Sowing the Wind: James Barker on 'Bomber' Harris, the RAF's Wartime Bombing Campaign of Germany, and Propaganda

By Barker, James | History Today, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Sowing the Wind: James Barker on 'Bomber' Harris, the RAF's Wartime Bombing Campaign of Germany, and Propaganda


Barker, James, History Today


ON THE NIGHT OF MAY 30th-31st 1942, the RAF carried out the first 1,000-bomber raid in history. The target was Cologne, a city with one million inhabitants. In little over ninety minutes, 1,455 tons of high explosive bombs and 915 toils of incendiaries rained down, killing more than 500 people and injuring another 5,000. Cologne's docks and railways were plunged into chaos. Thirty-six factories and more than 3,000 homes were flattened and 45,000 civilians were made homeless.

The raid was the brain-child of Bomber Command's new Commander-in-Chief, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris. Although conceived as a blow to Nazi Germany, it was also designed to boost morale at home and to impress Britain's allies. To make up the magic number of 1,000 aircraft, Harris had to commit his valuable cadre of experienced training personnel, together with their trainee aircrews. Fortunately, RAF losses over Cologne were light. Of a total of 1,046 aircraft that took off, only 40 failed to return.

'Over 1,000 Bombers raid Cologne', The Times thundered. 'Biggest Air attack of the War. 2,000 Tons of Bombs in 40 Minutes'. When the headlines from other war fronts told a sorry tale of defeat, muddle and disaster, the raid was the first big good-news story the British had had for months. Congratulations showered down on Harris and, on June 11th, 1942, the King knighted him.

Britain's five newsreels joined in the hymns of praise for RAF Bomber Command and its C-in-C, who broke with precedent by allowing a newsreel camera into his headquarters. Harris urged his young fliers in the language of the boxing ring, 'to strike a blow which will resound not only throughout Germany but throughout the world ... Let him have it--right on the chin!' He reminded the rest of his audience,

   The Germans started this war in the
   rather childish delusion that they
   would bomb everybody else and
   nobody was going to bomb them. At
   Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half
   a hundred other places, they put that
   rather naive theory into operation.
   They sowed the wind and now they
   are going to reap the whirlwind ...

Harris's final words to camera--part exhortation, part advocacy and part prophecy--bear repetition,

   There are a lot of people who say
   bombing can never win a war. Well,
   my answer is that it has never been
   tried and we shall see. Germany ... will
   make a most interesting experiment.
   Japan will provide the confirmation.
   But the time is not yet. There is a
   great deal of work to be done first
   and let us all get down to it.

Arthur Travers Harris, one-time Rhodesian settler-farmer, soldier, Royal Flying Corps pilot in the First World War and Bomber Command chief in the second, is a controversial figure. In 1943, when he was guest of honour at the opening of 'Wings for Victory' week in High Wycombe, the mayor introduced him to the public as 'Bomber' Harris. His aircrews had another name for him--'Butch' or 'Butcher' Harris. Both nicknames were meant as compliments. Nowadays, his detractors prefer to see them as proof of his callousness.

But Harris was always the servant, never the master. He took his orders from the Air Ministry and, above them, from Churchill. The Royal Air Force itself had owed its creation in June 1918 to the panic produced by daylight raids over London by German Gotha bombers the previous year. After the Armistice, its first Commander-in-Chief, Hugh Trenchard, re-cast the RAF into an aerial colonial gendarmerie which played a decisive role through the 1920s in quelling uprisings in Britain's imperial possessions in Africa and Asia, at a fraction of the cost of conventional armies. Whitehall, especially the Treasury, was impressed. The young Major Harris learnt his trade as a bomber chief against rebellious tribesmen on India's North-West frontier and in Iraq.

However, Trenchard had loftier ambitions. He was convinced that, in any future conflict between the great powers, air power would be the key to victory--no more protracted meat-grinding in the trenches but a series of quick, powerful blows from the air against the enemy's heartland to destroy his material and psychological ability to wage war. …

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