by Jerry Gordon (May 2009)
On September 9, 2003, a squadron of Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-15’s flew over Auschwitz in southern Poland directly from Israel. The squadron flew the ‘missing man’ formation symbolic of the Six Million European Jewish men, women and children murdered in unspeakable ways by the Nazi death camp machinery in the Final Solution, the Holocaust, or Shoah. An Agence France Presse report noted:
The F-15s, emblazoned with the Star of David, were piloted by the sons or grandsons of Holocaust victims who perished in Poland, according to the Israeli ambassador to Warsaw.
An Israeli air force statement said that as the jets flew low across the sky the pilot leading the squadron, General Amir Eshel, said: “We pilots of the air force, in the skies over these camps of shame, have risen from the ashes of millions of victims. We are the voice for their silent calls. We salute their heroism and promise to be the shield of the Israeli homeland.”
The flyover of Auschwitz by the IAF was objected to by the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum as inappropriate to venerate the 1.4 million Jews murdered at the death camp complex. It was nevertheless symbolic on several levels.
It demonstrated that a Jewish sovereign nation would not permit another existential annihilationist assault, as it had the ability to take up arms to pre-empt it. There was no Jewish nation with an Army, Navy and Air Force to prevent the madness of Hitler’s Holocaust during WWII.
It brought into question what Allied air power might have done to disrupt and destroy the killing machinery at Auschwitz Birkenau, when it had the intelligence, aircraft, and crews in Italy and the Ukraine in 1944, which could have undertaken missions that might have saved hundreds of thousands of Hungarian and other European Jews from death. Dr. David Wyman, a critic of Allied war efforts to destroy death camps, estimated that an air assault might have spared the lives of 150,000 Jews whose progeny today might number more than 2 million.
It also raises the question of whether Israel will be able to prevent another threatened Holocaust. This time a possible nuclear one perpetrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran, its Supreme Ruler Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad bent on developing nuclear weapons to “wipe Israel off the Map of the World.”
Israel has demonstrated in dramatic fashion its capabilities to pre-emptively destroy existential threats. In June, 1981, an IAF squadron undertook a ‘raid on the sun’ that destroyed the Osirak reactor near Baghdad, where the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was intent on developing nuclear weapons. Among the attacking Squadron’s pilots was a son of a Holocaust survivor, the late Lt. Col. Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, who was tragically killed in the disintegration of the NASA Space Shuttle Columbia. In September, 2008, IAF F-16’s attacked and destroyed a nuclear bomb factory on the banks of the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria being built with North Korean assistance. Just this past January, IAF F-16’s, F-15’s and UAVs took out a convoy in northern Sudan that was transporting Iranian supplied rockets and missiles across Egypt and the Sinai to Gaza. The weapons could have been launched by Hamas crews against targets in central Israel.
We are witnessing the unfolding of something akin to the Allied intransigence during WWII. The Obama Administration has objected to a unilateral Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear development facilities. Further, there are indications that Israel will be punished for its audacity should such a possible attack occur.
This article reviews the relevant history of the failed efforts during WWII to use Allied Air power to destroy the killing machinery and transport of Jewish victims to Auschwitz Birkenau. It covers the current denouement between Israel and the US over the compelling need to spare Israel from a possible Second Holocaust, this time a nuclear conflagration.
The Bombing of Auschwitz controversy
Yom Ha Shoah, April 21st, marked the commemoration of the murder of one third of pre-WWII Jewry: six million European Jewish men, women and children.
There were community gatherings across the U.S., major events in Israel and Geneva, Switzerland. There were testimonials from the dwindling community of ’survivors’ of Nazi anti-Semitic bestiality. Yellow candles were lit in the memories of the Six Million and some will display six yellow tulips in vases in the quiet of their own homes as a memorial.
Meanwhile in Geneva, Switzerland, there was the Durban II World Conference Against Racism orchestrated by Libya, Iran and other members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference engaged in bald faced attempts to demonize Israel. President Ahmadinejad spoke, on the eve of Yom Ha Shoah, at this hate fest. Australia, Canada, Holland, Israel and the United States boycotted the proceedings. Unfortunately the U.K. and others in the E.U. attended. Among the protestors at the Geneva Durban II was Noble Laureate and Auschwitz survivor, Elie Wiesel. Wiesel was witness to an accidental bombing of Auschwitz on September 13, 1944 by US bombers. He noted, “We were not afraid…..Every bomb that fell filled us with Joy.”
In 1998, during the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of Israel, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu visited Auschwitz on another Yom Ha Shoah and criticized the Allied lack of effort to save European Jews by striking at the death camp from the air.
