Harris, Arthur

Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command

First months under his command

Harris was appointed Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command on 22 February 1942. He took over from Air Vice Marshal Jack Baldwin, who had acted as C-in-C since Peirse's departure. His force boasted 44 Squadrons of medium and heavy bombers (38 of them operational), 2 Groups of light bombers and 17 OTU’s. This came down to less than 400 serviceable aircraft. The majority of the squadrons were still operating Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens, lacking range and bomb-load. At the time Harris took over command, the future of Bomber Command as an independent force was at stake because of the Butt Report. This investigation had shown that of the two-thirds of crews who claimed to have hit their targets, only a third came within five miles of the aiming point. This proportion was even lower against targets in the Ruhr-area and on moonless nights. Not only in Parliament, but also war correspondents had growing doubts about the effectiveness of Bomber Command and this affected the public opinion too. It seemed Peirse had been overconfident about the work of his command and Harris had to persuade the critics.

The Air Ministry had send Peirse an important new directive on 9 July 1941, which mentioned that precision bombing on military and industrial targets was not practicable anymore. The directive therefore mentioned that the bombers had to concentrate on 'area' targets. Cities which contained installations of military and industrial significance were to be attacked and at the same time these attacks would target the German transportation system as well as enemy morale, particularly that of the industrial workers. On 14 February 1942 it was stressed in a new directive that the primary objective had to be civilian morale. It has often been alleged that Harris was the man behind the strategy of 'area-bombing' , but he wasn't. It was determined by the Air Ministry under Portal's direction and supported by the War Cabinet. Churchill was an advocate of the strategy as well: "When I look round to see how we can win the war I see that there is only one sure path [...] and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland."

Bomber Command carried out a couple of interesting raids in the first two months under its new commander. The Billancourt Renault Factory was attacked on 3 March 1942. The greatest force of bombers so far in the war was sent to the target and the concentration of aircraft over the target and tonnage of bombs dropped exceeded previous records. On 17 April Harris showed that despite the new directive, he still considered precision bombing effective. Twelve Lancasters attacked the U-boat engine plant in Augsburg. However, seven aircraft were lost. A few weeks before the strategy of area-bombing was carried out on a large scale and with great success against Lübeck (28/29 March) and Rostock (four nights between 23 and 27 March).

In his attempt to prove the critics of Bomber Command and the Butt Report wrong Harris had to demonstrate what his command was able to achieve. He decided upon a concentrated attack at maximum strength. He got the backing of Portal and Churchill. Cologne was chosen as the target for an attack which was to be carried out by more than 1000 bombers. Operation Millennium, as the raid was codenamed, was carried out on 30/31 May 1942. 1047 aircraft were dispatched, of which 43 (3.9%) were lost. The attack inflicted heavy damage and gave Bomber Command an enormous boost. Harris: "If I could send 1000 bombers to Germany every night, it would end the war by the autumn. We are going to bomb Germany incessantly [...] the day is coming when the USA and ourselves will put over such a force that the Germans will scream for mercy." At this time these words were what the mass of the British people wanted to hear and impressed Britain’s allies.

Extending the offensive

During the summer of 1942 the Germans were driving the Red Army eastwards again and the Battle of the Atlantic was still full on. Harris was convicted that Bomber Command could play a decisive part and even that it could win the war for the allies, as long as he would get enough heavy bombers at his disposal. Churchill was not persuaded that the command could win the war on its own, but he was convinced it had a major part to play. He assured Harris of his support. The 32 operational squadrons had to be increased to 50 by the end of the year. However, Harris was reluctant to bomb every target which was suggested to him by the Air Ministry. Harris had an honest and realistic view when it came to certain targets, especially oil targets. He responded to the relentless requests to attack oil plants at Schweinfurt and Gelsenkirchen: "This would be a waste of time and effort. They are very small and difficult to find in the smoky and hazy atmosphere of the Ruhr, I do not believe we have ever succeeded in damaging them and thousands of sorties have been wasted in the attempt [...] If we have learnt anything it is that only under very exceptional conditions can the very best crews find these small individual factories in the Ruhr, and then only if luck attends their efforts." He also resisted the early requests to attack Berlin, because of the heavy costs and little success of previous raids on the city. Harris was keen to bomb Berlin, but only when he could make a good job of it. His first raid on the capital was carried out on 16/17 January 1943, eleven months after he had been appointed C-in-C.

