World War II: Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Commander in Chief of Royal Air Force Bomber Command, seated at his desk at Bomber Command HQ, High Wycombe. - 24 April 1944. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Travers Harris was Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command for much of World War II. A fighter pilot in World War I, Harris was charged with implementing the British policy of area bombing German cities in the later conflict. During the war, he built Bomber Command into a highly effective force and aided in devising tactics to reduce German defenses and urban centers. In the years after the war, Harris' actions were viewed as controversial by some due to the large numbers of civilian casualties that area bombing inflicted.

Early Life

The son a British Indian Service administrator, Arthur Travers Harris was born at Cheltenham, England on April 13, 1892. Educated at Allhallows School in Dorset, he was not a stellar student and was encouraged by his parents to seek his fortune in the military or colonies. Electing for the latter, he traveled to Rhodesia in 1908, and became a successful farmer and gold miner. With the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted as a bugler in the 1st Rhodesian Regiment. Briefly seeing service in South Africa and German South-West Africa, Harris departed for England in 1915, and joined the Royal Flying Corps.

Royal Flying Corps

After completing training, he served on the home front before being transferred to France in 1917. A skilled pilot, Harris quickly became a flight commander and later commander of No. 45 and No. 44 Squadrons. Flying Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutters, and later Sopwith Camels, Harris downed five German aircraft before the end of the war making him an ace. For his accomplishments during the war, he earned the Air Force Cross. At war's end, Harris elected to remain in the newly formed Royal Air Force. Sent abroad, he was posted to various colonial garrisons in India, Mesopotamia, and Persia.

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Travers Harris

  • Rank: Marshal of the Royal Air Force
  • Service: British Army, Royal Air Force
  • Nickname(s): Bomber, Butcher
  • Born: April 13, 1892 in Cheltenham, England
  • Died: April 5, 1984 in Goring, England
  • Parents: George Steel Travers Harris and Caroline Elliott
  • Spouse: Barbara Money, Therese Hearne
  • Children: Anthony, Marigold, Rosemary, Jacqueline
  • Conflicts: World War I, World War II.
  • Known For: Operation Gomorrah, Bombing of Dresden

Interwar Years

Intrigued by aerial bombing, which he saw as a better alternative to the slaughter of trench warfare, Harris began adapting aircraft and developing tactics while serving abroad. Returning to England in 1924, he was given command of the RAF's first dedicated, postwar, heavy bomber squadron. Working with Sir John Salmond, Harris began training his squadron in night flying and bombing. In 1927, Harris was sent to the Army Staff College. While there he developed a dislike for the Army, though he did become friends with future Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.

After graduating in 1929, Harris returned to the Middle East as Senior Air Officer in the Middle East Command. Based in Egypt, he further refined his bombing tactics and became increasingly convinced in aerial bombardment's ability to win wars. Promoted to Air Commodore in 1937, he was given command of No. 4 (Bomber) Group the following year. Recognized as a gifted officer, Harris was promoted again to Air Vice Marshal and sent to Palestine and Trans-Jordan to command RAF units in the region. With World War II beginning, Harris was brought home to command No. 5 Group in September 1939.

Bomber Command

In February 1942, Harris, now an Air Marshal, was placed in command of the RAF's Bomber Command. During the first two years of the war, the RAF's bombers had suffered heavy casualties while being forced to abandon daylight bombing due to German resistance. Flying at night, the effectiveness of their raids was minimal as targets proved difficult, if not impossible, to find. As a result, studies showed that less than one bomb in ten fell within five miles of its intended target.

Pastel portrait of Arthur Harris
Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris. National Archives

To combat this, Professor Frederick Lindemann, a confidant of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, began advocating area bombing. Approved by Churchill in 1942, the doctrine of area bombing called for raids against urban areas with the goal of destroying housing and displacing German industrial workers. Though controversial, it was approved by the Cabinet as it provided a way to directly attack Germany.

The task of implementing of this policy was given to Harris and Bomber Command. Moving forward, Harris was initially hampered by a lack of aircraft and electronic navigation equipment. As a result, early area raids often were inaccurate and ineffective. On May 30/31, Harris launched Operation Millennium against the city of Cologne. To mount this 1,000-bomber raid, Harris was forced scavenge aircraft and crews from training units.

Avro Lancaster
Avro Lancaster B.Is of 44 Squadron. Public Domain

Larger Raids

Utilizing a new tactic known as the "bomber stream," Bomber Command was able to overwhelm the German night air defense system known as the Kammhuber Line. The attack was also facilitated by the use of a new radio navigation system known as GEE. Striking Cologne, the raid started 2,500 fires in the city and established area bombing as a viable concept. A huge propaganda success, it would be some time until Harris was able to mount another 1,000-bomber raid.

As Bomber Command's strength grew and new aircraft, such as the Avro Lancaster and the Handley Page Halifax, appeared in large numbers, Harris' raids became larger and larger. In July 1943, Bomber Command, working in conjunction with the US Army Air Forces, commenced Operation Gomorrah against Hamburg. Bombing around the clock, the Allies leveled over ten square miles of the city. Heartened by the success of his crews, Harris planned a massive assault on Berlin for that fall.

Aerial photo of bomb-damaged buildings.
Bomb damage in Hamburg. Public Domain

Berlin and Later Campaigns

Believing that the reduction of Berlin would end the war, Harris opened the Battle of Berlin on the night of November 18, 1943. Over the next four months, Harris launched sixteen mass raids on the German capital. Though large areas of the city were destroyed, Bomber Command lost 1,047 aircraft during the battle and it was generally viewed as a British defeat. With the impending Allied invasion of Normandy, Harris was ordered to switch away from area raids on German cities to more precision strikes on the French railroad network.

Angered by what he perceived as a waste of effort, Harris complied though he openly stated that Bomber Command was not designed or equipped for these types of strikes. His complaints proved moot as Bomber Command's raids proved highly effective. With the Allied success in France, Harris was permitted to return to area bombing.

Reaching peak efficiency in the winter/spring of 1945, Bomber Command pounded German cities on a routine basis. The most controversial of these raids occurred early in the campaign when aircraft struck Dresden on February 13/14, igniting a firestorm that killed tens of thousands of civilians. With the war winding down, the final Bomber Command raid came on April 25/26, when aircraft destroyed an oil refinery in southern Norway.

Bomb-damaged buildins in Dresden.
Ruins of Dresden. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-Z0309-310 / G. Beyer


In the months after the war, there was some concern in the British government about the amount of destruction and civilian casualties caused by Bomber Command in the conflict's final stages. Despite this, Harris was promoted to Marshal of the Royal Air Force before he retired on September 15, 1945. In the years after the war, Harris stalwartly defended Bomber Command's actions stating that their operations conformed to the rules of the "total war" started by Germany.

The following year, Harris became the first British commander-in-chief to not be made a peer after he refused the honor due to the government's refusal to create a separate campaign medal for his air crews. Always popular with his men, Harris' act further cemented the bond. Angered by criticism of Bomber Command's wartime actions, Harris moved to South Africa in 1948, and served as a manager for the South African Marine Corporation until 1953. Returning home, he was forced to accept a baronetcy by Churchill and became the 1st Baronet of Chipping Wycombe. Harris lived in retirement until his death on April 5, 1984.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).