Eastern Europe 1939-1945: Camps

Why didn’t Britain bomb the death camps?

Covering letter from the Jewish Agency for Palestine to the Foreign Office enclosing plans and descriptions of Auschwitz and Treblinka death-camps, August 1944

Catalogue ref: FO 371/42806

Letter from the Jewish Agency for Palestine to the Foreign Office; FO 371/42806

Plan of Auschwitz

Plan of Auschwitz; FO 371/42806

Key to plan of Auschwitz

Key to plan of Auschwitz; FO 371/42806 Key to plan of Auschwitz; FO 371/42806

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What is this source?

This is a letter from the Jewish Agency for Palestine to the Foreign Office enclosing plans and descriptions of Auschwitz and Treblinka death-camps. Here is the information that came with the letter regarding the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The resistance movement in occupied Poland would probably have smuggled this information out.

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The Jewish Agency for Palestine set was up in 1923 during period of the British Mandate of Palestine. Its role was to represent the Jewish community in Palestine.


What's the background to this source?

In 1942 Hitler’s armies had carved out a huge empire in Eastern Europe. During their invasions German forces had taken a large number of European Jews prisoner. At first they were forced into ghettoes, used in slave labour or simply shot.

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From 1942 so many Jews were under Nazi control that the Nazi leaders came up with plans for a ‘Final Solution’. This involved building camps that were used to execute millions of Jews and other groups the Nazis regarded as inferior.


It's worth knowing that...

Many Jews tried to escape the Nazis, and many non-Jews helped them. As a result there was a constant stream of information coming back to Allied commanders and Jewish communities about what was happening in Eastern Europe.

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The decision not to bomb the camps proved highly controversial then and now. There were major difficulties. The location of the camps meant that bombers would have to fly long distances across well-defended German territory. Losses among bomber crews were very high and this mission would probably have resulted in high casualty rates. Another problem was the difficulty of locating the camps and actually hitting them. Wartime bombing was extremely difficult and bombs were often many miles off target. The Air Ministry had requested information concerning the layout of the camps (see Churchill’s note to his Private Secretary in the source box).


How will you use this source?

  1. What evidence does the plan and its key provide about the concentration camp at Auschwitz?
  2. Many historians see the plans for the "Final Solution" as the turning point for WW2. How does this map help to explain that view?
  3. Can you use this source to support any part of your presentation?

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