Could the allies have been able to bomb Auschwitz?

 IBDP History Internal Assessment 
Word count: 1920

Plan of Investigation

“Could the allies have been able to bomb Auschwitz?” To begin, an analysis will be made on John J. McCloy’s argument, leading to the decline of a bombing proposal offered by the Jewish Agency on July 6th 1944. Later we will configure Wyman’s summarized “four possible solutions” to attack the Auschwitz concentration camp. By contrasting these two authorities we can analyze the chances of the allies realistically and effectively being able to bomb Auschwitz to a point of its incapability to continue its murderous actions. This investigation will look into the action and orders of the two main allied powers, Britain and America, and analyze this information to see if it was logical military protocol or a hierarchy miscommunication or even mistreatment. 

More broadly, consideration of the stances presented by several different authorities on this topic will be made, particularly those of John J. McCloy, the Assistant Secretary of War between 1941-1945 who made major decisions concerning the bombing of Auschwitz, and David A. Wyman, a Jewish historian and the Chairman for the Institute for Holocaust Studies.  Furthermore, the CIA photo-analysts Dino Brugioni who served for the CIA in the 1970’s and WW2 historian and official Churchill biographer, Martin Gilbert, will both reinforce each of the stances towards this question.

Word count: 213

Summary of evidence:

Auschwitz, located 160 miles southwest of Warsaw, initially created as a Polish army barracks, was captured after the defeat of Poland in 1940. In July 1941 Heinrich Himmler toured the areas of Poland to search for potential places to conduct “The Final Solution”. [1]  In September 1941 the camp was converted into a multi-use work, concentration and extermination camp divide into three sections: Auschwitz I (original concentration camp), Auschwitz II (concentration/extermination) and Auschwitz III-Monowitz (a labour camp to staff the IG Farben chemical factory).  Through 1941-1945 at least 90% of prisoners in the camp were Jewish and 1 in 6 Jews who died in the Holocaust died at the camp, amounting up to one million Jews. Out of the 7000 SS camp guards in Auschwitz, 15 were put on trial and six condemned. [2]     

The initial in-depth information to the Western Allies on the existence of Auschwitz was the “Pilecki's Report”. Polish Army Captain Witold Pilecki spent a total of 945 days at the concentration camp, escaped and forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London a report of conditions and events occurring at the camp.[3]  On March 1941, ‘The mass extermination of the Jews in German occupied Poland’ was published; details from the report were even published by “The New York Times”. The first report of gas chambers to the worldwide press being used was also described. [4]  An Allied reconnaissance aircraft first overflew Auschwitz on April 4, 1944, in a mission to photograph the synthetic oil plant at Monowitz forced labor camp (Auschwitz III).[5]  

The main Auschwitz complex was photographed accidentally several times during missions aimed at nearby military targets.[6] However, the photo-analysts knew nothing of Auschwitz and the political and military hierarchy didn't know that photos of Auschwitz existed.[7] For this reason, the photos played no part in the decision whether or not to bomb Auschwitz.[8]  On 26 June 1944 71 B17 heavy bombers on another bomb run had flown above or close to three railway lines to Auschwitz.[9]  July 7, the U.S. War Department refused requests from Jewish leaders to bomb the railway lines leading to the camps, a fleet of 452 Fifteenth Air Force bombers flew over the five deportation railway lines on their way to bomb the Blechhammer oil refineries nearby. 

 Buna-Werke, the I.G. Farben industrial complex located adjacent to the Monowitz forced labour camp (Auschwitz III) located 5 kilometres from the Auschwitz I camp was bombed four times, starting at 20 August 1944 until 26 December 1944.[10] On December 26, 1944, the U.S. 455th Bomb Group bombed Monowitz and targets near Birkenau (Auschwitz II). During the attack a SS military hospital was hit and a total of five SS personnel were killed.[11]  

On 11 June 1944, believing that Auschwitz was a labour camp, the Executive of the Jewish Agency along with David Ben Gurion, unanimously opposed the bombing of Auschwitz. Israeli President David Ben Gurion summed up the results of the discussion: "The view of the board is that we should not ask the Allies to bomb places where there are Jews"-. This proposal was reversed after the Jewish Agencies revealed that Auschwitz was indeed a death camp and a bombing proposal was made to FDR.[12]  

On August 24, 1944, U.S. Army Air Forces carried out a bombing operation against a factory next to Buchenwald concentration camp located near Weimar Germany. Despite perfect weather, 315 prisoners were killed, 525 seriously harmed, and 900 lightly wounded.[13]

Word count: 573

Evaluation of sources:

Bird, Kai The Chairman: John J. McCloy, the Making of the American Establishment’, Simon and Shuster 1992

 Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bird wrote the first official biography relating to McCloy’s legislative engagements while in office during WWII. Bird recounts his role in the Auschwitz bombing debate while serving as Assistant Secretary of War when he made many major decisions regarding civil issues occurring during the war. The ‘Executive Intelligence Review’ has described Kai’s account as “even handed” [14] but as a biography written in 1992 can be seen as having a “20/20”[15] hindsight that uses our morality and values of today while referring back to accounts enacted in the heat of war. Bird occasionally suggests the anti-Semitism and racism of McCloy when quoting McCloy’s colleague and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, describing him as "more or less inclined to be a fascist."[16] His role in enacting internment camps for U.S. Japanese citizens is a well-known example of one of his enacted policies during the war and adds to McCloy’s suggested racism.  McCloy is a useful source for us to analyse in order to understand the general consensus in terms of the handling of civil matters in wartime Europe. With many of the requests to liberate Auschwitz often times being sent directly or forwarded to him by the Jewish Agency or by Anthony Eden, Minster of British Foreign Affairs.[17]

Wyman, David S.: 

Why Auschwitz was Never Bombed. Commentary Journal. 2.14 1978 Print.

The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945. New York: Pantheon, 1984. Print.

David S. Wyman is the author of several books on the Holocaust and won the National Jewish book Award for his extensive in-depth look into the subject.  In 1978 David Wyman published an article “Why Auschwitz was never bombed”[18] and later in 1984 continued his thesis in his book “The Abandonment of the Jews-1941-1945” in which Wyman offers four different bombing strategies in order to liberate the camp. This thesis supports his main argument in which Wyman suggests that bombing Auschwitz was a possibility and that the decision to not bomb Auschwitz was a mistake. With this in mind Wyman is criticized for his inserted personal moral views in his book, with Peter Novic, author of “The Holocaust in American life”, calling his proposition “a comfortable morality tale”[19] is to be taken into account in which we need to understand that Wyman has no military experience or extensive knowledge into military tactics. Furthermore, being Director of the Jewish institute for Holocaust studies, Wyman can somewhat involve the aspect of morality in his position leading to bias on his part. With this in mind we need to refer to our original question of the feasibility of bombing Auschwitz and this is why Wyman’s argument is valuable for our analysis.

Word count: 358


Wyman argues four clear scenarios supporting the targeting of the Birkenau crematoria or the rail lines leading to them concerning the diversion of U.S. B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers from IG Farben to the crematoria ; the employment of two-engine B-25 medium bombers, which would presumably bomb more accurately from a lower altitude; a dive-bombing raid by two-engine P-38 fighters, such as the U.S. Army Air Forces carried out on the Romanian oil complex of Ploesti on June 10, 1944; and a special mission by Royal Air Force Mosquito two-engine bombers, like the ones executed against Gestapo prisons and headquarters in Western Europe.[20] In 1979, CIA photo-analysts Dino Brugioni and Robert Poirier reinforced Wyman's arguments by presenting to the public dramatic aerial reconnaissance photos of Auschwitz taken by Allied aircraft in 1944 and early 1945, showing prisoners being marched to the gas chambers, albeit through the use of magnification unavailable to Allied photo-interpreters 35 years earlier. [21]Allied intelligence had photos of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, but ignored them because no priority was placed on a bombing mission, and because camps were viewed only as places to avoid in an attack.[22] On 29th June 1944, the 32-page Vrba-Wetzler Report was sent to John McCloy. Attached to he report was a note requesting the bombing of vital sections of the rail lines that transported the Jews to Auschwitz. McCloy investigated the request and then told his personal aide, Colonel Al Gerhardt, to "kill"[23] the matter.  While receiving several requests to take military action against the death camps, including Auschwitz, McCloy was documented to send the following letter: "The War Department is of the opinion that the suggested air operation is impracticable. It could be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations and would in any case be of such very doubtful efficacy that it would not amount to a practical project." Furthermore the British PM Winston Churchill reinforced this argument of the diversion of resources for the bombing. Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s personal biographer, writes of how the British coincided with the attitude of McCloy and that the redirection of resources from synthetic oil bombings would slow down the war effort.  Wymann ignores the fact that bombing alone would have achieved little. As Gilbert states, any bombing would, far from save lives, in fact result in more unnecessary loss of life.  To produce any significant benefit Gilbert, who like Wymann is not specifically a military historian, argues that any air attack would have to be followed by a ground invasion to liberate the concentration camps including Auschwitz.[24] This is the argument led by Israeli political leaders in 1944, like David Ben Gurion asking “not to bomb places where there are Jews.”[25]   Further more, as explained in the summary of evidence, only squads of heavy bombers like the U.S. Fifteenth Air force division was capable of reaching such a distance and at such a height that would protect them from flak and anti aircraft guns.[26] Gilbert’s analysis of these possibilities go hand in hand with McCloy’s, referencing again how the U.S. army was concentrating their efforts to destroying the synthetic oil plants and diversion of resources would also slow down the liberation proses. [27]
Word count: 543


