Sir Arthur Harris: Dutiful Soldier—or War Criminal?

Published: 2021-10-10

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Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Travers Harris (1892-1984) led British Bomber Command for the greater part of World War II. He is widely regarded as one of the most controversial figures of the war. Called “Bert” or “Bud” by his friends, “The Chief Bomber” by Winston Churchill, “Bomber” by the general public, “Butch” by his crews and “Butcher” by those opposed to what he stood for, these nicknames alone indicate the wide range of feelings that existed about Harris during and after the war.[1]

This article discusses the career path that enabled Harris to become commander-in-chief of Bomber Command, as well as the morality of area bombings practiced by Harris during World War II.

Early Years

Arthur Harris was born in Cheltenham, England on April 13, 1892, while his parents were on leave from India. His family’s background was mostly military, with his grandfather and most of his numerous uncles attaining the rank of colonel. His father had been thwarted in his ambition to be an Army officer due to extreme deafness from early youth. Instead, Harris’s father studied civil engineering and architecture, and achieved notable success in India designing and erecting buildings as a civil servant in the Public Works Department.[2]

Harris lived with his parents in India until age five. When it became necessary for Harris to begin his education in England, he was effectively left parentless and homeless in England in order to receive an education in keeping with the official status of his family. Harris was thrust into the care of so-called baby farms which catered to the young children of the official classes serving the British Empire abroad. Harris did not live with his parents again until they moved back to England upon his father’s retirement in 1909.[3]

Shortly before his 18th birthday, Harris sailed to Beira in Africa to make a new life for himself. Harris worked at a variety of jobs in Rhodesia, including construction work, manual labor on agricultural and livestock farms, the transport business, and shooting expeditions to supply meat to miners in the small mining concessions. In August 1914, he joined the First Rhodesian Regiment, whose 500 European volunteers patriotically fought the Germans in South-West Africa.[4]

Upon returning to England in 1915, Harris joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and received flying instructions. On January 29, 1916, Second Lt. Harris completed his training as a fully qualified pilot of the RFC. He was promoted to the rank of major by the end of World War I. It had been Harris’s intention to go back to Africa after the war, but to his astonishment he was awarded a permanent commission in the newly created Royal Air Force (RAF). Harris decided to stay on with the RAF, and his rank was changed from major to the RAF equivalent of squadron leader.[5]

Inter-War Years

Harris soon became disillusioned with the services and decided to return to farming in Rhodesia. He sent in his resignation in early May of 1922. However, RAF Air Vice-Marshal John Salmond, who had known Harris during the war, had no wish to see the RAF lose a promising young officer. Salmond persuaded Harris to withdraw his resignation, and gave Harris command of No. 45 Squadron in Mesopotamia. Harris, who remained in Mesopotamia until the end of 1924, first conceived of the principle of long-range night bombing there, employing pathfinding and target-marking techniques under his command.[6]

After completing a three-month training course in England, Harris was chosen on May 25, 1925 to command the RAF’s new heavy bomber No. 58 Squadron. At Harris’s insistence, from the start there was great emphasis on night flying. Harris was convinced from his wartime experience that large, slow heavy bombers would stand little chance against day fighters, and thus must be able to operate at night. He continued to experiment with night flying procedures and equipment, constantly endeavoring to improve the serviceability and performance of his aircraft.[7]

Harris broadened his military education by taking a two-year Army Staff College course at Camberley, England. After completing this course, Harris moved to Cairo, Egypt at the end of 1929 to take over as deputy Senior Air Staff Officer. He returned to England in 1932, where he took an almost six-month course in the piloting and navigation of the Southampton flying boats. Harris applied his new skills at Pembroke Dock, Wales, taking over command of the base and the resident No. 210 Squadron.[8]

On August 11, 1933, Harris was told to report for duty in the Air Ministry, where he became a group captain in the Directorate of Operations and Intelligence. Five months later, Harris became Deputy Director of Plans, the post he would fill until May 1937. Harris in this role contributed much to the development of both RAF and national defense policy in a period of rapidly mounting apprehension about a future war with Germany. Firmly reflecting Harris’s convictions, the long-term strategic role envisaged for the recently formed Bomber Command was “to attack objectives whose destruction will reduce the German war potential.”[9]

