Trouble at the top

Sir Arthur Harris led the strategic bombing campaign from 1942-45. He was a blunt, sometimes graceless character who led with force and conviction.

He was firm in his beliefs that area bombing was an effective weapon and that the risks to his crews were necessary and acceptable.

By 1944, Harris was enjoying wide fame and believed that he could count on the support of the Prime Minister. He squared off against Air Ministry colleagues and defended his strategy to the end. His conduct in the closing stages of the war almost certainly influenced the fact that he did not receive a peerage and was offered no further employment in peace time.

In February 1945, he wrote “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.”

Hastings writes:

“if he had shown sufficient flexibility in the autumn of 1944 to acknowledge the usefulness of area bombing was ended, that his force was now capable of better and more important things, history might have judged him more kindly. But he did not. With the single-mindedness that even one of his principal supporters at the Air Ministry had termed obsession, he continued remorselessly with his personal programme for the levelling of Germany’s cities until the very end” (437).

The official British historians recorded that:

” Sir Arthur Harris made a habit of seeing only one side of a question and then exaggerating it. He had a tendency to confuse advice with interference, criticism with sabotage and evidence with propaganda. He resisted innovations and was seldom open to persuasion…seeing all issues in terms of black and white, he was impatient of any other possibility.”

Albert Speer, Hitler’s brilliant architect and planner, delivers a damning summary. In recalling the German’s fear that the Allies had discovered a weakness in their synthetic oil reserves, he correctly inferred that they would not press on with these potentially destructive attacks: “We have a powerful ally in this matter,” he said. “That is to say, the enemy has an air force general staff as well.”


One response to “Trouble at the top

  • Amy Scott

    Harris’s dismissal of entire German cities as not worth the bones of one British Grenadier is terrifying because it probably represented the opinion of a great many at Bomber Command. You’ve already mentioned quite a few people, however, that disagreed with this philosophy. I don’t think there is room for narrow-minded obsession in war. One must work with the realities of the situation rather than with an “idea” of how things should be. There should be no pride when it comes to decision-making. I suppose humility would be the quality that I would find important in a leader. I’ve recently come upon a quote by St. Augustine that has inspired me. I think it applies here.

    “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay the first foundation of humility”

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