Arthur Harris, often known as Bomber Harris is a key figure in this story. This image derives from his statue which stands outside the RAF Church of St Clements Danes on the Strand in London
Harris deserves neither to be the scapegoat nor exonerated for the bombing of Dresden or any of the other cities bombed by those under his command.
Harris was appointed as Commander in Chief of Bomber Command in February 1942 at a time when Bomber Command was having little effect on the Germans. This was largely due to inexperienced crews and a lack of adequate aircraft. Harris set out to rectify this by improving levels of instruction and instigating rigorous training including night flying. He was also instrumental in pushing for the introduction of modern heavy bombers such as the Halifax and the Lancaster.
Whilst a staunch defender of the aerial bombing of German cities, he did not conceive the idea and was not responsible for deciding on targets. The plan to switch targeting from precision bombing of specific targets to the area bombing of industrial centres was conceived earlier in the war by Air Ministry planners who justified the policy as the ‘dehousing’ of industrial workers. Area bombing also came about as a result of the technical difficulties of precision bombing at night at that time. The policy was endorsed by Churchill and orders to carry it out were formally issued to Bomber Command before Harris had taken up his command.
Harris was undoubtedly in favour of aerial bombing and like Churchill his dour, dogged and single minded commitment to the task made him completely associated with the campaign. His statement of 1942 is frequently quoted as indication of his belligerence:
‘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’
As the campaign started to have an effect Harris ever plain speaking asked Churchill to be honest with the nation and wrote to him:
the aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive…should be unambiguously stated as the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany…. the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories
Churchill of course did not comply. In the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden in a move to retain some political credibility, Commander in Chief Churchill sought to distance himself from both Harris and the actions of Bomber Command.
Bomber Command whose average age was 22 lost over 55,000 men during the war. They were not awarded a campaign medal and because of this Harris refused a peerage. Within Bomber Command Harris had commanded fierce loyalty and admiration for his commitment to the safety and wellbeing of his crews. His statue was unveiled in 1992 at a ceremony y where the Queen Mother was heckled. In June 2012 the Bomber Command Memorial in St James Park was opened by the Queen. It has recently been vandalised.
In 2003 John Thaw portrayed Bomber Harris in an excellent BBC Drama which avoids none of the complications or contradictions of either the man or his career.