Harris was next promoted to air commodore in charge of five front-line stations in the bomber force. In this role, Harris worked diligently to obtain modern aircraft and prepare the flight crews for war. Harris and others pressured senior staff to build large strategic bombers that could bomb German targets from England. After a purchasing mission to the United States, Harris was posted to Palestine, where he commanded the RAF contingent in that area. He was promoted to air vice-marshal in July 1939.[10]

World War II

On September 14, 1939, Harris assumed command of No. 5 Bomber Group, which consisted of six operational squadrons and two reserves of Hampden bombers. Bomber Command at this stage of the war was ill-equipped to mount a concerted bombing campaign. Not only were Bomber Command’s aircraft inadequate, but aircrew members had not been given adequate training in the tasks they were expected to perform.[11]

Harris worked diligently to improve Bomber Command’s capabilities. He traveled to Washington, D.C. in June 1941 to head the RAF delegation there. Because America was still technically neutral, the British had to operate in a semi-surreptitious manner, but they still managed to obtain 20 Boeing B-17C Flying Fortresses to improve Bomber Command’s fleet. In addition, new technical aids were invented to increase Bomber Command’s capabilities. Because he had the forcefulness and determination to see Bomber Command succeed, Arthur Harris became the commander-in-chief of Bomber Command on February 23, 1942. He did not take a single day’s leave during his time as head of Bomber Command.[12]

Throughout the next three years of war, very seldom would there be a night in which Bomber Command was not involved in some type of operation. Consequently, every day there were plans to be made and considered at Harris’s morning conferences. Harris would review the weather forecasts, discuss information on enemy defenses with Intelligence representatives, and listen to objections to proposed bombing operations from Group leaders. The mechanics of command and control were so efficient that bombing crews typically took off less than 10 hours after Harris had made his decisions.[13]

On March 28, 1942, Frederick Lindemann’s area-bombing plan, which had been approved by the British War Cabinet, was initiated by Harris against Germany. Harris continued the Lindemann Plan with undiminished ferocity until the end of the war. The British bombings during this period were often terror bombings designed to shatter the morale of the German civilian population, thereby generating an inclination to surrender. The bombings focused on working-class houses built close together because a higher amount of bloodshed was expected compared to bombing higher-class houses surrounded by large yards and gardens.[14]

Harris conducted a massive raid of Cologne, Germany on the night of May 30/31, 1942, when 1,050 British bombers took off from 55 airfields. This raid was a spectacular success, with the Bomber Command Quarterly Review calling it “the greatest air operation ever planned and undoubtedly achieved the greatest single success in aerial warfare.” On the night of July 24/25, 1943, British bombers with the help of the U.S. Eighth Air Force began a campaign to destroy Hamburg. These attacks destroyed most of Hamburg and created one of the largest firestorms of the war.[15]

The climax of Bomber Command’s offensive against Germany was reached on the night of February 13-14, 1945, when massive bombing raids were directed against Dresden. The population of Dresden was swollen by a horde of terrified German women and children running from the advancing Soviet army. No one will ever know exactly how many people died in the bombings of Dresden, but estimates of 250,000 civilian deaths appear to be reasonable. The bombings of Dresden served little military purpose; they were designed primarily to terrify German civilians and break their will to continue the war.[16]

Results of British Bombings

The RAF bombing campaign played an important role in defeating Germany in World War II. German Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer wrote after the war:[17]

“The real importance of the air war consisted in the fact that it opened a second front long before the invasion of Europe. That front was the skies over Germany. The unpredictability of the attacks made the front gigantic; every square meter of the territory we controlled was a kind of front line. Defense against air attacks required the production of thousands of anti-aircraft guns, the stockpiling of tremendous quantities of ammunition all over the country, and holding in readiness hundreds of thousands of soldiers, who in addition had to stay in position by their guns, often totally inactive, for months at a time. As far as I can judge from the accounts I have read, no one has yet seen that this was the greatest lost battle on the German side.”

