Pre-World War II
Air Marshall Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris was born in Cheltenham in 1892 during a visit by his parents to England, while his father was on leave from the Indian Civil Service. He was educated at All Hallows School in Dorset, his brothers were educated at Sherborne and Eton. Not considered academically gifted by his parents and at the age of 16 he was given the choice of “either army or the colonies”. He chose the colonies and went to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), where over the next few years he flourished earning his living “gold mining, driving coaches [and] general farming”. In 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, Harris joined the 1st Rhodesian Regiment as a bugler, and served with them in South Africa and in the German colony of South-West Africa (now Namibia). In 1915 he returned to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps, serving with distinction on the home front and in France during 1917 as a flight commander and ultimately CO of No. 45 Squadron, flying the Sopwith 1½ Strutter and Sopwith Camel. He claimed 5 enemy aicraft destroyed before he returned to England to command No. 44 Squadron on Home Defence duties and was awarded the Air Force Cross (AFC). After the war he chose to remain in the newly formed Royal Air Force. In the RAF he served in different functions in India, Mesopotamia (now Iraq and Syria), and Persia (now Iran). He said of his service in India that he first got involved in bombing in the usual annual North West Frontier tribesmen trouble. In Mesopotamia he commanded a Vickers Vernon squadron. “We cut a hole in the nose and rigged up our own bomb racks and I turned those machines into the heaviest and best bombers in the command”. Harris also contributed at this time to the development of bombing using delay-action bombs, which were then applied to keep down uprisings of the Mesopotamian tribes fighting against British occupation. Despite the many civilian victims of these air raids, Harris is recorded as having remarked “the only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand.”
In 1924 Harris was posted to England to command the first post-war heavy bomber squadron (No. 58). His commander in Iraq had been the future Chief of the Air Staff Sir John Salmond, who was also one of his commanders back in England. Together they developed “night training for night operations”. From 1927 to 1929 he attended the Army Staff College at Camberley where he discovered that at the college the army kept 200 horses for the officers’ fox hunting. At a time when all services were very short of equipment, the army high command – which was still dominated by cavalry officers – clearly had a different set of priorities from technocrats like Harris, who quipped that the army commanders would only be happy with the tank if it could learn to eat hay and shit like a horse. He also had a low opinion of the Navy, he commented that there were three things which should never be allowed on a well run yacht “a wheel-barrow, an umbrella and a naval officer”. Bernard Montgomery was one of the few army officers he met at while at the college whom he liked; possibly because they shared certain underlying personality characteristics in common.
His next command was of a flying-boat squadron where he continued to develop night flying techniques. He was posted to the Middle East Command in Egypt, as a senior Air Staff Officer. In 1937 he was promoted to Air Commodore and in 1938 he was a put in command of No. 4 (bomber) Group. After a purchasing mission to the USA, he was posted to Palestine and Trans-Jordan and as an Air Vice Marshal he was Officer Commanding the RAF contingent in that area. He returned to England in September 1939 to take command of No. 5 Group.
World War II
Harris quickly rose through the RAF hierarchy. In 1941 he was promoted to Air Marshal and Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of Bomber Command in February 1942. At the time, the RAF’s night bombing role had had little effect on the German economy. By 1942, however, larger numbers of four-engined heavy bombers were becoming available, allowing for a change in tactics.
Professor Lindemann was liked and trusted by Winston Churchill. Churchill appointed him the British government’s leading scientific adviser with a seat in the Cabinet. In 1942, Lindemann presented a seminal paper to the Cabinet advocating the area bombing of German cities in a strategic bombing campaign. It was accepted by the Cabinet and Harris was appointed to carry out the task. It became an important part of the total war waged against Germany. Professor Lindemann’s paper put forward the theory of attacking major industrial centres in order to deliberately destroy as many homes and houses as possible. Working class housing areas were to be targeted because they had a higher density and fire storms were more likely. This would displace the German workforce and disrupt and reduce their ability to work. Calculations showed that the RAF Bomber Command would be able to destroy the majority of German houses located in cities quite quickly. The plan was highly controversial even before it started, but the Cabinet thought that bombing was the only option available to directly attack Germany (as a major invasion of the continent was years away), and the Soviets were demanding that the Western Allies do something to relieve the pressure on the Eastern Front.
Harris said at the start of the bombing campaign that he was unleashing on Germany “The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.” In his memoirs he writes “In spite of all that happened at Hamburg, bombing proved a relatively humane method”. At first, the effects were limited because of the small numbers of aircraft used and the lack of navigational aids that meant bombing was scattered and accuracy was poor. As production of better aircraft and electronic aids increased, Harris pressed for raids on a much larger scale, each to use 1,000 aeroplanes. In Operation Millennium Harris launched the first RAF “thousand bomber raid” against Cologne on the night of May 30/31, 1942. This operation included the first use of a bomber stream, which was a tactical innovation designed to overwhelm the German night-fighters of the Kammhuber Line.
