The guiding force behind Britain’s strategic bombing campaign in World War II, Sir Arthur Harris was to become a much-debated figure in the years after the war. Without doubt, he played an important role in his nation’s war effort, and in the process, he enjoyed the confidence of his political superiors and of his crewmen alike. After the war, his unapologetic support for the bombing of civilian targets, the high casualty rates of his missions and the often desultory results of the bombing campaign as a whole, made him something of an embarrassment. Often known as “Bomber” Harris, he conducted Britain’s air war as near to the spirit of Italian general Giulio Douhet’s theories as possible; his successes and failures stand as testimony to the strength and weakness of those theories.
Like so many airmen of his generation (he was born in 1892), Harris began his military career in the regular army. During World War I, the Royal Flying Corps was an integral part of the army, and Harris gave a good account of himself as a pilot. He remained with the air service when it became a branch of its own as the Royal Air Force, and enjoyed a solid career in the interwar period. His service included both staff work, notably the leadership of the Air Ministry Plans Branch, and the command of RAF forces stationed in Palestine and Transjordan.
Such posts would prove very important later. His work with the Ministry gave him a prominent voice in British preparations for the war that nearly everyone in the government anticipated. In theoretical terms, his was one of many voices that argued for a fleet of bombers to devastate the enemy’s cities, in emulation of the theories of Giulio Douhet. It was an argument that held particular power in Britain, where geographic and demographic realities led to a different course than the nations of the continent. Britain had long depended on the seas to protect it from hostile nations, investing in a powerful navy instead of a massive army, for which its manpower reserves were inadequate in any event. British planners recognized that, in the modern era, a powerful navy was no longer sufficient; they hoped that the bomber would make good the difference. In practical terms, Harris’ work at the Ministry allowed him to set the standards for the new, long-range bombers that would become operational around 1942.
His command positions also served him well. They gave him practical experience with the bomber aircraft of the interwar period, and with the crews that flew them. By nature a man with a conservative temperament, despite the ostensibly modernist thrust of the strategic bombing concept, he would rely heavily on this personal experience during the war.
When the World War II broke out in 1939, he held another command post, this time over the No. 5 Bomber Group. Early British policy did not offer him many opportunities to show his potential, or that of his military theories. Indeed, his bombers were sent on missions to deliver leaflets, instead of ordnance, and Harris considered this a waste of time. His prospects improved substantially in 1941, however; a visit to Washington to promote joint efforts between the RAF and the U.S. Army Air Forces proved highly successful, and Harris forged good relationships with his American counterparts. Then, in February, he was promoted to Commander in Chief of Bomber Command.
At last, he had the authority he needed to direct a true strategic bombing campaign, and with the new bombers like the Lancaster, he had the means. Prior British efforts had called for precision bombing, hoping to destroy targets of demonstrable military significance while limiting collateral damage to the surrounding population. Harris, instead, championed area bombing in the manner of Douhet. To his way of thinking, civilian casualties were not really collateral damage at all, but rather, an objective in their own right. The suffering of thousands in enemy cities would, it was thought, hasten the end of the war and the suffering of all; moreover, the loss of thousands in the cities was held to be the only reliable alternative to the loss of tens of thousands in the fruitless battles that had characterized World War I. That the dead and wounded here would be unarmed civilians instead of uniformed soldiers did not bother Harris, and for the time being, Britain accepted this as a necessity.
Area bombing offered the additional virtue of being possible at night, when precision bombing could not be contemplated. Night attacks offered a certain amount of protection against enemy fighters and flak, and so it was possible to mount large-scale operations. Approaching Douhet’s vision more closely than anyone in practice, Harris established the concept of the “thousand-bomber raid” and carried out the first of its kind on May 30, 1942, in an attack on the city of Cologne. The effort was a success in several respects. Firstly, Harris managed to gather 1,050 bombers for the attack, despite the reluctance of the Royal Navy to give up assets that had been allocated to them for other purposes. Then, over the course of two hours, these bombers smashed about a third of the city of Cologne. This raid and others like it failed, however, to crush German morale and to bring about the swift end to the conflict that, in theory, was to compensate for the attacks on civilians.
