In 1933, Harris was appointed as Deputy Director of Plans in the Air Ministry – a post he held until 1937. During this time, relations with Germany became strained and Arthur Harris produced a document on what part the RAF could play in a war against Germany.
By September 1939, Harris was an Air Vice Marshall . His initial role in the war was spent in America where he purchased planes for Britain’s war effort. In February 1942, Harris was appointed head of Bomber Command. Up to then, Bomber Command had not been overly successful – its long range sorties had been suspended because of inaccurate night raids and heavy losses of crew and planes in day-time raids.
It has gone down in history as the most daring RAF operation of the Second World War. With its mix of heroism and technical ingenuity, the Dambusters Raid, under British Wing Commander Guy Gibson, became a lasting symbol of Britain’s gallant fight against the Nazi regime.
In Winston Churchill‘s words, the destruction of two key dams in May 1943 brought “unparalleled devastation” to Germany’s western industrial heartland. The success of the mission brought widespread public acclaim.
Yet it has now emerged that Air Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, one of the chief architects of the raid, was privately scathing about its effectiveness. Research in the archives of the Harris papers, stored in the RAF Museum at Hendon, has revealed that he privately thought the assault on German dams was a waste of men and aircraft.
In one letter to the Air Staff, written in Dec 1943, just six months after the raid, Harris said: “For years we have been told that the destruction of the Mohne and Eder dams alone would be a vital blow to Germany.”
As commander of Bomber Command, it was now that he could put into operation his belief that an enemy could be bombed into submission – a ploy he called ‘area bombing’. Harris believed that if the morale of civilians was destroyed as a result of their city being attacked, they would put pressure on their government to capitulate. The first raids were on Lubeck
and Rostock . Here the bombers dropped incendiary bombs and these raids did a great deal of material damage to both cities. In May 1942, a massive 1000 bomber raid on Cologne, did vast damage to the city for the loss of just 40 planes. Such a small rate of loss was considered extremely good especially when the government took into account the ‘feel good’ factor of the raid – the boost it gave to Britain’s civilians knowing that Germany was being bombed just as London had.
With such apparent success, the massive bombing raids continued on cities such as Hamburg and Berlin. The raids, which the Nazis referred to as “terror raids”, culminated in the infamous raid on Dresden in February 1945,
Where an estimated of 22,700] to 25,000 people were killed..
These raids were especially dangerous for bomber crews. During the war, Bomber Command lost over 57,000 men and many aircraft like the Lancaster. The raids killed over 600,000 German civilians and seriously damaged 6 million homes.
To start with, Harris had the support of Winston Churchill. In 1941, Churchill had said: “We need to make the enemy burn and bleed in every way.” However, in 1945, Churchill gave instructions to Harris that the area bombing of Germany should be stopped.