Chief of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command from 1942 to 1945.
Born at Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, the son of an engineer-architect in the Indian civil service, Arthur Harris was educated at Gore Court, Sittingbourne, and Allhallows, Honiton. In 1914 Harris joined the first Rhodesian Regiment as a bugler and took part in the campaign against German South-West Africa. In 1915 he returned to Britain and was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps. He participated in defensive night fighter operations against zeppelin raids and also served on the western front, where he earned enough victories to qualify as an air ace. After the war, he took a permanent commission in the RAF and was involved in air operations in northwest India, Iraq, and Palestine. In 1939 Harris was given command of No. 5 (Bomber) Group, which did valuable work against German shipping concentrations and airfields during the invasion threat in 1940. Later that year he became deputy chief of the Air Staff and in 1941 was appointed head of the RAF delegation to Washington, where he sought to speed up the delivery of aircraft and air supplies. In 1942 he was summoned back to Britain to become commander in chief of Bomber Command.
Under Harris, Bomber Command developed into a formidable weapon of war. His favored method of attack was the area bombing of German cities at night. He did not invent the policy—it was already in operation from 1941— but he pursued it with relentless zeal. He firmly believed that the destruction of German cities and the homes of the workers would bring the enemy to its knees and prevent a repetition of the bloody battles of attrition on the western front that he had witnessed during the previous war. While the United States Air Force concentrated on precision attacks during the day as part of a combined bomber offensive, Bomber Command unleashed a series of large-scale raids on such cities as Essen, Hamburg, and Berlin. The zenith of the area bombing campaign came at Dresden in February 1945, when the RAF started a massive firestorm that devastated the old city and killed between twenty-five and thirty-five thousand people.
Since the war the military and ethical justifications for Harris’s area bombing policy have been called into question. The critics argue that the results of the bombing were not worth the heavy cost in RAF aircrew lives, that the extensive resources poured into Bomber Command could have been put to better use, and that the deliberate targeting of German civilians was an unacceptable means of waging war. Harris’s defenders, however, contend that the bombing played a significant role in the Allied victory in Europe. Although the bombing did not prevent a sustained increase in German military production or fatally undermine civilian morale, the effects of the Anglo-American bombing offensive—and it is difficult to consider one in isolation from the other—were considerable. For example, a ceiling was placed on the growth of military output, and factories were diverted to producing items for home defense such as antiaircraft guns and ammunition, which deprived the German army of vital battlefield equipment. Many German troops were tied up in antiaircraft duties when they could have been more usefully employed on other fighting fronts, and German offensive airpower was restricted as the Luftwaffe was forced to defend the Reich against air attack. While the bombing of cities was undoubtedly a dreadful way to wage war, this was regarded at the time as little different from the policy of targeting civilians through blockade or siege in previous wars. The Allies were engaged in a war of survival against a brutal totalitarian regime, and civilian workers were at the heart of the enemy’s war potential. Certainly Harris, who had watched London burn during the Blitz, had little sympathy for the Germans: they had sown the wind and would reap the whirlwind.
At the end of the war Harris was embittered by the seeming reluctance of the British government to acknowledge the role of Bomber Command in the defeat of Germany. He retired from the RAF and went to live in South Africa. In the 1950s he returned to Britain and spent his latter years quietly in rural Oxfordshire, with occasional forays onto the public stage. He died in 1984. In 1992 a statue of Harris was unveiled by the Queen Mother in London. The mayors of Dresden and other cities that had been heavily bombed expressed their disapproval. The Bomber Command veterans regarded it as a long overdue tribute to a much maligned commander.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Harris, Sir Arthur. Bomber Offensive. London, 1947. Overy, R. J. ‘‘Harris, Sir Arthur Travers, First Baronet (1892– 1984).’’ In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford, U.K., 2004. Probert, Henry. Bomber Harris: His Life and Times. London, 2001.