All that was needed was to bomb the train tracks. The Allies bombed the targets nearby. The pilots only had to nudge their crosshairs.
You think they didn’t know? They knew. They didn’t bomb because at the time the Jews didn’t have a state, nor the political force to protect themselves.
The ‘what if’ question of ‘Could the Allies have bombed Auschwitz?’ and the killing machinery to save Jews, especially the nearly 400,000 Hungarian Jews who went to their deaths between May 2nd and July 13th, 1944 has been the subject of controversy since the liberation of the death camp on January 27, 1945. It has been the subject of intensive research and debate.
It is a question I have been intrested in for over 40 years.
Just after Israel’s victory in the Six Days of War in 1967, a colleague at Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research in Manhattan, Rabbi Paul Ritterband and I commiserated about this ‘what if’ question. We had just witnessed the IAF’s stunning pre-emptive air raid on Egyptian and Syrian airfields.
Having spent a stint at a defense think tank following my tour as a U.S. Army Intelligence officer during the NAM era, I was familiar with the early computer air battle models and the archival photo intelligence materials just being made available to military historians and defense analysts. That prompted Rabbi Ritterband and I to draw up a research proposal and send it to Lucy Davidowicz, the late Holocaust historian for review and possible funding. She thought it was too ‘what iffy’.
There the matter lay until 1978 when Professor David S. Wyman brought the matter to a head in an article –“Why Auschwitz was Never Bombed,” Commentary 65, May, 1978 – on the feasibility of special air operations using the ‘wonder planes’ of WWII, the British Mosquitoes and the American Lockheed P-38’s. The speedy and highly maneuverable DeHaviland Mosquitoes were made out of marine plywood!! Wyman said if the RAF could use the Mosquitoes in special ops to free European resistance fighters, why not use it to stop the killing machinery in Auschwitz. Wyman later expanded on this in his 1984 bestselling book, “The Abandonment of the Jews.” Wyman further said:
…there is no question that bombing the gas chambers and crematoria would have saved many lives. ….without gas chambers and crematoria, the Nazis would have to reassess the extermination program.
Within a year after the publication of the Wyman article, the first archival aerial photos of the Auschwitz Birkenau death camp complex were released based on an analysis by photo intelligence expert Dino Brugioni of the CIA. They clearly indicated that British and U.S. Air Forces had targeting information in their files as early as the spring of 1944 with which to develop possible missions.
In 2000, the National Holocaust Memorial published a symposium on the ‘what if’ question of “The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted it?’ edited by Michael J. Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum pulling together the contending arguments and supporting data and information.
NSA Historian Hanyok’s conclusion, in a 2005 study, “Eavesdropping on Hell, was that institutional anti-Semitism in both London and Washington, DC, despite Churchill’s instructions to his Air Minister ‘to do everything possible’ and the overarching objective of destroying the Nazi war fighting capabilities led responsible officials to consider proposals for bombing the railway marshaling and, railway lines and the Birkenau killing center gas chambers and crematoria as a ‘diversion.”
Washington officials, especially Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy considered such requests as ‘impossible” and ‘risky,’ given the air war commitments in the European Theater of Operations. Later McCloy put the onus on FDR for making the decision not to bomb Auschwitz.
McCloy was quoted by Miller as saying:
bombing the camp would involve a diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.”
A Mission to Auschwitz would be an Eight Air Force operation, a highly risky ‘round trip flight unescorted of approximately 2000 miles over enemy territory.
In contrast to McCloy’s misleading statements, the reality was we could have done that and more. The resources involved-aircraft sorties, bomb ordnance and air crew losses were a finite fraction of overall air war capabilities of both the 8th and 15th USAAF. Moreover, if the bombing campaign had begun in June, 1944 for example, the weather and meager fighter aircraft and flak gun threats were most favorable to such a mission that could have destroyed the killing machinery at Auschwitz Birkenau.
The fact was that bombing Budapest on July 2nd by the heavy bombers of the 15th USAAF and intercepts by Hungarian intelligence of Jewish Agency requests from Geneva for bombing Auschwitz brought the death transports to a halt sparing the remainder of Hungary’s besieged Jews – approximately 300,000 – until Swedish businessman diplomat and hero Raoul Wallenberg arrived with the aid of the U.S. War Refugee Board and Joint Distribution Committee funds to put many Jews in Budapest in ’safe houses” until the Russians arrived in early 1945.
Against this background here are conclusions regarding the Auschwitz bombing controversy based on the prevailing secondary research.
