Auschwitz and Birkenau:
Why the World War II Photo Interpreters
Failed to Identify the Extermination Complex
vol. 9, no. 1 (Jan.-Mar. 1983): pages 50-55.
During World War II, photographic interpretation was a much used and essential tool of the Allied military intelligence effort. Literally millions of aerial photographs were taken of enemy areas, including heavy coverage of Germany and German-occupied lands. The many thousands of photo interpretation reports based on those photographs have been preserved in the archives, along with the prints and negatives.
I was a member of a bomber crew during World War II, but I have devoted practically all the rest of my professional career to the field of photographic interpretation. In the course of my work, I frequently had occasion to do research in the World War II photographic intelligence files. In 1978, while researching the files with a colleague, Mr. Robert Poirier, we discovered aerial photos of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Complex that had been overlooked during and after the war period.
As part of my official duties, I frequently lectured on various aspects of photographic interpretation, using photographs to illustrate my subjects. Whenever I have shown the photographs of the extermination complex, the most frequently asked questions have been: Why did not, or why could not, the World War II photo interpreters identify the horrifying activities perpetrated at this complex? How could something so hideous have been overlooked? Why did not the photo interpreters note the unusually large size and unique configuration of Birkenau and know that it was not a conventional ioprison camp?lo Why were the large number of boxcars on the Birkenau sidings never questioned, considering the obvious lack of industrial installations within the camp? Most importantly, why did not the photo interpreters spot the four separately secured extermination areas, each of which contained unique facilities - an undressing room, a gas chamber and a crematorium?
I have gone back and searched the records and reports produced by the concerned reconnaissance units and interpretation organizations. I have also analyzed the interpretation practices and priorities of the time and have concluded that five major factors influenced these shortcomings:
This is a military intelligence term meaning requirements imposedSon a photo interpreter, for instance, to procure specific information needed to formulate intelligence about a specific enemy target or targets. During World War II, photo interpreters operated under an elaborate tasking and priority system to produce intelligence from aerial photography. Searching for or doing detailed analysis on concentration camps was not a specific task. Photographs were searched to find any indication of enemy build-up or military movements. This was called first-phase exploitation. Of prime concern were concentrations or movements of troops which posed threats to Allied operations, either current or planned. In addition, the photographs were scanned for evidence of reprisal weapons (V-1 and V-2 rocket sites), flak and searchlights, coastal defenses, material dumps and depots, camps and barracks, fieldwork and defense lines, construction work or demolition activity, and road, rail, port and inland waterway transport activity. As D-day approached, coastal shipping, beach obstacles, mine fields, and strong points were added to the watch list.
Photo interpreters were also tasked to perform detailed analysis on a variety of significant tactical and strategic targets. Concentration and extermination camps were not considered significant targets. A target folder was created for each significant target and was described at the time as being the interpreters' most important aid. The target folder contained the target. The target chart for the Auschwitz area was centered on the I.G. Farben Bunald Synthetic Fuel and Rubber Plant and did not include either the Auschwitz I or Birkenau camps. The specific detailed interpretation tasking was to report on the progress of the construction of the plant. Later, an added requirement was to report on the extent and effect of Allied bombing. A review of all the photo interpretation reports created on the Farben plant reveals the interpreters' principal concern was the bomb damage and production stoppages at the synthetic fuel plant. There is not a single reference to either the Auschwitz or Birkenau camps, which were covered on the same photographic runs. The Monowice camp, next to the Farben Plant, was correctly identified as a concentration camp.
2.. Priority Projects.
The principal units performing interpretation of the photographs taken over Germany and German-occupied territories were the Allied Central Interpretation Unit at the Royal Air Force Station Medmenham in England and the Mediterranean Allied Photo Reconnaissance Wing in Italy. These organizations worked on a 24-hour-a-day basis and in 1943 and 1944 were heavily involved in the planning of the Normandy and Southern France landings. Support to the Normandy landings alone required an estimated half-million photo interpretation man-hours. The stepped-up Allied bombing offensive of German strategic industries in 1944, which included synthetic fuel plants, also involved extensive photographic analysis and assessments. Other high priority projects included the searching for and destruction of V-1 and V-2 rocket sites, jet aircraft plants, and submarine production facilities. Photo interpreters were also employed in the planning and execution of special bombing missions against critical targets. The volume of materials being received for photo interpretation must also be considered. The daily intake for the Allied Central Interpretation Unit averaged 25,000 negatives and 60,000 prints. By V-E Day, over five million prints were in storage. More than 40,000 reports had been prepared from these prints.
Interpreter trainees were normally sent to a four-to-six-week course which explained the identification of military equipmentSairplanes, tanks, artillery, ships, and the like. Senior photo interpreters, organized in sections, worked on more specific subjects such as strike photography, bomb damage assessments, rail and road transportation, ports and shipping, military installations, inland waterway transportation, aircraft plants and airfield, radar and electronics, underground installations, V-1 and V-2 installations, enemy defenses, armor and artillery and petroleum refineries. No photo interpreters were assigned to do detailed interpretation on concentration or extermination camps. As nearly as I can determine, no tasking was ever imposed to conduct aerial reconnaissance of such camps. Photography that was acquired of these camps was a by-product of the reconnaissance of nearby strategic installations.
