Bomber Harris

Posted on Tuesday 31st May 2016

A portrait of Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, Commander-in-Chief of Royal Air Force Bomber Command, 24 April 1944. (Historic Military Press)
The city of Nuremberg was severely damaged by Allied bombing between 1943 and 1945. On 2 January 1945, the medieval city centre was systematically bombed by the RAF and USAAF, and about ninety per cent of it destroyed in one hour. (NARA)

Further Reading

Bomber Harris: His Life and Times
(Hardback - 432 pages)
ISBN: 9781848329652

by Henry Probert
Only £25.00

This is the definitive biography of one of the most controversial figures of the Second World War.

Sir Arthur Harris remains the target of criticism and vilification by many, while others believe that the contribution he and his men made to the Allied victory is grossly undervalued. Harris has been condemned, in particular, for his Area Bombing tactics which saw civilians and their homes become legitimate targets along with industrial and military installations. This is explored by the author and placed fully within its context, and…
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the second front

Joseph Stalin once sarcastically informed Winston Churchill that Britain would fight to the last Soviet soldier, complaining that the US and the UK were dragging their feet in opening a second front in the West. It was true that an amphibious assault on Western Europe was pushed back from 1942 to 1944, but the reality was that Britain and America had already opened a second front – from the air.

It was in February 1942 that Air Marshal Arthur Harris took over the RAF’s Bomber Command and, just three months later, assembled the largest bombing raid ever known up to that time, with a 1,000 bomber attack upon Cologne. More such devastating raids followed as month after month Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force attacked German cities day and night. Those cities held the German working population, their houses and the public utilities, which were the heart of her war potential.

The statistics are astonishing. Of the seventy cities attacked by Bomber Command, forty-six were approximately half destroyed. If this damage had been compressed into the last two years of the war, as indeed most of it was, this averaged two cities half destroyed per month. It generally took four months for a city’s industry to return to pre-raid levels. These figures do not include the smaller towns and oil refineries which were the targets of around half of Bomber Command’s sorties.

Reichsminister Albert Speer stated:

"For the year 1943-1944 some 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 persons may be reckoned to have been engaged on A.R.P. and in bomb damage repair organisations. Needless to say, this is one reason why industry was unable to make good its shortages of manpower."

Even if no men or women had been diverted away from their jobs, there was still what Speer called the ‘bottleneck’ in the chain of supply to the factories, caused by the bombing of trains, roads and bridges, and oil refineries. The destruction of the German infrastructure resulted in massive delays in the transportation of raw materials, as well as those of finished goods.

This saw vast numbers of civilians involved, in Harris’ words, on ‘railway repair work, repair of factories, repair of power supply and municipal transport services, re-housing, shipping repairs, etc. Not only man-power, but war materials, too, were consumed in the air defence.’ He also pointed out that anti-aircraft guns consumed thirty per cent of the total 1944 output of guns from German armaments factories.

"Without [that] air cover the German armies in the East were in an increasingly helpless state, for the Soviets had a strong tactical air force..."

At a time when the enemy needed every gun, tank and aircraft, particularly on the Eastern Front, the loss of, and diversion of, production on this scale had catastrophic consequences. The effects of the bombing was, of course, not only material. The German historian Götz Bergander’s assessment of the effect of the constant aerial assault upon Germany was that: ‘In reality, the air raids on cities and industry shook the foundations of the war morale of the German people. They permanently shattered their nerves, undermined their health and shook their belief in victory, thus altering their consciousness. They spread fear, dismay and hopelessness.'

the strength of germany

What must be borne in mind is that when Harris joined Bomber Command, in 1942, Germany’s armed forces, equipped for the offensive, were stronger than those of any other Power. With practically the whole production capacity of Europe at her disposal and ample quantities of foreign slave labour, her offensive strength appeared certain to develop to what was considered a prodigious extent.

Gradually Germany’s production was forced to switch from offensive weapons to fighters and anti-aircraft, and what Harris described as ‘a great army of at least two million men’ was employed in a purely defensive role, in the Flakartillerie, night-fighter forces, the civil defence organisations, mine-sweeping, and in essential repair work.

That in such a comparatively short time, Bomber Command and the Eighth Air Force were able to reduce German industrial output to a fraction of its previous levels is remarkable. Harris also pointed out the wider effects of the air war. ‘Bomber Command, in conjunction with the U.S.A.A.F., destroyed one by one the German synthetic oil plants until, by the spring of 1945, the enemy had practically no liquid fuel at his disposal.'

The Soviets did not have a strategic air force and contributed little to the bombing of Germany. The reduction in industrial capacity was entirely due to the efforts of the RAF and the USAAF, but it was the Soviets who benefited enormously, as Harris observed: ‘The fighter force and flak were gradually but steadily withdrawn from the Fronts, to defend the Reich itself from air attacks, until three quarters of their total strength in these arms was engaged in this task. The fighting fronts were denuded, and the enemy armies robbed of that air support which had contributed so much to their early victories.'

Misunderstood victory

Without that air cover the German armies in the East were in an increasingly helpless state, for the Soviets had a strong tactical air force, as well as numerically far superior ground forces. With fewer aircraft, and diminishing supplies and reinforcements caused by the need for Hitler to defend the German homeland, the aerial assault by Britain and the United States contributed to the success of the Soviets in the East far more than any premature amphibious assault in the West could ever have done.

Stalin had the Second Front he desired, it was just not recognised or promoted as such, and the contribution Bomber Command made towards Soviet success has, surprisingly, never been fully appreciated.

The wartime role of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, as well as his wider life story, is examined by Henry Probert in Bomber Harris: His Life and Times. Air Commodore Henry Probert served for thirty years in the RAF Educational Branch, becoming its director. He also spent eleven years as the head of the Air Historical Branch. His critical but highly acclaimed biography of Bomber Harris draws on wide-ranging research, including access to all of Harris’ own papers.

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