8th USAAF B-17 heavy bombers flying from Operation FRANTIC shuttle bases at Poltava in the Western Ukraine 150 miles away and 15th USAAF B-24 heavy bombers flying out Foggia, Italy 640 miles away could have raided Auschwitz Birkenau from June to September, 1994. Weather conditions and enemy fighter and flak gun threats over the ‘targets’ during this period were favorable for an Auschwitz Birkenau mission. There were available mission planning target folder and aerial recon photos from I.G. Farben Buna plant mission less than 7 miles from Birkenau killing center.
An estimated 300 sorties involving upwards of 75 heavy bombers dropping between 900 to 1,800 tons of bombs over a two to three week period would have accomplished the mission. This was equivalent to less than 7% of all sorties flown in July, 1944.
The July 2, 1944 15th USAAF raid on Budapest effectively stopped the ‘death transports’ when requests for bombing rail marshaling yards and rail lines leading to Auschwitz by the Jewish Agency in Geneva were intercepted by Hungarian Intelligence. Unfortunately, by then, almost 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered, but 300,000 were ’spared”. Professor Wyman estimated that if an Auschwitz Birkenau raid had been attempted that would have spared an additional 150,000 Jews perhaps resulting in an additional 2 million, today. However, the reality is that air war priorities and official indifference precluded the raids from occurring and that half of the Hungarian Jews were murdered before any raids could have been launched. It was left to courageous Jewish women supplying sonderkommandos at the Birkenau killing facility with explosives to destroy Crematorium IV in October, 1944 forcing the SS to stop the death machinery.
With the Russian Army in late January, 1945 approaching the Auschwitz Birkenau death factory, the SS formed death march columns for the remaining 60,000 ‘survivors’, leaving behind 7,000 Jews, among them future Noble Laureate Elie Wiesel and Italian author Primo Levi as witnesses.
Notwithstanding the end of the Auschwitz Birkenau death trains, killing of Hungarian Jews occurred, despite the ‘safe houses” created by Wallenberg with the assistance of diplomatic legations in Budapest. There is a poignant Holocaust Memorial, Shoes on the Danube Embankment, consisting of sculpted bronze shoes commemorating the seizure and slaughter of 400 Jews from Wallenberg ‘safe houses’ by Hungarian Arrow Cross executions squads. On the night of January 8th, 1945 they were dragged from the safe houses, stripped naked, valuables seized, given the coup de grace and their bodies were dumped into the Danube. A friend’s Hungarian Jewish grandfather was a leading defense attorney who survived the Shoah. He was asked to defend the Hungarian Fascist Arrow Cross executioners following WWII. He refused. Instead he prosecuted them. They were executed for their heinous crimes. He and his wife then left for Israel.
The unilateral Israeli Mission to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities
The Islamic Republic of Iran has made it abundantly clear that the object of its nuclear weapons project is to “wipe Israel off the map of the world.” The US had been planning possible military options under the Bush Administration, as a last resort should efforts by the UN Security Council and the EU fail to deflect the annihilationist objectives of Iran. IAEA inspections had corroborated uranium enrichment production at the key Natanz centrifuge facility. The intelligence accumulated by Israel and the US differed as to the timing of when Iran could field nuclear weapons. The US assessment was 4 to 5 years as reflected in the controversial, some would say discredited, National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released in December, 2007. Israel suggested that its evidence pointed towards availability of small quantities of enriched uranium capable of making a few bombs by late 2009 early 2010. The NIE assessment indicated that Iran had allegedly stopped its nuclear enrichment program in 2003, when the US had invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, and restarted it in 2007. The NIE noted the range of uncertainty when Iran would be capable of assembling nuclear weapons:
We continue to assess with low confidence that Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material, but still judge with moderate-to-high confidence it has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad—or will acquire in the future—a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon. Barring such acquisitions, if Iran wants to have nuclear weapons it would need to produce sufficient amounts of fissile material indigenously—which we judge with high confidence it has not yet done.
We assess centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it decides to do so. Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006, despite the continued halt in the nuclear weapons program. Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz, but we judge with moderate confidence it still faces significant technical problems operating them.
· We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely.
· We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame. (INR judges Iran is unlikely to achieve this capability before 2013 because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.) All agencies recognize the possibility that this capability may not be attained until after 2015.
Shortly after the release of this NIE report, an Israeli security official in the former Olmert government, Avi Dichter, castigated the US report in a World Tribune article:
Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter warned that the United States underestimated Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions. Dichter said the National Intelligence Estimate, which asserted that Teheran abandoned its nuclear weapons program, could lead to a Middle East war.