By this time, the strategic bomber offensive was not only a military tool to Churchill but also an essential political one with regard to the relation with Stalin and the Soviet Union. For that reason he gave Harris his strongest support. It further convicted Harris that Bomber Command could win the war on its own and from now on he attempted to fulfil what he believed was his command’s ultimate potential. On 3 February 1943 he received a new and important directive to work with. It had been agreed at the Casablanca Conference by Churchill, Roosevelt and the Combined Chiefs of Staff. The directive stated that the primary aim of the British and American bomber forces would be "the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened." Historians still discuss the way the directive had to be interpreted. In Harris view it meant that the area bombing offensive had to be extended. He also believed that the German morale was vulnerable at this stage of the war, and were it to be broken Germany might surrender.

To fulfil this task Harris needed a team of subordinate commanders he could depend on. His Groups were commanded by men he knew really well and in whom he had great confidence (Robert Oxland, Roderick Carr and Edward Rice) and with whom he had flown or worked in earlier days (Alec Coryton, Ralph Cochrane, Donald Bennett and Richard Harrison). George Brookes commanded the newly formed Canadian No.6 Group. Harris also depended on Station Commanders and other senior officers on the Group staffs. However, he took a strong line if somebody of his team was out of step. For instance, he sacked Coryton in February 1943 when the commander of No.5 Group was reluctant to send his crews to the Ruhr on a night of bad weather. In February 1944 he also relieved Brookes because he was not impressed by his leadership abilities and appointed Clifford McEwen, in who he had more confidence. This created a picture of a remote, hard and intolerant man. But most of his staff at High Wycombe found him kind and considerate, a man who would listen carefully and act decisively. They regarded him as the strong man who moved the command into higher gear. He also held the trust, loyalty and respect of his airmen, although they suffered terrible casualties and hardly saw him at their airfields. Harris knew that the job his crews had to carry out made substantial casualties inevitable, so he kept insisting on aircraft and techniques needed to help his crews defending themselves and minimizing their losses. In this way his crews felt their commander was concerned about what they were doing. Historian Max Hastings stated: "He was passionately concerned to give every man in his Command the best possible chance of survival."

Bomber Command had been tasked with an offensive against the U-boat bases until February 1943. By this time Harris started his main offensive. The Battle of the Ruhr commenced and lasted for four months, in which 43 major operations were undertaken. The main targets were the Krupp armament works in Essen, the Nordstern synthetic-oil plant in Gelsenkirchen, and the Rheinmetal–Borsig plant in Düsseldorf. The most famous raid of the campaign was Operation Chastise (16-17 May 1943), better known as the Dams raid. This was an attempt to breach the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams to flood to Ruhr valley. The specially formed and trained 617 Squadron managed the destruction of two of the dams. The attack was an immense boost to morale, but eight out of nineteen of Harris’ very best crews had been lost in the attack and they were almost impossible to replace. Therefore it was no real option to change strategy and persist with such operations. But Harris wanted 617 Squadron to be retained for occasional operations requiring special training and skills, like the attack on the Dortmund-Ems Canal during the night of 15/16 September 1943. In this raid losses were again very high, with five out of eight aircraft not returning.

Hamburg to Berlin

Before the Battle of the Ruhr had ended, Harris had already started the Battle of Hamburg; a series of attacks which began on 24 July and lasted eight days. Harris had been encouraged by Portal and the Admiralty to bomb the city, as it was the enemy’s greatest port and the centre of its shipbuilding industry. The campaign, codenamed Operation Gomorrah, was carried out in cooperation with the USAAF 8th Air Force. One of the raids became particularly well-known. During the night of 27/28 July 787 aircraft attacked the city. The combination of high temperatures, drought and concentrated bombing created a firestorm which raged for about three hours and approximately 40.000 people were killed. Most of them died of carbon monoxide poisoning when all the air was drawn out of their shelters. Albert Speer, Hitler’s Armaments Minister, stated that six similar attacks might end the war. But Bomber Command was still not strong enough the carry out attacks on such a scale frequently.

In August 1943 Harris was ordered to bomb Peenemünde, where the Germans had a research and development station for the development of long-range rockets. 596 aircraft were sent to the target for a precision attack which was carried out at low level and in bright moonlight. The operation turned out to be a success and is regarded as one of Harris’s most daring. He suggested another daring raid to Churchill that month. Harris wanted to bomb Mussolini’s office and residence to encourage an Italian surrender. He had selected 617 Squadron for this special operation. But Churchill turned the plan down and ordered Harris to carry out area bombing attacks on Milan, Turin and Genoa to ensure that the Italian government would agree with the Allied surrender requirements.

