“Bombing Auschwitz” is Chapter 31 in my book, Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality: What he Actually Did and Said. Available in Kindle or paperback from Amazon.
The Auschwitz myth
“War is mainly a catalogue of blunders,” Churchill wrote.  Once the signal is given, a war leader is “no longer the master of policy.” He is “the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. Antiquated War Offices, weak, incompetent or arrogant Commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant Fortune, ugly surprises, awful miscalculations—all take their seat at the Council Board….” 
The failure to act, when action would seem in hindsight imperative, is often laid at the feet of statesmen. Churchill is no exception, particularly when he led Britain in the Second World War.
Churchill’s most flagrant inaction, according to many critics, was failing to bomb Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp. Or at least the rail lines leading to it from Hungary, where Jews were being shipped by the thousands. Everyone agrees that Churchill received confirmation of the full extent of the Holocaust too late to halt the worst of it. The controversy is over what he did when he did learn of it, particularly Auschwitz.
The sum of all fears
Rumors of what was happening had circulated from early in the war. But not until June 1944 did five Auschwitz escapees bring concrete evidence which fully awakened the Allies. Churchill received the details on 27 June 1944, following a telegram from Richard Lichtheim. A German Zionist in Switzerland, Lichtheim had contacted the British legation in Berne.
He reported the deportation of nearly half of Hungary’s 800,000 Jews to Auschwitz. There in the past year over 1.5 million European Jews met their deaths. He offered detailed reports on four crematoria, burning 12,000 gassed Jews per day.  The same week, the Manchester Guardian reported this news.
Churchill read Lichtheim’s report and minuted Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden: “What can be done?”  Amid the horrific facts, confusion reigned. The Jewish Agency was actually pondering an offer from Adolf Eichmann, an organizer of the “Final Solution.” Eichmann proposed to trade surviving Jews for military equipment: “I am prepared to sell you all the Jews. I am also prepared to have them all annihilated.” Eichmann expressed himself indifferent: “It is as you wish.” 
Churchill had incomplete information, but his reaction was unequivocal:
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 in 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. 
The Jewish Agency’s requests
A week after the Lichtheim telegram, Churchill and Eden received the report from the five Auschwitz escapees. Their concern, and that of the Jewish Agency, was that deportations of Hungarian Jews were still occuring. Two days later, Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Shertok, the two senior Zionists in Britain, made five urgent requests. The first four were (1) an Allied declaration of readiness to admit Jewish refugees. (2) Issuance of protective documents for Budapest Jews by nations with embassies there. (3) An Anglo-American warning that any Hungarians deporting Jews would be considered war criminals. (4) A similar warning by Stalin. The British government acceded immediately. Churchill himself drafted a declaration he hoped Stalin would issue.
The fifth and key request by Weizmann and Shertok was that the railway lines leading from Budapest to Auschwitz, and perhaps even the death camp itself, should be bombed. When Churchill read this, said Martin Gilbert,
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 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.” I have never seen a minute of Churchill’s giving that sort of immediate authority to carry out a request. 
“Out of our power”
Eden immediately conveyed Churchill’s order to Minister of Air Sir Archibald Sinclair, asking him to report back. With a lack of celerity we may regret and even deplore, Sinclair didn’t reply until July 15th. He considered destroying the railways “out of our power.” It worked in Normandy only by “enormous concentration” of bombers, and at much shorter range from airbases. Bombing Auschwitz by night (the RAF’s usual mission) was declared impossible. Daytime bombing (the US Army Air Force mission) would be “costly and hazardous.” But Sinclair would be happy to pass the query to Americans. “A characteristically unhelpful letter,” Eden noted. “He wasn’t asked his opinion of this; he was asked to act.” 
Sinclair’s request went U.S. Undersecretary of War John J. McCloy, who had actually been approached earlier by Jewish leaders. They asked him authorize bombing the railway lines from Hungary to Auschwitz. He refused. He would again. In all, five separate requests to bomb Auschwitz or its rail lines reached McCloy’s desk. Each was denied. After the fifth request, McCloy explained that bombing could only be done by diverting essential air support from vital operations. Even then it would be of “doubtful efficacy.” It might provoke “even more vindictive action by the Germans.  It is hard to conceive of more “vindictive action.”
The options difficult, the choices appalling
Jews themselves frequently argued against bombing Auschwitz. One was Leon Kubowitzki, head of the Rescue Department of the World Jewish Congress. Kubowitzki argued that bombing meant that “the first victims would be the Jews who are gathered in these camps.” 
Kubowitzki’s alternative was to dispatch paratroopers to seize the camps and liberate the inmates. But where would they go? This was not clear, nor were available resources at hand. Bombing Auschwitz would certainly mean death for most inmates. Balance that against saving future victims who had not yet arrived. There was also the question of whether the Germans would simply rebuild Auschwitz, or transport Jews elsewhere. The options were difficult to measure, the available information sparse and vague, the choices appalling.
The mythology of Auschwitz
The evidence of Churchill’s concern and urge to act seems plain, but he has his critics. The most effective of these, Michael J. Cohen, leveled several charges against Churchill and Martin Gilbert.  Cohen quoted Churchill’s striking July 7th order, “get what you can out of the RAF,” but omitted Churchill’s two imprecations: invoke his name, and bypass the War Cabinet. Churchill’s description of “the greatest and most horrible crime in the whole history of the world,” Cohen wrote, simply retreaded something Churchill said about Turkish massacres of Armenians. No such earlier quotation is among Churchill’s writings or papers.
