Bomber Harris, bomber sceptic

One sub-species of military intellectual is the retired field marshal (or admiral, or air marshal) who, at the end of a long career, sets down their thoughts on the future of warfare for the interested reader. Even though they may be quite famous, their essays into futurism are nowadays read less often than that of their junior counterparts, full-time military intellectuals like J. F. C. Fuller or L. E. O. Charlton, who had substantial careers in the military but left while still relatively young (and may well have borne chips on their shoulders due to their usually enforced early retirement). Partly this is due to their naturally having written less -- often just a few pages at the end of their memoirs. Often it would be due to writing and intellectualism not being something which came naturally to them. But because of their great experience (and, greater experience of the heights of strategy than the Fullers and the Charltons, one might add), it's worth looking at what the retired field marshals have to say.

So here's one: Marshal of the RAF Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command in 1942-5. The final chapter of his 1947 memoir Bomber Offensive is called 'Summing up and the future of warfare'. He is unsurprisingly adamant that the strategic bomber was the supreme weapon of the Second World War, making an indispensable contribution to Allied victory. But it was a close-run thing, because the British government didn't quite realise its importance:

In the war of 1939-45 England could just, though only just, afford to neglect to the extent that she did the weapon which at the time should have dominated all her strategy. The fact that both her enemies neglected this weapon to a markedly greater extent, and also that their folly gave England two great allies, made it possible for us to win the war even though the greater part of our national resources went into the production of less powerful and sometimes wholly obsolete weapons.1

The German and Japanese neglect of strategic bombing Harris puts down to the undue influence of their generals and admirals, who wanted and got air forces designed to support their own services, instead of being able to act independently. Of course, he's also projecting his own interpretation of the RAF's interwar battles against the Army and the Royal Navy, which he acidly notes tried to strangle it to death more than once. But he's not just settling old scores (though he does do that too). He warns that

In no future war can we count on such folly as the Germans and the Japanese showed or such neglect by our enemies of whatever may be the most powerful weapon at hand.2

So Britain can't afford to neglect this 'most powerful weapon' as it did after the last war. That's his warning for the the next war, and more importantly the current peace.

The catch is that this weapon is no longer the bomber: 'I myself regard the bomber as having had its day in the last war'. (This, only two years since he commanded one of the most powerful bomber forces ever.) Despite his thirty years (and two world wars) in the service, Harris is no unthinking air force man. But he believes his successors will be, that the air marshals of the future will be as reactionary with regards to new weapons as the generals and admirals were in the past.

Obviously, the new weapon Harris is talking about is the atomic bomb. He cautions against 'the obvious line of defence for the bomber', which is 'to insist upon its use for the dropping of atomic bombs'.3 Of course, the bomber could be used for that. But it would be better to deliver them by 'a missile which has no crew and is directed by radar and mechanical means'. And even a missile wouldn't be necessarily. Harris argues that atomic weapons are becoming smaller and easier to produce, and 'my own opinion is that an ordinary embassy official, or, for that matter, a commercial traveller or tourist' will 'eventually' be just as good a way as delivering atomic bombs to an enemy city as a missile, and 'potentially more secretive'.

There is no reason why the parts of an atomic bomb [...] should not be brought in bit by bit by seemingly innocent people and assembled anywhere where cover can be found, in an Embassy, attic, lodging, or a ship in harbour. The threat of its presence could then be used to back an ultimatum, or it could be used to destroy outright the area in which it was placed.

He predicts, indeed, that future wars will not be fought by the military at all, but by 'the scientists, the diplomats, and the "cloak and dagger men."' There will be 'no need to embroil millions in production and in battle for many years' when the whole war can be decided 'in a few seconds by the exercise of a little chicanery on the part of a very few persons'.

Harris can see only one way of ensuring that future British weapons policy will not be dominated by one or other of the services, with their 'inevitable tendency [...] to get tied to a particular and invariably obsolete weapon', such as cavalry (recalling his time at Camberley, the Army Staff College) or battleships (he discusses the fate of his friend Tom Phillips, commander of Force Z, at some length) or bombers:

There must be only one service; the survival of three of them at this stage in the development of armaments is wholly idiotic4

The new service would likely be called the 'Defence Force' (though this 'is a gesture not of war but of inferiority', according to Harris).5 Its commanders would have to be free from prejudice in favour of one type of weapon or another, and be ready to '[flit] from one overwhelming weapon to another', as science dictated. (As an example of the next overwhelming weapon he suggests something like a dirty bomb, which might be used against cities or troops.)

But Harris doesn't sound very optimistic that a single service would be enough, it must be said. The book's last paragraph begins:

My part in the next war will be to be destroyed by it; I cannot doubt that if there is a war within the next quarter of a century it will certainly destroy a very great part of the civilised world and disrupt it entirely. Perhaps, after all, that may be the best solution. Any part of the human race that imagines that its survival is either necessary or outstandingly desirable must indeed, in the light of history, be thought to have an extraordinary conceit of itself.6

Harris suggests, not very convincingly, that a 'world federation, a government of the world powerful enough to determine the policy of every country' is the only alternative. He ends by very briefly noting his return to his beloved Africa after the end of his accidental career as a bomber baron. But it's his suggestion that perhaps a nuclear apocalypse might be 'the best solution' to the problems of war and peace which stuck in my mind after I closed his book.

  1. Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military Classics, 2005 [1947]), 269. 

  2. Ibid., 271. 

  3. Ibid., 272. 

  4. Ibid., 273. 

  5. Ibid., 278. 

  6. Ibid., 280. 

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4 thoughts on “Bomber Harris, bomber sceptic

  1. Having been inspired to drag my copy of Harris’ book of the shelf and read the concluding chapter, I have to thank Brett for another theme to follow, plus free frustration.

    In the post above, it’s interesting how Brett’s highlighted Harris’ prescience in some aspects, and yet, other elements of this single chapter, show Harris’ writing is as partisan and self-justifying as his enemies would expect.

    For a man known for a single major task – however it’s viewed – Harris is a remarkably contradictory character to try and get a grip on!

    As his daughter’s forward touches on, it’s a pity he was so reluctant a writer, for many reasons.

  2. True, not many of Harris’s rank wrote memoirs, with the notable exception of Gen. Sir David Frazer, head of the British Army wrote an outstanding memoir (titled And We shall Shock Them). When Winterbotham wrote The Ultra Secret, the British government tried to obstruct it by denying him access to official documents. The same kind of obstruction probably accounts for why there is such a dearth of memoirs by high-ranking WW2 commanders.

    Might be worth noting Harris in his memoirs fails to disclose that after the bombing of Dresden, Churchill addressed a “most private and confidential” message to Harris, warning him to be “very careful … not to admit that we ever did anything not justified by the circumstances and the actions of the enemy in the measures we took to bomb Germany.” (See Strategic Air Offensive against Germany (Official History), HMSO, Vol III, pp.113-4; and Winston S Churchill, (8 vols), by Randolph S. Churchill and Martin Gilbert, London: Heinemann, 1954-1988, Vol VIII, p.259.

    An in-depth study of the special relationship between Churchill and Harris can be found online at

  3. Post author

    It certainly would have been an advantage having access to confidential documents; Churchill wangled exceptionally privileged access for his war memoirs (David Reynolds’ In Command of History is very good on this). But how many high-level commanders sought access and were denied it?

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