Bomber Harris: Butcher or Victor?

Arthur Bomber Harris

Arthur 'Bomber' Harris

Reading a recent Biography of Marshall of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, the famous Bomber Harris of Second World War Bomber Command fame, it dawned on me just how controversial a figure he has become in recent years. Like Monty, he has suffered from History. Unfairly, in my view.

Harris took charge of Bomber Command in 1942, and oversaw its development until the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, a truly monumental task during a critical phase of the war. Harris had always been a firm believer in the power of the Bomber, and the ability of heavy Bombers to win the war on their own.

After the end of the war the contribution of Harris and his men has been consistently overlooked by Historians. He was the only major commander in chief serving in the succesful end phase of the war who did not receive a peerage in 1945. More recently, it has been argued by a number of Historians that the Bombing of Germany amounts to a war crime, that it had little or no effect on the outcome of the war, and that thanks to his close links to Churchill Harris was allowed to wage a private war of his own in the skies over Germany.

To argue that Harris was a war criminal is lacking an awareness of what pressures and conditions prevailed at the time. Whilst it was unpleasant, Britain was engaged in a total war, in which she herself had been heavily bombed, and was fighting a totalitarian regime. For a large part of the war, the only way that Britain could hit back at Nazi Germany was by Bombing. Whilst it was no doubt an unpleasant task, it was by no means as unpleasant as many crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. The alternative was doing nothing, which would have been militarily and politically unacceptable in the situation Britain was faced with. Some kind of effort had to be made to assist the Russians, and the British public had to feel that Britain was hitting back in some way. We should be careful not to judge acts of the past by modern conditions, or to discount them ebcause they dont fit in with our political motives today.

Reports during the war argued that area bombing was ineffective. One of these was written by a scientist whose prewar distinction was studying the sexuality of primates. Whilst the bombing may not have been of pinpoint accuracy, certainly it had SOME effect on the German war effort. Albert Speer, the German Minister for Armaments, certainly thought so. The disruption and effect on morale was important. Raids such as Operation Chastise, the famous Dambusters operation, had an immeasurable effect on British and German morale conversely, and forced the Germans onto the defensive over their own skies.

Harris by no means waged a private war. He was assured of his own knowledge, experience and confidence. His bosses, Churchill and Portal, largely let him get on with the task at hand, which speaks volumes of their confidence in him. But the bombing of Germany was part of a wider strategy, as agreed at political level domestically and with the Allies. At key phases Harris’s bombers were tasked to operate in support of the D-Day Invasion, something that he reluctantly but ultimately agreed to. In several cases his heavy bombers launched raids directly in support of the Army. They were unsuccesful, as he had predicted, but at least he tried. Hardly the actions of someone waging a private war.

Some accounts try to portray Harris as a coarse individual. In fact he was well read in military history and a very experienced aviator. Harris was initially critical of Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb, but when it worked he exclaimed to Wallis ‘now you could sell me a pink Elephant!’

Lastly, I think any leader or commander should be most suitably assesed by the regard in which they were held by their men. And most veterans of Bomber Command seem to concur that Harris was an ideal leader. It is hard to imagine another Airman trainsforming and commanding Bomber Command so well. In the states figures such as Ira Eaker, Curtis LeMay and Jimmy Doolittle are revered. Why not Harris?

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6 Comments

Filed under Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

6 responses to “Bomber Harris: Butcher or Victor?

  1. I tend to agree with you. Bomber Harris did a great job in a difficult role, at an even harder time. As time goes by people look for more and more obtuse angles to view historic people and events. Whilst it is important to keep reviewing history as new evidence is unearthed, as a researcher you have to keep in mind the contemporary setting for any given event.

  2. dalyhistory

    Hi Paul, definitely. Its all too easy for us to view events with the hindsight of 60 years, but at the time first and foremost they had a war to win… and luckily for us they did. Unfortunately wild revisionist theories sell books and make headlines too.

  3. Good piece. I think one of the key phrases has to be “total war”, therefore all efforts to damage/inhibit the enemy must be made. The Bomber offensive pinned a significant part of the German’s airpower in Western Europe, denying them air superiority for crucial periods on the Eastern front.
    I believe it was Harris who would ask civil servants “What are you doing to retard the war effort today?” or words to the effect.

  4. dalyhistory

    Hi Ali, many thanks for your comment. That is certainly what I was trying to emphasise. I can’t remember who exactly this quote came from, but it sums it up for me:

    ‘the essence of war is violence. Moderation in war is imbecility’

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