RAF Bomber Command under Harris disrupted much of Germany’s production, materially assisted the Russians on the Eastern Front, and threw Germany on to the defensive in the air and on the ground. As Adolf Hitler said to Adm. Karl Dönitz, when Dönitz was requesting 200,000 additional naval ratings in 1944:[18]

“I haven’t got the personnel. The anti-aircraft and night forces must be increased to protect the German cities.”

Albert Speer estimated after the war that the British air attacks in 1943 cost Germany a loss of 10% of its armaments production. It is important to note that Britain, with its Bomber Command, was doing the majority of the bombing of Germany in 1943. With the addition of the U.S. Eighth Air Force, Speer estimated that Germany in 1944 lost 20% of her armaments production from the Allied bombings.[19]

The effect of the bombing on the success of the military operations in Europe was perhaps best expressed by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery after the war:[20]

“It was a very great pleasure to me, when I came into this room, to see my old friend Sir Arthur Harris—more affectionately known as Bomber Harris—who wielded the mighty weapon of air power to such good purpose that the job of us soldiers on the ground was comparatively simple. And, I would say that few people did so much to win the war as Bomber Harris.”

Montgomery added:

“I doubt if this is generally realized.”

However, Bomber Command’s efforts were not without cost. A total of 47,268 aircrew were killed during Bomber Command operations between September 3, 1939 and May 1945. An additional 8,090 people were killed while undertaking non-operational duties, and 530 ground staff were killed on active service—a Bomber Command death-toll figure of 55,888. In addition, 9,162 people in Bomber Command were wounded in action or on active service.[21] No other branch of the British fighting services suffered such a high rate of death and injury.[22]

Morality of British Bombings

Contrary to popular belief, Arthur Harris did not originate the concept of area bombing of German cities. Harris correctly wrote after the war:[23]

“There is a widespread impression, which has often got into print, that I not only invented the policy of area bombing, but also insisted on carrying it out in the face of the natural reluctance to kill women and children that was felt by everyone else. The facts are otherwise. Such decisions of policy are not in any case made by commanders-in-chief in the field but by the Ministries, by the Chiefs of Staff Committee, and by the War Cabinet...The decision to attack large industrial areas instead of key factories was made before I became commander-in-chief.”

Harris did, however, implement area bombing with a single-minded fervor which has caused his name to be inextricably linked to it.[24] From the moment he headed Bomber Command, Harris’s principal aim was to destroy Germany by relentless bombing until Germany was forced to surrender. Harris believed that, if air power was fully implemented, Germany could be destroyed without the Allied armies having to conduct a land campaign in Western Europe.[25]

Area bombing was an important part of Harris’s strategy. In fact, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 60% of Bomber Command’s operational effort during the war had gone into area attacks.[26]

Harris wrote about the area bombings he conducted in the Ruhr:[27]

“But it must be emphasized that in no instance, except in Essen, were we aiming specifically at any one factory during the Battle of the Ruhr; the destruction of factories, which was nevertheless on an enormous scale, could be regarded as a bonus. The aiming points were usually right in the [civilian] center of the town…”

Harris showed no remorse about area bombings after the war. He wrote:[28]

“In spite of all that happened at Hamburg, bombing proved a comparatively humane method. For one thing, it saved the flower of the youth of this country and of our allies from being mown down by the military in the field, as it was in Flanders in the war of 1914-1918. But the point is often made that bombing is specially wicked because it causes casualties among civilians. This is true, but then all wars have caused casualties among civilians. For instance, after the last war the British Government issued a White Paper in which it was estimated that our blockade of Germany had caused nearly 800,000 deaths—naturally these were mainly of women and children and old people because at all costs the enemy had had to keep his fighting men adequately fed, so that most of what food there was went to them.”