Something went wrong in the American blueprint for analyzing the severity of the Iranian nuclear threat, Dichter, a former Israeli intelligence chief, said. “We have to hope that the United States will know to correct this. Israel and other states must help in any way including providing intelligence material so as to repair this miscalculation.
Chuck Freilich, a former Deputy National Security Advisor in Israel, now a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Schusterman Fellow, in a February, 2008 Human Events article made this prescient assessment as to what the NIE did to US credibility and Israeli relations and develop of stringer deterring sanctions:
And now, in Congressional testimony, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) himself, the official responsible for the agencies who conducted the NIE, has begun walking away from its conclusions. Only his sense of propriety as the head of the intelligence community seems to have prevented an explicit disavowal.
Three primary criticisms have been leveled at the NIE:
Firstly, the Iranians may, indeed, as the NIE states, have “suspended” their nuclear weaponization program, but this may have been for the simple reason that they had already completed it, or nearly so. If so, the suspension is virtually meaningless in terms of the timetable for an operational capability.
Furthermore, the primary obstacle to achieving a nuclear weapon lies not in weaponization, which is the easier part and which Iran may have suspended, but in the ability to enrich uranium to a weapons grade. No one, including Iran, disputes that its declared, ostensibly “civil”, enrichment program is ongoing and that it has made major progress since the “suspension.”
Finally, the intelligence community, having been badly tarnished by the Iraqi fiasco, may simply have become overly cautious and demanding of an unattainable burden of proof. Where a duplicitous adversary systematically spreads smoke screens, finding a “smoking gun” is difficult.
In providing Iran with an unintended and in any event false verdict of “not guilty,” the NIE represents a major setback. In the absence of entirely new intelligence, the prospects for a truly punitive sanctions resolution in the Security Council have disappeared, as have those for multilateral sanctions outside of the UN and the prospects for American military action are now virtually nil. Indeed, the US will be unable to do much of consequence, whatsoever, before the next president can fully articulate a policy on Iran, which probably means at least 18 months from now, by which time it may be too late. Iran, emboldened by its ability to “get away with it,” may now further accelerate its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Freilich noted this about Israel’s position:
Israel, which rejected the NIE from the beginning, but then conducted a thorough review of its own assessments, just to be safe, remains convinced that Iran’s weapons program continues unabated. It now faces two stark choices, made even more risky and urgent by a sense of being on its own: independent military action or, conversely, a deterrent posture designed to “live with” a nuclear Iran.
US policymakers, too, will have to give increasing thought to the options for living with a nuclear Iran, as well as to Israel’s considerations. How the US engages with Israel and others regarding the NIE will have a major effect on crucial decisions they will have to make in the coming months, as well as the long term prospects for containing Iran’s nukes.
Both the US and Israel were headed for a denouement over exercise of the military option against Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel had stunned the world on September 6, 2007 with its attack on a Syrian bomb making factory after evidence indicated that North Korean technology was being used with assistance from Iran. An Israeli expert had made this telling comment in a Ha’aretz article about the attack:
Tel Aviv University Professor Uzi Even, a chemist who until 1968 worked at the Dimona nuclear reactor, told Haaretz that he believes the evidence suggests that the Syrian site was not in fact a nuclear reactor – but rather a facility for assembling nuclear bombs.
Even, who has been keeping track of nuclear issues for years, bases his analysis in large part on satellite photos widely published recently in the media and on internet Web sites.
The images show that the facility lacked a chimney – which is necessary for the emission of the radioactive gases – despite the fact that evidence suggests that construction began on the facility at least four years ago. In contrast, a chimney is clearly visible in images of the reactor in Yongbyon, North Korea.
“We can assume that construction began even before 2003,” says Even.
In June 2008, Israel undertook with Greek cooperation a major air exercise simulating an attack on Iranian nuclear facility targets. The Greek air force had supplied an earlier version of the Russian made S-300 Air Defense Missiles that Iran had purchased in an arms deal with Russia. More than 100 Israeli fighters, rescue helicopters and aerial refueling tankers flew a 900 miles equivalent to the distance to key Iranian nuclear targets such as the Natanz facility. In this Independent, report the Olmert government Transport Minister, Shaul Mofaz rattled the energy markets saying, “If Iran continues with its programme for developing nuclear weapons we will attack.” Mr. Mofaz, speaking on 6 June, the day after the military exercise, added: “Attacking Iran, in order to stop its nuclear plans, will be unavoidable.” Israel PM Olmert quickly distanced himself from Mofaz’s remarks, but noted in a Der Spiegel interview, “Israel always has to be in a position to defend itself against any adversary and against any threat of any kind.”
