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Could the Allies have Bombed Auschwitz? Controversy and Reality

Dr. Rafael L. Medoff, executive director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies once again on the eve Yom Ha Shoah 2016 raised the issue of why the allies couldn’t have bombed the death factory at Auschwitz Birkenau during 1944. A period when the USAAF 8th and 15th Air Forces were already bombing oil refineries and the Buna works less than five miles away. Medoff is the author of FDR and the Holocaust, A Breach of Faith.

Auschwitz-Burkenau Extermination Camp 8 15 1944What prompted revisiting this controversy was a Jerusalem Post article by Medoff critical of a  2015 book exonerating  FDR’s role in the decision not to bomb the Auschwitz- Birkenau, “New Whitewash of FDR;’s failure to bomb Auschwitz.”  Medoff wrote:

Alonzo Hamby is the author of a 2015 biography of president Franklin D. Roosevelt which defends FDR’ s failure to bomb Auschwitz, on the grounds that it was too far away for US planes to reach. George McGovern, the US senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, was one of the World War II pilots who actually bombed oil sites at Auschwitz – proving that it was, in fact, not out of reach at all.

Hamby is a prominent historian and the author of a biography of Harry S. Truman as well as several other well-received books [wrote]:

“The death camps were located in areas largely beyond the reach of American military power,” Hamby writes in Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century. And: “Auschwitz was in a Soviet area of operations and at the outer limit of American bomber range.”

And yet, American bombers did repeatedly bomb German oil factories that were situated in the slave labor sections of Auschwitz.

On August 7, 1944, US bombers attacked the Trzebinia oil refineries, just 21 km. from the gas chambers. On August 20, 127 US bombers… struck oil factories less than 8 km. from the gas chambers.

A teenage slave laborer named Elie Wiesel witnessed the August 20 raid. A glance at Wiesel’s best-selling book Night would have enlightened Hamby. Wiesel wrote: “If a bomb had fallen on the blocks [the prisoners’ barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten times ten hours!”

There were additional Allied bombings of the Auschwitz oil factories throughout the autumn.

My late brother in law as serving officer during  WWII was involved with the planning and deployment of  US 8th Air Force B-17’s based on Poltava in the Western Ukraine less than 120 miles from Auschwitz that flew some of those missions. Another late acquaintance, who was lead navigator for Gen Ira Eaker of the 15th USAAF based at Foggia, Italy  recalled using the crematoria as aiming points for bombing missions on the I.G. Farben Buna-Monwitz  works less than five miles away.

What follows  are excerpts from my 2009  and 2012 New English Review articles  summarizing the controversy, feasibility and reality of whether USAAF bombing runs  could have destroyed the Auschwitz Birkenau complex in 1944.

The Bombing of Auschwitz controversy

On September 9, 2003, a squadron of Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-15’s flew over Auschwitz in southern Poland directly from Israel. The squadron flew the ‘missing man’ formation symbolic of the Six Million European Jewish men, women and children murdered in unspeakable ways by the Nazi death camp machinery in the Final Solution, the Holocaust, or Shoah. An Agence France Presse report noted:

The F-15s, emblazoned with the Star of David, were piloted by the sons or grandsons of Holocaust victims who perished in Poland, according to the Israeli ambassador to Warsaw.

An Israeli air force statement said that as the jets flew low across the sky the pilot leading the squadron, General Amir Eshel, said: “We pilots of the air force, in the skies over these camps of shame, have risen from the ashes of millions of victims. We are the voice for their silent calls. We salute their heroism and promise to be the shield of the Israeli homeland.”

Watch this You Tube video of the 2003 IAF flyover of Auschwitz Birkenau:

The flyover of Auschwitz by the IAF was objected to by the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum as inappropriate to venerate the 1.4 million Jews murdered at the death camp complex. It was nevertheless symbolic on several levels.

It demonstrated that a Jewish sovereign nation would not permit another existential annihilationist assault, as it had the ability to take up arms to pre-empt it. There was no Jewish nation with an Army, Navy and Air Force to prevent the madness of Hitler’s Holocaust during WWII.

