A recurring question since World War II has been why the United States rejected requests to bomb the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz, or the railroads leading to Auschwitz.
Such requests began to be numerous in the spring of 1944. At that time, three circumstances combined to make bombing the Auschwitz death machinery and the railways leading to it from Hungary critically important and militarily possible. In mid-April, the Nazis began concentrating the 760,000 Jews of Hungary for deportation to the killing center at Auschwitz. Late in April, two escapees from Auschwitz revealed the full details of the mass murder taking place there, thus making completely clear the fate awaiting the Hungarian Jews. And by May, the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force, which had been operating from southern Italy since December 1943, reached full authorized strength and started pounding Nazi industrial complexes in Central and East Central Europe. For the first time, Allied bombers had the capacity to strike Auschwitz, located in the southwestern corner of Poland. The rail lines to Auschwitz from Hungary also lay within range of these aircraft.
The two escapees from Auschwitz were young Slovak Jews, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, who fled on April 10, 1944. Toward the end of April, they reached the Jewish underground in Slovakia and sounded the alarm that preparations were under way at Auschwitz for exterminating the Hungarian Jews. They then dictated a thirty-page report on the murder of approximately 1,750,000 Jews who had been deported to Auschwitz during the previous two years. Their account detailed the camp’s geographical layout, internal conditions, and gassing and cremation techniques, and offered a statistical record of the long months of systematic slaughter. The precision that characterized the entire report is seen in this passage describing the operation of one of the four large gas chambers:
It holds 2,000 people. . . . When everybody is inside, the heavy doors are closed. Then there is a short pause, presumably to allow the room temperature to rise to a certain level, after which SS men with gas masks climb on the roof, open the traps, and shake down a preparation in powder form out of tin cans, . . . a “cyanide” mixture of some sort which turns into gas at a certain temperature. After three minutes everyone in the chamber is dead. . . . The chamber is then opened, aired, and the “special squad” [of slave laborers] carts the bodies on flat trucks to the furnace rooms where the burning takes place.
A copy of the Vrba-Wetzler statement, dispatched to the Hungarian Jewish leadership, arrived in Budapest by early May. By mid-June, the Slovak underground had smuggled the report to Switzerland, where it was passed to the American legation and found to be consistent with earlier trustworthy but fragmentary information that had filtered out concerning the Auschwitz death camp. The disclosures of a non-Jewish Polish military officer, also recently escaped from Auschwitz, further corroborated the Vrba-Wetzler account.
During June, this information spread to the Allied governments and began to appear in the Swiss, British, and American press. By late June, then, the truth about Auschwitz, along with descriptions of its geographical location and layout, was known to the outside world.
In mid-May, as deportation from the eastern provinces of Hungary started (under the direct supervision of Adolf Eichmann), Jewish leaders in Budapest sent out a plea for the bombing of key points on the rail route to Poland. The message specified the junction cities of Kosice (Kassa or Kaschau) and Presov, and the single-track rail line between them, and added that Kosice was a main junction for Axis military transportation as well. Dispatched via the Jewish underground in Bratislava, Slovakia, the request was telegraphed in code to Isaac Sternbuch, representative in Switzerland of the American Orthodox Jewish rescue committee (Vaad Hahatzala). It reached him about May 17.
Sternbuch immediately rewrote the telegram for transmission to the headquarters of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in New York and submitted it to the military attaché of the U.S. legation in Bern, requesting that it be telegraphed to the United States through diplomatic lines. Three days later, a similar but more urgent telegram arrived from Bratislava. That appeal also went to the U.S. military attaché for delivery to New York. The pleas kept coming every two or three days for the next month, and Sternbuch continued to relay them to the military attaché. Yet by June 22, Sternbuch had received neither reply nor acknowledgment from New York. For unknown reasons, the messages had been blocked, either in Bern or in Washington.
In Jerusalem, Jewish leaders had received appeals similar to those that had reached Sternbuch. On June 2, Yitzchak Gruenbaum, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s rescue committee, arranged for the American consul general in Jerusalem to telegraph a message to the War Refugee Board in Washington. Gruenbaum’s request for bombing the deportation railroads reached the War Refugee Board, but nothing came of it.
Meanwhile, during the third week of May, Rabbi Michael Weissmandel and Mrs. Gisi Fleischmann, both leaders of the Slovak Jewish underground, wrote a long letter pleading with the outside world for help. They described the first deportations from Hungary and stressed the fate awaiting the deportees on arrival at Auschwitz. Their stark account revealed that four forty-five-car trains were leaving daily, each train carrying about 3,000 people. During the two-to-three-day trip to Auschwitz, the victims were pressed together, standing, in closed freight cars without food, water, or sanitary facilities. Many died on the way. After describing the plight of these Hungarian Jews, Rabbi Weissmandel and Mrs. Fleischmann appealed strenuously for immediate bombing of the main deportation routes, especially the Kosice-Presov railway. They also cried to the outside world to “bombard the death halls in Auschwitz.” Writing in anguish, the two asked: “And you, our brothers in all free countries; and you, governments of all free lands, where are you? What are you doing to hinder the carnage that is now going on?” Smuggled out of Slovakia, the plea, accompanied by copies of the Auschwitz escapees’ reports, reached Switzerland, but not until late June.1
Some days earlier, about June 15, other copies of the escapees’ reports had come via the Slovak underground to Jaromir Kopecky, the Czechoslovak minister in Geneva. He immediately showed them to Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress. Riegner summarized the reports for delivery to the American and British governments and the Czech exile government in London. To the summaries, Kopecky and Riegner added appeals for bombing the Auschwitz gas chambers and the rail lines from Hungary to Auschwitz.
