Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris
The Devil's Tinderbox--The Legacy of Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris"
Oil on Canvas 24" x 24" © Troy White 2023 Work in Progress
Oil on Canvas 24" x 24" © Troy White 2023 Work in Progress
Sir Arthur Harris was born on 13 April 1892. During WWI, 23-year-old Arthur joined the Royal Flying Corps as a second lieutenant on probation on 6 November 1915.
Harris learned to fly at Brooklands in late 1915 and was promoted to flying officer on 29 January 1916, he then served with distinction on the home front and in France during 1917 as a flight commander and ultimately CO of No. 45 Squadron, flying the Sopwith 1½ Strutter and Sopwith Camel. In aerial combat Harris shot down five enemy aircraft, achieving ace status before returning to England to command No. 44 Squadron on Home Defense duties. He was awarded the Air Force Cross (AFC) on 2 November 1918 finishing up the war with the rank of Major.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Harris was the Commanding Officer of No. 5 Group RAF in England, then in February 1942 he was appointed head of Bomber Command where he remained for the rest of the war. In the same year, the British Cabinet agreed to the "area bombing" of German cities. Harris was given the task of implementing Churchill's policy and supported the development of tactics and technology to perform the task more effectively. Harris assisted British Chief of the Air Staff Marshal of the Royal Air Force Charles Portal in carrying out the United Kingdom's most devastating attacks against the German infrastructure and population, including the controversial bombings of Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in 1945.
During the war Harris became known as “Bomber Harris” and his continued preference for area bombing over precision targeting remains controversial, because many senior Allied air commanders thought the strategic value of that type of bombing was highly suspect and the inordinately large number of civilian casualties that resulted made the policy tantamount to a war crime.
Harris described his position thusly:
“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.”
In late July 1943 Harris unleashed his bombers on the port city of Hamburg. Codenamed "Operation Gomorrah", his campaign of air raids began on 24 July 1943 and lasted for eight days and seven nights. It was at the time the heaviest assault in the history of aerial warfare and was later called the Hiroshima of Germany by British officials.
On 24 July, at approximately 00:57, the first fire-bombing raid by the RAF was begun and lasted for almost an hour. Although approximately 40,000 firemen were available to fight the fires, control of their resources was damaged when the telephone exchange caught fire and rubble blocked the passage of fire engines through the city streets; fires were still burning three days later.
On the night of 27 July, shortly before midnight, 787 RAF bombed Hamburg. The aiming points were the dense housing of the working-class districts of Billwerder, Borgfelde, Hamm, Hammerbrook, Hohenfelde and Rothenburgsort. They created a firestorm. The tornadic fire created a huge inferno with winds of up to 240 km/h (150 mph) reaching temperatures of 800 °C (1,470 °F) and altitudes in excess of 300 metres (1,000 ft), incinerating more than 21 square kilometres (8 sq mi) of the city.
An estimated 18,474 people died that night. A large number of those killed were seeking safety in air raid shelters and cellars. The firestorm consumed the oxygen in the burning city above and the carbon monoxide poisoned those sheltering below. The hurricane like winds created by the firestorm sucked people off the ground and into the inferno.
The magnitude of destruction wrought by "Operation Gomorrah" upon Hamburg was like nothing the world had ever seen. A total of 9,000 tons of bombs had been dropped, and at least 37,000 people were dead. More than 60 percent of the city’s housing was gone. It had been the most destructive battle of the war thus far. In the days that followed, nearly a million people fled Hamburg; meanwhile, concentration camp prisoners were forced to dig graves and clean up. Most of the dead were unidentified. By 1 December 1943, there were 31,647 confirmed dead, but of these only 15,802 were based on the identification of a body. In some cases, the numbers of people who had perished in cellars converted into air raid shelters could only be estimated from the quantity of ash left on the floor. Those who died represented about 2.4% of the total population of Hamburg at the time.
The most controversial raid of the war took place in the late evening of 13 February 1945. The bombing of Dresden by the RAF and USAAF resulting in a lethal firestorm which killed a large number of civilians. Estimates vary but the city authorities at the time estimated no more than 25,000 victims.
Between 100,000 and 200,000 refugees fleeing westward from advancing Soviet forces were in the city at the time of the bombing. Exact figures are unknown, but reliable estimates were calculated based on train arrivals, foot traffic, and the extent to which emergency accommodation had to be organised. The city authorities did not distinguish between residents and refugees when establishing casualty numbers and "took great pains to count all the dead, identified and unidentified". This was largely achievable because most of the dead succumbed to suffocation; in only four places were recovered remains so badly burned that it was impossible to ascertain the number of victims. The uncertainty this introduced is thought to amount to no more than 100 people. 35,000 people were registered with the authorities as missing after the raids, around 10,000 of whom were later found alive.
A further 1,858 bodies were discovered during the reconstruction of Dresden between the end of the war and 1966. Since 1989, despite extensive excavation for new buildings, no new war-related bodies have been found.
“…Attacks on cities like any other act of war are intolerable unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers. To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.
The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden, could be easily explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually, Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East. It is now none of these things.”
Sir Arthur Harris died in 1984. He probably never thought of himself as a humanitarian, rather a military commander doing the job of killing Germans, whether they be soldiers or civilians. General Curtiss LeMay of the USAAF was of similar mind when he arrived in the Pacific Theatre during WWII. LeMay was also known by the monikers "The Demon" and "Bombs Away Lemay". Understanding that most Japanese homes were made of wood and paper, LeMay embarked on a campaign of firebombing that razed Japan's major cities by night. The destruction and loss civilian life wrought by his had was no less horrific than that of Bomber Harris's.
These days we are shocked and angered when we read about Vladimir Putin’s rocket attacks on Ukrainian apartment blocks, schools, hospitals and art centres. Although what Putin is by no means condonable, it is dwarfed by the sheer scale of the death and destruction the world experienced between 1939 and 1945. If the Allies had lost the Second World War, both Bomber Harris and Curtiss LeMay most probably would have been tried for war crimes, convicted and hung.