The title of this post is something which Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris did not say. There are an uncountable infinity of things Harris didn't say, but this particular one is of interest because during the Second World War it was widely believed that he did say it, and was taken to represent his aims and the aims of Bomber Command. It's part of a propaganda broadcast made to the German people in Harris's name, telling them what Bomber Command had in store for them if they did not overthrow their Nazi leaders:
Soon we shall be coming every night and every day, rain, blow, or snow -- we and the Americans [...] We are going to scourge the Third Reich from end to end if you make it necessary for us to do so. You cannot stop it, and you know it.
You have no chance.
The broadcast was picked up in Britain too, translated and printed in the daily press. In his memoirs, Harris says that he never said any of it, or even approved it; he had agreed that his name could be used on leaflets to be dropped into Germany, but this had somehow mutated into a radio broadcast. As Harris pointed out, he couldn't even speak German. Having said that, he nowhere disavows the substance of the speech, only that it understated the 'pains and dire penalties' which were 'actually meted out' to the German people by Bomber Command. 1 Nor was he able to disavow authorship during the war. So this speech, though false, was more or less accurate and accepted as such. As I'm always looking out for ways to explore attitudes towards strategic bombing, the episode of the speech not made by Harris seems worth looking at.
The speech itself is too long to quote in full here, but can be found online in Flight, 6 August 1942, 145. Here's not-Harris answering his own question about why Britain was 'bombing Germany heavily':
Why are we doing so? It is not revenge, though we do not forget Warsaw, Belgrade, Rotterdam, London, Plymouth and Coventry. We are bombing Germany, city by city, and ever more terribly, in order to make it impossible for you to go on with the war. That is our object. We shall pursue it remorselessly. City by city: Lübeck, Rostock, Cologne, Emden, Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, Duisburg, Hamburg -- and the list will grow longer and longer. Let the Nazis drag you down to disaster with them if you will. That is for you to decide.
In fine weather we bomb you by night. Already 1,000 bombers go to one town, like Cologne, and destroy a third of it in an hour's bombing. We know; we have the photographs. In cloudy weather we bomb your factories and shipyards by day. We have done that as far away as Danzig. We are coming by day and by night. No part of the Reich is safe.
Here, not-Harris addresses the question of area bombing and of the killing of civilians, including women and children:
I will speak frankly to you about whether we bomb single military targets or whole cities. Obviously we prefer to hit factories, shipyards, and railways. It damages Hitler's war machine most. But those people who work in these plants live close to them. Therefore, we hit your houses and you. We regret the necessity for this. The workers of the Humboldt-Deutz, the diesel-engine plant in Cologne, for instance -- some of whom were killed on the night of May 30 last -- must inevitably take the risk of war. Just as our merchant seamen who man ships which the U-boats (equipped with Humboldt-Deutz engines) would have tried to torpedo. Were not the aircraft workers, their wives and children, at Coventry just as much 'civilians' as the aircraft workers at Rostock and their families? But Hitler wanted it that way.
And here's not-Harris telling the German people how they can save themselves:
One final thing: It is up to you to end the war and the bombing. You can overthrow the Nazis and make peace. It is not true that we plan a peace of revenge. That is a German propaganda lie. But we shall certainly make it impossible for any German Government to start a total war again. And is not that as necessary in your own interests as in ours?
So, what were the reactions, if any, to not-Harris's speech? The Manchester Guardian, thinking back to the Blitz, doubted its efficacy as propaganda (30 July 1942, 4):
The effect of such an utterance on us would have been to make us all summon the Government and the workers to still fiercer efforts in order to repel (and afterwards repay) the threatened blows.
It also thought it unwise to predict attacks which might be thwarted by bad weather, which would 'enliven the enemy and disappoint our friends'. A letter to the editor of the Guardian by Carey Lord (31 July 1942, 4) made similar criticisms, asking 'Would it not be better to get on with the job and threaten less?' Lord claimed that he had heard 'not a few exasperated queries' from people reading not-Harris's speech, asking 'when on earth we are going to begin [heavy bombing], especially with the situation in Russia becoming more and more critical'.
