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Arthur Harris

Arthur Harris, the son of a civil servant, was born in Cheltenham, on 13th April, 1892. When he was seventeen he moved to Rhodesia where he tried his luck at gold mining, driving horses and tobacco planting.

When the First World War broke out he joined the 1st Rhodesia Regiment and fought in the successful campaign to capture German South West Africa from the German Army.

Harris returned to England in 1915 and joined the Royal Flying Corps. The following year he qualified as a fighter pilot and joined the 44 Squadron in France. Harris also helped organize the defence against the Zeppelin Air Raids in 1916 before taking command of the 44 Squadron and training it for night fighting.

In 1919 Harris was given the rank of squadron leader of the recently created Royal Air Force (RAF). Over the next few years he served in India, Iraq and Iran. He led the 58 Squadron (1925-27) before serving on the air staff in the Middle East (1930-32).

During this period the RAF used terror bombing, including gas attacks and delayed action bombs, on the Iraqi tribes rebelling against British rule. One RAF officer, Air Commodore Lional Charlton, resigned in 1924 after visiting a hospital that contained limbless civilian victims of these air raids. However, Harris remarked "the only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand."

In 1932 Harris was appointed commander of the 210 Flying Boat Squadron. Promoted to group captain in 1933 Harris was appointed deputy director of plans in the Air Ministry (1934-37). While in this post he produced a document concerning how to deal with a war with Germany that he forecasted would begin in 1939.

By the outbreak of the Second World War Harris had reached the rank of air vice marshal and spent the early months of the war in the United States purchasing aircraft for the war effort. When he returned to Britain he served under Charles Portal, the head of Bomber Command.

In February, 1942, Harris replaced J. E. Baldwin as head of RAF Bomber Command. Under his leadership the policy of area bombing (known in Germany as terror bombing) was developed. Harris fought against all attempts to persuade him to switch to precision bombing and for a while resisted the formation of the Pathfinder Force in 1942.

Harris argued that the main objectives of night-time blanket bombing of urban areas was to undermine the morale of the civilian population and attacks were launched on Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, Dresden and other German cities. This air campaign killed an estimated 600,000 civilians and destroyed or seriously damaged some six million homes. It was a highly dangerous strategy and during the war Bomber Command had 57,143 men killed.

In March, 1945, Winston Churchill gave instructions to Harris to bring an end to area bombing. As he explained: "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land."

Harris became a marshal of the Royal Air Force in 1946 and soon afterwards retired from active duty. He published his war memoirs, Bomber Command, in 1947. Upset by criticisms of his area bombing strategy he went to live in South Africa where he ran a shipping line. Arthur Harris died on 5th April, 1984.




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