Air Marshall Sir Arthur
". 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
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
by Jonathan Falconer
" 'Bomber' Harris and the Strategic
Bombing Offensive, 1939 --1945"
by Charles Messenger