fbpx

Bombing the death camps during World War II

Every decade, someone indignantly tells us that the United States and Britain should have bombed the rail lines at Auschwitz and other death camps during World War II.
[additional-authors]
January 21, 2015

Every decade, someone indignantly tells us that the United States and Britain should have bombed the rail lines at Auschwitz and other death camps during World War II. They imagine modern GPS-guided bombs that are accurate enough to enter a window. They think World War II bombs had the same accuracy.

As Auschwitz Liberation Day (Jan. 27) approaches, it is time to put such notions to rest, once and for all.

During World War II, the only accurate way to deliver bombs (all unguided) was with a dive bomber that attempted to fly perfectly vertical, release the bomb at an altitude of a few thousand feet, then pull out without hitting the ground, and escape the blast. Their radius of action was about 200 miles. Bombing errors were by half a mile because of the difficulty of maintaining a vertical trajectory, and the cross winds. The Germans used dive bombers because their airfields were close to Poland and Russia. The German Stuka had dive brakes (deployable flat panels) on the wings to slow the aircraft’s vertical fall. The vibrating dive brakes and wind vortices caused a characteristic screaming sound.

Failure to bomb the camps was not an anti-Jewish conspiracy. It was a rational strategy to deploy long-range bombers where they could help win the war, even by carpet bombing German civilians near their factories.

However, dive bombers did not have the range to reach concentration camps or other German targets from British bases. American and British bombing was done with long-range multiengine bombers from altitudes of about 25,000 feet. The aircraft flew at those altitudes trying to stay above the German flak (anti-aircraft fire, usually radar-directed) and interceptors. High-altitude bombing errors were considerably greater than three miles. The art of “error analysis” was invented during the war to account for the aircraft’s ground speed at the time of release, for winds aloft and their variation as the bomb fell to earth in about three minutes, and for weather that sometimes obscured the targets. Other errors were due to the pilot’s inability to fly precisely over the targeted point, by the release of bombs in strings over an interval of about five seconds (at 250 feet per second airspeed, that is a spread on the ground of more than a thousand feet). Formation flight ensured that only one aircraft could be precisely over the desired release point. Other errors were caused by pitch and crab of the aircraft at the time of release, by manufacturing tolerances in the bombs (especially the fins) and by a host of smaller factors. The individual errors were combined statistically and compared to observed impact errors. The observed CEP (Circular Error Probable, a circle containing half of the impacts) was greater than three miles radius. Night bombing was even less accurate but offered some protection against flak and German interceptors. After the war, there were conflicting reports about the effectiveness of bombing.

The probability of hitting a rail line that is 4.8 feet wide from 25,000 feet was infinitesimally small. Hence, salvos of bombs were released — carpet bombing — so bombs targeted at rail lines would also have fallen on the prisoners’ dormitories, hospitals, offices and factories, killing hundreds of prisoners and making life even more miserable for the survivors. The Germans would have relished telling the world that the Allies were killing their prisoners.

Even if a rail line was hit, the prisoners would have been organized to remove the bent rails and ties, then lay new ballast, ties and track. Repair of a rail line would have taken less than three days.

Dwindling numbers of ex-inmates and emigres who fled German-occupied Europe survived. Most were Jews fleeing the occupied countries where the Germans imposed an irrational, unproductive campaign to murder all the Jews under their control. Today, some of these people periodically complain that failure to bomb the camps was to ignore the plight of the Jewish inmates. They are nontechnical people whose emotions outweigh their reason.

Failure to bomb the camps was not an anti-Jewish conspiracy. It was a rational strategy to deploy long-range bombers where they could help win the war, even by carpet bombing German civilians near their factories. Revisionist humanitarians are influenced by GPS-guided precision bombing since the 1990s and by images of dive bombing in World War II.


Myron Kayton is a retired graduate licensed engineer who worked on the electronics for the Apollo Lunar Module, Space Shuttle, and other spacecraft and aircraft. He is past president of the Aerospace and Electronic Systems Society and of the Harvard Club of Southern California. He holds a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Six Months

Six months of feeling united as Jews, no matter our backgrounds or religious affiliation.

The Radically Self-Loving Jew: Part II

I almost didn’t write this column, which is a continuation of last week’s column on the imperative for Jews today to take better care of themselves physically, emotionally and spiritually.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.