War Department Cable Refusing to Bomb Deportation Railways Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1944, many communications passed among US and Allied officials and leaders of the Jewish community in Europe. These communications debated how to respond to the systemized extermination of European Jews in Nazi death camps. On June 26, 1944, Major General Thomas T. Handy, then US Army assistant chief of staff, issued a cable in which he advised the army's Civil Affairs Division (CAD) how to respond to requests that the Allies bomb Nazi rail lines from concentration camps in Hungary to death camps in Poland. In his cable, Handy scripts a message to be delivered to Henry Morgenthau, chair of the War Refugee Board. Handy's message declines action against the rail lines.

Summary Overview

In 1944, many communications passed among US and Allied officials and leaders of the Jewish community in Europe. These communications debated how to respond to the systemized extermination of European Jews in Nazi death camps. On June 26, 1944, Major General Thomas T. Handy, then US Army assistant chief of staff, issued a cable in which he advised the army's Civil Affairs Division (CAD) how to respond to requests that the Allies bomb Nazi rail lines from concentration camps in Hungary to death camps in Poland. In his cable, Handy scripts a message to be delivered to Henry Morgenthau, chair of the War Refugee Board. Handy's message declines action against the rail lines.

Defining Moment

As early as January 1941, requests were made to—and entertained by—the British Royal Air Force (RAF) to bomb Nazi concentration camps. Auschwitz had not yet become a mechanized killing center with gas chambers and crematoria. However, thousands of Jews were losing their lives there and in other locations because of sickness, disease, malnutrition, mass shootings, and other forms of violence. The RAF leadership concluded that they lacked both adequate resources at the time to mount an air campaign so far into Nazi territory and the precision capability to ensure targeted destruction of the camps without loss of life among the inmates. These two points became the focal argument explaining Allied refusal to bomb Nazi rail lines and extermination camps when appeals were made again in 1944.

Throughout the war, evidence mounted of escalating violence on the part of the Nazis toward Jews and other peoples they considered undesirable. By late 1941, word had leaked that the Nazis intended the deliberate annihilation of the entire Jewish race in Europe. That year, the first death camp, Chelmno, opened with mobile gas vans. The following year, several more death camps began operating, and the Nazis began transporting, largely via railroads, hundreds of thousands of Jews from across Europe to the death camps. In December 1942, Allied leadership publically denounced and promised retribution for the killings. In April 1943, British and American officials met in Bermuda to discuss ways to aid Jewish refugees. However, the Allies took no effectual action to liberate Jews from deportation and death or to destroy the tools of Nazi extermination.

At the start of 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9417, establishing the War Refugee Board (WRB) under the auspices of the Departments of State, War, and Treasury, although most of the running of the WRB happened at the Treasury Department. Roosevelt charged the WRB with rescuing the victims of Nazi persecution. However, only Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau (at whose urging the board was created) really attempted to comply with this mandate. His counterparts in other departments and other officials among the Allied forces deemed rescue and relief a peripheral matter. Contentious communications flew back and forth. In one cable, dated February 7, 1944, Handy advised that military resources should not be used for rescue missions that were not directly related to strategic military actions aimed at winning the war.

In the summer of 1944, the WRB established a refugee center in Fort Ontario, New York, and funded efforts based in Switzerland to rescue Hungarian Jews slated for deportation. Meanwhile, in June, Jacob Rosenheim of World Agudath Israel—among other Jewish leaders and their supporters—appealed to the WRB, to Morgenthau, and to the War and State Departments to bomb Nazi rail lines between Hungary and Poland. They believed that the destruction of the railroads would cut off the death camps from their supply of victims and slow Nazi extermination plans.

Author Biography

Born in Tennessee in 1892, Thomas T. Handy went on to prepare for a lifetime of military service at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Following graduation from VMI, Handy received his officer's commission with the US Army and was sent to serve in France during World War I. At the conclusion of the war, Handy served in the occupation of Germany before returning to VMI, where he taught mathematics. From there, he went to serve in the Panama Canal Zone and then returned to the United States, where he completed studies at the Army War College and the Naval War College. Throughout this period, Handy rose in rank, being promoted to brigadier general in late 1941 upon US entry into World War II. In 1942, he became US Army assistant chief of staff of operations under President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1944, with the rank of major general, he advanced to deputy chief of staff. It was Handy who, as acting chief of staff during George Marshall's absence, signed the written order to drop atomic bombs on Japan. After the war, from 1949 to 1952, Handy served as commander-in-chief of the United States European Command. In 1954, he retired to his home in Texas. Handy died in 1982.

Historical Document

OPD 383.7 (23 Jun 44)

Proposed Air Action to Impede Deportation of Hungarian and Slovak Jews.

