Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
Leading Churchill Myths (20): “Churchill Refused to Bomb the Auschwitz Railway Lines”
Following Hillel Halkin’s “The Jewish State & its Arabs” in the January issue of Commentary, a reader posted this note on the Commentary website (http://xrl.us/bfvkxu): “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 and did not wish to stand accused of risking British pilots and air crews in order to save Jewish lives that had no military value.”
By Sir Martin Gilbert
Sir Martin is the official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill and an Honorary Member and Trustee of The Churchill Centre.
Through the first week of July 1944, because of the continuing D-Day landing priorities, all European bombing targets had to be approved by the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
On 6 July 1944, in a meeting with British foreign minister Anthony Eden, the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and the head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine Moshe Shertok, made five urgent and desperate suggestions, the fifth of which was “that the railway line leading from Budapest to Birkenau, and the death camp at Birkenau and other places, should be bombed.”
When Churchill was shown 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 the War Cabinet” 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.”
I have never seen a minute of Churchill’s giving that sort of immediate authority to carry out a request.
There is a vast subtext, of which I have written in my book, Auschwitz and the Allies….when the request was put to the American Air Force Commander, General 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 we know, from the letter which is put up in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, when the request reached Washington—indeed, on the five separate occasions when the request reached Washington—it was turned down. On the second occasion that it reached the Undersecretary for War, John J. McCloy, he told his assistant to kill it; and it was then effectively killed. The debate about bombing those particular lines continued for more than a month after the lines were no longer in use.
In the second week of July 1944, as a result of the international outcry (to which Churchill contributed emphatically)—following the arrival in the West of four Jewish escapees from Auschwitz, with news about Hungarian Jews being sent there—the Hungarian Regent Admiral Horthy forced the SS to halt the deportations, which depended on Hungarian gendarmes and railway workers to be carried out.
At that point, the reason for the bombing request was ended, and the Jewish Agency asked that surviving Jews—120,000 in Budapest saved by the international outcry (precisely what Churchill had asked for—“the l argest outcry possible”)—be given protective documents. These were given by a committee of neutral diplomats in Budapest headed by the Papal Nuncio Angelo Rotta, at the urging of both Churchill and Roosevelt. My book, The Righteous, has further details on this collective diplomatic rescue effort.
I spoke to a number of those who would have been involved in bombing the lines, as Churchill had wished—even bombing the camp installations, had the deportations not stopped. One thing which greatly heartened me from my perspective, from my window as a Jew, was that all the pilots and air crew I spoke to, who would have had to do the work, were emphatic that they would have done it, and were ashamed and angry that they had not been asked to do it.
I even found the young man who had taken that aerial photograph of the camp which is displayed in the Museum, a South African photo reconnaissance pilot. He was in extreme distress at the thought that, on the four separate occasions when he flew over the camp with his camera, he had no idea what he was flying over. He flew only an unarmed plane, but as he said to me very touchingly, “Had I known, I could at least have tipped my wing to show the people there that someone knew they were there.”
Churchill had no doubt that a terrible crime had been committed. As he wrote to Anthony Eden on the day that the escapees’ account of the truth about Auschwitz and the “unknown destination” reached him:
“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.”
In May 2009, responding to their reader’s letter, we sent Commentary excerpts from Sir Martin’s lecture, “Churchill and the Holocaust,” at the Holocaust Museum, Washington, during the 1993 International Churchill Conference, from which much of the above is drawn (http://xrl.us/bexvda). To date, the Commentary