April 12, 1944: “They’re bombing and bombing”

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“They’re bombing and bombing, more and more and oftener and oftener.”

Odd Nansen’s Diary
April 12, 1944
Sachsenhausen

B-17 Flying Fortresses over Dresden

Odd Nansen wasn’t exaggerating when he wrote the above diary entry.  The Allied bombing effort over Germany had gone from a trickle in the early years of the war to a deluge by 1944.  The combined RAF and US Army 8th Air Force tonnage dropped in 1944 represented a whopping 311% increase over the tonnage dropped over Germany during the preceding five years combined.

And it would get even worse.  Fully 60% of all the bombs rained on Germany fell after July 1944 (i.e., in the final nine months of the war).

Only four weeks before Nansen wrote the above diary entry, on March 16, 1944, the USAAF launched its first daylight bombing raid over Berlin. (Berlin is only about 25 miles due south of Sachsenhausen.) Losses were severe on both sides; the Americans lost 69 B-17 Flying Fortresses (out of 672 launched) together with 11 P-51 Mustang fighter planes.  Luftwaffe losses were even worse—160 planes in all.  But whereas the Allies could replace their losses, the Luftwaffe could not.

One of the more contentious, and never-ending, debates on World War II concerns the efficacy of strategic bombing.  Did the enormous costs involved: constructing planes, building airfields, training crews, maintaining facilities, and most importantly, the human cost, justify the results?  As to the human costs, the US Army 8th Air Force alone suffered 47,000 casualties during the war, including 27,000 fatalities—over 6,000 more than all the Marines lost during the entire war.

After all, critics maintain, strategic bombing never broke the morale of the German people, never led to capitulation.  Moreover, German war production actually continued to increase until the final months of the war, despite the relentless bombing.

RAF Lancaster over Hamburg (Credit: Imperial War Museum)

A subset of the great strategic bombing debate concerns the role that strategic bombing played vis-à-vis the Holocaust.  Usually couched in queries such as “Should we have bombed the railroad lines leading to Auschwitz?” these disputes maintain that the Allies could have—and should have—done more to ameliorate the worst effects of the Holocaust—by, for example, destroying the rail lines that led to Auschwitz.  The standard government response at the time was that winning the war as quickly as possible—by focusing strictly on military targets—was the best way to rescue the Jews.

My own belief has historically tracked the initial conclusions of historian Nikolas Wachsmann in his magisterial KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, where he observes: “While a direct attack on Birkenau would have carried great symbolic weight, it might not have saved many lives.”

Wachsmann points out that rail lines are not easy to hit, and even if hit, are easy to repair.  Moreover, even if all railroad access to Auschwitz could somehow have been permanently damaged:

“it is hard to see how it would have stopped the mass murders.  The determination of Nazi leaders to exterminate Jews would not have been deflected by bombs on Birkenau (in fact, SS men habitually blamed Jews for Allied air raids and sometimes attacked Jewish prisoners ‘in retaliation’ after KL [the concentration camp] had been hit.  No doubt the SS killers would have found other ways to continue their murderous mission.”

The mass murders at Babi Yar (33,771 killed September 29-30, 1941) and in Operation Harvest Festival (approximately 42,000 murdered, November 3-4, 1943) all using nothing more than bullets, reinforces Wachsmann’s observations that Auschwitz and its gas chambers were not essential to implementing the horror of the Holocaust.

But there is another perspective to keep in mind—the perspective of those who were the victims of the Holocaust itself.  And it seems as if the prisoners uniformly welcomed Allied bombing, even when those very bombs occasionally strayed and killed their own compatriots.

Mary Berg, a prisoner in the Warsaw Ghetto, of whom I have written extensively (here, here, here, and here) recorded in her secret diary for October 1, 1942:

“Bombings by Soviet planes have been taking place every night.  The explosions shake the walls of the Pawiak [Prison]. We are now so accustomed to these bombings that we wait for them eagerly: they are like a greeting from the free world.”

Similarly, Avraham Krakowski, who worked in the secret counterfeiting operation in Sachsenhausen (which I have written about here) published a memoir after the war entitled Counterfeit Lives, where he observed:

“During April and May, 1944, the Allied bombings of Berlin were stepped up.  Day and night, the drone of the B-17s told us that the time of vengeance against the Germans was near.  The sound of the engines was music to our ears.”

Odd Nansen’s feelings about the bombing were, as typical of Nansen, more nuanced, but nevertheless instructive:

“The night before there was a big raid on Berlin. . . . A few bombs seem to have fallen nearer Oranienburg [site of Sachsenhausen]; the crash and blast were so powerful that they made one doubt that the hut would stand up.  But it did.  The attack lasted for an hour. . . . The whole time I was lying engrossed in the struggle between the forces in me that desired the raid, and those that were reacting against this barbarism—this degrading fashion of making war.  But for that matter is there any way of making war that isn’t degrading?  No, to be sure–! Later we shall return to culture, and all we’re fighting for; but now we’re fighting!” (diary entry November 20, 1943)

Even young Tommy Buergenthal enjoyed the feeling of Schadenfreude when the SS guards actually fled into Sachsenhausen precisely to avoid the bombs raining down elsewhere:

“Oh, how we relished this information, and how it must have irked them.  To think that the Germans now finally feared for their lives and had to seek protection in our camp!  That made us feel good, even though one or two stray bombs did fall just inside the camp wall and killed a few inmates.”

Concentration camp prisoners were not concerned with the measures by which the strategic bombing campaign was judged: tank and plane output, oil production, ball-bearing capacity.  They were fighting a more personal war—a war where the only weapon they had, the only weapon the Nazis could never take from them, was hope.  It was a war of hope versus despair.  And, from the (admittedly small) sample I have seen, knowing that someone cared enough to even try and improve their lot, no matter how little the chances for success, meant a great deal.

And as Wachsmann ultimately concludes, and as I have come to accept as well, the best rationale for bombing the approaches to Auschwitz was this:

“The realization that they had not been forgotten by the outside world gave the prisoners new hope, as well as greater determination to resist the SS.”

Auschwitz

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