Marshal of the RAF Sir Arthur Harris is one of the pioneers of the concept of ‘Total War’, earlier 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 at 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.
He elected to go to Rhodesia in 1908, 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.
Joining the RAF
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 and 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’; a concept that advocated 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 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 of 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 confident 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 defence 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 was levelled.
Defeat over Berlin
In November 1943, Harris planned a similar raid on Berlin, often referred to as Battle of Berlin. The raids were a failure as the RAF lost over 1000 aircraft and is now viewed as 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. In February 13/14, 1945 a massive bombing of Dresden resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths.
Marshal of the RAF
At the end of the war in September 1945 Harris was created a Marshal of the Royal Air Force. 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.