By that time, though, one of the earlier pleas for railway bombing, probably sent by Sternbuch and possibly transmitted through Polish diplomatic auspices, had at last broken through to American Jewish circles. On June 18, Jacob Rosenheim of the New York office of the Agudath Israel World Organization addressed letters to high American government officials, informing them of the ongoing deportations. He submitted that paralysis of rail traffic from Hungry to Poland could at least slow the annihilation process, and implored them to take immediate action to bomb the rail junctions of Kosice and Presov.
Rosenheim’s appeals to Washington were first relayed to the War Refugee Board (WRB), an agency that President Roosevelt had established by executive order five months earlier, on January 22, 1944. The President had charged the board with carrying out
all measures within its [the government’s] power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war.
Although Roosevelt had named the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and War as equal members of the War Refugee Board, in actuality Henry Morgenthau’s Treasury Department was the real force behind the agency. While technically a joint operation, the WRB was physically located in Treasury offices and had as its executive director John W. Pehle, a career Treasury official. Its other top staff members were also drawn from Treasury personnel, and the Board worked closely with Morgenthau himself throughout its existence. Nonetheless, the President’s mandate had clearly specified that “it shall be the duty” of all three Cabinet departments, “within their respective spheres, to execute, at the request of the Board, the plans and programs” developed by the Board, and to supply such “assistance and facilities as the Board may require in carrying out the provisions of this Order.”
On June 21, Pehle transmitted Rosenheim’s request to the War Department, and on Saturday, June 24, he conferred about it with Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy. In the discussion, Pehle himself expressed doubts about the proposal to bomb the Kosice-Presov link, but he asked that the War Department explore the idea. McCloy agreed to look into it.
In fact, the War Department had started the matter through its channels the day before, and on Saturday afternoon, June 24, the bombing request arrived at the Operations Division (OPD), the arm of the War Department charged with strategic planning and direction of operations. On Monday, June 26, OPD ruled against the proposed bombing, stating that the suggestion was “impracticable” because “it could be executed only by diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.” Actually, the decision against bombing the railways was not based on any specific study of its feasibility in light of current Air Force operations in Europe. Rather, the negative decision rested on an internal War Department policy which had been arrived at in Washington nearly five months earlier.
In late January 1944, in one of its first steps, the War Refugee Board had requested the British government’s help in carrying out its program of rescue. The British government, which throughout the war showed little inclination to rescue European Jews, was reluctant to cooperate because the presence of the Secretary of War on the Board implied that the armed forces would be used in rescuing refugees. The War Department, moving to reassure the British on this count, quietly set down the following policy:
It is not contemplated that units of the armed forces will be employed for the purpose of rescuing victims of enemy oppression unless such rescues are the direct result of military operations conducted with the objective of defeating the armed forces of the enemy.
This policy effectively removed the War Department from participation in rescue efforts, except as they might arise incidental to regularly planned military operations.
Another of the War Refugee Board’s earliest moves was to try to arrange for a degree of cooperation from United States military commanders in the war theaters. In late January 1944, the Board proposed through McCloy that the War Department send a message to war-theater commanders instructing them to do what was possible, consistent with the successful prosecution of the war, to assist the United States government’s policy of rescue. Although such cooperation was specifically mandated by the executive order which established the War Refugee Board, the military leadership in Washington balked at dispatching the message. McCloy referred the proposal to the Office of the Chief of Staff after jotting on it: “I am very chary of getting the Army involved in this while the war is on.” The War Department’s decision crystallized in February in an internal memorandum which maintained that:
We must constantly bear in mind . . . that the most effective relief which can be given victims of enemy persecution is to insure the speedy defeat of the Axis.
In concrete terms, this position meant that the military had decided to concentrate strictly on the war and avoid the diversion of resources into rescue or relief activities.
When in late June 1944, therefore, the Operations Division dealt with Rosenheim’s proposal to bomb rail points between Hungary and Auschwitz, it turned back to these two earlier pronouncements as the basis for its decision and stated that:
The War Department is of the opinion that the suggested air operation is impracticable for the reason that it could be executed only by diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.
The War Department fully appreciates the humanitarian importance of the suggested operation. However, after due consideration of the problem, it is considered that the most effective relief to victims of enemy persecution is the early defeat of the Axis, an undertaking to which we must devote every resource at our disposal.
Before McCloy could advise Pehle of the negative decision, another request reached the War Refugee Board in Washington. Roswell McClelland, the Board’s representative in Switzerland, had sent a cablegram on June 24 which summarized much of the information that had come into Switzerland during the preceding weeks concerning the brutal deportations from Hungary. He reported that beyond any doubt some 335,000 Hungarian Jews from east of the Danube had already been deported and that the concentration of 350,000 more Jews had recently been completed in Budapest and its environs. McClelland listed the five main railroad deportation routes and pointed out that
it is urged by all sources of this information in Slovakia and Hungary that vital sections of these lines, especially bridges along ONE [the Csap, Kosice, Presov route] be bombed as the only possible means of slowing down or stopping future deportations.