It brought into question what Allied air power might have done to disrupt and destroy the killing machinery at Auschwitz Birkenau, when it had the intelligence, aircraft, and crews in Italy and the Ukraine in 1944, which could have undertaken missions that might have saved hundreds of thousands of Hungarian and other European Jews from death. Dr. David Wyman, a critic of Allied war efforts to destroy death camps, estimated that an air assault might have spared the lives of 150,000 Jews whose progeny today might number more than 2 million.

In 1998, during the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of Israel, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu visited Auschwitz on another Yom Ha Shoah and criticized the Allied lack of effort to save European Jews by striking at the death camp from the air:

All that was needed was to bomb the train tracks. The Allies bombed the targets nearby. The pilots only had to nudge their crosshairs.

You think they didn’t know? They knew. They didn’t bomb because at the time the Jews didn’t have a state, nor the political force to protect themselves.

The ‘what if’ question of ‘Could the Allies have bombed Auschwitz?’ and the killing machinery to save Jews, especially the nearly 433,000 Hungarian Jews who went to their deaths between May 2nd and July 13th, 1944 has been the subject of controversy since the liberation of the death camp on January 27, 1945. It has been the subject of intensive research and debate.

In 1978 Professor David S. Wyman brought the matter to a head in an article –“Why Auschwitz was Never Bombed,” Commentary 65, May, 1978  – on the feasibility of special air operations using the ‘wonder planes’ of WWII, the British Mosquitoes and the American Lockheed P-38’s. The speedy and highly maneuverable DeHaviland Mosquitoes were made out of marine plywood.  Wyman said if the RAF could use the Mosquitoes in special ops to free European resistance fighters, why not use it to stop the killing machinery in Auschwitz. Wyman later expanded on this in his 1984 bestselling book,The Abandonment of the Jews.” Wyman further said:

 …there is no question that bombing the gas chambers and crematoria would have saved many lives. ….without gas chambers and crematoria, the Nazis would have to reassess the extermination program.

Within a year after the publication of the Wyman article, the first archival aerial photos of the Auschwitz Birkenau death camp complex were released based on an analysis by photo intelligence expert Dino Brugioni of the CIA. They clearly indicated that British and U.S. Air Forces had targeting information in their files as early as the spring of 1944 with which to develop possible missions.

In 2000, the National Holocaust Memorial published a symposium on the ‘what if’ question of “The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted it?’ edited by Michael J. Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum pulling together the contending arguments and supporting data and information.

NSA Historian Hanyok’s conclusion, in a 2005 study, “Eavesdropping on Hell, was that institutional anti-Semitism in both London and Washington, DC, despite Churchill’s instructions to his Air Minister ‘to do everything possible’ and the overarching objective of destroying the Nazi war fighting capabilities led responsible officials to consider proposals for bombing the railway marshaling and, railway lines and the Birkenau killing center gas chambers and crematoria as a ‘diversion.”

Washington officials, especially Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy considered such requests as ‘impossible” and ‘risky,’ given the air war commitments in the European Theater of Operations. Later McCloy put the onus on FDR for making the decision not to bomb Auschwitz.

McCloy was quoted by Miller as saying:

bombing the camp would involve a diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.”

A Mission to Auschwitz would be an Eight Air Force operation, a highly risky ‘round trip flight unescorted of approximately 2000 miles over enemy territory.

A 2012 study by the US  Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC reveals the opposition by WWII American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) to bombing the Auschwitz Birkenau death complex in Southern Poland in the summer of 1944.  The findings of the USHMM study on wartime allied and Jewish Zionist leaders over the decision not to bomb Auschwitz were the subject of an EnerPub article, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Sin of Omission: Auschwitz” by former US diplomat, Martin Barillas.  Barillas noted the contrast with Britain’s wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill:

 Churchill appeared interested in a military strike against the camps. He told Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden that Hitler’s war against the Jews was “probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world,” adding, “Get everything out of the Air Force you can, and invoke me, if necessary.” In July 1944 Churchill was told that U.S. bomber pilots could do the job best, but that it would be “costly and hazardous.”

