Bombing Auschwitz: “Get everything out of the air force you can.” -WSC

Bombing Auschwitz: “Get everything out of the air force you can.” -WSC

AuschwitzBomb­ing 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. [1] A war leader 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….” [2]

Churchill’s most fla­grant inac­tion, accord­ing to many crit­ics, was fail­ing to bomb Auschwitz, the noto­ri­ous Nazi death camp, or the rail lines lead­ing to it. Every­one knows 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. [3] The same week, the Man­ches­ter Guardian report­ed this news.

Churchill read Lichtheim’s report and min­ut­ed For­eign Sec­re­tary Antho­ny Eden: “What can be done?” [4] 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.” [5]

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. [6]

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) War crimes charges against any Hun­gar­i­ans involved in depor­ta­tions. (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 to bomb the rail­way lines lead­ing from Budapest to Auschwitz, or the death camp itself. When Churchill read this, wrote 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. [7]

“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.” [8]

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 said 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. [9] 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.” [10]

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. [11] 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….” [12]  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. [13]

“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.” [14] 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.” [15]  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.


    1. Richard M. Lang­worth, ed., Churchill by Him­self: In his Own Words, 187.
    2. Ibid., 192.
    3. Mar­tin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, 251. The ini­tial esti­mate was 15,000, a slight exaggeration.
    4. Ibid., 252; Churchill Archives Cen­tre, Pre­mier Papers, 4/51/10.
    5. Ibid., 201-02; Churchill Archives Cen­tre, For­eign Office Papers, 371/42811.
    6. Churchill to Eden, 11 July 1944, For­eign Office papers, 371/42809.
    7. 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.
    8. Gilbert, Auschwitz, 285.
    9. David S. Wyman, “Why Auschwitz was Nev­er Bombed” in Com­men­tary, May 1978 65(5): 40.
    10. 10. Leon Kubow­itz­ki to War Refugee Board, 1 July 1944.
    11. 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.
    12. Gilbert, Auschwitz, 302-03.
    13. Prime Minister’s Per­son­al Min­utes M 806/4 (8 July 1944) and C 45/4 (10 July 1944), Churchill Archives Centre.
    14. 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.
    15. Pre­mier Papers, 3/352/4/ folio 70. Gilbert, Auschwitz, 325.
    16. 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.


4 thoughts on “Bombing Auschwitz: “Get everything out of the air force you can.” -WSC

  1. One of the main rea­sons Auschwitz was nev­er bombed is that Churchill as well as Roo­sevelt were afraid that inno­cent lives would be lost. Also many Amer­i­can Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions were against this. If you read the out­stand­ing book by Rafael Med­off, “The Jews should keep qui­et!’, you will read that there were oth­er ways to destroy the access to Auschwitz. Main­ly by bomb­ing the rail lines, but also the bridges to the camp. As a mat­ter of fact Med­off claims that this could be done eas­i­ly because the Tuskegee Air­men were fly­ing raids almost dai­ly from Italy to indus­tri­al tar­gets about 25 miles of Auschwitz!

    Roo­sevelt maybe, but not Churchill (“Get every­thing out of the air force you can, and invoke me if nec­es­sary.”) The respon­si­ble force was the USAAF, but it’s doubt­ful that the request ever got to FDR. It seems to have stopped with John McCloy. Mar­tin Gilbert also doc­u­ment­ed con­tro­ver­sy, even in the Jew­ish Agency, about bomb­ing the rail lines: Some argued that the Ger­mans would sim­ply rebuild them, and the nec­es­sary pre­ci­sion wasn’t then like­ly to be achieved. True, bridges were eas­i­er tar­gets; but McCloy nixed that also. —RML

  2. Thank you. Ridicu­lous is an excep­tion­al­ly kind term! I sus­pect they are mild­ly mis­rep­re­sent­ing the heinous views of the late, dis­graced Robert Fau­ris­son, who noto­ri­ous­ly denied the exis­tence of gas cham­bers, and used Churchill, Eisen­how­er and de Gaulle’s writ­ings (and their alleged lack of explic­it men­tion of gas) to sup­port his crazed the­o­ry. I think the pas­sages you have shared above make it abun­dant­ly clear Fau­ris­son and his rab­ble were shame­ful­ly wrong.

  3. Ridicu­lous on its face. Where do they get this stuff?

    Churchill, The Sec­ond World War, Vol. I, p. 14: “Crimes were com­mit­ted by the Ger­mans under the Hit­lerite dom­i­na­tion to which they allowed them­selves to be sub­ject­ed, which find no equal in scale and wicked­ness with any that have dark­ened the human record. The whole­sale mas­sacre by sys­tem­a­tised process­es of six or sev­en mil­lions of men, women and chil­dren in the Ger­man exe­cu­tion camps exceeds in hor­ror the rough and ready butcheries of Genghis Khan, and in scale reduces them to pigmy pro­por­tions. Delib­er­ate exter­mi­na­tion of whole pop­u­la­tions was con­tem­plat­ed and pur­sued by both Ger­many and Rus­sia in the East­ern war.”

    Vol. 4, 617: “…large num­bers of per­sons alleged to be guilty of atroc­i­ties are to be hand­ed over for judg­ment to the coun­tries where their crimes were committed.”

    Vol. 6, 597: “There is no doubt that this [per­se­cu­tion of Jews in Hun­gary and their expul­sion from ene­my ter­ri­to­ry] 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.

    “I can­not there­fore feel that this is the kind of ordi­nary case which is put through the Pro­tect­ing Pow­er, as, for instance, the lack of feed­ing or san­i­tary con­di­tions in some par­tic­u­lar pris­on­ers’ camp. There should there­fore, in my opin­ion, be no nego­ti­a­tions of any kind on this sub­ject. Dec­la­ra­tions should be made in pub­lic, so that every­one con­nect­ed with it will be hunt­ed down and put to death.”

  4. I read some online crit­ics cit­ing an omis­sion of men­tion of con­cen­tra­tion camps from Churchill’s The Sec­ond World War in sup­port of their out­ra­geous and con­temptible holo­caust denial the­o­ries. It would be great to read your rebut­tal to that!

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