Regarded by some of his detractors as little short of a war criminal, and as a war-winning hero by his admirers, Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber Command’s wartime Commander-in-Chief, remains an extremely controversial figure.
Sometimes vilified as being the very symbol of Bomber Command’s war against Germany, Harris has been blamed for the massive slaughter of German civilians and for the wanton and wholesale destruction of Germany’s towns and cities, in what is remembered by some as having been an ineffective and ultimately pointless campaign, and one which led to the loss of thousands of Allied lives.
On the other side of the coin, Harris’s supporters credit him with having inspired and led a campaign which materially facilitated the Allied victory, disrupting German industrial production, diverting forces from the front to home defence, and sapping Germany’s will to resist. Some even claim that without Bomber Command, D-Day would have failed and that victory in the Battle of the Atlantic would not have been won.
To an unusual extent, arguments about the conduct and morality of the strategic bombing campaign are inextricably bound up with its main wartime commander, Arthur Harris.
After a conventional minor public school education, Harris went to Rhodesia to ‘find his fortune’ and served as an infantryman in the South West African campaign, before returning to England to serve in the Royal Flying Corps, mainly as a home defence night fighter pilot, though with periods on the Western Front which allowed him to achieve ‘Ace’ status. On the disbandment of his unit (No 50 Squadron) Harris applied for a course in navigation and night flying in ‘heavy machines’, the first step in turning a fighter pilot into the dedicated bomber adherent he would soon become. Such a shift in emphasis was a useful career move, since the inter-war RAF was very much a bomber arm, founded on the strategic doctrine formulated by its first Commander, Lord Trenchard.
Under this, it was held as self-evident that the psychological effect of bombing (referred to by Trenchard as ‘moral’ effect, because he couldn’t spell ‘psychological’, according to legend), would be sufficient to paralyse an enemy. This belief was fostered despite evidence that German bombing of London during the Great War had had little effect on civilian morale, but may have represented an acknowledgement that the material effect of bombing (using the technology of the day) was relatively insignificant!
Harris then went on to serve in India, on the North West Frontier and in Iraq, where he gained valuable insight into the use of offensive air power in the Colonial Policing role. Here he developed an obsession with bombing accuracy and effectiveness, helping his unit, No 45 Squadron, to win the 1923 Command Bombing Competition.
Harris went on to command the first Vickers Virginia heavy bomber squadron, No 58, and later No 210, a flying boat unit equipped with the Supermarine Southampton. Then in 1933, Harris went to the Air Ministry as a Group Captain Deputy Director of Plans, where he urged the abandonment of light and medium bombers, and pressed for the development of new long-range strategic bombers, convinced that only these could counter an anticipated bombing offensive by the Luftwaffe, possibly operating from bases in the Low Countries.
Harris took over command of No 5 (Bomber) Group, equipped with Handley Page Hampdens, one week after the outbreak of war. Harris was contemptuous of the aircraft whose armament he described as ‘typical Handley Page junk’ – an illuminating illustration of his bias against what had been Britain’s premier bomber manufacturer. After the type’s relegation to night operations, Harris embraced the mine-laying role with some alacrity, so eager was he to take the war to the hated ‘boche’.
After a stint as Deputy Chief of the Air Staff and another with the British Air Commission in Washington, he took over as C-in-C Bomber Command in February 1942, launching an area bombing policy which explicitly aimed to destroy the morale of enemy industrial workers. In America, some had felt that Harris was too bluff and domineering, with a superiority complex that ‘rubbed people up the wrong way’. But in fairness, Harris won over the President and many of his senior aides, together with the USAAF’s top brass, who welcomed his advice and help in turning the USAAF into a war-ready force.
Churchill had first urged ‘absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers upon the Nazi homeland’ from July 1940, and this was enthusiastically embraced by Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff, and by Harris himself. Later, Churchill was even urged to bomb the German population by Stalin, who believed that it was the only useful second front which the Allies could open, and that it represented the only way of breaking German morale. But the bomber campaign as actually fought fell far short of this kind of absolute storm of terror and destruction. Night after night tens of precious bombers and their irreplaceable crews failed to return from missions which only managed to damage a house or two and kill the odd cow, as bombs were almost randomly scattered within a huge area usually somewhere vaguely near the intended target. Depressingly often, Bomber Command casualties far outnumbered German casualties on the ground.
There were occasional successes – not least against the Renault factory at Billancourt in March 1942, and against Lübeck and Rostock that same spring. And there were some high-profile glorious failures which pleased the Ministry of Information propagandists, like the VC-winning but suicidal Augsburg raid of April 1942 and the boldly conceived Operation Millennium, the first 1,000-bomber raid against Köln on 30/31 May 1942.
Harris was hopelessly optimistic when it came to assessing the effectiveness of bombing, making unrealistic claims as to accuracy and destruction, and displaying a remarkable complacency when assessing the effectiveness and failure rate of weapons. He also had an entirely unrealistic view of the overall significance and importance of Bomber Command’s role. He predicted in mid-1942 that it could win the war alone, with a continental land campaign having no use except for mopping up, and describing the ‘entirely defensive’ Coastal Command as ‘merely an obstacle to victory’.
While politicians maintained the pretence that Bomber Command was attacking military and industrial targets Harris was more honest, seeing no shame in attacking the German people and having no problem with describing the aim of his attacks on Berlin as being ‘to cause the heart of the German nation to stop beating’. When pressed to use a higher proportion of incendiaries, he argued the case for high explosive, saying:
I do not agree with this policy. The moral effect of HE is vast. People can escape from fires, and the casualties on a solely fire raising raid would be as nothing. What we want to do in addition to the horrors of fire is to bring the masonry crashing down on top of the Boche, to kill Boche and to terrify Boche.
It was this bloodthirsty and arguably excessive zeal which led some critics to wonder whether Britain did not ‘lower itself to Nazi standards’ by waging such indiscriminate warfare against civilians – an idea also seized upon by Goebbels’ propagandists. But it is easy to forget that this was ‘Total War’ with little room or reason for quarter to be asked or extended, and it is perhaps worth reminding the reader that these same civilians would often lynch a downed airman if they got their hands on him. Moreover, Harris had fought and witnessed the carnage on the Western Front, and doubtless felt that the death of German civilians was preferable to the wholesale slaughter of another generation of British youth in the trenches. His Great War experience (of a war in which British military casualties exceeded one million dead) probably also helped him to cope with what was, by comparison, the fairly modest Bomber Command casualty total of 55,000 dead (a quarter of Britain’s war dead in the whole of the Armed Forces, from a force which absorbed 7 per cent of Britain’s military manpower) and 18,000 wounded or taken prisoner. Following the 1945 attack against Dresden, Harris summed up his attitude to the value of German civilian life by paraphrasing Bismarck:
I do not believe that the whole of the remaining cities of Germany are worth the bones of one British Grenadier.
Though Harris himself continued to expound the virtues of area bombing, and of directly targeting the enemy civilian populace, Bomber Command did become steadily more accurate. In European weather, Bomber Command ended the war achieving better accuracy than the USAAF’s supposedly daylight precision bombing campaign. The USAAF was never as good at blind bombing as Bomber Command and soon began what was effectively an area bombing offensive, albeit using what were euphemistically termed as railway marshalling yards as aim points in what were often area attacks against whole cities. Many doubt whether the USAAF could have pulled off the Peenemunde raid successfully, whereas Bomber Command devastated the secret rocket establishment with exemplary precision. Later, Bomber Command’s ability to undertake precision bombing was underlined when it operated in support of Operation Overlord, attacking tactical targets in France with great accuracy (however unwilling Harris may have been to being placed under Eisenhower’s command for these operations!). Fortunately, Eisenhower’s ‘Air Commander’, Tedder, was himself a Strategic Bombing enthusiast, who shared Harris’s views on slogan warfare and panacea targets, and this took some of the sting out of Bomber Command’s new temporary role.
Germany’s Armaments Minister, Albert Speer commented that ‘The RAF night attacks are considerably more effective than the US daylight attacks, since heavier bombs are used, an extraordinary accuracy in attacking the target is reported.’
But this improved accuracy was, to some extent, camouflaged by the horrifically indiscriminate results of later raids, from the series of attacks against Hamburg in July 1943 to the infamous attack on Dresden, where the dense concentration of bombs around the aim point was less immediately obvious than the devastation the attacks caused to the whole city, or than the horrendous death toll.
In the end, the Strategic Bomber Campaign did eventually bear fruit, and it did make a major contribution to the eventual Allied victory. But many assessments question the extent of its contribution, and highlight its failings and cost. Many believe that had the same level of resources been dedicated to fighter-bomber and tactical bomber operations, the results might have been even more spectacular.
But while it may be unrealistic to have expected Harris to embrace that kind of bombing offensive, it is entirely reasonable to have expected him to have been rather more open-minded about the air war than he was. His opposition to any diversion of resources from ‘his’ private war against Germany was almost blindly wilful, and undeniably restricted and limited the success of Coastal Command’s vital campaign to combat the U-boat menace, safeguard Allied convoys, and impose a blockade on Germany. It has been calculated that a single four-engined bomber allocated to Coastal Command (never viewed by Harris as anything better than a ‘sideshow’) had 20 times more effect on the German economy than the same aircraft allocated to Bomber Command. This is a contentious and controversial statistic, but gives an idea of how important a part Coastal Command played in the defeat of Germany.
Similarly, Harris was never very willing to countenance the despatch of heavy bombers to overseas theatres, unless they were aircraft types which he felt were useless to Bomber Command, like the Liberator, which was thus ‘spared’ for use in the Middle East and India (and, of course, by Coastal Command). Fortunately for other commands, Harris was as blind to the attributes of some aircraft as he was to the importance of other ways of winning the war. Thus the Liberator was discarded by Bomber Command because of its modest payload and altitude, while its phenomenal range and good defensive armament were ignored.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, Harris was a scathing critic of the Halifax. He placed no value whatever on the multi-role versatility of the Halifax, and never bothered to re-evaluate the aircraft once he had formed his impression of the initial, Merlin-engined version. Certainly, he gave no impression of realising that the aircraft suffered a lower loss rate than the Lancaster during early Pathfinder operations (even in its Merlin-engined form), nor that in its later radial-engined form, during the latter part of the war, it enjoyed a considerably lower loss rate than the Lancaster (0.56 per cent compared to 0.74 per cent). The fact that 29 per cent of Halifax crews who were shot down survived the experience, compared to only 11 per cent of Lancaster aircrew would have been of little interest to Harris, to whom live aircrew languishing in enemy POW camps were of little interest.
What did matter to Harris was the tonnage of bombs dropped on the Reich (not accurately dropped on the target, necessarily) and here the Lancaster won the unshakeable confidence of Bomber Command’s C-in-C. In its lifetime, the average Lancaster would drop 154 tons of bombs, while the average Halifax would drop only 100 tons.
Harris’s single-mindedness and stubbornness did give him enormous determination and strength, and enabled him to fight Bomber Command’s corner with great tenacity and considerable success. This in turn made him a popular leader, though he was inclined to be remote and acerbic, and though kind, generous and humorous, was far from charismatic, and lacked the ‘common touch’ of other similarly popular commanders. His humanitarianism and relatively rare bursts of compassion and concern for his men were usually motivated by a search for greater efficiency, and he was always a strict and unyielding disciplinarian. But ‘Butch’ quickly won the respect, gratitude and grudging admiration of ‘his bombers’, and this later turned into something approaching real devotion.
After the war, the lack of recognition accorded to Bomber Command and its achievements irked Harris, and he felt let down by the way in which Churchill distanced himself from the bombing offensive. He became a vocal champion of his Command’s record, further enhancing his popularity and standing with his men. It seems likely that Harris turned down a proffered peerage out of solidarity with his groundcrew (who were given no more than the Defence Medal, qualifying for no campaign medal) rather than never being offered one – which is how legend has it. Whether or not Harris was put up for a peerage, he was treated shabbily, he retired as scheduled in November 1945, several months short of qualifying for an Air Chief Marshal’s pension and with no further official employment being offered, though he was belatedly promoted Marshal of the Royal Air Force.
Harris died on 5 April 1984, eight days short of his 92nd birthday, and eight years later, on 31 May 1992, a statue to him was finally formally unveiled outside the RAF Church at St Clement Dane.
by Jon Lake
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