Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris
Arthur Travers Harris, born on April 13th, 1892, in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England; died on April 5th, 1984, in Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, England. British Air Force Officer, Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command, Royal Air Force (RAF), from 1942 to 1945.
Educated at a public school, Arthur Harris turned away from the military career his family hoped he would embrace and tried his luck in Rhodesia as a gold digger and a cattle breeder. When WWI broke out, young Harris enlisted as a bugler with the Rhodesia Regiment. Dissatisfied, he returned to England and showed up at the Brooklands airfield to train as a pilot.
His real military career started in November 1915 when he joined the Royal Flying Corps, forerunner of the RAF. He served with territorial defence against Zeppelin attacks, fought with an artillery-support squadron on the French western front; later, he returned to Britain to fight against German bombers. When the war ended, he had been squadron leader for some time and was awarded the Air Force Cross.
Between the wars, Harris served in several colonial postings throughout the British Empire: in India between 1919 and 1924, back in England from 1924 to 1926, in Egypt from 1926 to 1933, then again in England and finally in Palestine and Transjordan in 1938-1939. He was already known for his frankness of speech.
In September 1939, the RAF appointed Harris to lead Bomber Command’s 5 Group. In November 1940, Harris left his operational command to join the Air Ministry as Deputy Chief of Air Staff. He made it clear to the Ministry’s civil servants that their role was to support the operational personnel, not the other way around. As to his attitude towards the enemy, it was clearly expressed the night of a German attack on London when, climbing on the roof of the Air Ministry building as bombs were exploding all around, he stated “They have sown the wind, and so they shall reap the whirlwind.”
On February 23rd, 1942, Arthur Harris was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Bomber Command and left for the Command’s HQ near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. The situation was desperate: Bomber Command was criticized for its lack of efficiency, the Butt Report, released a few months earlier, having demonstrated that the majority of British bombers could not reach their targets within a 5-km radius. Harris strongly believed that strategic bombing could force the enemy into submission. He demonstrated his theory by mass-bombing Cologne, as over a thousand aircraft took part in a single raid in the night of May 30th-31st, 1942.
Although the success of the Cologne raid could not easily be repeated, Harris’ resolution did not weaken. He mustered all resources available to turn Bomber Command into a weapon that could not only destroy the Nazi war industry but also strike Germany’s cities and civilian population. Personnel was increased, new instruments provided better accuracy, heavy bombers, such as the Lancaster, were able to carry larger loads of bombs with more destructive power. Starting in 1943, there was a wave of bombing campaigns on the Ruhr, on major urban centres, as well as on Berlin. Under Harris, Bomber Command carried out the destruction of German cities well into the last months of the war, with an interruption only to ensure support to Allied invasion forces during the campaign of Normandy.
At the end of the war, Sir Arthur Harris was promoted to RAF Marshal; he wrote his memoirs, published in 1947 as Bomber Offensive.
Nicknamed “Bomber Harris”, Bomber Command’s Commander-in-Chief remains the most controversial of all WWII Allied officers. As early as 1945, damage assessment studies conducted in Germany raised doubts whether the massive destruction he ordered was at all warranted. Even nowadays, historians do not agree on the value of strategic bombing. Some blame Harris for the death of innocent civilians, especially during the last months of the war; others argue that he acted with full support of the British government and of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and therefore, that he cannot be held personally responsible for actions that his government deemed to be essential to the final victory.
Sir Arthur Harris was, nevertheless, a leader appreciated by his men. Many who served under him gave him their support in the controversy surrounding the decisions he made, highlighting how indispensable those operations were and what an upright man Harris was.
There are no words with which I can do justice to the air-crew who fought under my command. There is no parallel in warfare to such courage and determination in the face of danger over so prolonged a period, of danger that at times was so great that scarcely one man in three could expect to survive his tour of thirty operations… It was, furthermore, the courage of the small hours, of men virtually alone, for at his battle station the airman is virtually alone. It was the courage of men with long-drawn apprehensions of daily ‘going over the top’.
— Sir Arthur Harris, from Bomber Offensive.
- See the detailed biography of Sir Arthur Harris on the Bomber Command Historical Society website