Arthur Harris was born in 1892; his parents didn’t think him clever enough to go to Eton as his brothers had before, so gave him the choice of joining the army or going to the colonies. He chose the latter and went to Rhodesia, successfully trying his hand at gold mining and tobacco farming.
The small matter of the outbreak of WWI in 1914 was a defining point for Harris and he first joined a Rhodesian regiment. In 1915 he returned to Britain joining the Royal Flying Corps which was then part of the British Army. In his Sopwith Camel he shot down five enemy planes and ended the war a Major. Harris witnessed the futility and slowness of trench warfare and thought that aerial bombing was a more efficient way of doing things.
Harris stayed in the forces after the war making Squadron Leader in the newly formed Royal Air Force. He served in the British Empires troubled hotspots; Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine and the North West Frontier in India where locals rudely fought against their imperial masters. Exciting new devices were used such as delayed action bombs and poison gas. Delayed action bombs were designed to explode hours or days after being dropped so causing maximum casualties as people would have thought the danger had passed. Some of the top brass resigned in protest at the use of these inhumane weapons but Harris simply stated that ‘the only thing the Arab understands is a heavy hand!’
Stationed in Palestine in 1936 Harris suggested that a 500lb bomb dropped on each of the troublesome villages would satisfactorily solve the problem of any revolting Arabs. He rose through the ranks becoming Air Vice Marshall. For a man thought not clever enough by his parents, Harris set up the RAF’s night training programme and wrote a paper that was submitted to Govt on the role RAF would play in event of a major war.
By the start of WW2 Harris was Deputy Chief of Air Staff. Bombing was not yet part of Britain’s war strategy as navigational skills were not up to long flying missions and less than 1 bomb in 10 landed within 5 miles of the intended targets. Things changed in 1942 when Harris became commander in chief of Bomber Command. Harris had studied German bombing tactics from the Spanish Civil War and correctly reasoned that mass destruction of civilian targets would hasten the end of the war. Technical advances in radar, communications and navigation made longer bombing missions possible.
A Professor Lindemann thought the same, suggesting to Churchill that ‘area’ or carpet bombing of cities would put a huge strain on enemy resources due to the subsequent repairs needed and also cause a massive drop in morale. Men and machinery would also be diverted from the frontline to defend cities. Basically infrastructure and in the process civilians would be targeted instead of front line troops. Thus the term ‘total war’ came into existence and these ideas were quickly put into use by ‘Bomber’ Harris.
The first ever 1000 bomber raid took place over two nights at the end of May 1942; Cologne was targeted with 1400 tonnes of mostly incendiaries dropped starting 2500 fires and causing massive damage. 18 months previously the Luftwaffe had tried the same in the Blitz but with much less effect. Harris also gained another nickname, ‘butcher’ as he used statistics to estimate potential Allied losses. 43 planes were lost and it was deemed a success. A year later Hamburg was attacked in the same way, nicknamed the Hiroshima of Germany as 10 square miles of the city was obliterated.
These attacks severely weakened Germany and helped end the war however ‘Bomber’ Harris will also be remembered as the man who destroyed the beautiful medieval city of Dresden in February 1945, in the dying days of the war. At the time the death toll was declared by the Germans at 200,000. Nowadays the modern estimated death toll is just 25,000. This smaller figure is disquieting as the city was full of refugees and was bombed unceasingly for 2 days by 2500 planes using 4000 tonnes of explosives that obliterated nearly 40 square kilometres of the city. History however is always written in the victors favour. Churchill wrote a month later ‘The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing!’
Bomber Harris quit the forces in 1948 and returned to Africa, he retired in 1953 and returned to Britain living in the Ferry House in Goring on Thames until his death in 1984. He said in an interview in 1977 he would have done it all again but had hoped he would never had to.