Pehle sent a copy of the cablegram to McCloy on June 29, with a note emphasizing the reference to bombing deportation railroads. Pehle and the Board were unaware of the fact that the War Department had already decided against Rosenheim’s request to strike the Kosice and Presov junctions.
The chance for approval of a proposition to bomb five rail systems was minute; indeed, this latest suggestion received no separate consideration. Colonel Harrison A. Gerhardt, McCloy’s executive assistant, forwarded McClelland’s cablegram and Pehle’s covering note to McCloy, accompanied by a draft of a response to Pehle. Gerhardt also included the following two-sentence memorandum:
I know you told me to “kill” this but since those instructions, we have received the attached letter from Mr. Pehle.
I suggest that the attached reply be sent.
The reply to Pehle simply adapted the Operations Division’s language rejecting the earlier Rosenheim proposal to fit the new expanded bombing request. McCloy signed it on July 4.
Calls for bombing the deportation rail lines continued to come to Washington throughout the summer of 1944. But starting early in July, the appeals for Air Force action to impede the mass murders increasingly centered on the destruction of the death factory at Auschwitz. At the very end of June, before any proposals for striking Auschwitz reached Washington, Benjamin Akzin of the WRB staff argued within the Board for bombing the killing facilities at Auschwitz. He held that destruction of those installations would, at least for a time, appreciably slow the slaughter, and he also pointed out that Auschwitz could be bombed in conjunction with an attack on Katowice, an important industrial center about seventeen miles from the death camp.
Shortly afterward, the London-based Czech government-in-exile forwarded to Washington the summary of the Vrba-Wetzler death-camp report that Riegner and Kopecky had sent out of Switzerland about two weeks before. The plea that Riegner and Kopecky had included for bombing the Auschwitz crematoria stimulated further discussion of that possibility at the War Refugee Board. By July 13, Pehle and the Board had decided to press the military authorities on the question of destroying the death camp. But a careful plan to do so apparently went awry, for no formal approach took place, though Pehle and McCloy did discuss the issue some time during the summer of 1944. That conversation must have dampened Pehle’s interest in the project, because he informed Morgenthau in September that the Board had decided not to refer the proposal to the War Department.
Late in July, the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe wrote President Roosevelt calling for bombing the deportation railways and the gas chambers. The letter emphasized that the railroads were also used for military traffic, and that an attack on Auschwitz could open the way for inmates to escape and join the resistance forces. Thus both proposed actions would assist, not hamper, the war effort. Nothing at all came of this overture.
The next proposal issued from the World Jewish Congress in New York and went directly to the War Department. It drew the usual response. On August 9, 1944, A. Leon Kubowitzki wrote McCloy submitting for consideration a message recently received from Ernest Frischer, a member of the Czech government-in-exile. Frischer called for bombing the Auschwitz gas chambers and crematoria to halt the mass killings. Almost as an afterthought, he also proposed bombing the railways.
The reply, drawn up in McCloy’s office and approved by Gerhardt, was dated August 14, 1944. It followed a by-now familiar pattern:
Dear Mr. Kubowitzki:
I refer to your letter of August 9 in which you request consideration of a proposal made by Mr. Ernest Frischer that certain installations and railroad centers be bombed.
The War Department has been approached by the War Refugee Board, which raised the question of the practicability of this suggestion. After a study it became apparent that such an operation could be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere and would in any case be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources. There has been considerable opinion to the effect that such an effort, even if practicable, might provoke even more vindictive action [!] by the Germans.
The War Department fully appreciates the humanitarian motives which prompted the suggested operation, but for the reasons stated above, it has not been felt that it can or should be undertaken, at least at this time.
John J. McCloy
Assistant Secretary of War
At the beginning of September, pressure built once more on the War Refugee Board for bombing rail lines, this time the lines between Auschwitz and Budapest, where the last large enclave of Hungarian Jews was threatened with deportation. These entreaties came from the Orthodox rescue committee in New York. Rabbi Abraham Kalmanowitz, anxious for the appeal to reach the WRB as soon as possible, placed a night phone call to Benjamin Akzin, who relayed the plea to Pehle the next day. Akzin took advantage of the opportunity to spell out to Pehle, in polite terms, his dissatisfaction with the inaction of the War Department regarding the bombing requests. He maintained that the WRB had been “created precisely in order to overcome the inertia and—in some cases—the insufficient interest of the old-established agencies” concerning rescue of Jews. Akzin, pointing to the Allies’ current air superiority, pressed for going directly to the President to seek orders for immediate bombing of the deportation rail lines. But the Board did not move on the appeal.
On the other crucial bombing issue, the question of air strikes on Auschwitz, the War Refugee Board did act, but with hesitation. Near the end of September, members of the Polish exile government and British Jewish groups came to James Mann, the WRB representative in London, with information that the Nazis were stepping up the pace of extermination in the camps in Poland. They urged the Board to explore again the possibility of bombing the killing chambers. Mann cabled their plea to Washington. Anguished messages then reaching the Board were also reporting Nazi threats to exterminate the thousands of prisoners in the camps in Poland as the Germans retreated before the Red Army. Influenced by these accounts, Pehle decided to raise the issue with McCloy once more, though not forcibly. On October 3, he transmitted to McCloy the substance of Mann’s dispatch, “for such consideration as it may be worth.”
