By later standards the first USAAF bombing of Wilhelmshaven on 27 January 1943 was not a lot, but it was something. B-17 Flying Fortresses from parts of the 369th Squadron of the 306th Bomb Group (H) hit the small port city on the Jade River, hitting mostly industrial plants where they hit at all. Bombing accuracy, much to the disappointment of the Americans, was never stellar. They would make up for it later with sheer numbers.
These early efforts, like the 15th Squadron’s 4 July 1942 raid on a Dutch Luftwaffe field in borrowed aircraft, were mostly symbolic. The Americans taking the war to the enemy, like Jimmy Doolittle’s military stunt bombing Japan 18 April 1942 showed, could be disconcerting, It also boosted morale for the military as much as the home front. For a generation that had been told that strategic bombing would be able to prevent the kinds of deadlocks that characterized WWI, this was heady stuff.
By the end of 1943, the USAAF had bombed Germany more than a hundred times, and the Luftwaffe showed no signs of deterioration…on the outside. Internally, the Luftwaffe had good morale, but the physical and mental strain on its pilots was beginning to tell. Goering spoke of a “plague” as early as 1942 that killed many new pilots in accidents that more experienced men might have avoided. But the Americans had lost nearly a third of their aircraft and crews in September and October of 1943…their morale was not nearly as good as their opponents, and never would be.
As the Soviet juggernaut pressed ever onward to Berlin, the 332nd Rifle Division reached partly dismantled and almost entirely evacuated concentration camps near Oswiecim, in southern Poland on 27 January 1945. Eventually, the Allies would find evidence of nearly two million deaths and the Auschwitz/BIrkenau complex, with warehouses full of the pitiful possessions of the inmates. No one before believed the wild tales coming out of the area.
Even today the sheer numbers of the Nazi’s “final solution” strains credulity. There is a cottage industry of deniers (author David Irving among them) of the extermination of probably close to 12 million people (a little over half were Jews; the rest just got in the way) as a matter of state policy. The British who liberated Belsen in Germany in April 1945 couldn’t believe it, either.
Though this writer has never been to Auschwitz he has been to Belsen, where many of the evacuees from Auschwitz were liquidated. That was bad enough, though a fraction of the size of Auschwitz. But not believing does not change the evidence, nor the testimony of the survivors. Just as strategic bombardment gained evidence of success with practice, technology and numbers, so too did the accounts of the survivors of the death camps gain credulity.