Sir Arthur Travers Harris

Sir Arthur Travers Harris

Harris, Sir Arthur Travers, 1892-1984, British marshal of the Royal Air Force (RAF). In World War I, he served for a time in German West Africa before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps in France. Prominent in the RAF from its beginning, he was chief of the bomber command (1942-45) and proponent of the saturation bombing tactics used against German targets. He was made marshal of the RAF in 1945 and was created baronet in 1953.

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Travers Harris, 1st Baronet GCB OBE AFC RAF (13 April 1892 - 5 April 1984), commonly known as "Bomber" Harris by the press, and often within the RAF as "Butcher" Harris, was Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) of RAF Bomber Command and later a Marshal of the Royal Air Force during the latter half of World War II. In 1942 the Cabinet agreed to the area bombing of German cities. Harris implemented Churchill's policy vigorously and encouraged the development of tactics and technology to perform the task more effectively. He was an architect of Great Britain's most devastatingly effective attacks against the German infrastructure at a time when the country was limited in its resources and manpower.

Harris's preference for strategic area bombing over strategic precision targeting in the last year of the war remains controversial, partly because by this time in the war most of the senior Allied air commanders thought it less effective than precision targeting and partly for the large number of civilian casualties and destruction this strategy caused in Continental Europe. However it can be argued that Harris implemented this strategy due to the inaccuracy of his bomber force at the time. As prior to his taking over as AOC-in-C Bomber Command, according to the Butt Report, "of those aircraft recorded as attacking their target, only one in three got within 5 miles (8 kilometres)."

Pre-World War II

Harris was born in Cheltenham in 1892 during a visit by his parents to England, while his father was on leave from the Indian Civil Service. He was educated at Allhallows School in Devon, his brothers were educated at Sherborne and Eton. Not considered academically gifted by his parents, he was given the choice of "either army or the colonies" at the age of 16. He chose the colonies and went to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), where over the next few years he flourished earning his living "gold mining, driving coaches [and] general farming". In 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, Harris joined the 1st Rhodesian Regiment as a bugler, and served with them in South Africa and in the German colony of South-West Africa (now Namibia). In 1915 he returned to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps, serving with distinction on the home front and in France during 1917 as a flight commander and ultimately CO of No. 45 Squadron, flying the Sopwith 1½ Strutter and Sopwith Camel. He claimed five enemy aircraft destroyed before he returned to England to command No. 44 Squadron on Home Defence duties and was awarded the Air Force Cross (AFC).

After the war he chose to remain in the newly formed Royal Air Force. In the RAF he served in different functions in India, Mesopotamia (now Iraq and Syria), and Persia (now Iran). He said of his service in India that he first got involved in bombing in the usual annual North West Frontier tribesmen trouble. In Mesopotamia he commanded a Vickers Vernon squadron. "We cut a hole in the nose and rigged up our own bomb racks and I turned those machines into the heaviest and best bombers in the command". Harris also contributed at this time to the development of bombing using delay-action bombs, which were then applied to keep down uprisings of the Mesopotamian tribes fighting against British occupation. In regards to this period, Harris is recorded as having remarked "the only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand."

In 1924 Harris was posted to England to command the first post-war heavy bomber squadron (No. 58). His commander in Iraq had been the future Chief of the Air Staff Sir John Salmond, who was also one of his commanders back in England. Together they developed "night training for night operations".

From 1927 to 1929 he attended the Army Staff College at Camberley where he discovered that at the college the army kept 200 horses for the officers' fox hunting. At a time when all services were very short of equipment, the army high command - which was still dominated by cavalry officers - clearly had a different set of priorities from technocrats like Harris, who quipped that the army commanders would only be happy with the tank if it could learn to eat hay and defecate like a horse. He also had a low opinion of the Navy, he commented that there were three things which should never be allowed on a well run yacht "a wheel-barrow, an umbrella and a naval officer". Bernard Montgomery was one of the few army officers he met while at the college whom he liked; possibly because they shared certain underlying personality characteristics.

His next command was of a flying-boat squadron where he continued to develop night flying techniques. He was posted to the Middle East Command in Egypt, as a senior Air Staff Officer. In 1936 he commented on the Palestinian Arab revolt "one 250 lb. or 500 lb. bomb in each village that speaks out of turn" would satisfactorily solve the problem. In 1937 he was promoted to Air Commodore and in 1938 he was a put in command of No. 4 (bomber) Group. After a purchasing mission to the USA, he was posted to Palestine and Trans-Jordan and as an Air Vice Marshal he was Officer Commanding the RAF contingent in that area. He returned to England in September 1939 to take command of No. 5 Group.

