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Home > Back Issues (Journal) > Journal V27 N1 (Jan - Mar 2001) > Personality Profile: Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris

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Personality Profile:

Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris

". it is true to say that the heavy bomber did more than any other single weapon to win this war."

- Despatch, para 207 (Official report by Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris on his war operations in World War Two)

Among one of the most controversial commanders in World War II is Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Marshal of the Royal Air Force and Commander-in-Chief of the RAF Bomber Command from 1942 to 1945. Known as the 'Butcher' or the 'Bomber', he commanded a relentless area-bombing offensive against Germany. This systematic destruction of German cities caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of German civilians, and has been attacked on moral and ethical grounds. Much of the attack is directed against Sir Arthur Harris himself. Should he be lauded as a hero, who played a large part in helping Britain to secure its victory or reviled as a war criminal, a mass murderer?

Arthur Harris was born on 13 Apr 1892, the son of an Indian Civil Service official. Young Harris left school at the age of 16 and traveled across half the world to Rhodesia where he took on a variety of jobs from gold mining to farming. When World War 1 came in 1914, he joined the Rhodesia Regiment in German South-West Africa as a bugler and fought in the campaign. After Africa, he returned to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps. He was posted to France where he served on the Western Front until he returned to England late in 1917. Promoted to major in 1918, he was given command of a home defence squadron (no. 44) where he was well known as a pioneer in night flying. He was granted a permanent commission in the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1919.

In post-war RAF, he served in several countries, including India and Iraq where he took command of several bomber squadrons. He returned to Britain at the end of 1924 and assumed command of 58 Squadron. In his command of the squadron from 1925 to 1927, he made many improvements in the squadron's navigational methods and in night bombing. It was around this time that the prominence of air power in future wars began to surface with General Gulio Douhet in Italy, and in the United States, General Billy Mitchell, propounding theories that an enemy could be bombed into submission with little help from the army and the navy.

Between 1930 and 1933 Harris was employed in staff duties in Egypt and took command of 210 Squadron, a flying boat unit based at Pembroke Dock on his return. In 1933, he was appointed as Deputy Director of Operations and Intelligence and was promoted to the rank of Group Captain. In the same year, Hitler came into power in Germany. Germany withdrew from the Geneva Conference and the League of Nations and Britain prepared for the possibility of war in five to eight years' time.

Such was the political situation in England when Harris was appointed as Deputy Director of Plans in the Air Ministry in 1934. In this position, he was able to influence air policy. In the same year, the Air Ministry Bombing Committee was set up with the role of bomber operations being defined as counter-offensive. However, with Hitler in power and the possibility of war increasing, plans began to be drawn up for the xpansion of Britain's bombing force, in part to counter Hitler's claim that the German Luftwaffes could match the air power of the RAF. In 1937, Harris, on being promoted to Air Commodore took command of the newly formed No. 4 Group of Bomber Command. He remained in the post until July of the next year when he was posted overseas to Palestine and Transjordan, tasked with helping the Army keep civil order between the Arabs and the Jews. He returned yet again to England in 1939 on a spell of sick leave.

Britain declared war on Germany on 3 Sep 1939. Harris then had command of the No. 5 Group of the Bomber Command. In Feb 1942, he was chosen to succeed AM Sir Richard Peirse as the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command. Under Harris' dynamic leadership and single-minded pursuit, the Bomber Command rapidly expanded. He turned around what was a poorly equipped force and poorly trained aircrew with a record of dropping bombs which missed their targets, into a highly efficient force. Harris was convinced that strategic bombing on a large scale would cause the collapse of the German industry and break the morale of the German people and ultimately bring about Germany's defeat. His conviction was given impetus with the Casablanca Directive, drawn up by the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Jan 1943, which gave him the authority to go on a sustained assault on German cities.

Major urban areas such as Hamburg and the industrial cities of Ruhr came under the Bomber's attacks between 1943 and 1945. Night attacks on Hamburg killed more than 41,000 people. In the closing months of the war, Dresden, one of the few remaining large, built up but unbombed city was singled out. It was the attack on this medieval city in Feb 1945 that attracted the most criticism. Dresden was of minor industrial significance but was crammed with refugees. Estimated death toll varies from 35,000 to 135,000. On 16 Apr 1945, with the end of the war in sight, the Chiefs of Staff announced the ending of area bombing. Germany surrendered unconditionally on 7 May 1945.

In the six years of the Bomber Command (three and a half of them under Harris' command), it despatched at least 297,663 sorties by night and 66,851 by day and dropped almost one million tons of bombs. It is estimated that Harris's bombing campaign killed 500,000 German civilians, injured another 1 million and destroyed 3 million homes. Harris argued that the attacks on the German cities were justified as they helped to shorten the war and saved numerous allied lives. This argument did not quell his critics. British civilian victims of German bombs were estimated to be about 60,000 compared with 500,000 German victims of British bombs. Criticism and hostility towards Harris grew with the passage of time. There were critics who were against any bombings of civilians at all and there were those who thought that bombing of German cities was justified in the early part of the war but that it should be switched to precision bombing of selected targets in the later years.

There was yet another group of critics who critised the operational conduct of the campaign. The Bomber Command also suffered heavy losses - about 55,000 aircrew were killed, most of them officers and NCOs with 40,000 aircrew deaths attributable to the period under Harris's command. Questions have been raised as to whether the results justify the sacrifices made by the aircrew.

On the other hand, those who try to take a more objective stand may well point that the widescale bombing of German cities did not begin with Harris but with the two Commanders-in-Chiefs who preceded him, ACM Charles Portal and AM Richard Peirse. Although Harris himself had a firm belief in the bombing of German cities, it was those further up the ranks, including the War Cabinet, who gave him the tacit approval, and who should shoulder the blame.

Although Harris was promoted Air Marshal at the end of the war in 1945, he was not made a peer unlike the other high commanders of the war. Politicians, including Churchill did not want to be too closely linked with the Bomber Command. Some felt that he had been made a scapegoat of political expediency. Harris retired from the RAF in 1946 and left for his beloved South Africa where he ran a shipping business until he returned to England in 1953. He was offered a peerage belatedly in 1953 but he accepted only a baronetcy. He died in 1984 at the age of 91.

Adapted from the books:

"The Bomber Command Handbook 1939 --1945"

by Jonathan Falconer

" 'Bomber' Harris and the Strategic Bombing Offensive, 1939 --1945"

by Charles Messenger

Last updated: 03-Jul-2006






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