Antony Beevor: Was WW II Bomber Harris Really Villainous?

Roundup: Talking About History

Antony Beevor, in the London Independent (5-21-05):

THE HISTORY of warfare is never black and white. This is true even of that most morally justifiable struggle, the fight against Nazism. On the British side, few leaders have been so controversial as Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, who directed the strategic air offensive against Germany.

'Bomber' Harris took over in early 1942, a year which turned out to be a very hard time for the Allied cause. Rommel was pushing the British back towards Alexandria, while German armies advanced into the Caucasus and towards the Volga at Stalingrad. Stalin was demanding an Anglo-American invasion of the European mainland to form a 'Second Front' to relieve the terrible pressure on the Red Army which was taking all the casualties....

Harris, when observing the Blitz on London, had promised that the Nazis, having sown the wind, would reap the whirlwind. He gloated over the destruction of the Ruhr, and he almost certainly had never disagreed with the planning paper written soon after the creation of the RAF in 1918 that workers in war industries were legitimate targets. But there was also a more prosaic factor at work, a superior form of office politics. The RAF had only just managed to achieve independence from the Royal Navy and the Army. To maintain that independence, the RAF had to prove itself as a strategic arm. This encouraged Harris to convince himself not just that 'the bomber will always get through', the alarm call of the 1930s, but that it could batter the enemy into submission. Both personal pride and RAF pride strengthened Harris's determination to prove that bombers alone could win the war by destroying the enemy's morale, both civilian and military.

One must also recognise the achievements of the strategic bombing offensive, however morally dubious it is bound to remain. The second front strategy worked. The Luftwaffe was forced to withdraw 80 per cent of its fighter squadrons and anti-aircraft guns from the Eastern Front to defend the Reich. This made a huge contribution to the Red Army's massive advances of late 1943 and 1944. What one cannot forgive Harris for is his bloody- minded obstinacy, which led him to continue attacking cities long after D-Day, even when he had been instructed by Churchill and Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff, to concentrate just on transport and fuel targets. In fact, it is astonishing that Harris was not sacked for such a flagrant disobedience, but the V rocket attacks on London produced another demand for revenge.

The whirlwind which Harris had promised was truly terrible. Yet Dresden, perhaps the most controversial target of all, was technically a legitimate target according to his orders. At Yalta, the Red Army Stavka officially requested air raids on all rail centres behind the German eastern front to prevent Wehrmacht troops being transferred from the west to face them.

The whole campaign left a bitter taste, and not just in German mouths. British troops, as they reached one city after another within Germany, were horrified by the scenes of destruction. Over 600,000 German civilians had been killed. And 55,500 of Harris's bomber aircrew had lost their lives trying to prove his theory that you can win a war from the air.

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