The Feasibility of Bombing Auschwitz

In contrast to McCloy’s misleading statements, the reality was we could have done that and more. The resources involved-aircraft sorties, bomb ordnance and air crew losses were a finite fraction of overall air war capabilities of both the 8th and 15th USAAF. Moreover, if the bombing campaign had begun in June, 1944 for example, the weather and meager fighter aircraft and flak gun threats were most favorable to such a mission that could have destroyed the killing machinery at Auschwitz Birkenau.

The fact was that bombing Budapest on July 2nd by the heavy bombers of the 15th USAAF and intercepts by Hungarian intelligence of Jewish Agency requests from Geneva for bombing Auschwitz brought the death transports to a halt sparing the remainder of Hungary’s besieged Jews – approximately 300,000 – until Swedish businessman diplomat and hero Raoul Wallenberg arrived with the aid of the U.S. War Refugee Board and Joint Distribution Committee funds to put many Jews in Budapest in ’safe houses” until the Russians arrived in early 1945.

Based on several feasibility assessments in the Neufeld – Berenbaum study here is what could have been done:

8th USAAF B-17 heavy bombers flying from Operation FRANTIC shuttle bases at Poltava  in the Western Ukraine 150 miles away and 15th USAAF B-24 heavy bombers flying out Foggia, Italy 640 miles away could have raided Auschwitz Birkenau from June to September, 1994. Weather conditions and enemy fighter and flak gun threats over the ‘targets’ during this period were favorable for an Auschwitz Birkenau mission. There were available mission planning target folder and aerial recon photos from I.G. Farben Buna-Monwitz plant mission less than 7 miles from Birkenau killing center.

An estimated 300 sorties involving upwards of 75 heavy bombers dropping between 900 to 1,800 tons of bombs over a two to three week period would have accomplished the mission. This was equivalent to less than 7% of all sorties flown in July, 1944.

The July 2, 1944 15th USAAF raid on Budapest effectively stopped the ‘death transports’ when requests for bombing rail marshaling yards and rail lines leading to Auschwitz by the Jewish Agency in Geneva were intercepted by Hungarian Intelligence.  Unfortunately, by then, more than 433,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered, but 300,000 were ’spared”. Professor Wyman estimated that if an Auschwitz Birkenau raid had been attempted that would have spared an additional 150,000 Jews perhaps resulting in an additional 2 million, today.

However, the reality is that air war priorities and official indifference precluded the raids from occurring and that half of the Hungarian Jews were murdered before any raids could have been launched. It was left to courageous Jewish women supplying Sonderkommando at the Birkenau killing facility with explosives to destroy Crematorium IV on October 7, 1944 forcing the SS to eventually stop and destroy the death machinery in January 1945.

For more information view this comprehensive PowerPoint presentation by the author, “Could the Allies Have Bombed Auschwitz”.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.

​Franklin ​D​. Obama addresses Congress after attack on Pearl Harbor

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live on in our memories with hashtags, awareness ribbons, and candlelight vigils – America was attacked. While we haven’t yet ruled out the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan, we must be careful not to jump to hasty conclusions for what might have been an act of workplace violence.The United States was at peace with Japan and, at the solicitation of its government, we were still in conversation about the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague were negotiating a performance of James Taylor’s You’ve Got a Friend with Secretary of State Kerry. While this may appear suspicious, we must not blame the entire Japanese Empire for the actions of a few.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was likely the result of a few disgruntled employees, maybe even the Emperor’s wife suffering from post-partum depression. Therefore, I urge patience and understanding.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu. No doubt these attacks were carried out by lone wolves who have hijacked the noble religion of Shinto which, we must remember, built the very fabric of our nation.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya. Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island. This morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island. However, the fact remains that most Japanese are moderate and peaceful.

Japan has, in the minds of a few intolerant Asiaphobes, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves, they say. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of anyone who dares to engage in anti-Japanese rhetoric that edges toward violence.

