, in which I participated in the daily target-selection and operations planning, we continued to avoid injury to prisoners.

Mr. Wyman would have had us do otherwise. His disappointment in our failure to perform a prophylactic bombing of the concentration camp at Auschwitz is Kapo morality—kill some now to save some later. He should consider the following circumstances.

Accuracy. We really could not drop a bomb through a pickle barrel from 3,000 feet, as war-propaganda puffery and inter-service air-corps brag would have it. High-altitude precision bombing was a tactical ideal, which was only sometimes realized. In late 1944, up to 80 per cent of our bombing involved non-visual radar, which was less accurate than the not-too-precise optical bombing. Our accuracy was affected not only by the limited resolution of our radar, but also by haze; solid or broken undercast; smoke, either from German smoke generators or preceding bombing; turbulence; the variable skills of crews; equipment malfunction; flak; inaccurate calculations; unknown winds aloft; the tension of doing an exacting and precise job while being shot at; loose formation; and the myriad unforeseen complications affecting a large number of men operating complicated machinery under extreme circumstances.

To compensate, we frequently did carpet bombing. A common intervalometer setting, with 500-pound bombs, was 400 feet; this meant that bombs would be released sequentially so as to make a 400-foot spacing on the ground—thus, twelve bombs would make a string 4,800 feet long. A typical four-squadron group of fifty bombers would drop fifty of these approximately mile-long strings through a target. We usually hit something—frequently a bomb or two hit or damaged the target.

Mr. Wyman describes two crematoria of 340 feet and two approximately two-thirds that size. Could we have hit them? Probably. Could we have missed them? Not unlikely. The Fifteenth Air Force could lay on a maximum effort of a little over 1,000 bombers. Half of such an effort would result in 500 one-mile strings of bombs, for a total of 6,000 bombs exploding through the camp area. If we elected to salvo (drop the bombs all at once), there would be less likelihood of hitting the target, but greater damage to the target if hit, as well as to whatever was not the target, if hit.

Efficacy. The Nazis extinguished the lives of their helpless victims in many ways. In two days, September 29-30, 1941, in a ravine near Kiev, they machine-gunned and killed 33,000 Jews. The Nazis made do at Babi Yar without an elaborate infrastructure. Had the gas chambers and crematoria been damaged at Auschwitz, the Jews might have been killed differently, and who knows if the rate would have been slower? The resolute and determined killers could have bulldozed quicklime trenches, increased starvation, trained firing squads. Once you get the hang of it, a gas chamber is a simple structure—a tight building with convenient ports. If pressed, the Nazis could have boarded up a barracks, stuffed the cracks, and been back in business.

Diversion of Forces. Referring to my combat log, I find that in the ten days before the August 20 raid on Auschwitz I bombed: Ploesti, Rumania (August 10), the most important petroleum source of the Reich, a target bombed twenty-four times by the Fifteenth Air Force; St. Tropez beach (August 15), in connection with the invasion of Southern France—maximum effort, over 1,000 bombers, hitting the beaches just in advance of our debarking troops; Ploesti again (August 18). I do not have a log of all Fifteenth Air Force operations—we were on double crews so it is likely that other raids occurred in that time period.

Heavy bomber losses during this period were staggering. Flak intensity increased, aided by the German use of proximity fuses. Despite the defeat of the Luftwaffe, U.S. Air Force high command persisted in the brainless practice of daylight, high-altitude, formation bombing, thus presenting to German gunners a large, easily tracked target. The RAF heavy bombers, flying low-altitude individual sorties at night, equaled our accuracy and had less than half our attrition rate of 2.2 per cent. This rate, incidentally, meant that we lost 100 per cent of the Fifteenth Air Force in forty-five days of operations, a loss that was overcome only through massive infusions of new aircraft and crews. We husbanded our resources and selected targets carefully so as to deliver blows that would destroy Hitler’s Germany and end the war. Official America has much to answer for in the heartless denial of its shores to refugees and in its treatment of our indigenous Japanese during World War II, but its refusal to “rescue” Jews by bombing them at Auschwitz is another matter.