Harris and other British leaders viewed their area bombings as retaliation for similar German bombings in Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry, London and the Baedeker raids.[29] This was the main argument used in the earlier part of World War II to justify area bombings. However, as British author Michael Glover wrote:[30]

“Civilian air raid deaths in Britain throughout the war amounted to 60,000; in Germany 800,000. There can be little doubt that, considered as retaliation, the imbalance was overwhelming.”

Harris didn’t regret the mass slaughter of innocent civilians at Dresden. In justifying the Dresden bombings, Harris said:[31]

“Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government center, and a key transportation center. It is now none of these things.”

Harris also wrote about Dresden:[32]

“I know the destruction of so large and splendid a city at this late stage of the war was considered unnecessary even by a good many people who admit that our earlier attacks were as fully justified as any other operation of war. Here I will only say that the attack on Dresden was at the time considered a military necessity by much more important people than myself.”

In British journalist and military historian Alexander McKee’s opinion, however, Dresden was bombed more for political rather than military reasons. McKee wrote:

“The standard whitewash gambit, both British and American, is to mention that Dresden contained targets X, Y and Z, and to let the innocent reader assume that these targets were attacked, whereas in fact the bombing plan totally omitted them and thus, except for one or two mere accidents, they escaped.”

There was a tremendous amount of death and misery, but it did not affect the war.[33]

McKee wrote that the railway bridge over the Elbe was a single key point which, if knocked out, would bring rail traffic to a halt for months. However, it was not an RAF target. The rail marshalling yards and the Autobahn bridge outside of Dresden to the west were also important military targets, but they were both never attacked. There was also a Waffen-SS barracks with some 4,000 German soldiers in the New Town (Neustadt) area, but this obvious military target was never attacked.[34]

McKee concluded:[35]

“The bomber commanders were not really interested in any purely military or economic targets, which was just as well, for they knew very little about Dresden; the RAF even lacked proper maps of the city. What they were looking for was a big built-up area which they could burn, and that Dresden possessed in full measure. Any ordinary tourist guide made that obvious; indeed, this vulnerability was built into the history of the city.”

Postwar Era

Harris was given many awards and was praised by numerous British leaders after the war. Winston Churchill, for example, wrote a letter to Harris on May 15, 1945:[36]

“Now that Nazi Germany is defeated, I wish to express to you on behalf of His Majesty’s government, the deep sense of gratitude which is felt by all the Nations for the glorious part which has been played by Bomber Command in forging the victory. For over two years Bomber Command alone carried the war to the heart of Germany, bringing hope to the people of Occupied Europe and to the enemy a foretaste of the mighty power which was rising against him…All your operations were planned with great care and skill; they were executed in the face of desperate opposition and appalling hazards. They made a decisive contribution to Germany’s defeat. The conduct of these operations demonstrated the fiery, gallant spirit which animated your aircrews and the high sense of duty of all ranks under your command. I believe that the massive achievement of Bomber Command will long be remembered as an example of duty nobly done.”

After Harris left Bomber Command in September 1946, he wrote his book Bomber Offensive to tell the story of Bomber Command’s accomplishments during the war, and to honor the courage and determination of the aircrews who fought under his command. In 1948, Harris moved to South Africa, where he managed the South African Marine Corporation (Safmarine) until 1953. Harris returned to England in 1953, and lived out his remaining years in the Ferry House at Goring-on-Thames. He died on April 5, 1984, eight days before his 92nd birthday.[37]

The controversy around Harris and area bombings lingers to this day. British historians such as A.J.P. Taylor, Geoffrey Best, Michael Glover, and even Robert Saundby, Harris’s second-in-command during the entire campaign, have either condemned the area bombings, or expressed doubts about their morality.[38] Certainly, this author thinks the area bombings of Dresden, Pforzheim, Würzburg and other German cities at the end of the war were uncalled for.

However, I don’t think Harris should be condemned as a war criminal. The British area bombings had the support of Churchill and other British leaders, and Harris was doing his job as a soldier. Many of the arguments for area bombings also seemed very persuasive in the context of the deadly struggle at the time.[39] Harris deserves credit for his hard work and dedication during the war. There is little doubt that no other leader could have extracted so much from his men in the face of such fearful odds for three long years.[40]


A version of this article was originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of The Barnes Review.