Encouraged by Churchill and Portal, Harris launched the Battle of Berlin that same month. He ordered three attacks against the city, but success was only moderate and losses were high. Harris decided to postpone his offensive until November 1943. In October he received a message from Churchill: "The War Cabinet have asked me to convey to you their compliments on the recent success of Bomber Command.[…] Your Command is playing a foremost part in the converging attack on Germany now being conducted by the forces of the United Nations on a prodigious scale. Your officers and men will, I know, continue their efforts in spite of the intense resistance offered, until they are rewarded by the final downfall of the enemy." In November the main part of the Battle of Berlin commenced. A series of 16 heavy attacks on the German capital were carried out over the next four months. Apart from fierce defences, the crews also encountered wintry weather conditions on these long flights to Berlin. Harris had forecast that the capital would be reduced to ruins at the end of the battle and German morale would collapse. 8700 sorties were carried out, from which 500 aircraft failed to return. Although heavy damage had been inflicted, the Germans were nowhere near surrender. However, Churchill used the attacks in a political way as well, referring to the attacks in messages to Stalin, who told him in reply "to intensify it using all means."

The last year of the war

In early 1944 both Harris and Lieutenant Colonel Carl Spaatz (commander of the USAAF) were still convinced the allied bomber force could force Germany to surrender, but Bomber Command was ordered to co-operate in the preparations for Operation Overlord and put under command of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). Harris did not agree, he was worried by the possible recovery of German industry and night-fighter forces. Nevertheless, Bomber Command was ordered to bomb coastal defences and key railway centres in France and Belgium. The bombers carried out some 60 operations as part of the invasion preparations. Solly Zuckerman, the scientist who had come up with the Transportation Plan, later wrote in his diary: "The amazing thing is that Harris, who was even more resistant than the Americans, has in fact thrown himself whole-heartedly into the battle [..] and has contributed more to the dislocation of enemy communications, etc, than any of the rest." After D-Day, Harris requested to resume strategic attacks, but General Dwight Eisenhower decided the bombers had to be used in support of his land forces. When the Germans launched their V-1 bombs against London a week after D-Day, Harris was ordered to carry out attacks on the supply and launching sites as part of Operation Crossbow.

When the allied armies finally broke through the German defences a swift advance to the German frontier followed. Bomber Command played little part in the advance. Bomber Command was relieved from control by SHAEF in September. After the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944 the allied armies had come to an halt and the war would not be ended by Christmas. Harris believed full advantage had to be taken of air superiority to "knock Germany finally flat" and prepare the way for the ground troops and wrote this in a letter to Churchill. The Prime Minister replied: "I agree with your very good letter. [...] I am all for cracking everything in now on to Germany that can be spared from the battlefields." This encouraged Harris, as well as the latest directive from the Air Ministry in which Bomber Command's overall mission was stated as "the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic systems and the direct support of land and naval forces." Targets were threefold: oil production industry, the German transportation system and general bombing of German industrial cities. The bomber force was still growing considerably. Harris could draw on approximately 1400 operational bombers per day.

A second Battle of the Ruhr was launched in the autumn of 1944. Although it was mentioned under that title in the Official History, it isn’t widely remembered. The most well-known attack is Operation Hurricane, the codename for two raids by more than 1000 bombers on Duisburg on 14/15 October 1944. But Bomber Command had run out of large cities to target and started to bomb smaller industrial towns, like Darmstadt, Bremerhaven, Bonn and Freiburg. On 12 November No.9 and No.617 Squadron sunk the battleship Tirpitz as part of Operation Paravane. This brought Bomber Command excellent press publicity, as well as congratulations from the King, the Prime Minister and the Admiralty. But gradually arguments arose about the use of Bomber Command at this stage of the war. Although many improvements in bombing and navigation had become available, Harris still devoted a large portion of his bombers to area bombing on German cities. Harris claimed the weather was often not favourable for bombing oil and communication targets. But great numbers of bombers were sent to German cities to carry out area bombing in both good and bad weather. Harris critics believed that persisting the strategy of area bombing was unnecessary at this stage of the war.

