Magazine article The Spectator

The Haig of WWII?

Magazine article The Spectator

The Haig of WWII?

Article excerpt

BOMBER HARRIS: HIS LIFE AND TIMES by Henry Probert Greenhill, L25, pp. 432, ISBN 1853674737

In Turville churchyard next to where I live stands a headstone to a Sergeant-Pilot P. H. Hazell. Last month, the 60th anniversary of his death in action, aged 19, I placed some flowers on his grave, and reflected, for the umpteenth time, about the 55,000 of Bomber Command who died in the second world war. They were our `lost generation', surprisingly just about equal in numbers to the officer corps wiped out in 1914-18. They were the elite who should have led this country in the shambly Fifties and Sixties, the future technocrats who could have saved British aviation - and perhaps even Marconi.

My reflections were not entirely impersonal; like Sergeant Hazell I too joined the wartime RAF. At 17 I dreamed of diving out of the clouds in a Spitfire; in fact, disqualified by my eyesight, I ended in a noisy and smelly tank. But if I had got my wings, 99-1 I would have been sent to Bomber Command, with a fair certainty of being shot down, or to survive with a nagging conscience. Just after the war, as a foreign correspondent, I used to rove the devastated Ruhr with the Daily Mail's Ken Ames, ex-Flight Lieutenant, DFC. He had bombed every city we visited; progressively it haunted him and three decades later he shot himself.

Was all that devastation, those 55,000 young lives - not to mention the thousands broken by the nightly horrors of raiding Germany - really justified? Or was their leader, 'Bomber' Harris, the equivalent of Haig, so profligate with lives in the first world war - as the late Richard Crossman once suggested?

In his excellent new study of Harris, Henry Probert points to certain parallels. Like Haig, Harris stuck with pig-headed obstinacy to a policy of attrition, for all the terrible losses. (Without such a singleminded commander, however, there would have been no RAF bomber offensive at all.) Harris also remained glued to his 'chateau' at High Wycombe - but for different reasons; he refused to risk any senior commanders flying on ops. He could be obtuse in rejecting expert advice, dismissing winning notions like going for Germany's oil targets as 'panaceas'. Acidly he wrote off one of Churchill's 'profs', Solly Zuckerman, as a student `of the sexual aberrations of the higher apes'.

Unlike Haig, though, Harris could rightly claim to have had no option. His orders from Churchill and the war cabinet were, and remained throughout 1945, very clear: to 'pulverise' Germany. After 1940, the heavy bomber was the only weapon Britain possessed, and countries fight wars with the weapons on hand. …

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