McCloy’s office thought it worth too little consideration to trouble the Operations Division with it, or even to write a reply to the War Refugee Board. Gerhardt, McCloy’s executive assistant, recommended to his chief that “no action be taken on this, since the matter has been fully presented several times previously.”
McCloy let Gerhardt’s recommendation of “no action” stand and the matter was dropped. Meanwhile, Mann’s dispatch had independently caught the attention of the Operations Division which discussed it briefly with the Air Force Operational Plans Division on October 4, and arranged for the Air Force to radio a message to England to Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, commander in chief of all United States Strategic Air Forces (USSTAF) in Europe. This was the only time the War Department sent a rescue-oriented bombing proposal to operational forces in Europe for consideration. The telegram asked Spaatz to consult Mann’s original dispatch and informed him that “this is entirely your affair.” But the message pointedly advised that military necessity was the basic requirement. That admonition scarcely needed to be included, for Spaatz’s staff was no more inclined to take on extraneous assignments, or to look carefully into the workability of the bombing proposal, than were the OPD or the Assistant Secretary of War’s office. The next day, October 5, Spaatz’s deputy commander, Major General Frederick L. Anderson, assigned his director of operations to attend to the matter. That same day, in a message to Spaatz summarizing the conclusion that emerged from the desks of the USSTAF in England, Anderson put an end to the proposal:
I do not consider that the unfortunate Poles herded in these concentration camps would have their status improved by the destruction of the extermination chambers. There is also the possibility of some of the bombs landing on the prisoners as well, and in that event, the Germans would be provided with a fine alibi for any wholesale massacre that they might perpetrate. I therefore recommend that no encouragement be given to this project.
Although Spaatz’s officers had read Mann’s message reporting acceleration of extermination activities in the camps in Poland, they could perceive no advantage to the victims in smashing the killing machinery. Nor did they seem to understand, despite Mann’s statement that “the Germans are increasing their extermination activities,” that wholesale massacres had already been perpetrated without any need for an alibi. Yet if the officers had wished clarification, they could readily have telephoned Mann or members of the Polish government in nearby London.
The last attempt to convince the War Department to bomb Auschwitz came in November. The complete reports made by the Auschwitz escapees finally reached the War Refugee Board in Washington on November 1. Their story of horror jolted the Board. A shocked John Pehle wrote a strong letter on November 8 pressing McCloy to arrange for bombing the Auschwitz killing machinery. He also pointed out the military advantage that would result from simultaneously bombing the Auschwitz industrial area.
Pehle’s appeal went from McCloy’s office to the War Department’s Operations Division which, true to form, turned it down on the grounds that it would divert air power from vital industrial targets. McCloy wrote to Pehle on November 18, relaying the objections put forth by OPD. The letter also explained that Auschwitz could be hit only by heavy bombers based in Britain, which “would necessitate a hazardous round trip flight unescorted of approximately 2,000 miles over enemy territory.”
No further requests were made for bombing Auschwitz or the rail lines to it. Unknown to the outside world, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler in late November ordered the destruction of the killing machinery—a process that was completed in December. A month later, on January 27, 1945, the Russian army liberated the camp.
Thus the proposals to bomb Auschwitz and the rail lines leading from Hungary to Auschwitz were consistently turned down by the War Department. The chief military reason given for this refusal was that such proposals were “impracticable” because they would require the “diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.” Was this reason valid? The answer is no.
From March 1944 on, the Allies controlled the skies of Europe. Official U.S. Air Force historians have stated that “by 1 April 1944 the GAF [German Air Force] was a defeated force.” Allied air power had “wrecked Hitler’s fighter [plane] force by the spring of 1944. After this . . . U.S. bombers were never deterred from bombing a target because of probable losses.”
From early May 1944 on, the Fifteenth Air Force based in Italy had the range and capability to strike the relevant targets. Moreover, neither the Normandy invasion of June 6 nor the ensuing Allied drive across France drew on the resources of the Fifteenth Air Force. The August invasion of southern France only very briefly took a small amount of Fifteenth Air Force power. The Twelfth Air Force, a tactical arm also based in Italy, assumed most of that responsibility. The War Department’s repeated concern about diversion of air power essential to decisive operations could not have referred to those invasions, at least not with regard to the Fifteenth Air Force. And, in fact, during the same late June days that the War Department was refusing the requests to bomb railways, a fleet of Fifteenth Air Force bombers was waiting for proper flying conditions to attack oil refineries near Auschwitz. This mission, which took place on July 7, saw 452 bombers travel along and across two of the five deportation railroads. On June 26, 71 Flying Fortresses on another bomb run passed by the other three railroads, crossing one and coming within thirty miles of the other two.
As for the area of Auschwitz, as early as January 1944, Allied bombing strategists were analyzing it as a potential target because of the synthetic oil and rubber installations not far from the camp. Two months later, the huge Blechhammer oil-refining complex, forty-seven miles from Auschwitz, came under careful study. Then, in late April, USSTAF headquarters in England wrote Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker, commander of the Allied air forces in Italy, inquiring about the feasibility of a Fifteenth Air Force attack on Blechhammer. Eaker replied on May 8 that not only were strikes on Blechhammer possible, but that war industries at Auschwitz and Odertal “might also be attacked simultaneously.”
