Diary of an urban destroyer

Despatch on War Operations
July 25, 1997

It is an unusual publishing event to have as controversial a figure as Bomber Harris answering his critics from the grave. At first sight, this volume looks like one of a thousand air enthusiast's coffee-table books: large, heavy, with a Bomber Command badge and a photograph of a Halifax aircraft on its glossy cover. Open it, and you find something different. This is no modern illustrated delight of the graphic artist, but it is full of dense text at around 1,000 words per page. For this is a reproduction of the official classified personal report of his time as commander-in-chief of Bomber Command, which Harris wrote in October 1945.

Even within the confines of Whitehall, his report stirred great emotions. Perhaps this is not surprising when the report includes such gems as "The Air Ministry, however, insisted on the formation of a separate Pathfinding Force as a separate Group - yet another occasion when a commander in the field was over-ruled at the dictation of junior staff officers in the Air Ministry." The air staff prepared a memorandum which "amplifies some and corrects certain others of the statements made in the text" and attached the two documents together. Reading both pieces, they show a yawning gulf between operational commander and air staff. Harris has written a self-satisfied glowing testimonial to the achievements of his command. He arranges his statistics to show how effectiveness improved during his time. When there are problems, he attributes blame and shows how well he coped. The air staff memorandum is unsigned, in the passive voice, and is dated March 1948. With the benefit of considerable hindsight, the air staff can show how prescient they were, and how their advice was invariably well justified. Both sections are in that sense self-serving.

For those unable to decide where the truth lies, it is fortunate that an excellent modern commentary by Sebastian Cox, the editor of this air power series, is included. He identifies each of the areas of dispute and explains the issues. The first, and perhaps most crucial question was whether Harris was right in his premise that his primary task was the destruction of Germany's morale and industrial cities. The air staff memorandum makes it clear that their intention was to move to precision bombing as soon as the capability permitted. Harris does not seem to have had much faith in the new precision bombing techniques. It is not clear whether Harris had been personally involved in giving the code name "Crackers" to the experiments with the new Gee navigation system, but there were those in Whitehall who felt it was symptomatic of the Bomber Command attitude.

Apart from the carping at the Air Ministry, Harris shows little emotion apart from elation at success. He records that the loss of 500 of his aircraft in 16 raids on Berlin as an attrition rate of 6.2 per cent: "It could not be regarded as excessive in relation to the magnitude of the task". He uses city acreage destroyed as his performance criterion. One of his charts shows bombing accuracy improving by a factor of two between April and June of 1943, yet the weight of bombing effort on cities also climbs. For those looking for his thoughts on the bombing of Dresden, he provides one paragraph with the technical details of the attack, and the claim that the effect on the whole German nation was great. In his summary of the results of the bombing, he does not place Dresden in his most successful category. With 59 per cent of the built-up area destroyed, it just fails to make his top category of 23 German cities with more than 60 per cent destruction.

There is one further commentary in the book. It is a German view from the military historian Horst Boog. He rightly raises the question as to why Harris was left in command if his views were so divergent from those of his masters in Whitehall. In a fairly sympathetic piece, he points out that Bomber Command was also expending considerable effort attacking selective targets. Nevertheless, Harris's own report makes it abundantly clear that he remained an advocate of the area bombing of cities as the path to victory, even when precision bombing techniques became available.

This is a remarkable book, which will appeal not just to the second world war historian, but also to those who enjoy an insight into the way Whitehall operated 50 years ago. There may even be lessons for today.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is director, Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Despatch on War Operations: 23 February 1942 to 8 May 1945

Author - Arthur Harris
ISBN - 0 7146 4692 X
Publisher - Frank Cass
Price - £35.00
Pages - 211

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