Bombing Auschwitz: Fact & Myth

The Times, 27 January 2005 “Could Britain have done more to stop the horrors of Auschwitz?” 

Sir Martin writes:

From the summer of 1942 until the spring of 1944 more than a million Jews were deported to Auschwitz, where they were either murdered upon arrival, or used as slave labourers.

Throughout that period, the destination of the hundreds of deportations from France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Norway, Greece, Yugoslavia and Poland was known only as “the unknown destination”, or “somewhere in the east”, or “somewhere in Poland”. Where in Poland was not known.

Deliberate German deception kept the secret of Auschwitz’s location and purpose hermetically sealed for almost two years.  Throughout that time, Auschwitz lay beyond the range of Allied bombers. It was first overflown by an Allied reconnaissance aircraft on 4 April 1944. The South African pilot who made this flight later showed me his logbook. His mission was to photograph the synthetic oil plant at Monowitz, which was three miles east of the gas chambers, of which he and those who sent him knew nothing.

By an ironic coincidence, three days later the truth about those gas chambers was smuggled out of Auschwitz by two Slovak Jewish prisoners, Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba. They began their escape on April 7. They brought with them the news that the “unknown destination” was Auschwitz, and that up to a million Jewish deportees had been murdered or incarcerated there between the summer of 1942 and the first months of 1944.

Even as Vrba and Wetzler were presenting their report to the Jewish leaders in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, the SS began the first deportations from Hungary to Auschwitz, dependent for their speed and efficiency on the Hungarian police and Hungarian railway workers.

The intended gassing of more than half a million Hungarian Jews began at Auschwitz on May 17. Among those who witnessed it were two Jewish prisoners, Arnost Rosin and Czeslaw Mordowicz, who escaped from Auschwitz on May 27. They too reached Bratislava.

From Bratislava, a summary of the information brought by the four escapees reached Washington on June 18. It was examined by the War Refugee Board, whose brief was to help Jews wherever it could. The telegram asked for the bombing of the railway lines leading from Hungary to Auschwitz. But the War Refugee Board chief, John W. Pehle, did not see bombing as a priority, informing the Under Secretary for War, John J. McCloy, that the Board was not, “at this point at least” requesting the War Department to take any action other than to “explore” it.  In turning the request down, McCloy wrote that it could “only be executed by diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations”. The D-Day landings had taken place only three weeks earlier.

On June 24, two days before McCloy’s negative response, the reports from both sets of escapees reached the Jewish and Allied representatives in Switzerland. “Now we know exactly what happened, and where it has happened,” wrote Richard Lichtheim, the senior representative in Switzerland of the Jewish Agency, to his superiors in Jerusalem. The reports made clear, Lichtheim noted, “that not only Polish Jews had been sent to Auschwitz but also Jews from Germany, France, Belgium, Greece etc,” and that they had been murdered there.

One of the British agents in the Swiss capital, Elizabeth Wiskemann – later a distinguished historian of inter-war Europe – supported the despatch of a telegram from Lichtheim to the Foreign Office in London, not only giving full details of the hitherto “unknown destination,” but including six requests.

The first request was to give the facts the “widest publicity”. The second was a warning to the Hungarian Government that its members would be held responsible for the fate of the Jews being deported from Hungary. The third was that reprisals be carried out against Germans being held in Allied hands. The fourth was the “bombing of railway lines” from Hungary to Auschwitz. The fifth was the precision bombing of the death camp installations. The sixth and final request was the bombing of “all Government buildings” in the Hungarian capital: the target bombing of all collaborating Hungarian and German agencies in Budapest.  The telegram gave the names and addresses of seventy Hungarian and German individuals who were stated to be most directly involved in sending Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz.

On Elizabeth Wiskemann’s inspiration, this telegram was sent uncyphered, to enable Hungarian Intelligence to read it. They did so, and took it at once to the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, and to his Prime Minister, Dome Sztojay.

The Geneva request for bombing was followed on July 2, by an entirely unconnected and unusually heavy American bombing raid on Budapest. The target was the city’s marshalling yards, but many bombs fell in error on many Government buildings and private homes, including some of the very addresses that had appeared in the telegram.

This seemingly rapid response to the Geneva telegraphic appeal of six days’ earlier caused consternation in Budapest at the highest level. On July 4 the Hungarian leader, Admiral Horthy, summoned the senior German official in Budapest, SS General Dr Edmund Veesenmayer, and demanded an immediate end to the deportations. Veesenmayer hesitated. On July 6 the Hungarian Prime Minister, Dome Sztojay, fearing a second Allied air raid, repeated the demand. Lacking the military power to force the Hungarian police and railway workers to continue with the deportations, Veesenmayer ordered an end to the deportations from Hungary. The last deportation took place that day.

An incidental American bombing raid had been effective in stopping the deportations. Since mid-May, more than 380,000 Hungarian Jews had been murdered at Auschwitz; on April 6, the surviving 150,000, in Budapest, were saved from deportation.

On July 6, the day of the final deportation from Hungary, a further Jewish bombing request reached London, brought by the head of the Jewish Agency, Dr Chaim Weizmann.

On July 7 the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, put this bombing request to Churchill. On reading it, Churchill wrote to Eden: “Get anything out of the Air Force you can, and invoke me if necessary.”

Eden passed on Churchill’s request to the Air Ministry that same day, noting that: “I very much hope that it will be possible to do something. I have the authority of the Prime Minister to say that he agrees.”

But bombing was no longer needed. The deportations to Auschwitz from Hungary had ceased. The Hungarian Jews who had averted deportation by only a few days, the 150,000 Jews in Budapest, now had another priority:  international protection inside the city from further German or Hungarian Fascist assault. This protection was provided by the neutral embassies in the city: the Swiss, the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the Swedish.

At the request of the War Refugee Board, the Swedish government sent Raoul Wallenberg to Budapest to take part in this protective work. He reached the city of Budapest three days after the halt of the deportations to Auschwitz. This rescue effort, of which he became a central part, was coordinated by the Vatican representative in Budapest, Cardinal Angelo Rotta. In recent years, Wallenberg and the other diplomats have all received recognition for their protective work. A Briton, Elizabeth Wiskemann, now deserves hers, as we commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Auschwitz and the Allies  and  The Righteous  by Sir Martin Gilbert

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