This pattern of attack proceeded until the months before D-Day, and then resumed thereafter. Other key moments in the campaign were the 1943 attack on Hamburg, the attacks on Berlin the following winter and then the bombing of Dresden on the night of Feb. 14 to 15, 1945. The attack on Hamburg has been considered a signal success, and some have proposed that another six successes on that order of magnitude during the summer of 1943 could have led to the end of the Reich two years early. This proposal is probably overreaching; not every successful raid could yield a comparable impact, and there are only so many cities in Germany comparable in importance to Hamburg. The notion that the success of Hamburg could be replicated six more times in only a few months is probably unrealistic. In any event, the Germans improved their defenses, and the attacks on Berlin resulted in devastating losses for Bomber Command. Area bombing was curtailed in April 1944 in favor of preparation for D-Day, but after the Normandy Campaign was underway, it resumed, and the attack on Dresden in 1945 was its greatest success.
Bomber Command did not operate alone. The USAAF began its buildup in Britain in 1942, easing into its role as a partner of Bomber Command in the RAF. The Americans felt that they had the right equipment to attempt precision bombing by day, and therefore did not need to engage in the practice of area bombing by night; Harris did not interfere with these plans, and in fact, made an asset out of them by allowing the Allies to carry on bombing raids by night and day alike. The philosophical differences concerning night and day bombing made no meaningful difference to the working relationship between the British and the Americans. Harris’ visit to the United States in 1941 did him much good, and he remained on highly favorable terms with American generals like Arnold, Spaatz and Eaker. Always he maintained a very welcoming demeanor with his American allies.
His relations with his own superiors were rockier. He enjoyed the confidence of Churchill and the War Cabinet, but Harris often had trouble with the Air Ministry. He was given to strong opinions, and while he always endeavored to fulfill the obligations he had been given, his ideas about how to do so often differed from those of the Air Ministry. As much as possible, Harris tried to ignore interference from above.
His relations with those below him were stellar. He chose his staff and his subordinate commanders well, and thereby ensured that they would meet his expectations. As for the crews themselves, Harris enjoyed their confidence, in spite of a generally reserved nature and even in the face of grievous losses. It is here that his prewar experience with real bomber crews rendered its best service. Harris also radiated firmness; his subordinates and the British public alike responded to this.
Firmness can also become obstinacy, and Harris’ opinionated nature manifested itself in his guidance of Bomber Command. Most notable here is his paradoxical resistance to new techniques. Generally, Douhet’s theories have been championed by those drawn to new theories and to at least the appearance of a more scientific approach in the face of traditional behavior. While Harris certainly oversaw a number of technological and organizational changes, he could be stubborn in resisting others. Most famously, he resisted the creation of the Pathfinder Force, which constituted a team of specialists that flew ahead of the main force of bombers, detecting and marking the target for better accuracy; his reason for opposing it was that the use of such specialists degraded the cohesion of the bomber crews.
Still, he had mastered the highly technical knowledge that was necessary for carrying on bomber operations. Much of his success can be attributed to this knowledge. This success garnered him some rewards after the war, chiefly promotion to the rank of Marshal of the RAF and a later title as Baronet. There were also grounds for criticism; the strategic bombing campaign did not accomplish the goals that were expected, and its cost was very high. This applied to the aircrews themselves, as well as the civilians in targeted cities. Fully half of Britain’s aircrews were killed in action. The British public came to reconsider the campaign as a whole, and subsequent political leaders chose to avoid the subject. As a result, Harris and his men never saw the kind of public support that other victors in the war enjoyed. He died in 1984.
Apart from idiosyncrasies like his distrust of many new methods, Sir Arthur Harris came closer than any other major air planner to embodying the ideas of Giulio Douhet; his efforts can therefore be seen as the principal test of the strategic bombing idea. In its pure form, it was a failure. The relentless attack on civilians was no more effective in Germany between 1942 and 1945 in bringing about a swifter and more humane end to the war than it had been in Britain in 1940 and 1941. Seen as one component in a war effort comprised of many elements, both traditional and novel, strategic bombing becomes harder to assess; it seems probable that it had some real strategic value, although this value becomes difficult to measure. Harder still is the effort to weigh this value against the human toll. In the end, this is the domain of hindsight. At the time, Harris acted in the firm belief that his bombing campaign was necessary; politicians and the public at large generally accepted this belief and were grateful for its firmness.
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