By May 1944, the Fifteenth Air Force had indeed turned its primary attention to oil targets. Throughout the summer, as involvement with the invasion of France lessened, the British-based U.S. Eighth Air Force and the Royal Air Force increasingly joined the Fifteenth Air Force in fighting the “oil war.” Most observers, then and now, agree that the high attention given to oil in 1944 and 1945 was one of the most decisive factors in Germany’s defeat. Loss of oil gradually strangled the Third Reich’s military operations.
In late June, the “oil war” was about to move into Upper Silesia, where Germany had created a major synthetic oil industry based on the vast Silesian coal resources. At least eight important oil targets were clustered there within a rough half-circle, thirty-five miles in radius, with Auschwitz near the northeast end of the arc and Blechhammer near the northwest. Blechhammer was the main target—fleets of from 102 to 357 heavy bombers hit it on ten occasions between July 7 and November 20—but it was not the only one. No fewer than six additional plants shook under the impact of tons of high explosives, including the industrial section of Auschwitz itself.
On Sunday, August 20, late in the morning, 127 Flying Fortresses, escorted by 100 Mustang fighters, dropped 1,336 500-pound high-explosive bombs on the factory areas of Auschwitz, less than five miles to the east of the gas chambers. Conditions that day were nearly ideal for accurate visual bombing. The weather was excellent. Anti-aircraft fire and the 19 German fighter planes there were ineffective. Only one American bomber went down; no Mustangs were hit. All five bomber groups reported success in striking the target area.
Again on September 13, a force of heavy bombers rained destruction on the factory areas of Auschwitz. The 96 Liberators which struck encountered no German aircraft, but ground fire was heavy and brought three of the bombers down. As before, no attempt was made to hit the killing installations which stood about five miles to the west.
On December 18 and also on December 26, American bombers again struck Auschwitz as an industrial target.
Beginning in early July, then, air strikes in the area were extensive. For example, two days after the first raid on Auschwitz, 261 Flying Fortresses and Liberators bombed the Blechhammer and Odertal oil refineries. Many of them passed within forty miles of Auschwitz soon after leaving their targets. On August 27, another 350 heavy bombers struck Blechhammer. Two days after that, 218 heavies hit Moravska-Ostrava and Oderberg (Bohumin), both within forty-five miles of Auschwitz. Not long before, on August 7, heavy bombers had carried out attacks on both sides of Auschwitz on the same day: 357 had bombed Blechhammer, and 55 had hit Trzebinia, only thirteen miles northeast of Auschwitz.
It would be no exaggeration, therefore, to characterize the area around Auschwitz, including Auschwitz itself, as a hotbed of United States bombing activity from August 7 to August 29. Yet on August 14 the War Department could write that bombing Auschwitz would be possible only by the diversion of airpower from “decisive operations elsewhere.”
But a further question remains: Would the proposed bombing raids have been, as the War Department maintained, of “doubtful efficacy”?
In the case of the railroad lines, the answer is not clear-cut. Railroad bombing had its problems, and was the subject of long-lasting disputes within the Allied military. A main argument centered on the relative effectiveness of interdiction (bombing to cut rail lines and destroy bridges) and attrition (bombing to smash rail centers and marshaling yards, thereby hurting operations as well as repair facilities). With time, close observers concluded that successful blockage of enemy transport required both interdiction and attrition.
Attrition, however, would not have stopped the deportation of Jews. Bombing oil or munitions cars in marshaling yards was very effective, but blowing up trains containing deportees would have been absurd, and striking the deportation trains before loading would have required an impossibly detailed knowledge of German transportation orders.
Successful interdiction, on the other hand, would have necessitated close observation of the severed lines and frequent re-bombing, since repairs took only a few days. Even bridges, which were costly to hit, were often back in operation in three or four days. Nonetheless, bridge bombing was pressed throughout the war, including strikes from high altitudes by heavy bombers. And interdiction of both rail lines and railroad bridges constituted a significant part of the Fifteenth Air Force’s efforts, especially during September and October 1944 when it assisted the Russian advance into Hungary by cutting and re-cutting railways running from Budapest to the southeastern front. Interdiction could be very effective, then, for targets assigned a heavy and continuing commitment of airpower. But in the midst of the war, no one proposed or expected diversion of that kind of military force for rescue purposes.
It might also be argued with some validity that railroad bombing would not have helped after July 8, 1944—the day on which the last mass deportations from Hungary to Auschwitz took place. The argument is convincing with regard to the three deportation railways farthest from Budapest, because most Jews outside Budapest were gone by then. The Nazis, with astounding speed, had moved 450,000 Jews to Auschwitz in fifty-five days. The deportations were suspended after July 8 mainly because an immense buildup of world pressure, most notably from the Pope and the King of Sweden, persuaded the Hungarian Regent, Miklos Horthy, belatedly to stand up to the Nazis on this issue.
