Behind the Headlines Churchill Eden Approved Bombing of Auschwitz but Bureaucrats Foiled Operation a
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Behind the Headlines Churchill Eden Approved Bombing of Auschwitz but Bureaucrats Foiled Operation a

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Both Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, his wartime Foreign Secretary, agreed in principle to bomb the Auschwitz concentration camp to disrupt the Nazi extermination program in 1944. However, the plan was foiled by Foreign. Office officials who failed to pass valuable details of the camp to the British Air Ministry.

The affair was described in a forthcoming book by British historian Bernard Wasserstein who calls it “a striking testimony to bureaucracy’s ability to overturn ministerial decisions.”

The book, “Britain and the Jews of Europe: 1939-1945,” which will be published in the summer by Oxford University Press, was commissioned by the Institute of Jewish Affairs (I JA) which has released extracts about Auschwitz, following the discovery in the United States of aerial photographs of the camp, showing prisoners, the four crematoria and gas chambers.

According to Wasserstein, the Foreign Office’s delaying action took place after, at its own request, it received from the Jewish Agency plans and descriptions of the Auschwitz and Treblinka camps. The plans had been ordered on behalf of the Air Ministry, with a view to bombing the camps or the railway lines bringing prisoners to their doom from all over Europe. On Aug. 18, 1944, ###. J. Linton of the Jewish Agency sent the Foreign Office details of Auschwitz and. Treblinka received from the Polish Interior Ministry in-Exile.


Instead of passing the details to the Air Ministry, however, Foreign Office officials drew up a memorandum Which concluded that it was “advisable to inform the Secretary of State for Air that we do not wish to pursue the idea.” No reference was made to the requested topographical data, nor to the fact that the data had been received and withheld by the Foreign Office.

A few weeks later, Paul Mason, the newly appointed head of the Foreign Office’s Refugee Department, discovered the plans of Auschwitz and Treblinka in the files and wrote a memo that the Foreign Office was “technically guilty of allowing the Air Ministry to get away with it without having given them the information they asked for as a prerequisite.”

Besides the data supplied by the Jewish Agency and the Polish Interior Ministry-in-Exile, the Allies had other information identifying the target. This was a report written by two Slovak Jews, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, who escaped from Auschwitz on April 17, 1944 and gave Jewish underground fighters in Slovakia a 30-page report containing details of Auschwitz and its extermination wing at Birkenau.

This was passed to Dr. Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Geneva who forwarded it to the British, American and exiled Czechoslovak governments.

The I JA says that the lack of topographical data on Auschwitz was therefore no explanation for the refusal by the U.S. and Britain to carry out the bombing. There was even less excuse, it says, for the refusal of requests to bomb the railway from Hungary to Auschwitz to prevent the deportation of the 800,000 Hungarian Jews.


It was claimed at the time that these targets were outside the range of Allied air forces. However, American air raids did take place at and near Auschwitz. David 5. Wyman, in the magazine “Commentary” of May, 1978, lists many instances of heavy bombing between June 22, 1944 and Dec. 26, 1944. On Sept. 13, bombs aimed at the nearby I.G. Forben plant accidentally landed in the Auschwitz camp itself.

Following the discovery of the aerial photographs in the U.S., Dietrich Strohmann wrote, in the West German magazine “Die Zeit” of March 2, 1974, that “between July and October, 2700 flying fortresses…dropped 6600 tons of bombs on the plants in Blechhammer and in Odertal. In these exploits, they regularly flew over the gas chambers and railway lines.”

The I JA concludes: “The reason why the pleas to bomb the camps or the railway lines were rejected is certainly not that the now discovered aerial photos were overlooked or misinterpreted at the time. The reason is rather to be sought in the low priority accorded by the Allied bureaucracy to the saving of Jewish lives, and for that matter, the lives of many other civilians languishing in the concentration camps.”

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