Since photo interpreters were not directed to locate or interpret such camps, they did not try to determine which camps were unique or different, that is, those which contained gas chambers and crematoriums. Photo interpreters were provided with hundreds of so-called photographic keys to aid them in identification of newly photographed targets. These keys were manuals, each containing photographs of a previously identified target. Annotations and text provided guidance on the unique characteristics (called "indicators" or "signatures") of targets which could be used to identify a newly photographed target. No such keys were prepared about any of the various types of installations involved in what is now known as the Holocaust. For that matter, no photo interpreters experienced in identifying such installations were available to compile such keys.
There was a key prepared on a typical labor or construction camp. The existence of such a camp was often an indication or "signature" of a nearby underground production installation or of nearby construction of coastal defenses along the French coast. Therefore, during the latter part of the war, photo interpreters were tasked to look for such labor and construction camps. No detailed photo intelligence study was ever done on any of the major concentration camps; in truth, no distinctions were ever made among the various types of camps. A variety of descriptive terms were used indiscriminately, although some of the camps were much larger and more complex than others. The following terms were used to describe these camps: slave labor camps, labor camps, construction camps, forced labor camps, prisons, concentration camps and internment camps. The most frequent and descriptive term used, however, was "hutted camp." This term, of British derivation, was originally used to describe a series of prefabricated buildings similar in appearance to British Nissen huts or the later American quonset huts, and was carried over into the interpretation field. The term "extermination camp" was never used in any of this reporting.
In searching the aerial photography, the photo interpreters would have had little difficulty spotting the hundreds of concentration camps in Germany and German-occupied lands. They were usually set in forested areas or valleys, apart from towns and cities. The camps were surrounded with barbed wire and watch towers. The barracks buildings did not conform to known forms of architecture. They were, for the most part, of wooden construction, mostly one story and of several standard sizes. Most were prefabricated. Frequently, the administrative buildings and guards' quarters were in a separate enclosure, often near the main gate of the camp.
The main effort in World War II, with respect to camps, was to locate those which contained Allied prisoners of war. In this effort, the photo interpreters were provided pertinent data and the locations of specific camps. In addition to the barracks and security features, other indicators were provided which the interpreters could use in making identification. No associated industrial plants were near POW camps in most cases. Most of the POW camps had an exercise area. The barracks were usually arranged on both sides of a central street and a cleared area separated the barracks from the enclosure wall. The extensive open area between the barracks and enclosure was intended to prevent escapes.
Photo interpreters depend heavily on precedence or existing knowledge about a subject or installation. I did not find a single reference in which interpreters were told to look for the gas chambers and crematoriums that were killing thousands each day. There simply was no historical or intelligence precedence for genocide on such a scale. Most World War II interpreters I have spoken to found the concept unbelievable, unimaginable, and completely incongruous. For that matter, most of the general public of Allied countries were unaware of the genocide activities during the war.
It must be quickly added, however, that during World War II information from human sources and communication intelligence was not available to most interpreters. Photo interpreters, for the most part, worked in a vacuum while interpreting and reported only what they saw on the photography. My research also confirms that the information about Auschwitz provided by two escapees, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, was never made available to those interpreting the I.G. Farben Plant photos. It is my professional opinion that had such information been provided to the photo interpreters, they would have quickly located the gas chambers and crematoriums.
5. Photo Interpretation Equipment.
By modern standards, the photo interpretation equipment used in World War II can only be classified as primitive. Photo interpreters used stereoscopes with lenses capable of magnification four times the original imagery (about like that of a magnifying glass). In addition, tube magnifiers with a seven-time magnification capability were also used in scanning the aerial photos. Photo interpreters performed the interpretation from contact paper prints rather than film duplicates. We know today that the negatives from which some of the Auschwitz contract prints were made in World War II could have been enlarged up to 35 times.
Concomitant with the tragic failure of photo interpreters to identify the Auschwitz- Birkenau Extermination Complex was the equally tragic failure of major Allied air commands to be aware that aerial photography of the complex existed. There had been numerous appeals from many sources to bomb the complex, the railyards, the rail bridges and rail lines leading to Auschwitz. Those appeals reached the highest levels, including Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. When the bombing specialists were ordered to formulate plans for bombing the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Complex, officials of the Air Ministry, the Royal Air Force Bomber Command and the U.S. 8th Air Force bemoaned the lack of aerial photographic coverage of the complex. In fact, such photos were readily available at the Allied Central Interpretation Unit at Royal Air Force Station Medmenham, 50 miles outside of London and at the Mediterranean Allied Photo Reconnaissance Wing in Italy. The ultimate irony was that no search for the aerial photos was ever instituted by either organization. In retrospect, it is a fact that by the time the Soviet Army reached Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, the Allies had photographed the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Complex at least 30 times.
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