Some 230,000 Jews still remained in Budapest, however, constantly threatened throughout the summer and fall by the very real possibility that the transports to Auschwitz might be resumed. Horthy’s control of the situation was shaky. Some deportations did occur, and through the summer Eichmann kept attempting to reestablish his operation. Because of the continuing threat, the other two deportation railways, since they would have been used to carry Jews from Budapest to the gas chambers, remained critically important.
Deportation of the Budapest Jews would have taken roughly three weeks, in addition to several days of preparations. An alarm might well have reached the outside world in time for cuts in those railroads to have been of some help, even if the bombing had to be sporadic. In this situation, the United States could readily have demonstrated concern for the plight of the Jews. Without risking more than minute cost to the war effort, the War Department could have agreed to stand ready, if deportations had resumed, to spare some bomb tonnage for those two railroads, provided bombers were already scheduled to fly near them on regular war missions. And, as it happened, on ten different days from July through October, a total of 2,700 bombers carrying 6,600 tons of bombs traveled along or within easy reach of both the rail lines on the way to oil targets in the Blechhammer-Auschwitz region.
While the ending of mass deportations from Hungary on July 8 has some bearing on the question of railroad bombing, it has little relevance to the issue of the bombing of Auschwitz. There is no question that bombing the gas chambers and crematoria would have saved many lives. Mass murder continued at Auschwitz until the gas chambers closed down in late November. Throughout the summer and fall, transports kept coming from many parts of Europe, carrying tens of thousands of Jews to their death.
Could the death factories have been located from the air? The four huge gassing-cremation installations stood in two pairs, spaced along the westernmost edge of the Auschwitz complex, just outside the Birkenau section of the camp. Four chimneys towered over the extermination buildings, two of which were 340 feet long, the others two-thirds that length. As we have seen, descriptions of the structures and of the camp’s layout, supplied by escapees, were in Washington by early July 1944.
Heavy bombers-flying at their normal 20,000 to 26,000 feet could have knocked out the mass-murder apparatus. The question would have been whether sufficient precision was possible to do it with only a few bombers, or whether a larger-scale saturation bombing mission would have been required. The answer could have emerged from the results of an initial attempt at precision bombing.
The main obstacles to accurate bombing were night, clouds, smoke, extreme altitudes, enemy fighter opposition, and heavy flak. The last two hindered aiming by making straight, level flight difficult. Except for one small experimental night raid on Blechhammer, all missions to Upper Silesia took place in daylight.
Weather conditions in the region were excellent for air operations throughout August and most of September; October was a time of poor weather. The September attack on Auschwitz ran into some smokescreening, but the one in August did not. Because the industrial area was nearly five miles from the killing installations, it is unlikely the latter would have been enveloped in smoke in any case. Unusually high-altitude flight was not a problem; the missions into Upper Silesia operated at normal altitudes for heavy bombers. Enemy fighter opposition was negligible at the Silesian targets between July and November, except for Blechhammer, and there it dwindled sharply after July. At Auschwitz, 19 German fighters appeared on August 20 to challenge 100 Mustang fighters and 127 Flying Fortresses. No German planes were encountered over Auschwitz on September 13. Flak resistance at Auschwitz was moderate and ineffective on August 20, but intense and accurate on September 13. In sum, the only real obstacle to precision bombing of the death machinery would have been flak, which might or might not have been intense and accurate enough to have interfered with aerial action on the gas-chamber side of the Auschwitz complex. Before August, Auschwitz had little flak defense; and only after the August 20 raid were heavy guns added.
A useful indicator of the chances for precise bombing of the death installations is the actual outcome of the two attacks on the Auschwitz industries. The August strike left three great fires and was described by General Eaker, commenting on photographs of it, as “a remarkable piece of bombing.” The September raid was less accurate, yet Auschwitz records show that it did considerable damage.
If a precision bombing effort had failed, analysis of the results would have shed light on the prospects of a second attempt. If those prospects looked doubtful, a larger force could have smashed the crematoria in a saturation-bombing operation. Or a few Mitchell medium bombers, which struck with surer accuracy from lower altitudes, could have flown with one of the bomb runs into the area. The Mitchell had sufficient range to attack Auschwitz, since refueling was available on the Adriatic island of Vis, 110 miles before reaching the home base in Italy. The Vis airstrip, available by May 1944, was on the direct route to Auschwitz.
It was also entirely possible for Lightning (P-38) dive-bombers to have attacked the Auschwitz killing installations. On June 10, 1944, P-38’s based in Italy dive-bombed oil refineries at Ploesti, making a round trip of 1,255 miles. The trip to Auschwitz and back was 1,240 miles, but stopping at Vis shortened that to 1,130. It is true that the Ploesti mission was near the limit for P-38 dive-bombers—4 landed at closer fields in Italy, thus cutting their distance to 1,185 miles. Yet almost all the returning dive-bombers completed the 1,255-mile trip. In addition, the flight into and out of Ploesti, then the third most heavily-defended target on the continent, necessitated more fuel-consuming maneuvering than an attack on Auschwitz would have required. And the P-38’s had sufficient fuel to conduct strafing missions on the way back from Ploesti. Furthermore, in an emergency, Lightnings returning from Auschwitz could have landed at Partisan-held airfields in Yugoslavia.
Opportunities for bombing the gas chambers were not limited to the August 20 and September 13 raids on Auschwitz. Bombers assigned to smash the death factory could have flown with any of the many missions to the nearby Silesian targets. Auschwitz could also have been scheduled as an alternative objective when poor bombing conditions prevailed at other targets.
