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Vivid World War II Spy Photos Stir Memories, Debate

The release of millions of Royal Air Force World War II reconnaissance photos, including aerial shots of Auschwitz, has drawn criticism from those wondering why the Allies didn't act sooner to stop the Nazi genocide.


A 1944 aerial shot of Auschwitz shows the smoke of burning corpses.

The photos show a massive cloud of smoke created by the burning of thousands of corpses at Auschwitz. They show images of the "D-Day" Allied landing on the beaches of Normandy so rich in detail that you can recognize the bodies of American GIs. They show the city of Cologne in rubble after months of heavy British bombing.

And with their release this week, the British Aerial Reconnaissance Archives at Keele University have again raised painful memories and questions about the war. Who knew what and when? And why didn't anyone take action sooner to stop the Nazi atrocities?

On Monday, Britain's Keele University released more than 5 million Royal Air Force aerial reconnaissance photos on a special Web site. For decades, the photos were available only to researchers and unknown to the broader public. But now, indexed and searchable online to anyone, the images provide viewers with entirely new perspectives of the most

Luftbilder aus dem Zweiten Weltkrieg veröffentlicht das britische Nationalarchiv, D-Day

An aerial shot of the beaches of Normandy during D-Day

horrific and dramatic events of World War II. The most historically important images on the site are shots from Auschwitz taken in August 1944, D-Day shots taken in June of the same year and images of the German battleship Bismarck, which the Germans kept hidden in a Norwegian fjord for five days in May 1941 until the British forces sank it.

"These images allow us to see the real war at first hand," project head Allan William said. " I was really moved by the photographs of the Nazi concentration camps and the D-Day landings. It's like a live action replay."

Images anger some

But the shocking Auschwitz images have also raised serious questions amongst critics about the actions of the Allies during the war and why they didn't move to stop the gassings sooner by bombing the rail lines into the camps.

Writing in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, journalist John Ezard lamented: "You can view ‘as though in a time machine’ a 3D photograph which could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives had it been publicized when it was taken at 11 a.m. on August 23, 1944, at a time when Hungarian Jews were being murdered below." The photo was taken by an RAF pilot aboard a reconnaissance plane over Poland at a time when the Germans, aware their days were numbered, had massively increased the amount of killing at Auschwitz. The detail is so clear in one photo that you can even see two columns of prisoners lining up for roll call at the concentration camp.

Here in Germany, the mass-circulation Bild newspaper on Monday published a story under the headline "Why weren’t the concentration camp thugs bombed?" The newspaper quoted German historian Hans-Ulrich Wheler, a guest professor at Harvard University, saying that London became aware, at the latest, of the Nazi’s death camps in 1943. Information on the Web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial, which serves more or less as the official American historical authority, appears to backup Wehler's claim. It notes that "in 1943, Polish courier Jan Karski informed President Franklin D. Roosevelt of reports of mass murder received from Jewish leaders in the Warsaw ghetto. No immediate executive action was taken." By the autumn of 1944, the museum claims, the Allies knew of the gassings at Auschwitz.

"Why therefore were the extermination camps not destroyed after the reconnaissance planes of the Britons and Americans photographed them in such detail," Bild asked? "At the very least, the railway tracks on which the Jews were transported into the extermination camp?"

Luftbilder aus dem Zweiten Weltkrieg veröffentlicht das britische Nationalarchiv, Arnheim

Aerial view of the bridge at Arnhem, The Netherlands

The archive’s caretaker, Williams, said the spies took the photos in rapid-succession, like machine gun fire and that it was possible, given the sheer volume of photos, that they were never given the scrutiny they deserved.

"It is a fascinating issue as to why the photo operators did not know what was going on," Williams said. "I think the answer is that their orders were to look single-mindedly for military data. They did not have time to think what else was happening."

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  • Date 20.01.2004
  • Author DW Staff (dsl)
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  • Date 20.01.2004
  • Author DW Staff (dsl)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink