Air Marshall Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris remains one of the most controversial military commanders of World War Two. Arthur Harris commanded Bomber Command and was a believer that the bombing of civilian targets, and as a result civilians, would shorten World War Two. Harris commanded Bomber Command during the Allies massive air campaign against Nazi Germany between 1942 and 1945.

Harris was born in April 1892. He went to a private school but at the age of seventeen moved to what was then Rhodesia where he tried to find his fortune in gold mining and tobacco growing.

When World War One started in August 1914, Harris joined the 1st Rhodesia Regiment. He fought against the Germans in German South West Africa but returned to Britain in 1915 where he joined the Royal Flying Corps. In 1916, Harris qualified as a fighter pilot and joined 44 Squadron in France. It is said that what he witnessed in France – the futility of trench warfare – shaped his views on aerial bombing in future years. Before the war had ended, he had taken control of 44 Squadron. In 1919, Harris became a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force. In this capacity, he served throughout the British Empire (India, Iraq, Iran and the Middle East) during the 1920’s and the early 1930’s. During this time, the RAF used bombing raids against tribes people in Iraq who had rebelled against British rule. Some of these raids included the use of poison gas and delayed action bombs. Some in the RAF were appalled by this (Air Commodore Lionel Charlton resigned his commission regarding this) but Harris said:

“The only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand.”

In 1933, Harris was appointed as Deputy Director of Plans in the Air Ministry – a post he held until 1937. During this time, relations with Germany became strained and Harris produced a document on what part the RAF could play in a war against Germany.

By September 1939, Harris was an Air Vice Marshall. His initial role in the war was spent in America where he purchased planes for Britain’s war effort. In February 1942, Harris was appointed head of Bomber Command. Up to then, Bomber Command had not been overly successful – its long range sorties had been suspended because of inaccurate night raids and heavy losses of crew and planes in day-time raids.

As commander of Bomber Command, it was now that he could put into operation his belief that an enemy could be bombed into submission – a ploy he called ‘area bombing’. Harris believed that if the morale of civilians was destroyed as a result of their city being attacked, they would put pressure on their government to capitulate. The first raids were on Lubeck and Rostock. Here the bombers dropped incendiary bombs and these raids did a great deal of material damage to both cities. In May 1942, a massive 1000 bomber raid on Cologne, did vast damage to the city for the loss of just 40 planes. Such a small rate of loss was considered extremely good especially when the government took into account the ‘feel good’ factor of the raid – the boost it gave to Britain’s civilians knowing that Germany was being bombed just as London had.

With such apparent success, the massive bombing raids continued on cities such as Hamburg and Berlin. The raids, which the Nazis referred to as “terror raids”, culminated in the infamous raid on Dresden in February 1945.

These raids were especially dangerous for bomber crews. During the war, Bomber Command lost over 57,000 men and many aircraft like the Lancaster. The raids killed over 600,000 German civilians and seriously damaged 6 million homes.

A Lancaster bomber

To start with, Harris had the support of Winston Churchill. In 1941, Churchill had said:

“We need to make the enemy burn and bleed in every way.”  

However, in 1945, Churchill gave instructions to Harris that the area bombing of Germany should be stopped.

“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, should be reviewed. Otherwise, we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land.” 

In 1946, Harris was appointed Marshall of the RAF. However, he felt that Bomber Command was never given the recognition that he believed it deserved. Whereas the men of Fighter Command were applauded, the men who flew with Bomber Command never received a similar recognition and at the end of the war, they were not given a campaign medal – something that greatly angered Harris.

Harris retired from the RAF shortly after his promotion to Marshall and emigrated to South Africa. Here he continued to believe that the area bombing of Germany had done a lot to bring the war to an end. Harris continued to work in South Africa and died in April 1984.

“In spite of all that happened at Hamburg, bombing proved a comparatively humane method. For one thing, it saved the youth of this country and of our allies from being mown down by the military as it was in the war of 1914-1918.”

‘Bomber’ Harris writing in his memoirs in 1947.

For a number of years, the raid on Dresden was condemned as an unnecessary act. However, a recent publication has presented arguments that Dresden was indeed a legitimate target for the Allies and that the judgment of Harris was correct. In 1992, a statue to Harris was unveiled near Trafalgar Square in London. Within 24 hours, red paint was poured over it – such was/is the controversy the beliefs of Harris caused.

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