Rail. According to my log, I was on a raid to Reccos marshaling yard, Budapest, June 27, 1944. This did not appear to affect the remarkable speed of the deportations of Jews from Hungary during that time. The bombing of marshaling yards and rail targets often had only a transient effect. In order to delay repair, we dropped mixed loads of time-delay bombs—24, 48, 72 hours. Persistent return to the target was required to block rail movements.

Mr. Wyman’s “what if?” and “why didn’t they?” speculations . . . induce a retrospective fantasy on my part. On August 20, 1944, as I train my sights on the refinery target at Auschwitz, I receive orders to alter course and bomb the camp. The Jews are huddled below, watching the innocent white vapor trails in the blue sky. I, a Jew, make corrections as the target moves into my bombing sight. My bomb bay doors open; the planes purposively thundering behind me open theirs. My hand moves to the bomb release—I am the ultimate Kapo.

Milt Groban
Glencoe, Illinois

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David S. Wyman writes:

Aaron Lerner raises the question of President Roosevelt’s role in the failure to bomb Auschwitz. Despite a careful and extensive search for documentation concerning Roosevelt and the bombing issue, I found none. If FDR did participate in making the policy, it is surprising that this was not even alluded to in any of the many materials I researched. Further, if Roosevelt had ruled out such missions, it is strange that the Operations Division and the Air Force in Washington informed General Spaatz, concerning the October 1944 bombing request, that “this is entirely your affair.” It is nonetheless possible that Roosevelt was involved, but any statement to that effect in my article would have been totally conjectural. If Mr. Lerner (or anyone else) has sources showing that FDR participated in setting the policy, I would very much like to be informed of them. Incidentally, I have no interest in deflecting criticism from Roosevelt. My forthcoming book about America’s response to the Holocaust will show that his record concerning the rescue of Jews during World War II was a poor one.

In reply to Lawrence H. Blum: I did not assert that pinpoint bombing accuracy could be assumed. I did discuss in detail the obstacles in the way of accurate bombing, and argued that in the case of the gas-chamber side of the Auschwitz complex those obstacles certainly did not rule out a precision attack by heavy bombers. (As it happened, the August 20 raid took place when conditions were excellent for accurate bombing.) I also wrote that if a precision attack by heavy bombers had failed, other methods were available: saturation bombing from high altitudes, use of the more accurate medium bombers, or a mission by P-38 dive-bombers. By spring 1944, medium bombers had compiled excellent records in striking precision targets, including railroad bridges. As to P-38 dive-bombers, it seems to me undeniable that they could have hit the four large murder installations, and they could have done so with little or no injury to the prisoners in the nearby camp.

Mr. Blum is very likely correct that the British Mosquito would have been the best aircraft for the mission. The U.S. Air Force, of course, did not have Mosquitoes. But it did have P-38′s, and they were capable of the assignment. Incidentally, requests for bombing the gas chambers and the deportation railways were also made of the British government, which, like the U.S. government, refused without giving any real consideration to the proposals.

Herbert Loebel’s information concerning night fires marking the crematoria is most interesting. Because of that factor, it may be that a night attack would have been the most effective approach. The problem for aircraft striking Auschwitz in the daytime, however, was not the threat of German fighter planes. Nor would it have been difficult to locate the targets in daylight. As I pointed out in my article, the main potential problem at Auschwitz was flak. If daytime flak would, in actuality, have hampered aiming over the gas-chamber side of the complex (five miles from the industries), night flak would also have caused trouble in that regard, though perhaps less.

I doubt that the phenomenon of the flaming chimneys was known to the Air Force planners in Italy. I found no mention of them or any photographs in the archives. Except for one small night operation to Blechhammer, which did not take place until November 13, I saw no indication of Allied night flights into the Auschwitz region. Photo-reconnaissance aircraft may, however, have operated in that sector at night. In any event, the briefing reports given bomber personnel shortly before they set out to bomb the Auschwitz industries included no mention of flaming chimneys.

I had hoped that my article would draw responses from people who had flown in the missions to Auschwitz and who could thus provide fuller information on such questions as whether U.S. Air Force personnel based in Italy had any awareness in 1944 of the murder operations that were going on at Auschwitz. I was disappointed, therefore, that Milt Groban’s letter added little relevant information and seems to have been written without a careful reading of my essay.