[1] Messenger, Charles, ‘Bomber’ Harris and the Strategic Bombing Offensive, 1939-1945, London: Arms and Armour Press, 1984, pp. 7-8.
[2] Saward, Dudley, Bomber Harris, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985, p. 3.
[3] Ibid., pp. 3-5.
[4] Ibid., pp. 6-11.
[5] Ibid., pp. 12-20.
[6] Ibid., pp. 26-27, 31.
[7] Probert, Henry, Bomber Harris: His Life and Times, Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2001, pp. 55-57.
[8] Ibid., pp. 61-64.
[9] Ibid., pp. 64, 68, 77.
[10] Ibid., pp. 78-84.
[11] Messenger, Charles, ‘Bomber’ Harris and the Strategic Bombing Offensive, 1939-1945, London: Arms and Armour Press, 1984, pp. 27-29.
[12] Ibid., pp. 47-48, 52-53, 55.
[13] Ibid., p. 53.
[14] Veale, Frederick J. P., Advance to Barbarism, Newport Beach, Cal..: Institute for Historical Review, 1993, pp. 184-185.
[15] Messenger, Charles, ‘Bomber’ Harris and the Strategic Bombing Offensive, 1939-1945, London: Arms and Armour Press, 1984, pp. 76-78, 128-131.
[16] Veale, Frederick J. P., Advance to Barbarism, Newport Beach, Cal..: Institute for Historical Review, 1993, pp. 185-186, 192-193.
[17] Harris, Arthur, Bomber Offensive, Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, 1947, p. xii.
[18] Saward, Dudley, Bomber Harris, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985, p. 224.
[19] Ibid., pp. 308-309.
[20] Ibid., p. 300.
[21] Ibid., pp. 300-301.
[22] Messenger, Charles, ‘Bomber’ Harris and the Strategic Bombing Offensive, 1939-1945, London: Arms and Armour Press, 1984, p. 191.
[23] Harris, Arthur, Bomber Offensive, Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, 1947, pp. 88-89.
[24] Hastings, Max, Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, pp. 208-209.
[25] Neillands, Robin, The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive against Nazi Germany, New York: The Overlook Press, 2001, p. 204.
[26] Harris, Arthur, Bomber Offensive, Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, 1947, p. vii.
[27] Ibid., p. 147.
[28] Ibid., p. 176.
[29] Neillands, Robin, The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive against Nazi Germany, New York: The Overlook Press, 2001, p. 392.
[30] Messenger, Charles, ‘Bomber’ Harris and the Strategic Bombing Offensive, 1939-1945, London: Arms and Armour Press, 1984, p. 210.
[31] Taylor, Frederick, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945, New York: HarperCollins, 2004, p. 378.
[32] Harris, Arthur, Bomber Offensive, Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, 1947, p. 242.
[33] McKee, Alexander, Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox, New York: E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1984, pp. 69, 244.
[34] Ibid., pp. 69-70, 243-244.
[35] Ibid., p. 70.
[36] Messenger, Charles, ‘Bomber’ Harris and the Strategic Bombing Offensive, 1939-1945, London: Arms and Armour Press, 1984, p. 197.
[37] Probert, Henry, Bomber Harris: His Life and Times, Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2001, pp. 352, 365-372, 387-398, 413.
[38] Knell, Hermann, To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and its Human Consequences in World War II, Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2003, p. 332.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Messenger, Charles, ‘Bomber’ Harris and the Strategic Bombing Offensive, 1939-1945, London: Arms and Armour Press, 1984, pp. 213-214.

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): John Wear
Title: Sir Arthur Harris: Dutiful Soldier—or War Criminal?
Sources: Inconvenient History, 2021, vol. 13, no. 4
A version of this article was originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of The Barnes Review
Published: 2021-10-10
First posted on CODOH: Oct. 10, 2021, 3:14 a.m.
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