The photograph was taken by Lt Charles Barry of the 60 (Photoreconnaissance Squadron), South African Air Force (SAAF), operating from San Severo, Italy. He and his navigator Lt Ian McIntyre made the long trip in an unarmed de Havilland Mosquito IX aircraft and were over the target at an altitude of 26 000 feet [7 925 m] for a period of four minutes in the early afternoon.
Ian and I began our first photographic run from west to east, if memory serves correctly. He immediately advised me that the port camera was not working (the two long focal length cameras were mounted in tandem to give overlapping lateral coverage). This gave us a total lateral coverage of about 5 miles [8 km] on the 20 inch [50 cm] cameras. It was unhealthy to hang around with a second run in an unarmed aircraft because of possible enemy interception. Nevertheless we decided to do two runs instead of one to ensure positive coverage. Ian left the cameras running longer than usual and I believe that the over-run on the east to west run pulled in something of the death camp later known as Auschwitz.
You may also be interested to know that we had no inkling of the camp being there, and it wasn’t until the Holocaust Revisited report was published in 1979 that I and my surviving colleagues from 60 Squadron realised that we had unknowingly been involved in identifying the death camp.
This was just the first of a number of photographic missions over Auschwitz. At the time the main interest of the Allies was the industrial complex itself, rather than the concentration camp and the extermination facilities. However after the war the photographs were the subject of some scrutiny. The CIA concluded it would not have been possible to identify the killing centre from the evidence of the photograph alone:
On the photography of 4 April 1944, a small vehicle was identified in a specially secured annex adjacent to the Main Camp gas chamber. Eyewitness accounts describe how prisoners arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau, not knowing they were destined for extermination, were comforted by the presence of a “Red Cross ambulance.” In reality, the SS used that vehicle to transport the deadly Zyklon-B crystals. Could this be that notorious vehicle? While conclusive proof is lacking, the vehicle was not present on imagery of 25 August and 13 September 1944 after the extermination facility had been converted to an air raid shelter.
See the CIA retrospective analysis.
By coincidence during the first days of April one of the key survivors, and witnesses, to the horrors of Auschwitz, Filip Muller was to have dealings with this “Red Cross” van.
Some of the prisoners were aware that preparations were being made to receive many people in the gas chambers. There were rumours, from what the guards were saying, that they would soon be receiving people from Hungary, and this was the reason for the expansion of capacity, both for killing and cremation. The news gave added urgency for a planned escape by two inmates. It was hoped that they could take word of the true nature of Auschwitz to the outside world:
The most important piece of evidence which I gave them to take on their journey was one of those labels which were stuck on the tins containing Zyclon B poison gas. I tried for a long time to lay my hands on one of these tins. This was not an easy matter though.
After the ‘disinfecting operators’ had poured the lethal gas crystals into the gas chambers one of them took the empty tins back to their Red Cross ambulance while, as a rule, the other walked over to the changing rooms to see if there was any organizing to be done. Although on several occasions I was quite close to the ambulance, I never managed to grab hold of one of the tins. I was despairing as it looked as though I would never be able to. And then I had an idea.
One day after the ‘disinfecting operators’ had finished their handiwork, I informed Unterscharfuhrer Gorges that we needed two new tins in which to collect gold teeth because the old ones had become rather dented. Not suspecting my ulterior motive he sent me to the Red Cross ambulance in the yard where I proceeded to explain to the two SS men that Unterscharfuhrer Gorges had ordered me to collect two empty tins.
One of them took a couple of tins from the back of the ambulance and handed them to me with the words: ‘There you are, and now scram!’ The text printed on the labels read something like this: Zyclon B poison gas. Cyanogen compound. Danger! Poison .’ Tesch and Stabenov International GMBH. For pest control. To be opened by trained personnel only.
It was difficult to get the labels off without damaging them, and I only managed it partly with one of the tins. Where the paper had been torn and the name and address of the manufacturers become somewhat illegible I made the necessary additions in pencil.