The Observer (then very conservative politically), by contrast, welcomed the not-Harris speech, but more for its effects on the British people than the German. In fact, its leader claimed that it was 'welcomed by the British as a message to themselves', without, however, actually offering any evidence for this (2 August 1942, 4):
what he said was keenly studied by the British people, not because they take a sadistic glee in the prospect of an enemy nation being scourged by fire, but because they feel a passionate need for some knowledge of our own strategy and policy. If the Prime Minister had nothing to say to our own Parliament, here, perhaps, was alternative guidance, the guidance for which we wait.
The Observer clearly had an agenda here; it was evidently unhappy at the lack of explanations from Churchill and other politicians as to what Britain was doing and what it was planning to do. So it seized upon not-Harris as some indication of what the bigger picture was:
As for strategy it was clear from this that the "big bombing" is not the alternative to a Second Front, but its prelude and confirmation. As for policy, it was abundantly made plain that the scourge is devised to whip a devilish creed out of existence and not as the root-and-branch destroyer of a race.
The Observer offered no criticisms of the speech, but did wonder if the 'big bombing' could be undertaken 'without prejudice to other and possibly more important preparations?' There's the hint here of a discussion about whether Bomber Command was a wise use of limited resources, but no more than that.
There was in fact a brief debate about not-Harris's speech in Parliament. Lord Addison, the leader of the Labour party in the House of Lords, proposed a motion on 4 August criticising the broadcast. His main objection was to 'the practice of having individual officers of the different Services broadcasting statements on war aims and strategic policy', as they are not ministers. Addison also added some other criticisms for good measure: like the Guardian, he argued that bad weather had already prevented bombing on some nights, so it was foolish to boast that Germany would be bombed 'rain, blow, or snow'. That led to another criticism, of the boastful nature of the broadcast:
If you read some of the statement it seems much more like Mussolini than an Englishman. It is not a British habit to brag in advance of all you are going to do.
Before Lord Selborne answered for the government (and Addison withdrew his motion, knowing as he would have all along that it would not succeed), the Marquess of Crewe, Lord Ailwyn and the Earl of Mansfield all spoke more or less in the same vein as Addison. Crewe's response was the most interesting to me. He noted that German propaganda was using the not-Harris speech as proof that 'it is proposed to mercilessly bomb the civilian population of Germany'.
Of course that is completely untrue. What Sir Arthur Harris did say -- and it cannot be contradicted -- was that in making attacks on purely military objectives such as dockyards or factories by bombing, it is not possible to avoid a certain loss of civilian life and destruction of the houses in which people who are not actually engaged in the Army live. That we all recognize in considering the attacks that have been made on this country. We draw a clear line of distinction between the casualties which have been inflicted on civilians in the immediate neighbourhood of military objects of attack, and the loss of life which has occurred in such places as Bath or Exeter. Undoubtedly that warning or caution was what was contained in the broadcast of Sir Arthur Harris.
This is the closest I've found in this episode to any discussion of the reprisals question which was so urgent during the Blitz, and it's a reaffirmation of the principle of selecting purely military objectives, or rather a denial that civilians were Bomber Command's target. A fair reading of not-Harris's speech, but not an accurate reading of Harris's thinking.
The postwar debate about area bombing implicitly assumes that it was not an inevitable strategy, that there were other choices, whether more moral or more wise or both. Rarely are any potential turning points identified, points when these other choices could have been made. I suspect that, in part, it's because there weren't very many, at least not as many as one might think. (Harris rightly points out that he was not the author of the area bombing policy, for example; it was in place before he assumed command of Bomber Command and the RAF's reliance on heavy bombers had been planned long before the war.) This particular point in time might have been one: Bomber Command was still relatively small and not obviously effective at scourging anything. The war had widened hugely in scope since Churchill ordered the bomber offensive back in 1940: the Soviet Union and the United States were now allies, and Japan an enemy. Resources used to make Halifaxes and Lancasters could have been diverted eastwards instead, or marshalled at home for a cross-channel invasion in 1943. But the question of ending or scaling down the bomber offensive did not seem to have arisen. Can you blame a whole nation for lack of imagination?
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://airminded.org/copyright/.
- Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military Classics, 2005 ), 115.