The Bombing of Auschwitz Reexamined

  • James H. KitchensIII
Part of the The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Series on Diplomatic and Economic History book series (WOOROO)


One of the most curious—even bizarre—legacies of the Holocaust is the question of whether the Allies could, and should, have used their air power to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz and the rail net feeding them. For a decade or so, it has been argued that the camp’s location and layout were well known and that the installations and rails vital to its operations could have been easily and precisely neutralized from the air, had not insensitivity, indifference, and even antipathy prevented it. Critics, on the other hand, argue that aerial bombing of Auschwitz or its vital railroads was technically infeasible and militarily chimerical. So where in the cross fire does the truth lie? Though the past cannot be changed, the answer is consequential because the alleged failure to act inculpates the Allies’ high commands, governments, and even peoples in collective guilt for the deaths of innocent millions. Professional historians, too, have a stake in the answer, because dissection of the bombing problem reveals unsettling deficiencies in the investigation, determination, and assignation of this culpability. Indeed, few dialogues in modern historiography have been so charged with subjectivity and so encumbered by irrelevancies; few have suffered so much from intellectual insularity and from ineffective colloquy. The following comments explore the genesis of the bombing idea and its seminal expressions, identify its premises, and demonstrate that operational constraints rather than prejudice prevented Allied authorities from bombing Auschwitz.