26 June 1944

1. Reference is made to Civil Affairs Division disposition form, subject as above, dated 23 June 1944, which forwarded to the Operations Division for necessary action a paraphrase of a cable on the above subject.

2. The Operations Division, WDGS, recommends that the Civil Affairs Division reply to Mr. Morgenthau, the Chairman of the War Refugee Board, substantially as follows:

“The War Department is of the opinion that the suggested air operation is impracticable for the reason that it could be executed only by diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.

“The War Department fully appreciates the humanitarian importance of the suggested operation. However, after due consideration of the problem, it is considered that the most effective relief to victims of enemy persecution is the early defeat of the Axis, an undertaking to which we must devote every resource at our disposal.”

3. A copy of this D/F, with identical enclosure, has been furnished CG, AAF and AC/S, G-2.

Thos. T. Handy,

Major General,

Assistant Chief of Staff

Document Analysis

The cable sent from Major General Thomas T. Handy does not identify a recipient. However, alternate versions of the cable indicate that it was sent from Handy to the director of the US Army Civil Affairs Division (CAD), a conclusion supported by a reference to the division in the first line of the cable. Formalized in 1943, CAD was charged with overseeing territory seized from enemy forces. This included meeting the needs of civilian populations.

The first point in Handy's cable indicates that he is following up on an earlier communication from the Operations Division (OPD), dated June 23, with regard to the topic identified at the top of the cable: “Proposed Air Action to Impede Deportation of Hungarian and Slovak Jews.” This topic, and the June 23 communication cited, refers to a request from European Jewish leadership to bomb Nazi rail lines in order to slow the deportation of thousands of Jews to death camps in Poland. The intent of the bombing is not a military objective but a humanitarian one.

In the second point, Handy advises that CAD issue a specific response to Morgenthau, then chair of the War Refugee Board. Up to that time, Morgenthau had been the official in President Roosevelt's cabinet most inclined to take action to address the plight of European Jews. The scripted response suggested by Handy reiterates previous positions taken by US officials, including by Handy in the earlier cable of February 7.

In his response, Handy calls the proposed bombing of the rail lines “impracticable” and offers this justification: “it could be executed only by diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.” By this, Handy refers to the Allied leadership's insistence on focusing military resources on the execution of the war itself. He restates previous claims that the Allies must focus their efforts on military action intended to win the war and that any rescue or aid efforts were secondary. In the February 7 cable, Handy had called such efforts a “distraction” from the primary goal of victory. Here, he emphasizes again that military forces not be diverted from “decisive operations” aimed at winning the war.

Handy attempts to soften the response by acknowledging the “humanitarian importance” of the proposed bombing and by suggesting that the War Department had given the matter “due consideration.” He concludes by restating the position that the Allies had held since the onset of war: “that the most effective relief to victims of enemy persecution is the early defeat of the Axis.” He reiterates that the Allies must devote all of their resources to this goal—not to rescue, relief, or other aid to those suffering under Nazi control.

The three sentences that make up Handy's proposed response amount to a rejection of the request for aerial bombardment of Nazi rail lines. Such an action is judged outside the scope of necessary military operations in Europe. The implication is that rescue might be a noble cause but that it would not help the Allies win the war.

Essential Themes

The main theme of the document is the controversy that surrounded the decision not to bomb Nazi rail lines in Europe—and later, a similar decision not to bomb the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Just as earlier documents demonstrated Allied knowledge of Nazi plans for extermination of the Jews, this document shows that plans were proposed to slow the systematic killings and that the Allies rejected those plans. The document itself provides a summary explanation of the reasons why the Allies chose not to bomb the railroads responsible for deporting Jews to their deaths. The same reasons would be cited when Allied leaders refused to bomb the last operational killing center, Auschwitz. By July 1944, the other death camps had shut down most operations. By that time, too, about four-fifths of the total number of Jews who died during what became known as the Holocaust had already been killed.

Still, it was not until spring of 1944 that the Allies had the air capability to launch attacks on the rail lines (or on Auschwitz itself). Then, it became a matter of determining priority and practicality. The Allies did not consider aerial bombardment of the railroads to be likely to save enough lives to justify the diversion of military resources from more “decisive” actions. They worried that the Nazis would continue transporting and killing Jews and that bombing might result in unintended loss of life. This document is one of several that figures in the debate over the Allied response to the Nazi genocide. Understanding the decisions made then provides future generations—of citizens and leaders—food for thought as they consider the conflicts of their own time.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Breitman, Richard. Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew. New York: Hill, 1998. Print.
  • Breitman, Richard, and Alan M. Kraut. American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933–1945. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Print.
  • Hamerow, Theodore S. While We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust. New York: Norton, 2008. Print.
  • The Holocaust: A Learning Site for Students. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
  • Neufeld, Michael J., and Michael Berenbaum, eds. The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? New York: St. Martin's, 2000. Print.
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