In the meantime British Chiefs of Staff had come up with the plan of Operation Thunderclap: an all-out attack on civilian morale which might be decisive. An attack on Berlin was discussed, but a modified form of the plan was eventually carried out against Dresden after Air Vice Marshal Sidney Bufton (Director of Bomber Operations) suggested that the Thunderclap plan could be used in support of the Soviet advance. Churchill would soon leave for the allied conference at Yalta. Here the Russians requested strategic air attacks against Germany’s eastern communications. The Air Ministry and Chiefs of Staff approved and Harris was given his orders. On the night of 13/14 February 1945 805 aircraft were dispatched to the city and the heart of Dresden was destroyed in an atrocious firestorm. An estimated 25,000 people, mostly civilians and refugees, were killed in the attack. The news of the destruction of Dresden led to anger in the British Parliament. Churchill, who had been a strong advocate of area bombing and had a personal role in setting up the Dresden attack, now composed a memorandum: "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. […] The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing." The destruction of Dresden has come to symbolise the bombing of Germany in the Second World War and Harris was publicly seen as the man responsible for it. Harris called the allegations of terror bombing against him and his men an insult both to the Air Ministry and Bomber Command.

Bomber Command’s offensive continued and in March 1945 a greater tonnage of bombs was dropped than in any other month of the war. Oil production industry and the German transportation system were attacked, but Harris still sent his bombers to industrial towns as well that month. His targets in the last five weeks of the war were strictly military ones. His men also played an important part in Operation Manna (29 April to 8 May), the food droppings over Western Holland, and the return of liberated Prisoners of War to Great-Britain (26 April to 6 June).


area bombing
Aerial bombardment targeted indiscriminately at a large area. Prohibited since 1977 by the Geneva Convention. Also known as carpet bombing, obliteration bombing and moral bombing.
Heavily armoured warship with very heavy artillery.
Bomber Command
RAF unit which controlled strategic and sometimes tactical bombing (as in Normandy)
Casablanca Conference
Conference between the leaders of Great Britain and the USA (Churchill and Roosevelt). The conference took place from 14 to 24 January 1943.
The day of the long awaited invasion of western Europe in Normandy, France, 6 June 1944. After a long campaign of deception the allies attacked the coast of Normandy on five beaches to begin their march on Nazi Germany. Often explained as Decision Day, though this is entirely correct. The D stands for Day as generally used in military language. In this case it means an operation beginning on day D at hour H. Hence “Jour J“ in French.
Happened spontaneously in Hamburg in 1943. This was the ultimate goal of each bombardment. The firestorm could no longer be extinguished and burned down everything in its path. Surface temparatures of 800-1,000 degrees Celcius and wind speeds upto 240 km/hour, so double hurricane force, were reported. Bomber Command only succeeded a few times in creating the desired firestorm, that is in Hamburg on 27 July 1943, Kassel on the 22 October 1943, Darmstadt on 11 September 1944 and Dresden on 13-14 February 1945. Bomber Command always selected the medieval city centres (Altstadt) as target because of the many high wooden buildings and narrow streets.
Armed incursion.
German family of steel and weapon’s manufacturers.
Highest military rank, Army commander.
Abbreviation of a national socialist.
Attack on a smaller or larger scale.
Fast military raid in enemy territory
Red Army
Army of the Soviet Union.
Resistance against the enemy. Often also with armed resources.
Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, the Allied High Command in Western-Europe after the Normandy landings.
Soviet Union
Soviet Russia, alternative name for the USSR.
A military unit in the Belgian navy usually six to eight small ships operating together under one command. The smallest military unit in the Dutch air force of about 350 men. In most countries is the designation of a military unit thesize of a company. It is either an independent unit, such as a battery, or part of a bigger Calvary unit. In the air force it is the designation of a unit of aircrafts.
Art of warfare, the way in which war should be conducted in general.
The German name for a submarine. German U-Boats (Submarines) played a very important role during the course of warfare until May 1943. Many cargo and passenger ships were torpedoed and sunk by these assassins of the sea.

Pagina navigatie


Harris in his office at Bomber Command Headquarters.

Harris, Saundby and Graham at Bomber Command Headquarters.

Harris and Saundby study a map of Germany.

Harris and Cochrane at the debriefing of Guy Gibson's crew after Operation Chastise.

Harris was visited by HM King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Bomber Command Headquarters.
(Source: The National Archives)


Article by:
Pieter Schlebaum
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