World War II

In 1941 he was promoted to Air Marshal and Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of Bomber Command in February 1942. At the time, Bomber Command was making a negligible contribution to the war effort. This was due to the fact that the British had simply not explored the concept of offensive bombing and had in no way prepared for it. Consequently its aircraft - principally the Fairey Battle, Handley Page Hampden and Armstrong Whitworth Whitley - were poor, and crews lacked sufficient experience and the skill to navigate long distances, drop bombs accurately and return to home fields.

Harris took up the reins and immediately set about rectifying deficiencies with great energy; he had studied new theories of offensive bombing developed by Germany in Spain and in the early years of WWII and was convinced of the effectiveness of a concentrated aggressive approach. He then re-evaluated Bomber Command's tactics and set about improving standards of instruction and training. His enterprise incorporated the efficient deployment of the Short Stirling, the introduction of powerful four-engined heavy bombers the Handley Page Halifax and the Avro Lancaster and later the De Havilland Mosquito. Also during this period the roles of less modern bomber aircraft like the Vickers Wellington and Bristol Blenheim and Beaufort were reappraised.

Professor Frederick Lindemann was liked and trusted by Winston Churchill. Churchill appointed him the British government's leading scientific adviser with a seat in the Cabinet. In 1942, Lindemann presented a seminal paper to the Cabinet advocating the area bombing of German cities in a strategic bombing campaign. It was accepted by the Cabinet and Harris was appointed to carry out the task. It became an important part of the total war waged against Germany.

Professor Lindemann's paper put forward the theory of attacking major industrial centres in order to deliberately destroy as many homes and houses as possible. Working class housing areas were to be targeted because they had a higher density and fire storms were more likely. This would displace the German workforce and disrupt and reduce their ability to work. Calculations showed that the RAF Bomber Command would be able to destroy the majority of German houses located in cities quite quickly. The plan was highly controversial even before it started, but the Cabinet thought that bombing was the only option available to directly attack Germany (as a major invasion of the continent was years away), and the Soviets were demanding that the Western Allies do something to relieve the pressure on the Eastern Front.

Harris said at the start of the bombing campaign that he was unleashing on Germany, as portrayed in the 12th episode of the World at War, Whirlwind: In February 1945 Harris wrote "I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier". In his memoirs he writes "In spite of all that happened at Hamburg, bombing proved a relatively humane method".

At first, the effects were limited because of the small numbers of aircraft used and the lack of navigational aids that meant bombing was scattered and accuracy was poor. As production of better aircraft and electronic aids increased, Harris pressed for raids on a much larger scale, each to use 1,000 aeroplanes. In Operation Millennium Harris launched the first RAF "thousand bomber raid" against Cologne on the night of 30 May/31 May 1942. This operation included the first use of a bomber stream, which was a tactical innovation designed to overwhelm the German night-fighters of the Kammhuber Line.

Harris was just one of an influential group of high ranking Allied air commanders who continued to believe that the bombing alone would force Germany to surrender. On a number of occasions he wrote to his superiors claiming the war would be over in a matter of months, first in August 1943 following the success of the Battle of Hamburg codenamed Operation Gomorrah, and then again in January 1944. By this time, however, Bomber Command had been involved in what became known as the Battle of Berlin: a series of massive raids on Berlin that started in November 1943, and lasted until March 1944. During this time the British lost 1,047 bombers, with a further 1,682 damaged, culminating in the disastrous raid on Nuremberg on 30 March 1944, when 94 bombers were shot down and 71 damaged, out of 795 aircraft.

In October 1943 he urged the government to be honest with the public regarding the purpose of the bombing campaign and openly announce that:

With the leadup to the D-Day invasions in 1944, Harris was ordered to switch targets for the French rail network, a switch he protested because he felt it compromised the continuing pressure on German industry and it was using Bomber Command for a purpose it was not designed or suited for. By September the Allied forces were well inland, a Quebec Conference it was agreed that the Chief of the Air Staff, Royal Air Force (Portal), and the Commanding General, U.S. Army Air Forces (Arnold), should exercise control of all strategic bomber forces in Europe. Harris received a new directive to insure continuation of a broad strategic bombing program as well as adequate bomber support for General Eisenhower's ground operations. The over-all mission of the strategic air forces remained "the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic systems and the direct support of Land and Naval forces". The several months of rest and refit had been useful to Bomber Command, and they were now able to put up well over 1,000 planes per raid.

