by Rafael Medoff
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, called it “the Great Crusade.” Major Werner Pluskat, head of the U.S. Army’s 352d Infantry Division, told his troops that it was “the end for Germany.”
June 6, 1944 —75 years ago this week— was D-Day, the massive Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe. Encountering heavy fire from enemy positions above the beaches along France’s Normandy Coast, some 2,500 American soldiers paid the ultimate price in what became one of the major turning points of World War II.
What is not widely realized, however, is that the D-Day assault also had an important link to the fate of Europe’s Jews–and in particular to the controversy over the Allies’ refusal to bomb Auschwitz.
Apologists for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Holocaust record often claim that
the military needs associated with D-Day made it impossible to bomb the death camps or the railways and bridges leading to them.
For example, the longtime president of the Roosevelt Institute, William vanden Heuvel, has argued that bombing Auschwitz was unfeasible because “We are talking about the summer of 1944—[due to] the invasion of Normandy on June 6th…America and our allies were stretched dangerously across western and southern Europe.”
But that argument mixes apples and oranges. The bombers that would have been used to strike Auschwitz would have had to come from the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force, which was based in Italy. They were the ones closest enough for such a mission–and they had almost nothing to do with the D-Day preparations.
It is also important to note that Allied planes were flying over Auschwitz long before D-Day. Starting in February 1944 –four months before the Normandy landings– Allied photo-reconnaissance planes based in southern Italy began carrying out surveillance missions over Auschwitz.
The surveillance was focused on synthetic oil factories that the Germans set up in and near Auschwitz, operating on Jewish slave labor. Several of the plants were situated less than five miles from the gas chambers and crematoria. On May 12, 1944, British bombers carried out the first raid in what was to become known as “the oil war.”
Elie Wiesel, who was a 16 year-old slave laborer in Auschwitz, was an eyewitness to some of the Allied bombings of the oil factories next to Auschwitz and wrote about what he saw in his best-selling book, Night.
“[I]f a bomb had fallen on the blocks [the prisoners’ barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death,” Wiesel wrote. “Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten times ten hours!”
The oil plants were a high priority military target for the Allies because the Germans desperately needed them to sustain the Axis war effort. In fact, part of the reason the German air force, the Luftwaffe, was unable to defend the Normandy region when the Allies landed was because of Germany’s dwindling oil supply.
“During the entire first day of the invasion, enemy opposition in the air, fighter or bomber, was next to nil,” U.S. air force chief General Carl Spaatz noted in a postwar interview. That was a major reason why the D-Day invasion succeeded.
Spaatz directed the Allies’ “oil war” offensive. In the summer of 1944, he clashed with General Eisenhower, after Eisenhower repeatedly diverted bombers from the oil attacks to the Normandy region, in order to support the Allied advances which followed D-Day. Spaatz was furious over the diversions and ultimately threatened to resign, forcing Eisenhower to relent.
Ironically, at the very same time Eisenhower and Spaatz were arguing about diverting planes from the oil war, the “diversion” argument became the centerpiece in the controversy over whether or not the U.S. should bomb Auschwitz.
American Jewish leaders who urged the Roosevelt administration to bomb the death camp or the routes leading to it were told by Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy that such bombings would be “impracticable.” McCloy claimed that the War Department conducted a “study” of the feasibility of the proposal and concluded it would require “diversion” of U.S. bombers from battle zones elsewhere in Europe.
That was false. No such study was conducted—and, as the War Department knew, American and British planes were regularly bombing the Auschwitz area as part of the oil war. They were already in the vicinity of Auschwitz; they did not have to be diverted from any other battle zone.
So while the Roosevelt administration was claiming it could not “divert” planes to bomb Auschwitz, the only actual diversion was when Eisenhower diverted American planes away from the Auschwitz region.
The claim about a “feasibility study” was concocted in order to mask the real reason for the Roosevelt administration’s refusal to bomb Auschwitz: a deliberate policy of refraining from using even minimal resources to help the Jews.
But in truth, there was no conflict between the war effort and taking action to interrupt mass murder. The Jewish requests to bomb Auschwitz also asked for bombing the railways and bridges leading to the death camp, because hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were deported along those routes in the spring and summer of 1944. Railways and bridges were important military targets, and bridges could not be repaired easily or quickly, so the Allies targeted them constantly—but not the ones leading to Auschwitz.