If the killing installations had been destroyed at this stage of the war, it would have been practically impossible for the hard-pressed Germans to have rebuilt them. At the very least, the death machinery could not have operated for many months. (Original construction of the gas chambers and crematoria, carried out in a time of more readily available labor, transportation, and materials, had taken eight months.) 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. Gas was a far more efficient means of mass murder than shooting, and it caused much less of a psychological problem to the killers. The operation of the gas chambers, which killed 2,000 people in less than half an hour, required only a limited number of SS men. Killing tens of thousands by gunfire would have tied down a military force. The Nazis would also have again faced the body-disposal problem, an obstacle that had caused serious difficulty until the huge crematoria were built.
Available figures, which are incomplete because the Germans destroyed many of the pertinent records, indicate that 100,000 Jews were gassed at Auschwitz in the weeks after the August 20, 1944, air raid on the camp’s industrial sector. If the date is set back to July 7, the time of the first attack on Blechhammer, the number increases by some 50,000. Unfortunately, requests for bombing Auschwitz did not arrive in Washington until July. If, instead, the earliest pleas for bombing the gas chambers had moved swiftly to the United States, and if they had drawn a positive and rapid response, the movement of the 450,000 Jews who were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz would most likely have been broken off and additional lives in the hundreds of thousands might have been saved. Much more significant, though, than attempts to calculate particular numbers is the fact that no one could tell during the summer of 1944 how many hundreds of thousands more would die at Auschwitz before the Nazis ceased their mass murder.2
Thus, there should have been no doubt as to the “efficacy” of bombing Auschwitz. But those who called for such bombing themselves faced an anguishing moral problem: they were taking responsibility for the deaths of camp inmates who would be killed if an attack were made. Though the murder installations stood at the edge of the Auschwitz complex, about two miles from the main camp, they were located very near Birkenau, itself a heavily populated concentration camp.
Jewish leaders in Europe and the United States wrestled with the problem. Most concluded that loss of life under the circumstances was justifiable.3 They realized that about 90 per cent of the Jews deported to Auschwitz were gassed on arrival. They were also aware that those who were spared the gas chambers, both men and women, struggled daily through a hellish agony as slave laborers. Food was far below subsistence: ersatz coffee in the morning, one liter of thin soup at noon, and 300 grams (10.6 ounces) of poor bread at night. Clothing consisted of ragged, filthy uniforms and wooden shoes. Quarters were crowded. Heavy, physical, outdoor labor was the rule, in all weather and for long hours. Guards beat or shot workers for any slowness or awkwardness. Typhus and other diseases ran through the camp. Medical attention was a fraud. Mortality was enormous: the average prisoner had little chance for survival. In a matter of weeks, inmates were drained of life, culled from the ranks when too weak for hard labor and dispatched to the gas chambers.
All these facts were known to Jewish leaders, and to government officials as well, from carefully corroborated reports made by Auschwitz escapees. Most imprisoned Jews were doomed to death. Bombing the extermination machinery would kill some of them, but it would also halt the mass production of murder.
Although the people who appealed for the bombing were unaware of it, many prisoners in Auschwitz shared their viewpoint. Olga Lengyel, a Birkenau survivor, recalled after the war that she and the inmates she knew hoped for an air raid: “If the Allies could blow up the crematory ovens! The pace of the extermination would at least be slowed.” Pelagia Lewinska, a non-Jewish prisoner, remembered the approach of Allied aircraft as “joyous experiences”:
At such times we kept telling ourselves: Maybe they will drop leaflets, maybe they will destroy our camp, maybe they will even liberate us!
Two sisters, Hungarian Jews who were in Birkenau when the Auschwitz industrial areas were hit, told of the prisoners in their section praying for the bombers to blast the gas chambers. They were more than ready to die for that.
The basic principle underlying the War Department’s rejection of the bombing proposals was that military resources could not be deflected to non-military objectives, no matter how compelling the humanitarian appeal. The logic of this position was extremely forceful in a world at war. But it should be emphasized that the policy was not as ironbound as the War Department indicated in its replies to the bombing requests. During World War II, exceptions to this general rule occurred quite often. Many of them, to the credit of the United States, were for humanitarian purposes. For instance, despite a severe transportation shortage, the American and British military moved 150,000 non-Jewish Polish, Yugoslav, and Greek war refugees to camps in Africa and the Middle East. American airlifts of wounded Yugoslav Partisans rather frequently brought out endangered women and children also. One such mission included four troop transports loaded with orphans.
Two additional kinds of actions show that the war effort could be deflected for other decent purposes, such as art or loyalty to beaten allies. Kyoto, ancient capital of Japan and a center of culture and art, was on the Air Force target list. In the spring of 1945, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson asked McCloy: “Would you consider me a sentimental old man if I removed Kyoto from the target cities for our bombers?” McCloy encouraged Stimson to do it. The Air Force command argued against the decision, but adhered to it. Kyoto was not hit. On another occasion, McCloy himself prevented the planned bombing of Rothenburg, a German town known for its medieval architecture.
