I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris and the RAF’s WW2 Bomber Command of late, and I thought I would take a look at some of the many books written by him, about him, and about his work.
My interest was sparked by picking up a cheap copy of Bomber Harris: His Life and Times by Henry Probert (Greenhill, 2003) at the National Archives bookshop when I was there doing some research. It is a remarkably balanced work, addressing some of the myths and detractions that have been pointed at Harris and his men. Importantly, it looks at his prewar and post-war lives, to give us some context to his character. Clinchingly, Probert does not seek to eulogise Harris, as many military biographies do, nor denigrate him, as revionist historians might seek to.
This contrasts firmly with the ‘official’ biography, published shortly after his death. In Bomber Harris (Time Warner, 1985) Dudley Saward misses out vast swathes of Harris’s life, even omitting to mention that he had a first family before his divorce. Whilst this is not militarily important, and there were no doubt honourable reasons for this, it does cast questions over the authors judgement regarding inclusion and exclusion of details. As with most official biographies, it is firmly uncontroversial.
Sir Arthur Harris also wrote himself. In Bomber Offensive (Pen and sword, 2005) we really get a flavour of the man. Writing in terms that would be totally unacceptable today, and without the saddlestone of hindsight, this is a timely reminder that men were making difficult decisions at the time based on the difficult situation they were in.
Casting our net wider, the celebrated war-reporter turned Newspaper Editor, Max Hastings, has turned his pen’s attention towards Bomber Command. In Bomber Command (Pan, 1999) Hastings has produced an eminently readable and well crafted work. Whilst one might not agree with his conclusions about the effectiveness of the Bomber offensive, it is not difficult to admire his objectiveness, something which is all too often lacking in some military historians.
However, in this historians view the best work written about the Bomber offensive is by that under-rated, serial rescuer of maligned military figures, Robin Neillands. In The Bomber War (John Murray, 2001) Neillands took the approach of appraising Bomber Command and the US Eight Air Forces efforts together, rather than separately, as many other books do. Not sensational, and not as ‘trendy’ as Hastings, but more on the spot, one feels.