It was presumed that the Bush Administration itself might exercise a military option if diplomatic efforts at fashioning tougher sanctions failed.
But time had run out in the light of the US Presidential election in November, 2008 and the Israeli general election in February, 2009. After the electoral victory of President Obama, the prospects of US military options diminished. Former US UN Ambassador John Bolton to make a prediction, which didn’t come true, that Israel would undertake a unilateral attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities in the period before Obama’s inauguration. In the DailyTelegraph, Bolton noted:
The Arab world would be “pleased” by Israeli strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
It [the reaction] will be positive privately. I think there’ll be public denunciations but no action, he said. Israel had a determination to prevent a nuclear Iran.
The Israelis have one eye on the calendar because of the pace at which the Iranians are proceeding, both to develop their nuclear weapons capability and to do things like increasing their defences by buying new Russian anti-aircraft systems and further hardening their nuclear installations.
No attack on Iran came as the waning Olmert government decided instead to address the Iranian proxy Hamas and the rocket barrages emanating from Gaza threatening South and Central Israel. In late December, 2008, the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead and ended it just shy of President Obama’s Inauguration on January 20th, 2009.
On February 10th, the Israeli general election resulted in the formation of a new government lead by former Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu communicated a new message to President Obama.
Netanyahu in one of electoral pronouncements noted the priority Iranian nuclear threat in this Ha’aretz report:
I promise that if I am elected, Iran will not acquire nuclear arms, and this implies everything necessary to carry this out. In other speeches Netanyahu described Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat for Israel, and warned that it risked a second Holocaust. Does his return as prime minister necessarily bring Israel nearer to war with Iran?
Obama and his National Security team and regional Special Envoys were engaged in outreach to Iran as part of a new geo-political strategy that might involve the support of the Islamic Republic in the Afghanistan Pakistan Taliban Al Qaeda conflict. Obama at the Americas Summit boldly opined that reaching out to enemies’ demonstrated strength.
Israel, even before Netanyahu formed his government in April, went to great lengths to demonstrate that it would attack and intercept Iranian supplies of rockets and missiles. As noted in an NER report Israel destroyed convoys in the Sudan and an Iranian arm supply ship.
What should not be lost on Iran and its ally Sudan is that the alleged IAF raid on the convoy in January was within the same operational radius of approximately 700 nautical miles-equidistant from Jerusalem to both Port Sudan and Tehran. Like the September, 2007 IAF raid that took out a nuclear weapons assembly plant being built with North Korean assistance in Northeastern Syria, the details of the Sudan raids will remain shrouded in official silence.
In a London Times article, “Israel Stands Ready to bomb Iran’s Nuclear sites”, the resolve of the new Netanyahu government to prepare the Jewish nation for this prospect was made abundantly clear.
The Israeli military is preparing itself to launch a massive aerial assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities within days of being given the go-ahead by its new government.
Among the steps taken to ready Israeli forces for what would be a risky raid requiring pinpoint aerial strikes are the acquisition of three Airborne Warning and Control (AWAC) aircraft and regional missions to simulate the attack.
Two nationwide civil defence drills will help to prepare the public for the retaliation that Israel could face.
“Israel wants to know that if its forces were given the green light they could strike at Iran in a matter of days, even hours. They are making preparations on every level for this eventuality. The message to Iran is that the threat is not just words,” one senior defence official told The Times.
Officials believe that Israel could be required to hit more than a dozen targets, including moving convoys. The sites include Natanz, where thousands of centrifuges produce enriched uranium; Esfahan, where 250 tonnes of gas is stored in tunnels; and Arak, where a heavy water reactor produces plutonium.
Arnaud de Borchgrave noted in a Washington Times piece, the Gulf States have “Jitters over expected Israeli air attack.”
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman – are getting ready for what many now assume will be retaliation from Iran after an Israeli bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities later this year.
Up and down the Gulf, Patriot missile batteries have been quietly deployed around key oil installations. The Patriot system is designed to detect, target and hit incoming missiles that may be no more than 10 to 20 feet long and flying at three to five times the speed of sound. Iran has hundreds of missiles and rockets.
And what will the Obama Administration do, if Netanyahu sends up the balloon that the Iran attack is ‘on’? The word in Washington is that the US would punish Israel by withdrawing military aid and isolating it as a veritable pariah state. All because Israel doesn’t trust the US to defend its sovereignty when threatened with extinction.
It would appear that Netanyahu and Israel have learned the lessons of WWII – a Jewish sovereign nation has one option to protect and defend its people.
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