As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for the immediate reduction of our military forces, especially our navy. Like I’ve said since since the invasions of Poland and France, every time something like this happens, these sort of military actions just don’t happen in other countries. I think it’s time to reconsider the Kellogg-Briand Pact which made war illegal, and to rethink the Washington Naval Treaty. If we could take combat vessels off of the high seas, events like these wouldn’t happen. We could make the oceans safer for our children.

Always will we remember that this would never have happened if America hadn’t acted arrogantly during the Spanish-American War by seizing overseas territories. No matter how long it may take us to overcome our own bigotry, the American people will reflect and support common sense arms reductions.

I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only decommission all of our naval assets, but make sure we never again threaten other countries with a military that air raids villages and kills civilians.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are primarily responsible. In the meantime, I don’t want to hear any nonsense about “America leading” or “America winning”.

With confidence in our policy of tolerance – with the unbounded determination of our people – we will lead from behind – so help us, uh, I’ll come back to that.

Given that the provoked and understandable attack by Japan was caused by a despicable video on YouTube, I ask that the Congress declare that the future must not belong to those who insult the Emperor of Japan and the peace-loving religion of Shinto.

​And another take –

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The Peoples Cube.

Real Hero Jesse Owens: “Hitler Didn’t Snub Me — It Was Our President” by Lawrence W. Reed

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens famously won four gold medals, all at the 1936 games in Berlin, Germany. But in the hearts of Americans who know their Olympic history, this African American man did more than win races: he struggled against racism.

At the time of Owens’s death in 1980 at age 66, President Jimmy Carter paid this tribute to him:

Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty, and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans.

Carter’s words were especially fitting in light of an unfortunate fact in Owens’s life: unforgivably, a previous American president had given him the brush-off.

Born in Alabama in 1913, James Owens at the age of nine moved with his family to the town in Ohio that bore his middle name, Cleveland. His first school teacher there asked him his name. With a deep Southern twang, he replied “J.C. Owens.” She heard “Jesse,” so that’s what she wrote down. The name stuck for the next 57 years.

Jesse could run like the wind and jump like a kangaroo. He broke junior high school records in the high jump and the broad jump. In high school, he won every major track event in which he competed, tying or breaking world records in the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes and setting a new world record in the broad jump. Universities showered him with scholarship offers, but he turned them all down and chose Ohio State, which wasn’t extending track scholarships at the time.

Imagine it. You come from a relatively poor family. You could go to any number of colleges for next to nothing, but you pick one you have to pay for. At 21, you have a wife to support as well. So what do you do? If you are Jesse Owens, you work your way through school as a gas station attendant, a waiter, an all-night elevator operator, a library assistant, even a page in the Ohio legislature. Owens worked, studied, practiced on the field, and set more records in track during his years at OSU.

The biography at JesseOwens.com tells the stunning story that unfolded in 1935:

Jesse gave the world a preview of things to come in Berlin while at the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, [where] he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes. Jesse was uncertain as to whether he would be able to participate at all, as he was suffering from a sore back as a result of a fall down a flight of stairs. He convinced his coach to allow him to run the 100-yard dash as a test for his back, and amazingly he recorded an official time of 9.4 seconds, once again tying the world record. Despite the pain, he then went on to participate in three other events, setting a world record in each event. In a span of 45 minutes, Jesse accomplished what many experts still feel is the greatest athletic feat in history — setting three world records and tying a fourth in four grueling track and field events.

Ohio wasn’t the Deep South, but in the mid-1930s, it wasn’t a paradise of racial equality, either. OSU required Owens and other black athletes to live together off campus. They had to order carryout or eat at “black-only” restaurants and stay in segregated hotels when traveling with the team.

The eyes of the world were focused on Berlin in early August 1936. Five years earlier and before the Nazis came to power, the German capital had been selected as the site for the summer 1936 Olympic games. An effort to boycott them because of Hitler’s racism fizzled. It would be a few more years before events convinced the world of the socialist dictator’s evil intentions. Jesse Owens entered the competition with Americans thrilled at his prospects but wondering how Hitler would react if “Aryan superiority” fell short of his expectations.

