By Rafael Medoff/JNS.org –
Seventy years ago this week, the Allies staged the D-Day invasion, landing some 24,000 troops on the beaches along France’s Normandy Coast in one of the major turning points of World War II. What is not widely realized, however, is that the D-Day assault on June 6, 1944, 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 the Roosevelt administration’s failure to bomb the death camps often point to the fact that President Roosevelt and the U.S. military were preoccupied with D-Day. “We are talking about the summer of 1944,” Roosevelt Institute president William vanden Heuvel has emphasized. “[Because of] the invasion of Normandy on June 6th… American 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.
Moreover, Allied planes were flying over Auschwitz long before D-Day. Starting in February 1944—four months before the Normandy landings—Allied photo-recon planes based in southern Italy began carrying out surveillance missions over Auschwitz.
This Allied surveillance was focused on a cluster of synthetic oil factories that the Germans set up in that area, some of them within the greater Auschwitz complex and operating on Jewish slave labor. Several of the plants were situated less than five miles from the gas chambers and crematoria. On May 12, British bombers carried out the first raid in what was to become known as “the oil war.”
The oil plants represented a high-priority military target for the Allies because the Germans desperately needed them to sustain the Axis war effort. It was in part because of their dwindling oil supplies that the German air force, the Luftwaffe, was unable to take part in the defense of the Normandy region when the Allies landed.
“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, and why less than 4,000 Allied soldiers lost their lives at Normandy.
Spaatz directed the Allies’ “oil war” offensive. In the summer of 1944, he clashed with Chief of Staff General Dwight Eisenhower, after Eisenhower repeatedly diverted bombers from the oil attacks to the Normandy region, to support the Allied advances following D-Day. Spaatz was furious over the diversions and ultimately threatened to resign, forcing Eisenhower to relent.