Tag Archives: Sir Arthur Harris 1st Baronet

Was Churchill responsible?

Letter from Churchill to Harris

Excerpted from the National Archives:

“In 1992 the Queen Mother unveiled a bronze statue of Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command during World War 2. The event caused international criticism and people attacked the statue. They were protesting against the deaths and destruction caused by the bombing of Dresden.

As head of Bomber Command, Harris was responsible for bombing operations. However, he and his colleagues questioned and double-checked the decision to attack Dresden. Harris wrote in his autobiography: ‘I know that 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, …’. (Bomber Offensive, 1947, p. 242)

Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister and also the Minister for Defence when the policy of area bombing took place. He had a major input into military strategy. Historians debate whether he was directly involved in the decision to bomb Dresden. He wasn’t consulted about every bombing raid, but there is some suggestion he supported the decision to attack Dresden, perhaps as a result of a request from Britain’s allies, the Russians.”

Visit the National Archives website to read:

Air Ministry Comments on Harris

Letter from Churchill on area bombing

Harris’ view on Dresden, 1945


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.”

The lesser evil

Cologne in 1945



The next series of posts will relate to the outcomes of Bomber Command’s strategic air offensive in Europe. I’ve segmented the analysis into three topics: How did they do it- both in the moral and the operational sense? What were the results? How is it remembered and recorded?

In the early phases of the war, all raids were directed against military targets. As it became increasingly apparent that it was not possible to attack such specific destinations with precision, the campaign was shifted to area bombing.

Operation Millennium

In 1942 , Sir Arthur Harris knew that the future of Bomber Command was still in doubt. He approached both Winston Churchill and Sir Charles Portal with the bold idea of assembling a force of 1,000 bombers and sending them out in one massive raid on a German city.

Final orders were ready on 26 May with the full moon approaching. The force stood ready, waiting for the weather. His first choice of target was Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany and a great port. But the weather over Germany was unfavourable for three days running and, on 30 May, Harris decided to send the bombers to his second target choice – Cologne, the third largest city in Germany. Soon after noon on that day, the order to attack Cologne went out to the groups and squadrons and the raid took place that night.

The moral reckoning

The raid was deemed a great success, with devastating fires and casualties fueling the Allied propaganda machine. But not all agreed…

A report was sent to the Air Ministry analysing a sample of civilian letters opened by the censor after the raid: “There are those who are pleased, and those who regret that so much suffering should have to be inflicted.” (Hastings 216).

Distinguished military thinker Captain Basil Liddell Hart wrote a private reflection (219):

“It will be ironical if the defenders of civilization depend for victory upon the most barbaric, and unskilled, way of winning a war that the modern world has seen…it should be a sobering thought that but for Hitler’s folly in attacking Russia we and the Germans would now be ‘Cologning’ each other’s cities with the advantage on Germany’s side, in this mad competition in mutual devastation…”

Many of Britain’s churchmen supported the bomber offensive. The Archbishop of York wrote in 1943 “Often in life, there is no clear choice between absolute right and wrong; frequently the choice has to be made of the lesser of two evils, and it is a lesser evil to bomb a war-loving Germany than to sacrifice the lives of our fellow country-men who long for peace, and to delay delivering millions now held in slavery”.

George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (in the heart of 11 Group Territory and only a few miles from Westhampnett, where our story began) was unable to accept this compromise. He addressed the House of Lords in 1944:

“The Allies stand for something greater than power. The chief name inscribed on our banner is ‘Law’. It is of supreme importance that we, who, with our Allies, are the Liberators of Europe, should so use power that it is always under the control of law.”

Revd. John Collins was Chaplain at Bomber Command. He was also a permanent thorn in the side of authority. After the war he wrote:

“Bomber Command Headquarters was perhaps the most soul-destroying, the most depressing of the places…which I had been to serve. For there, in contrast with the natural beauty of the surroundings, the evil…policy of the carpet bombing of German cities was planned.”

How to navigate this moral battlefield?  In so many ways, little seems to have changed. The news this evening leads with more strategic air strikes on Libya. After months of highly technical precision bombing and enforcement of the ‘no fly zone’, Quadafi remains in power. And there is dismay that the airforce hasn’t yet finished the job.

History now seems uncertain about how to understand what happened from 1942 and how to reconcile the moral disgrace of the destruction with the youthful, extraordinarily brave aircrew. It explains why there are still so many people passionately campaigning for a permanent memorial- and why one has yet to be created.

A view looking up

The last word on this thought goes to Germany.

Klaus Schmit recorded the stories of Darmstadt, a town ferrociously bombed towards the end of war:

“At the turn of the century, I travelled through Germany’s towns, and each one had its own soul and face. Shortly before the war I ventured again through the same towns, and it seemed that their souls and faces were gone, as if they were dead in themselves. Now, as I walk through the ruins of the same towns, I am overcome by the terrible awareness that they have fulfilled the promise that was made before the war. Instead of living corpses they have become truly dead ones.”

Harris reaps the whirlwind

Trenchard’s foundations for Bomber Command, which are described in more detail in the post below, found a willing and determined disciple in Sir Arthur Harris. Harris was appointed C-in-C of Bomber Command in 1942.

The seeds of failure had been sown before Harris even took command: Trenchard’s theories were not correct ( it wasn’t possible to destroy a country with air power alone and the morale of the Germans did not break); and Bomber Command did not possess the technology to carry out their missions. Ill-equipped Blenheims limped across the channel as they struggled to find their targets through dense cloud ,heavy flak and nimble ME 109s.

“The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”

-Sir Arthur Harris