Jesse didn’t go to Berlin with a political axe to grind. “I wanted no part of politics,” he said. “And I wasn’t in Berlin to compete against any one athlete. The purpose of the Olympics, anyway, was to do your best. As I’d learned long ago … the only victory that counts is the one over yourself.”

If, a hundred years from now, only one name is remembered among those who competed at the Berlin games, it will surely be that of Jesse Owens.

Owens won the 100-meter sprint, the long jump, the 200-meter sprint, and the 4 x 100 sprint relay. In the process, he became the first American to claim four gold medals in a single Olympiad. Owens waved at Hitler and Hitler waved back, but the nasty little paper-hanger expressed his annoyance privately to fellow Nazi Albert Speer. He opined that blacks should never be allowed to compete in the games again.

A side story of Owens’s Berlin experience was the friendship he made with a German competitor named Lutz Long. A decent man by any measure, Long exhibited no racial animosity and even offered tips to Owens that the American found helpful during the games. Of Long, Owens would later tell an interviewer,

It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler.… You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Lutz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.

Back home, ticker tape parades feted Owens in New York City and Cleveland. Hundreds of thousands of Americans came out to cheer him. Letters, phone calls, and telegrams streamed in from around the world to congratulate him. From one important man, however, no word of recognition ever came. As Owens later put it, “Hitler didn’t snub me; it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send a telegram.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, leader of a major political party with deep roots in racism, couldn’t bring himself to utter a word of support, which may have been a factor in Owens’s decision to campaign for Republican Alf Landon in the 1936 presidential election.

“It all goes so fast, and character makes the difference when it’s close,” Owens once said about athletic competition. He could have taught FDR a few lessons in character, but the president never gave him the chance. Owens wouldn’t be invited to the White House for almost 20 years — not until Dwight Eisenhower named him “Ambassador of Sports” in 1955.

Life after the Olympics wasn’t always kind to Jesse Owens. When he wanted to earn money from commercial endorsements, athletic officials yanked his amateur status. Then the commercial offers dried up. He was forced to file for bankruptcy. He felt the sting of racial discrimination again. But for the last 30 years of his life, until he died in 1980 of lung cancer, he found helping underprivileged teenagers to be even more personally satisfying that his Olympic gold medals.

For further information, see:

Jeremy Schaap’s Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics

David Clay Large’s Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936

Lawrence W. Reed
Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

EDITORS NOTE: Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

Washington, D.C. 1943: A Tragic History is About to Repeat Itself

On October 6, 1943, a delegation of American rabbis arrived at the White House for a personal audience with President Franklin Roosevelt. They planned to present to the president irrefutable proof that the Nazis were conducting a wholesale annihilation of European Jews.

As they arrived, the rabbis knew that this was a decisive moment—the last chance to stop the Holocaust before the last of European Jewry was extinguished.  They were denied a meeting.

The ensuing tragedy is, of course, well known. No coordinated Allied rescue was launched. The flames consumed six million Jews. Six decades later, America is ignoring the appeals of the state of Israel concerning Iran’s plans to wipe out the Jews with atomic bombs.

Today, you and I have been chosen by God to stand in defense of Israel. The Jewish people are under attack and facing threats on every side. They need to know that they are not alone, that their Christian friends around the world are standing with them.

The Jerusalem Prayer Team has made our support of Israel and the Holy City plain by building and opening the wonderful Friends of Zion Museum just 600 meters from the Temple Mount. Every day we are telling the true story of Christian love for the Jewish people to hundreds of visitors from all around the world.

We made the decision not to charge people to visit the museum in order to ensure that as many people as possible could be touched by this powerful witness. The operating costs are massive—electricity, maintenance, personnel and more—and we are continuing to improve the experience, including translating the presentation into still more languages. We need your help today so that the light of Christian love will not go out.

Your gift will allow us to continue the wonderful outreach of the Friends of Zion Museum…and feed hungry Holocaust survivors, encourage Believers to join us in prayer, and launch the new Friends of Zion Ambassador Institute. But none of this is possible without your help. Please stand with us in the gap for Israel and the Jewish people with your gift today.

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EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is of the historic Rabbis’ March On Washington in 1943 to stop the Holocaust.