Strategic Bombing York Time Book Review Extermination Camp Photo Interpreter Unit History 
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  1. 1.
    It is, of course, true that information about the annihilation of European Jews began to seep out of Europe by various channels during 1941–1942. This information, however, was quite fragmented, was transmitted orally, and usually could not be substantiated by documents, photographs, signals intercepts, or other means of conventional military intelligence. As Walter Laqueur perceptively points out, the credibility of German mass murder at this time was also seriously impaired by public recollection of how German atrocity reports from World War I had been debunked during the 1920s and 1930s. Walter Laqueur, The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth about Hitler’s “Final Solution” (New York: Little, Brown, 1980).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The Kosice-Presov line was a key north-south segment of track leading northward out of Hungary over which Jews deported from Budapest to Auschwitz most likely would have traveled. Kosice lay in northern Hungary, while Presov lay almost due north in Slovakia. For a map of the Hungarian and Slovakian rail nets pertinent to the Weissmandel message, see Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies (New York: Henry Holt, 1981), 247.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ibid., 209, 216–217, 219–220, 236–237, 245. Because Gilbert treated the bombing idea as but one element in the unveiling of Auschwitz’s horrors, his narration of its initial development is somewhat discontinuous. Despite the complexities of narration, however, Auschwitz and the Allies remains the most thorough account of the origins of the bombing idea and its reception during the World War II period.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid., 246.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 292; Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939–1945 (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1979), 308–320; Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, 299–311.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Arthur D. Morse, While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (New York: Random House, 1968). See especially Morse’s remarks on 383. Morse did not introduce the bombing issue, nor did he inculpate Allied military authorities in responsibility for the German genocide.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture during World War II (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976), 172–181.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    David S. Wyman, “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed,” Commentary 65 (May 1978), 37–49. The article was unannotated, but at the end the author provided a list of principal archival sources consulted. In a follow-on letter published in the July 1978 issue, Wyman offered to furnish a full set of footnotes in exchange for photocopy costs and a self-addressed, stamped envelope.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Roger M. Williams, “Why Wasn’t Auschwitz Bombed? An American Moral Tragedy,” Commonweal 105 (24 November 1978), 746–751.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Ibid., 750.Google Scholar
  11. 16.
    The Vrba-Wetzler report has been published in full in David S. Wyman, ed., America and the Holocaust, vol. 12, Bombing Auschwitz and the Escapees’ Report (New York: Garland, 1990), Document 1: “The Extermination Camps of Auschwitz (Oswiecim) and Birkenau in Upper Silesia,” 3–44.Google Scholar
  12. 22.
    The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (New York: Macmillan, 1990), see “Auschwitz, Bombing of” by David S. Wyman, 119–121. See also Wyman’s defense of his previous assertions in a letter to the Washington Post, 21 April 1990.Google Scholar
  13. 23.
    For example, Leni Yahil writes in The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 639: “Research has shown that the refusal of the American and British air forces to bomb these installations (Auschwitz and Birkenau) stemmed from their disinclination to be involved with rescue actions per se.” For her two-page passage “No Bombing of Auschwitz-Birkenau,” Yahil’s footnotes 20, 21, 22, and 23, 638–639, cite only Wyman’s Chapter 15 from Abandonment of the Jews and Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies. See also Michael R. Marrus, The Holocaust in History (London: University Press of New England, 1987), 193–194, and Michael Berenbaum, After Tragedy and Triumph: Essays in Modern Jewish Thought and the American Experience (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 9, 82.Google Scholar
  14. 30.
    Two commentaries on Foregger’s article did subsequently appear in Aerospace Historian, but neither came from the Holocaust-studies community or from academic historians. Both included a number of digressions from the basic questions, and neither added anything substantive to the basic Wyman-Foregger dialogue. See Robert H. Hodges, “The Bombing of Auschwitz: A Clarification,” and Michael G. Moskow, “The Bombing of Auschwitz: A Reply,” in Aerospace Historian 35 (summer 1988); 123–126, 127–129.Google Scholar
  15. 33.
    Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, eds., The Army Air Forces in World War II, vol. 3, Europe: ARGUMENT to V-E Day, January 1944 to May 1945 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951); Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, 1939–1945, vol. 3 (London: HMSO, 1961).Google Scholar
  16. 34.
    Philip Birtles, Mosquito: A Pictorial History of the DH98 (London: Jane’s, 1980).Google Scholar
  17. 35.
    Glenn Infield, The Poltava Affair (New York: Macmillan, 1973).Google Scholar
  18. 36.
    James F. Sunderman, ed., World War II in the Air: Europe (New York: Franklin Watts, 1963).Google Scholar
  19. 38.
    C. Martin Sharp and Michael J. F. Bowyer, Mosquito (London: Faber and Faber, 1967). Although older than Birtles’s book, Mosquito is a much more detailed and informative work containing 23 appendices and a detailed text with important data not found in Birtles. Michael J. F. Bowyer’s 2 Group RAF: A Complete History, 1936–1945 (London: Faber and Faber, 1974) also could have enlightened Wyman about special Mosquito operations analogous to camp attacks, and Philip J. R. Boyes’s Bomber Squadrons of the RAF, new ed. (London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1976) could have furnished order-of-battle data about Mosquito units, but neither is cited.Google Scholar
  20. 45.
    An excellent plan drawing of Crematory and Gas Chamber III at Birkenau has been published in Anna Pawelczynska, Values and Violence in Auschwitz, trans. Catherine S. Leach (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 31. Another less detailed plan is in Rudolf Höss, Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, ed. Stephen Paskuly (New York: Prometheus Books, 1992). The Paskuly edition also contains several external and internal photographs of Birkenau’s gas chambers and crematoria that are helpful in analyzing them as bombing targets.Google Scholar
  21. 48.
    Dino Brugioni, “Auschwitz-Birkenau: Why the World War II Photo Interpreters Failed to Identify the Extermination Complex,” Military Intelligence 9 (January–March 1983), 50–55, and Dino Brugioni and Robert G. Poirier, The Holocaust Revisited: A Retrospective Analysis of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Complex (Washington: Central Intelligence Agency, February 1979), NTIS ST-79-10001, are indispensable for understanding the problem of interpretation and intelligence appreciation of the Auschwitz aerial photographs made in 1944.Google Scholar
  22. 49.
    Two important pieces of evidence indicate just how little was known about the Holocaust in Allied intelligence circles. USAFHRC 512.6162-1, 10 October 1944, “Axis Concentration Camps and Detention Camps Reported as Such in Europe,” British War Office (MI 14), 10 October 1944 (originally Secret, declassified 22 September 1972) was a 105-page report that attempted to summarize the concentration-camp intelligence then in hand. An examination of this document, prepared at the highest levels of the wartime intelligence apparatus, clearly shows that the Allies had no exact knowledge of the number of camps the Germans were operating, where the camps were located, how many internees there were, or to what overall purpose the detainees were being held. This document is not included in Wyman’s bibliography or notes. A footnote in F. H. Hinsley et al., British Intelligence in the Second World War, vol. 3, pt. 2 (London: HMSO, 1988), 736, states that ULTRA—the most sensitive intelli gence available to the Allies from intercepted radio traffic—made scarcely any references to concentration camps. “There were,” the authors note, “no Sigint [signal intelligence] references to the extermination camps” before April 1945 apart from “a few Police decrypts in the second half of 1944 and early 1945 about the movement into concentration camps of Jews from France, Hungary, and the Baltic states and about the use of camp inmates as forced laborers.” The reason, of course, was that for clarity and security the Germans used land lines not subject to eavesdropping wherever possible.Google Scholar
  23. 69.
    James Dugan and Carroll Stewart, Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943 (New York: Random House, 1962), 222.Google Scholar
  24. 86.
    Roger A. Freeman, Mighty Eighth War Diary (New York: Jane’s, 1981).Google Scholar
  25. 90.
    See Ronald Schaffer, Wings of Judgment: American Bombing in World War II (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985). Air war Commanders H. H. “Hap” Arnold, Carl Spaatz, Ira Eaker, James Doolitde, George Anderson, Elwood Quesada, Curtis LeMay and Lewis Brereton and their staffs were well aware of the moral implications of strategic bombing, and, although some of them drifted toward acceptance of Douhetian ideas as the air war in Europe progressed, few, if any, lost a repugnance for the killing of wholly innocent civilians.Google Scholar

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© Society for Military History 1996

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  • James H. KitchensIII

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