Cohen did not credit Churchill for granting the Jewish Agency’s first four requests, which unquestionably saved Jewish lives. He rightly pointed out that Auschwitz continued to murder people for months after deportations from Hungary ended. In August, for example, thousands of Jews from the Lodz Ghetto were deported to Auschwitz. More than half perished immediately. According to Gilbert, for weeks these Lodz deportations, and trainloads from Rhodes and elsewhere remained unknown. But enough was known, Gilbert adds, “to stimulate a further Jewish request for the bombing of the camps.” On 8 August “the World Jewish Congress appealed to the War Refugee Board in Washington….”  This was the fifth and final plea that John McCloy denied.
On July 8th, a day after the Jewish Agency’s five requests, Churchill prodded Eden for an Allied “tripartite declaration…. I am entirely in accord with making the biggest outcry possible.” Two days later, he was pressing for a Jewish Brigade Group, something he campaigned for and finally saw accomplished in October. 
“Surely publicity might have a chance…”
Professor Cohen ignored these evidences of Churchill’s continued concern. Instead he claimed Churchill “turned down the bombing project” in letters to the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Melchett on 13 July.
The facts are very different, as one may learn by reviewing the actual letters. There is nothing in either letter about “turning down” the bombing. Churchill wrote Melchett and the Archbishop “that the most earnest consideration has been given by my colleagues and myself to this matter and to the question whether any action is open that might stay the criminals.” He added, correctly, that the “principal hope” of Jews was “the speedy victory of the Allied Nations.”  This cannot be interpreted as a refusal to bomb Auschwitz or its rail lines. Indeed, Churchill would not have the Air Ministry’s appraisal for another four days.
Professor Cohen agreed that deportations of Jews from Hungary ceased on 9 July. But he alleged that the deportations from elsewhere, which cost 150,000 lives between July and November, “never occurred to Churchill.” Yet in October 1944, when reports of continued murders reached him, Churchill wrote to Eden: “Surely publicity given about this might have a chance of saving the multitudes concerned.”  The Soviets had demurred, furious over charges of Red Army massacres of Poles in the Katyn Forest. The Anglo-Americans, however, issued joint warnings. To everyone’s surprise, Berlin responded: “These reports are false from beginning to end.” (If you’re going to lie, lie big.)
“A gruesome duty”
Advancing Allied troops discovered the full extent of the Holocaust in early 1945. Churchill wrote to his wife, who was in Moscow, of “horrible revelations of German cruelty in the concentration camps.” Eisenhower asked for a visit by a Parliamentary delegation. He wrote: “They will go to the spot and see the horrors for themselves—a gruesome duty.”16
The crucial days of June and July 1944, when news of the Holocaust arrived in London, confirmed Churchill’s descriptions of war: unforeseeable and uncontrollable events, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant fortune, ugly surprises and awful miscalculations. Whatever we may think of the decision not to bomb Auschwitz or its rail lines, it was not based on Allied attitudes toward the Jews. It was based on military priorities and resources as seen at the time.
When Churchill first heard of the massacres, he faced another priority. It was to break out from the Normandy beachhead. The Allied invading armies had not yet reached Caen and St. Lô. It would be ten more days before St. Lô fell and the armies could begin their advance across France. Also, at home, Churchill faced another massacre—of British civilians from Hitler’s flying bombs. No one at the time knew whether these were a feeble, last-ditch effort or a new form of airborne destruction.
Churchill was not, as some of his partisans like to believe, all-prescient and all-knowing. But it is wrong to believe he did not do all he could in response to the horror of Auschwitz.
- Richard M. Langworth, ed., Churchill by Himself: In his Own Words, 187.
- Ibid., 192.
- Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, 251. The initial estimate was 15,000, a slight exaggeration.
- Ibid., 252; Churchill Archives Centre, Premier Papers, 4/51/10.
- Ibid., 201-02; Churchill Archives Centre, Foreign Office Papers, 371/42811.
- Churchill to Eden, 11 July 1944, Foreign Office papers, 371/42809.
- Martin Gilbert, “Churchill and the Holocaust,” Holocaust Museum, Washington, 8 November 1993, in Richard M. Langworth, ed., Proceedings of the International Churchill Societies 1992-1993, 57.
- Gilbert, Auschwitz, 285.
- David S. Wyman, “Why Auschwitz was Never Bombed” in Commentary, May 1978 65(5): 40.
- 10. Leon Kubowitzki to War Refugee Board, 1 July 1944.
- Michael J. Cohen, “The Churchill-Gilbert Symbiosis: Myth and Reality,” review of Gilbert’s Churchill and the Jews, in Modern Judaism, 2008 28(2): 204-28. See also his 1985 book, Churchill and the Jews.
- Gilbert, Auschwitz, 302-03.
- Prime Minister’s Personal Minutes M 806/4 (8 July 1944) and C 45/4 (10 July 1944), Churchill Archives Centre.
- Winston S. Churchill to the Archbishop of Canterbury; Churchill to Lord Melchett, both 13 July 1944, Chartwell Papers CHAR 20/138A, in Larry P. Arnn & Martin Gilbert, eds., The Churchill Documents, vol. 20, Normandy and Beyond: May-December 1944.
- Premier Papers, 3/352/4/ folio 70. Gilbert, Auschwitz, 325.
- Winston S. Churchill to his wife, 20 April 1945, in Mary Soames, ed., Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill, 527.