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Sir Arthur Harris, British Air Marshal

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.

Sir Arthur Harris, Marshal of the Royal Air Force and pioneer of the concept of "Total War"

Sir Arthur Harris, Marshal of the Royal Air Force and pioneer of the concept of "Total War"

Who Is Arthur Harris?

Marshal of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Sir Arthur Harris is one of the pioneers of the concept of "Total War," first propounded by General Giulio Douhet. Like Douhet, he was an advocate of mass bombing of civilian targets to spread fear among the enemy and hasten its defeat. He applied these tactics against Germany in World War II, when he was head of Bomber Command.

Arthur Harris was born in 1892 in Cheltenham, England. His father was a member of the elite Indian Civil Service. Harris had his early education at Allhallows School in Dorset, while his two elder brothers studied at Eton and Sherborne. Harris was not a student who belonged to the upper percentile and was given a choice by his parents to either join the army or go to one of the British colonies.

In 1908, he elected to go to Rhodesia, where he had reasonable success working as a farmer. In 1914 the First World War broke out and Harris enlisted in the 1st Rhodesian Regiment. He saw limited action in South Africa and German South-West Africa, for about a year before leaving for England in 1915.

Harris Gets His Wings

Harris developed a love for flying and volunteered to join the newly formed Royal Air Force. After earning his wings, Harris was moved to France in 1917. His ability as a pilot was recognized as he flew Strutters and Sopwith Camels. Harris ended the war as an ace pilot with five kills of German aircraft under his belt. For his efforts, he was awarded the Air Force Cross.

Harris becomes a pilot

Harris becomes a pilot

Harris and the Concept of Total War

Harris spent the intervening years between the two wars with assignments in India, Mesopotamia, and Persia. He did not sit idle but studied the concept of strategic bombardment. He became more and more convinced that the future for any victory remained in strategic bombardment as well as 'Total War": the mass-scale bombing of civilian targets and cities.

He returned to England in 1924 and took command of RAF’s first dedicated heavy bomber squadron. In 1929 Harris returned to the Middle East as Senior Air Officer in the Middle East Command. In 1939 he was recalled back home to England and given command of No. 5 Group.

Carpet Bombing of Germany

Harris began to advocate his concept of carpet bombing German cities. As an Air Marshal and head of Bomber Command, Harris submitted a paper for consideration of his concept to Winston Churchill. This was after it was proved that precision bombing of German targets was not a success, as less than one bomb in ten fell within five miles of its intended target. Harris received support from Professor Frederick Lindemann, who also advocated area bombing. Lindeman was a close confidant of the Prime Minister.

History records that Churchill approved the carpet bombing of German cities in 1942 and Harris could now put his theories to practical use. Harris as head of Bomber Command planned and executed mass bombing raids of German cities. On May 30/31 ‘Operation Millennium’, a 1000 bomber raid was launched on Cologne. The German night fighter defense was overwhelmed and severe damage was caused to the city.

Harris as Head of Bomber Command

The advent of bigger and better bombers like the Avro Lancaster and the Handley Page Halifax allowed Harris as head of Bomber Command to execute further raids on German cities. Bomber Command in conjunction with the US Army Air Force, launched "Operation Gomorrah" against Hamburg. The results were stupendous as 10 square miles of the city were leveled.

Defeat Over Berlin

In November 1943, Harris planned a similar raid on Berlin, often referred to as the Battle of Berlin. The raids were a failure as the RAF lost over 1000 aircraft and is now viewed as a defeat. After a brief lull during the Allied landing in Normandy in 1944, Bomber Command under Harris recommenced the area bombing of Germany well into 1945. These were controversial attacks as the Germans were already defeated. On February 13/14, 1945 a massive bombing of Dresden resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths.

Result of the Dresden bombing

Result of the Dresden bombing

Marshal of the Royal Air Force

At the end of the war in September 1945, Harris was promoted to Marshal of the RAF. Harris retired as Chief of the RAF and after retirement moved to South Africa for a civil job. He returned in 1953 to England and accepted a baronetcy and lived in retirement till his death in 1984.

Harris will always be remembered as a pioneer of the concept of strategic bombing. Unfortunately, his name will also be associated with the idea of ‘Terror Bombing’ to win a war. In hindsight, researchers have concluded that strategic bombing alone cannot win a war, as it needs the infantry soldier to hold the ground.

Harris, however, remains one of the pioneers of strategic bombardment from the air. No theory is foolproof and Harris's concepts were used by the U.S. in the carpet bombing of Vietnam, though they did not bring the desired result.

Statue of Harris

Statue of Harris

Final Words

Harris married Barbara Daisy Kyrle Money, daughter of Lieutenant Ernle William K. Money, and Alexandra Gruinard Battye, in August 1916. The marriage produced three children but Harris divorced her in 1935 and married 20-year-old Therese ('Jillie') Hearne in1938. Their daughter Jacqueline Jill was born in 1939.

Many people in England and Germany consider the Air Chief Marshal a war criminal. Bomber Harris Trust (an RAF veterans' organization) erected a statue of him outside the RAF Church of St Clement Danes, London, in 1992. It was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth. She was surprised when she was jeered at by protesters, one of whom shouted, "Harris was a war criminal."

Sources and Further Reading

Marlowe, M.M. (2012). "Sir Arthur Harris." Bible Research

Probert, H. (2006). Bomber Harris: His Life and Times. Greenhill Books

Shores, C., Franks, N., & Guest, R. (2008). Above the Trenches. Grub Street Publishing

"Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris Statue." (n.d.). UK Attraction [Internet Archive]

Trueman, C.N. (2015). "Air Marshal Arthur Harris." The History Learning Site

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 MG Singh emge