Debate continues over the realistic and plausible option of bombing Auschwitz. Varied amounts of arguments can be used to debate the usefulness and benefit that bombing would achieve and if unnecessary casualties and operational failures would result. McCloy’s and Gilbert’s argument both conclude that bombing Auschwitz was an unrealistic logistical operation, which would not have been an option since Auschwitz was located deep in German annexed territory. Taking this into account, a concentrated ground invasion which would liberate the camp and which would avoid more unnecessary loss of life would have been a rational and realistic course of action in order to safely rescue and provide shelter to all the prisoners. Therefore, the argument that Wymann offers that which gives examples of bombings near and on Auschwitz, which would involve allied resources, cannot be taken into account for the reason of limited knowledge of the exact location of Auschwitz, major loss of life caused by heavy bombers and legislative obstacles.

Word Count: 161

List of sources:

Bird, Kai ‘The Chairman: John J. McCloy, the Making of the American Establishment’, Simon and Shuster 1992

Brugioni, Dino and Robert Poirier, ‘The Holocaust revisited: A Retrospective Analysis of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Complex’; CIA report 1978

Brugioni, Dino. ‘Auschwitz and Birkenau: Why the World War II photo interpreters failed to Identify the extermination complex,’ Military Intelligence, vol. 9, no. 1 (Jan.-Mar. 1983.)

Duetch, Guy. ‘Why Did America Not Bomb Auschwitz?’ Why Did America Not Bomb Auschwitz? (2007): 4-20. The Pica Project. Web. Date accessed: 2 Dec. 2014.


Gilbert, Martin. ‘Auschwitz and the Allies’. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981. Print.

Gutman, Israel and Gidʻon Graif. ‘The Historiography of the Holocaust Period: Proceedings of the Fifth Yad Vashem International Historical Conference, Jerusalem, March 1983.’ Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1988. Print.

Marrus, Michael R. ‘The End of the Holocaust.’ Vol. 9. Munich: K. G. Saur Verlag K. G. Saur VerlagGmbH, 1989. Print.

Novick, Peter. The Holocaust in American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Print.

Rosenblatt, Stu. "How Mr. Fixit Nearly Wrecked the World." Executive Intelligence Review 25.42 1998  Print

Rubinstein, William D. The Myth of Rescue, London, Routledge 1997, Chapter 4,

“The Myth of Bombing Auschwitz”. Print.

Skolnick, Fred, ed. ‘Auschwitz Bombing Debate.’ Encyclopaedia Judiaca. 2007.

Wyman, David S. ‘The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945.’ New York: Pantheon, 1984. Print.

Wyman, David S. ‘Why Auschwitz was Never Bombed. Commentary Journal. 2.14 1978 Print.

   [1] *Found by painter Chaim Rosenthal, Himmler’s Personal letters to his wife Margareta.  [2]. Marrus, Michael R.  pg 68  [3] Marrus, Michael R.  pg 72  [4] Martin G. pg 98  [5] Marrus, Michael R.  pg. 93  [6] Brugioni Dino pages 50-55  [7] Brugioni Dino, pages 50-55.  [8] Rubinstein William D. pg 57  [9] Marrus, Michael R. pg. 108  [10] Gutman, Israel and Gidʻon Graif p.578. "Late in the morning on Sunday. August 20. 127 Flying Fortresses, escorted by 100 Mustang fighters, dropped 1,336 500-pound high-explosive bombs on the factory areas of Auschwitz, less than five miles east of the gas chambers. The weather was excellent… ideal for accurate visual bombing. Antiaircraft fire and the 19 German fighter planes there were ineffective. Only one U.S. bomber went down; no Mustangs were hit. "  [11]: Gilbert M.  Pg. 134  [12] Gilbert M.  Pg. 135  [13] Skolnick, Fred pg 64  [14] Rosenblatt, Stu. Pg. 51  [15] Rosenblatt, Stu. Pg. 51 [16] Bird, Kai Pg. 161  [17] Novic  Pg . 62.  [18] Wyman, David S. Print. Pg. 74  [19] Novic, Pg. 45  [20] Wyman, David S. Why Auschwitz was Never Bombed 2.14  [21] Brugioni, Dino and Robert Poirier. Pg. 13  [22]  [23] Kai, Bird pg. 216  [24] Gilbert M. pg193  [25] Novic pg. 57  [26] Gilbert M. pg 158  [27] Gilbert M. pg 158