On August 1, 1944, as Soviet forces neared Warsaw, the Polish Home Army rose against the Germans. But the Russian advance suddenly stopped and the Red Army remained about 10 kilometers from Warsaw for weeks, while the Nazis decimated the unaided and poorly supplied Polish fighters. One cause for the unexpected Russian halt was the ferocity of the German counterattack. A second factor was the Soviet government’s apparent decision to let the Germans eliminate the Home Army, a non-Communist resistance force tied to the Polish government-in-exile in London which represented a possible obstacle to Russian control of postwar Poland.
Polish officials in London brought intense pressure to bear on the British government to do something about this situation. Although Air Marshal Sir John Slessor, RAF commander in Italy, believed that supply flights to Warsaw from Italy would result in a “prohibitive rate of loss to the Air Force,” and “could not possibly affect the issue of the war one way or another,” the British government ordered that the missions be run. Volunteer RAF and Polish units flew 22 night operations from Italy between August 8 and September 20. Of 181 bombers sent, 31 did not come back. Slessor concluded that the effort had “achieved practically nothing.”
The U.S. Air Force did not participate in the Italy-based operations to Warsaw, but American bombers from Britain did join the effort. On September 18, 107 Flying Fortresses dropped 1,284 containers of arms and supplies on Warsaw and continued on to bases in Russia. At most, only 288 containers reached the Home Army. The Germans took the rest.
The cost of the mission was low in numbers of aircraft lost, but extremely high in the amount of airpower kept out of regular operations. To deliver 288 (or fewer) containers to a military force known to be defeated, 107 heavy bombers were tied up for nine consecutive days. For four days the Fortresses sat in England, loaded with supplies, waiting for the right weather conditions. After the mission, four more days elapsed before the planes returned home, via Italy. Prevailing wind patterns made the long trip from Russia to England unsafe for Flying Fortresses. While the bombers did strike a rail target in Hungary on the way from Russia to Italy, they carried out no other bombing operations in the entire nine days.
The USSTAF’s director of intelligence summarized American involvement in the Warsaw airdrops. His report acknowledged that even before the September 18 flight the President, the War Department, and the Air Force realized that “the Partisan fight was a losing one” and that “large numbers of planes would be tied up for long periods of time and lost to the main strategic effort against Germany.” Still, all involved concurred in the decision to go forward, “despite the lack of a firm commitment” to the Polish government by the United States.
Why did the United States divert a large amount of bombing capacity during a crucial phase of the oil campaign? The report’s closing paragraph supplied part of the answer:
Despite the tangible cost which far outweighed the tangible results achieved, it is concluded that this mission was amply justified. . . . America kept faith with its Ally. One thing stands out, from the President down to the airmen who flew the planes, America wanted to, tried, and did help within her means and possibilities.
The Warsaw airdrop was executed only by diversion of considerable airpower to an impracticable project. The justification for that serious move was no doubt partly political: some advantage in the postwar period might derive from having sacrificed for an ally. Beyond that, however, the United States had demonstrated its deep concern for the plight of a devastated friend.
If, when the first bombing request came to it, the Operations Division of the War Department had taken the trouble to consult the command of the relevant air arm, it would have found the Fifteenth Air Force on the verge of a major bombing campaign in the region around Auschwitz. Instead, the possibilities were never investigated in Washington. From July through November 1944, more than 2,800 bombers struck Blechhammer and other targets close to Auschwitz. The industrial area of Auschwitz itself was hit twice. Yet the War Department persisted in rejecting each new request to bomb the death camp on the basis of its initial, perfunctory judgment that the proposals were “impracticable” because they would require “diversion of considerable air support.” That the terrible plight of the Jews did not merit any active response remains a source of wonder, and a lesson, even today.
The basic sources used in this study are in the following archival collections:
- National Archives—Record Group 107, Assistant Secretary of War. Record Group 165, War Department General and Special Staffs (Operations Division and Civil Affairs Division). Record Group 243, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey.
- Library of Congress—Carl A. Spaatz Papers. Ira C. Eaker Papers.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt Library—War Refugee Board Records. Morgenthau Diaries.
- Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center—15th Air Force Mission Reports.
1 Mrs. Fleischmann and Rabbi Weissmandel were deported to Auschwitz, at different times, during the fall of 1944. She was gassed there; he escaped from the train and survived the war.
2 Incidentally, if the gas chambers had been destroyed on August 20 or earlier, Anne Frank might possibly have survived the war. Arrested on August 4, she and her family were deported to Auschwitz from a camp in Holland on September 2. They went on the last deportation train from Holland. Later, Anne and her sister were transferred to the camp at Bergen-Belsen, Germany, where both died of typhus, Anne in March 1945. If the Auschwitz mass-killing machinery had been destroyed by August 20, the train very likely would not have left Holland, because most of its captive Jews were bound for the Auschwitz gas chambers.
3 One major Jewish organization did not agree. The U.S. section of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) opposed bombing the death installations because Jews in the camp would be killed. They pressed instead for Russian paratroop action to liberate the camp, and for the Polish underground to destroy the killing machinery. These were vain hopes. Russia ignored the problem and the Polish underground did not have anything like enough strength for such an operation. It was, however, the U.S. section of the WJC that relayed Frischer's proposal to bomb the gas chambers to the War Department in August 1944. The British and Swiss sections of the WJC called for bombing the murder installations.