Churchill, Terrorism of Any Stripe, and Bombing Auschwitz

Churchill, Terrorism of Any Stripe, and Bombing Auschwitz

Years ago in Com­men­tary, Hil­lel Halkin penned “The Jew­ish State & Its Arabs.” This result­ed in a flur­ry of read­er com­ment. The ques­tion of bomb­ing Auschwitz was promi­nent­ly debat­ed. Fif­teen years lat­er amid sim­i­lar con­tro­ver­sies, the sub­ject is still per­ti­nent. (Updat­ed from 2009.)

Churchill’s “overreaction”

One read­er wrote that Churchill “over­re­act­ed” to the 1944 assas­si­na­tion of Lord Moyne by mem­bers of the Jew­ish Lehi (Stern Gang).  This is to mis­judge Churchill, who deplored ter­ror­ism regard­less of its source.

From Churchill by Him­self, 442, WSC, House of Com­mons, 17 Novem­ber 1944. (Source: Sir Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill, VII: 1052):

If our dreams for Zion­ism are to end in the smoke of assas­sins’ pis­tols, and our labours for its future to pro­duce only a new set of gang­sters wor­thy of Nazi Ger­many, many like myself will have to recon­sid­er the posi­tion we have main­tained so con­sis­tent­ly and so long in the past. If there is to be any hope of a peace­ful and suc­cess­ful future for Zion­ism, these wicked activ­i­ties must cease. And those respon­si­ble for them must be destroyed root and branch.

Bombing Auschwitz

Anoth­er read­er wrote: “Had Churchill giv­en an order to bomb Auschwitz, rather than sim­ply rec­om­mend that it be bombed, it would have been bombed. He did not do so, pre­sum­ably, because he was loath to quar­rel with his Gen­er­al Staff. He did not wish to stand accused of risk­ing air crews to save Jew­ish lives that had no mil­i­tary value.”

It was more an order than a rec­om­men­da­tion, but let that go. The more com­pelling idea was bomb­ing the rail­way lines to Auschwitz, rather than the camp itself. The lat­ter, as the Jew­ish Agency point­ed out at the time, would have killed inmates who, it was hoped, would be lib­er­at­ed. (Remem­ber, this was in 1944.) How­ev­er, ear­ly requests by the Jew­ish Agency did not make this dis­tinc­tion (read on).


As to bomb­ing rail­way lines, Churchill did not have ple­nary author­i­ty over the U.S. Army Air Force—the respon­si­ble agency for the Auschwitz sec­tor. Mar­tin Gilbert, in a 1993 lec­ture at the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Muse­um, Wash­ing­ton, not­ed that in mid-1944…

…five pris­on­ers escaped from Auschwitz in order to bring news to the West of what was hap­pen­ing to the Jews there. Four were Jews. One was a Pol­ish Catholic med­ical student.

The moment their infor­ma­tion reached the West, and the truth of the gas cham­bers made clear, there was a tremen­dous and under­stand­able out­cry. (The first thing that has always struck me: What would have hap­pened if these escapees had made their way West in 1943? Or even at the end of 1942?) The impact of their report on the Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish world was dra­mat­ic and traumatic….

On 6 July 1944, in a meet­ing with Antho­ny Eden, Chaim Weiz­mann and Moshe Sher­tok made five urgent and des­per­ate sug­ges­tions. The fifth was that “the rail­way line lead­ing from Budapest to Birke­nau, and the death camp at Birke­nau and oth­er places, should be bombed.”

When Churchill saw this request by Eden, he did some­thing I’ve not seen on any oth­er doc­u­ment sub­mit­ted to Churchill for his approval: He wrote on it what he want­ed done.

Nor­mal­ly, he would have said, “Bring this up to War Cab­i­net on Wednes­day,” or, “Let us dis­cuss this with the Air Ministry.”

Instead, he wrote to Eden on the morn­ing of 7 July: “Is there any rea­son to raise this mat­ter with the Cab­i­net? Get any­thing out of the Air Force you can, and invoke me if necessary.”

The singularity of Churchill’s order

Mar­tin Gilbert continued:

I have nev­er seen a minute of Churchill’s giv­ing that sort of imme­di­ate author­i­ty to car­ry out a request…. I sup­pose it is a great tragedy that all this had not tak­en place in July 1943 or Octo­ber 1942. For when all is said and done, July 1944 was too late to save all but a final 100,000.

There is a vast sub­text, in my book, Auschwitz and the Allies. British offi­cials did not know on 7 July that the depor­ta­tions had ceased. They had to deal with the Prime Minister’s request on the assump­tion that it still had some valid­i­ty. Some revealed con­sid­er­able dis­taste for car­ry­ing out any such instruction.

It is inter­est­ing, how­ev­er, to note that when the request was put to the Amer­i­can Air Force Com­man­der, Gen­er­al Ira C. Eak­er, when he vis­it­ed the Air Min­istry a few days lat­er, he gave it his full sup­port. He regard­ed it as some­thing that the Amer­i­can day­light bombers could and should do.

But as you know, the request died in Wash­ing­ton. On the sec­ond occa­sion it reached the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of War, John J. McCloy. He told his assis­tant to kill it.. The debate about bomb­ing the Auschwitz lines con­tin­ued for more than a month after the lines were no longer in use.

From the bomber crews

Dr. Gilbert inter­viewed sev­er­al of those who would have bombed the Auschwitz lines as Churchill had wished. Every one, with­out excep­tion, was emphat­ic that he would have done it. Some expressed anger that they were not asked to do it. Sir Mar­tin continues:

Aerial photograph of Auschwitz, December 1944.
Aer­i­al pho­to­graph of Auschwitz, Decem­ber 1944.

I even found the young man who had tak­en that aer­i­al pho­to­graph of Auschwitz dis­played in the Muse­um. He was South African pho­to recon­nais­sance pilot. He was in extreme dis­tress that he had no idea what it was he was fly­ing over.

If only he had known, the pilot con­tin­ued, he could at least have tipped his wings, to sig­nal those on the ground that some­one knew they were there.

Win­ston Churchill instant­ly rec­og­nized the ter­ri­ble crime. Sir Mar­tin quotes his let­ter Antho­ny Eden on the day that the escapees’ account of Auschwitz reached them:

There is no doubt that this is prob­a­bly the great­est and most hor­ri­ble crime ever com­mit­ted in the whole his­to­ry of the world, and it has been done by sci­en­tif­ic machin­ery by nom­i­nal­ly civilised men in the name of a great State and one of the lead­ing races of Europe.

It is quite clear that all con­cerned in this crime who may fall into our hands, includ­ing the peo­ple who only obeyed orders by car­ry­ing out the butcheries, should be put to death after their asso­ci­a­tion with the mur­ders has been proved. Dec­la­ra­tions should be made in pub­lic, so that every­one con­nect­ed with it will be hunt­ed down and put to death.”

Further Reading

“Sir Mar­tin Gilbert on Churchill and the Holo­caust,” 2024.

“The Pol­ish and the Holo­caust: What Churchill Knew,” 2021.

“Witold Polec­ki: A Brave Pole Who Did His Best for Lib­er­ty,” 2020.

“Bomb­ing Auschwitz, from my book, Win­ston Churchill, Myth and Real­i­ty,” 2020

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