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
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
At the end of the war, Sir Arthur Harris
was promoted to RAF Marshal; he wrote his
memoirs, published in 1947 as Bomber
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.