Harris, Arthur

After the war

Debate about Harris and Bomber Command

After the war had come to an end, Portal wrote to Harris "how deeply and sincerely grateful he felt for the magnificent work he and his Command had done." But a few days later, on 13 May, Churchill held his ĎVE Speechí. It reflected on the various battles which were fought and on the branches of the army which had been involved in them. However, of bombing operations there was not a word. It was though the bomber offensive had never been. Churchill did sent Harris a personal message on 15 May in which he referred to the glorious and decisive contribution of Bomber Command in the allied victory and expressed his deep sense of gratitude. But Harris felt bitterly affronted by the lack of public support from Churchill and the omission of Bomber Command in his ĎVE Speechí. The Prime Minister seemed to recoil from the consequences of the bomber offensive. Harris felt even more affronted by Churchill when he learned his men were not awarded a campaign medal. He kept insisting on recognition for his air and ground crews, but to no avail. On 13 June Harris was awarded the Knight Grand Cross, but Harris immediately stated he refused honours as long as the injustice to his men persisted. Harris would also become the sole Commander-in-Chief who did not receive peerage. Almost certainly, Harris was offered becoming a peer, but rejected the offer because of his loyalty to the men of Bomber Command.

Bomber Commandís contribution to the allied victory has often been discussed and Harris was a key figure in this discussion. He himself reflected on the war in his Despatch and stressed that in comparison to the First World War, his campaign had saved countless lives elsewhere in all three services, and also among British civilians. Albert Speer wrote during his time in prison: "It opened a second front long before the invasion in Europe. [...] This was the greatest lost battle on the German side." In 1976 Speer sent Harris a copy of his book, with a note: "I hope it will please you to read these facts which are always underestimated." History professor Richard Overy also thinks the bomber offensive has been underestimated. In his view bombing "did undermine German economic potential, erode popular morale and distort German strategy." He agrees with Harrisí biographer Henry Probert that Harris can be classified as one of the great commanders of the Second World War. But other historians have had differing views. Historian Max Hastings for example, states: "The cost in life, treasure and moral superiority over the enemy tragically outstripped the results it achieved." Besides that, Hastings strongly criticizes Harris' fixation on continued area bombing in the final period of the war. Historian Peter Johnson considers that from April 1943 area bombing was unjustified.


Harris left Bomber Command when he retired on 15 September 1946. He had been promoted to Marshal of the Royal Air Force on 1 January 1956. Before his retirement he had written the Despatch on Bomber Command's wartime operations. He also attended several ceremonies and meetings. He was invited to represent Great Britain at the Victory Parade in Oslo on 30 June 1945. In 1947 Harris published his memoirs, titled ĎBomber offensiveí, in which he reflected on the war and the allied bomber offensive. In one of the most quoted lines he refers to the bombing of Hamburg: "In spite of all that happened at Hamburg, bombing proved a comparatively humane method. For one thing, it saved the youth of this country and of our allies from being mown down by the military as it was in the war of 1914-1918." Shortly after publishing his personal memoir, Harris and his family left for South Africa, where he became Managing Director of Safmarine, a shipping line between South Africa and the United States.

On 7 April 1952 Harris was awarded a baronetcy. It was pushed through by Churchill, who had won the elections in 1951. Harris had returned to the United Kingdom and attended the Coronation of the new Queen on 2 June 1952. He was also present at the opening of the Runnymede Memorial (October 1953) and the unveiling of the Memorial Window in Lincoln Cathedral (May 1954), two major events associated to Bomber Command. But Harris turned down any further invitations to RAF functions. Harris moved to Goring-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, where he spent time with his wife, children and grandchildren. Old wartime colleagues visited him here, like Americans Ira Eaker and Carl Spaatz and Canadian Clifford McEwen, of whom Harris thought has never been adequately been recognized for his contributions in the war. Ralph Cochrane, Robert Saudby (his deputy at Bomber Command) and Eric De Mowbray (his senior naval liason officer) regularly came along as well.

Sir Arthur Harris passed away at home on 5 April 1984 at the age of 91. His funeral service took place on 11 April with military honours in the parish church. Harris is buried at Burntwood Cemetery near the village. On the day of his burial, a Lancaster made a fly past to pay the RAF's closing tribute. On 31 May 1992 a statue of Harris was erected outside the RAF Church of St. Clement Danes in London. It was unveiled by the late Queen Elizabeth. The inscription mentions: "In memory of a great commander and of the brave crews of Bomber Command. More than 55.000 of whom lost their lives in the cause of freedom. The nation owes them an immense debt." One of the people who attended the ceremony was the famous bomber pilot Leonard Cheshire, who "would have gone even if I had to be carried on a stretcher." But the ceremony was interrupted by a small number of protestors and the statue of Arthur "Bomber" Harris had to be kept under 24-hour guard for several months as it was often damaged. Such was Ė and still is Ė the controversy the allied bombing campaign caused.


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.
Bomber Command
RAF unit which controlled strategic and sometimes tactical bombing (as in Normandy)
Largest Soviet ground formation. It was attached to a certain area which gave its name to the units involved. For instance the Voronezh front.
Armed incursion.
Highest military rank, Army commander.
The will of the troops/civilians to keep fighting.
Attack on a smaller or larger scale.
Royal Air Force. British air force
second front
During World War 2 the name of the front that the American and Brits would open in the West to relieve the first Russian front.
Art of warfare, the way in which war should be conducted in general.

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Harris with American Generals Eaker and Spaatz.

Arthur Harris' grave in Burntwood Cemetery, Goring, Oxfordshire.
(Source: Steve Potts)

Statue of Harris outside St. Clements Danes church in London.
(Source: Pieter Schlebaum)


Article by:
Pieter Schlebaum
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