Harris was just one of an influential group of high ranking Allied air commanders who continued to believe that the bombing alone would force Germany to surrender. On a number of occasions he wrote to his superiors claiming the war would be over in a matter of months, first in August 1943 following the success of the Battle of Hamburg codenamed Operation Gomorrah, and then again in January 1944. By this time, however, Bomber Command had been involved in what became known as the Battle of Berlin: a series of massive raids on Berlin that started in November 1943, and lasted until March 1944. During this time the British lost 1,047 bombers, with a further 1,682 damaged, culminating in the disastrous raid on Nuremberg on March 30, 1944, when 94 bombers were shot down and 71 damaged, out of 795 aircraft.
With the leadup to the D-Day invasions in 1944, Harris was ordered to switch targets for the French rail network, a switch he protested because he felt it compromised the continuing pressure on German industry and it was using Bomber Command for a purpose it was not designed or suited for. By the end of the year the Allied forces were well inland, and in January 1945 he was allowed to resume his earlier policy. The several months of rest and refit had been useful to Bomber Command, and they were now able to put up well over 1,000 planes per raid.
After D-Day with the resumption of the strategic bomber campaign over Germany, Harris remained wedded to area bombardment. The historian Frederick Taylor argues that as Harris was not cleared to know about ULTRA, he was given some information gleaned from ENIGMA, but not where it had come from. This directly affected his attitude to the effectiveness of the post D-Day 1944 directives (orders) to target oil installations as he did not know that it was high level German sources which was being used by the Allied high command to assess just how much it was hurting the German war effort; so Harris tended to see the directives to bomb specific oil and munitions targets as a high level command “panacea” (his word), and as a distraction from the real task of making the rubble bounce in every large German city.
The most controversial RAF raid of the war took place in the late evening of February 13, 1945 with the bombing of the city of Dresden resulting in a lethal firestorm which killed several tens of thousands of civilians. Raids such as that or of Pforzheim late in the war as Germany was falling have been criticized for causing high civilian casualties for little apparent military value. The culmination of the RAF Bomber Command offensive occurred in the raids in March 1945 when the RAF dropped the highest monthly weight of ordnance in the entire war. The last raid on Berlin took place on the night of 21/22nd of April; just before the Soviets entered the city centre. After that, most of the rest of the bombing raids made by the RAF were tactical support roles. The last major strategic raid was the destruction of the oil refinery in Tønsberg in Southern Norway by 107 Lancasters on the night of 25/26 of April.
Within the post war British government, there was now some disquiet about the level of destruction created by the carpet-bombing of German cities towards the end of the war. However, Harris was made Marshal of the RAF in 1945. He retired on September 15, 1945 to write his story of Bomber Command’s achievements in Bomber Offensive. He was the sole commander-in-chief not made a peer in 1946. Bomber Command’s crews were denied a separate campaign medal (despite being eligible for the Air Crew Europe and France and Germany stars) and, in protest at this establishment snub to his men, Harris refused a peerage. Disappointed by the criticisms of his methods, Harris moved to South Africa in 1948, and was the manager of the South African Marine Corporation from 1946 to 1953.
In 1953 Churchill, now Prime Minister again, insisted that Harris accepted a baronetcy and he became 1st Baronet of Chipping Wycombe. In the same year he returned to the UK and lived his remaining years in Goring-on-Thames, in Ferry Cottage. Harris never expressed any remorse for his actions during the war till his death.
Despite protests from Germany as well as some in Britain, the Bomber Harris Trust (an RAF veterans organisation formed to defend the good name of their commander), erected a statue of him outside the RAF Church of St Clement Danes, London in 1992. It was unveiled by the Queen Mother who looked surprised when she was jeered by protesters. The line on the statue reads “The Nation owes them all an immense debt.” The statue had to be guarded by policemen day and night for some time as it was frequently sprayed with graffiti.
•Sir Arthur Harris: Bomber Offensive, Reprinted 2005, First published 1947. ISBN 1844152103 Harris?s account in his own words
•Henry Probert: “Bomber” Harris: His Life and Times, Published 2003 ISBN 1853675555 A good rounded modern biography, neither defending or condemning Harris.
•Norman Longmate: The Bombers: The RAF offensive against Germany 1939-1945 Pub. Hutchinson 1983, ISBN 0-09-151580-7
•Fredrick Taylor Dresden:Tuesday 13 February 1945, Pub (NY): HarperCollins, ISBN 0060006765, Pub (Lon): Bloomsbury. ISBN 0747570787.