Could the Allies have stopped the Nazi death machine by bombing the concentration camps?
The 60-year-old debate has been reopened by Britain’s recent move to make more than 5 million World War II aerial reconnaissance photos available online. According to critics of the Allied failure to bomb the camps, the pictures show that the United States and Britain had the capability to conduct a bombing campaign.
“We now know that they were bombing five miles from Auschwitz,” said Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress.
During the war, the WJC asked both President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to bomb the camps in order to stop the killing, Steinberg said.
Churchill and his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, favored the plan, Steinberg said, “but they were overruled by the military.”
“I would not go so far as to say it was blatant anti-Semitism” that kept the Allies from bombing the camps, Steinberg said. “It was not an overt hatred, but an indifference to their plight — and the effect is the same.”
William Rubinstein, a historian and the author of “The Myth of Rescue,” said he understands the military position.
For one thing, he said, “it was logistically impossible to reach Auschwitz from any Allied-held landing field until late 1943 at the earliest. Tragically, the proposals for bombing Auschwitz were first made exactly at the time of the D-Day landing, the liberation of France and the assault on Germany.”
“No one was realistically going to divert resources at that crucial time,” Rubinstein said.
Even if they had been inclined to do so, there was no guarantee that bombing the camps would have been successful, he said.
“The actual likelihood of stopping the killing process at Auschwitz without killing a great many Jews and others in the process was, with the military technology and bombing accuracy at the time, not great,” Rubinstein said. “Any bombing raid on Auschwitz might well have been a fiasco, killing many Jews without stopping the gassings.”
Rubinstein also argued that by the time the WJC was pushing for military action against the camps, most of the murderous work of killing Jews already had been done.
Killings at Auschwitz ended in November 1944, he said.
“The WJC response is just another example of armchair hindsight, blaming the Allies instead of the Nazis themselves.”
But Steinberg said it’s historians who are mistaken.
“The Allied bombers could not have known the killings would stop in November 1944,” he said. “More importantly, we’re talking about flights in July to October of 1944, when 600,000 Hungarian Jews were exterminated.”
Steinberg said the fact that so many reconnaissance planes flew over the camps belies the argument that the Allies could not spare resources to bomb them.
“The number of sorties undertaken by the RAF in late 1944 was something like 2,800,” he said. “We now know that bombing the camps would have made no difference to the war effort.”
But Allan Williams, who led the project of putting the photos online, said not only military but intelligence resources would have been required.
He said the sheer volume of material intelligence officers were dealing with –and the fact that each officer was looking only for one specific type of military target — made it unlikely they would have paid any attention to pictures of concentration camps.
“It took me three years of working on the collection to do 5.5 million photos when I knew exactly what I was looking for,” said Williams, of the aerial reconnaissance archive at Britain’s Keele University.
Even so, he said, the very men who examined the photos as they were being produced during the war were still debating the question of what could have been done about the death camps.
“When I talk to the few intelligence officers who still survive, they’re still discussing this,” he said.
“These debates,” he said, “will probably go on forever.”
The RAF Aerial Reconnaissance Archive is available at www.evidenceincamera.co.uk.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.