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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 January, 2005, 08:54 GMT
Why didn't the Allies bomb Auschwitz?
By Matthew Davis
BBC News

Ruin of a gas chamber at Auschwitz
Debate over the Allied response to the Holocaust still rages
Should the Allies have heeded calls to bomb Auschwitz when they learnt the full horror of the Nazi Holocaust?

It is one of the enduring controversies of World War II.

By the summer of 1944, detailed information about the true nature of the death camps had reached the West, but it was not until months later that Auschwitz was finally liberated by the advancing Red Army.

During that time, thousands more had perished in the gas chambers.

No-one was bothered enough to make bombing Auschwitz a priority
Laurence Rees
Historian and television producer

Whether a precision strike was militarily possible or would have been effective in halting the killings is still hotly contested.

But many - including survivors of the camp - say the Allies should have acted whatever the mission's chances of success.

The debate also leads to wider questions of why more was not done around the world to save the Jews from Nazi persecution.

Pressure to act

Information about Auschwitz reached new levels of detail following the escapes of two prisoners in April 1944, and two more a month later.

RAF image of Auschwitz taken in August 1944 (courtesy of Aerial Reconnaissance Archives)

Their combined testimonies formed the basis of documents known as the Auschwitz Protocols.

By June 1944, Jewish groups were imploring both US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill to bomb the rail lines or the gas chambers in order to put a stop to the killing.

But arguments rumbled on throughout the summer.

Military commanders said a precision strike had almost no chance of success. However, no thorough study of the issue was made.

Proposals to drop weapons into the camp to enable a rebellion were briefly considered but abandoned.

Recently published reconnaissance images show the British photographed the camp from the air in August that year - suggesting that by 1944 the RAF had the capability to reach Auschwitz with bombers.

However, with Allied troops moving through Normandy after D-Day and the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw in 1944, some believed the best way to destroy the death camps was to use all military resources to crush the enemy.

Double standards?

Laurence Rees - writer and producer of the BBC's Auschwitz series - says the lack of proper consideration given to bombing the camp and a "dismissive tone" in some of the documents of the time give the sense that "no-one was bothered enough to make bombing Auschwitz a priority".

Auschwitz fence and figure in the distance
A plan to drop weapons to the camp to assist a rebellion was considered

"If they were exterminating British prisoners of war do we seriously think that we wouldn't have done all we could to stop it?" he asks.

But Rees also says that dwelling on the bombing of Auschwitz, where the killings stopped in November 1944, is a distraction from the "far more important question" of why the Allies failed to do more to save the Jews from Nazi persecution.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) - named after a death camp survivor who became a Nazi-hunter - says the Allies failed to take practical steps that could have helped many of Hitler's victims.

Lessons of the past

The SWC says the UK and the US could have relaxed stringent immigration policies to allow refugees a safe haven, and sent frequent and unequivocal warnings to Germany that its leaders would be held accountable.

But while no-one blames anyone other than the Nazis for the horrors of the Holocaust, the debate over what could or should have been done seems certain to continue.

In the words of Auschwitz survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon: "Being the worst example, the Holocaust is central to understanding the causes of the genocides that have occurred in many parts of the world since the end of the World War II."

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