After D-Day (6 June 1944), with the resumption of the strategic bomber campaign over Germany, Harris remained wedded to area bombardment. Historian Frederick Taylor argues that, because Harris lacked the necessary security clearance to know about ULTRA, he had been given some information gleaned from ENIGMA, but not informed as to where it had come from. According to Taylor, this directly affected Harris' attitude concerning the effectiveness of the post-D-Day 1944 directives (orders) to target oil installations, as Harris did not know that the Allied High Command was using high-level German sources to assess exactly how much Allied operations were impairing the German war effort. As a consequence Harris tended to see the directives to bomb specific oil and munitions targets as a high level command "panacea" (his word), and a distraction from the real task of making the rubble bounce in every large German city.

The most controversial raid of the war took place in the late evening of 13 February 1945. The bombing of the city of Dresden by the RAF and USAAF resulting in a lethal firestorm which killed several tens of thousands of civilians. Raids such as that on Pforzheim late in the war as Germany was falling have been criticized for causing high civilian casualties for little apparent military value. The culmination of the RAF Bomber Command offensive occurred in the raids in March 1945 when the RAF dropped the highest monthly weight of ordnance in the entire war. The last raid on Berlin took place on the night of 21 April/22 April; just before the Soviets entered the city centre. After that, most of the rest of the bombing raids made by the RAF were tactical support roles. The last major strategic raid was the destruction of the oil refinery in Tønsberg in Southern Norway by 107 Lancasters on the night of 25 April/26 April.


Within the post war British government, there was now some disquiet about the level of destruction created by the area bombing of German cities towards the end of the war. However, Harris was made Marshal of the Royal Air Force in 1945 and was also made GCB. He retired on 15 September 1945. he went on to write his story of Bomber Command's achievements in Bomber Offensive. He was the sole commander-in-chief not made a peer in 1946. Bomber Command's crews were denied a separate campaign medal (despite being eligible for the Air Crew Europe Star and France and Germany Star) and, in protest at this establishment snub to his men, Harris refused a peerage. Disappointed by the criticisms of his methods, Harris moved to South Africa in 1948, and was the manager of the South African Marine Corporation from 1946 to 1953. In 1953 Churchill, now Prime Minister again, insisted that Harris accept a baronetcy and he became Baronet. In the same year he returned to the UK and lived his remaining years in Goring-on-Thames, in Ferry Cottage.

In 1974 Harris appeared in the 12th episode of the acclaimed Thames Television produced documentary series shown on ITV The World At War (narrated by Laurence Olivier) entitled "Whirlwind: Bombing Germany (September 1939–April 1944)" in which he discusses at length the area bombing strategy that he had developed when AOC-in-C of Bomber Command.


Arthur Harris died on 5 April 1984, aged 91.

In 1989, 5 years after Harris' death, a one-off feature-length drama about Harris' tenure as AOC-in-C of Bomber Command was broadcast under the title "Bomber Harris" on BBC Television, with John Thaw portraying Harris in the title role.

Despite protests from Germany as well as some in Britain, the Bomber Harris Trust (an RAF veterans organisation formed to defend the good name of their commander) erected a statue of him outside the RAF Church of St. Clement Danes, London in 1992. It was unveiled by the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother who looked surprised when she was jeered by protesters. The line on the statue reads "The Nation owes them all an immense debt." The statue had to be guarded by policemen day and night for some time as it was frequently sprayed with graffiti.


  • Sir Arthur Harris: Bomber Offensive, Reprinted 2005, First published 1947. ISBN 1-84415-210-3 Harris’s account in his own words


  • Cross, Robin; Fallen Eagle; London: John Wiley and Sons Inc; 1995
  • Longmate, Norman; The Bombers: The RAF offensive against Germany 1939-1945; Pub. Hutchinson; 1983; ISBN 0-09-151580-7
  • Probert, Henry; "Bomber" Harris: His Life and Times; Published; 2003; ISBN 1-85367-555-5; A good rounded modern biography, neither defending or condemning Harris.
  • Shores, Christopher; Above the Trenches; Grub Street; 1990
  • Taylor, Fredrick; Dresden:Tuesday 13 February 1945; Pub (NY): HarperCollins; ISBN 0-06-000676-5; Pub (Lon): Bloomsbury; ISBN 0-7475-7078-7.


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