For one thing, I did not advocate “prophylactic bombing of the concentration camp at Auschwitz.” I did conclude that the extermination facilities, which were located at the far edge of the camp, should have been bombed—a position taken in 1944 by deeply concerned Jewish leaders and by the War Refugee Board. Mr. Groban’s characterization of that position as “Kapo morality” is offensive and inaccurate. The belief that putting an end to the murder factories justified some loss of life has no relevance whatever to Kapos. Nor is Mr. Groban correct that the Fifteenth Air Force was able in its operations “to avoid injury to prisoners”—though it did not harm them intentionally. Camp records show that the bombing attacks on the Auschwitz industries killed and wounded prisoners. As to the very difficult and agonizing moral issue that Mr. Groban seems to be raising, I dealt with it as meaningfully as I could in a limited space, focusing on the high percentage of deportees gassed immediately and the enormous mortality among those who, spared immediate execution, were assigned to the Auschwitz camp. I also showed that inmates at the time hoped and prayed for the gas chambers to be bombed. The letter from Mr. Loebel makes that point again.

Let me comment on Mr. Groban’s other assertions.

Accuracy. Buildings 340-feet and 220-feet long are not “pickle barrels,” and striking such buildings from heavy bombers at 20,000 to 26,000 feet was entirely possible. Under the favorable weather conditions for visual bombing that prevailed at Auschwitz in August 1944, radar-directed bombing was not needed. The crucial factors that could have limited bombing accuracy at Auschwitz were discussed in my article. The other possible problems that Mr. Groban lists, such as skill of crews, faulty equipment, tension, and the complications of the job, would hardly have ruled out a precision attack, especially if the Air Force had planned the mission with particular care. Most certainly, any move to strike the killing installations would not have involved a spur-of-the-moment change of target when the planes were already over the refinery, such as Mr. Groban sketches in his final paragraph.

If a precision-bombing attempt had not been effective, other approaches were available, as I wrote in the article and as I have discussed above in reference to Mr. Blum’s letter.

Efficacy. I did not claim that mass killing would have been impossible without Auschwitz. I stated that “without gas chambers and crematoria, the Nazis would have been forced to reassess the extermination program in light of the need to commit new and virtually nonexistent manpower resources to mass killing.” One must bear in mind that in the summer of 1944, unlike the situation in 1941 when the Babi Yar massacre took place, the Germans were desperately short of manpower and extremely hard-pressed on the military fronts. Even if the Nazis had reverted to mass shooting, the changeover would have taken time and thereby slowed the whole process. Additionally, the body-disposal problem would have returned. Experience had shown that this problem could not be solved by quicklime trenches.

Diversion of Forces. I do not find anything in this section of Mr. Groban’s letter that calls into question the positions I took in my article. This section certainly does not challenge my statement that the Auschwitz death installations could have been attacked in August 1944 without diversion of considerable air support. As I showed, extensive bombing activity occurred in the Auschwitz region in August 1944.

Rail. The reason that the June 27, 1944 raid on the Reccos marshaling yard in Budapest “did not appear to affect the remarkable speed of the deportations of Jews from Hungary” is clear from a careful reading of my essay. Jews were not being deported from Budapest at that particular time. Furthermore, deportation trains could not have been blocked by hitting just any marshaling yard or stretch of track at random. As for the transient effect of railroad bombing, I emphasized that very point in my essay.

The main issue is not whether successful bombing of the murder installations could have been guaranteed. Or whether mass killing might have recommenced in some other way. The real question is, why wasn’t a strong effort made to destroy those charnel houses? What we need is an answer to how it could be that decent people who held power knew that a place existed where thousands of helpless human beings were killed in an hour, knew that this occurred over and over again, and yet did not feel driven to search for some way to wipe such a scourge from the earth.

Incidentally, I have received letters asking if footnotes for my article are available. A full set of source notes may be obtained by sending 25¢ in coin (for the photocopying cost) and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to me at the Department of History, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts 01003.

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