Friday, 22 April 2011

Bomber Harris and Dambuster Gibson in Lincolnshire in 1939

Bomber Command’s 5 Group, based in Lincolnshire, was lucky in 1939 that it had two of the finest airmen of the war on its strength. Throughout the conflict, the thinking of these two men would have a profound impact on the bomber force based in Lincolnshire, and on how it was to perform.

The first was Arthur Travers Harris who, when war broke out, was the commanding officer of 5 Group, which was based in Lincolnshire. Although he was later to be widely known as “Bomber” Harris, the tough, taciturn officer was at this point rather better known for his enthusiasm for mine-laying.

Born in 1892, Harris had moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1910 in search of adventure and a fortune. He tried his hand at gold mining, wagon driving and cattle driving before getting a job on a remote tobacco farm. When news arrived at his settlement in 1914 that war had broken out, Harris at once volunteered to serve in the 1st Rhodesian Regiment as a bugler. He spent the following months footslogging through the African bush as the British colonies went to war against the German colonies.

When the colonial campaigns were over, Harris volunteered for service outside Africa. Determined never again to march to war, he transferred to the fledgling Royal Flying Corps. He proved to be a natural pilot: his instructor passing him fit for a solo flight after just 30 minutes in the air. Harris spent the remainder of the war as a fighter pilot guarding London from Zeppelin raids, interspersed with spells on the Western Front. After the war, Harris gained a promotion to Squadron Leader, which involved changing to flying bombers and to being stationed in India. After some years in India, Harris returned to Britain to take command of 58 Squadron which he trained so well that they won the RAF bombing championship and logged more night-flying hours than the rest of the RAF put together.

Harris then moved to the Air Ministry where he was put in charge of Operations and developing new weapons. It was here that Harris began the research programme that would eventually lead to the production of the mighty four-engined bombers of the later war years. Of more immediate use he sponsored the development of a marine mine that could be dropped from an aircraft in enemy waters. In 1938 Harris was promoted to the rank of Air Vice Marshal and sent to command the RAF in Palestine and Transjordan. The dry heat had a terrible effect on Harris’s health, so he was brought back to Britain to take command of 5 Group.

Harris was a supremely capable airman who had a sound and instinctive grasp of air combat. Throughout his career he was determined that his men would have the best equipment and training that was possible, and was dismissive of new fangled ideas until they proved their worth. In part, this gave Harris a reputation for being rather old-fashioned and doctrinaire. This was far from the truth. It was simply that Harris knew the dangers and risks his men would face in enemy skies. Time and again he refused to risk men’s lives unless he was certain that the effort was in a good cause. He came close to turning down the dambuster raid, perhaps the most famous event in Lincolnshire’s war, until convinced by Barnes Wallis that the bouncing bombs would actually work.

He was not, however, a particularly chatty or approachable man. He enjoyed his food and, even in 1939, was becoming rather portly as his job kept him increasingly tied to a desk. Indeed, he was known in Lincolnshire as “Tubby” by the men he commanded and the name persisted here even when the newspapers came to call him “Bomber”. Nor was Harris one to spend time visiting stations and bases on morale-boosting duties. He was firmly of the opinion that both he and his men had more important things to be getting on with. Despite, or perhaps because of this, Harris proved to be popular with those serving under him. He trusted them to do their jobs, and they appreciated that trust.

There was a second man in 5 Group when war broke out who would later become one of the most skilled and famous squadron leaders of all time, though in September 1939 he was one pilot among many. This was Guy Gibson, flying with 83 Squadron. Like Harris, he was a gifted pilot and, again like Harris, he was a natural leader of men. While Harris toiled to get aircraft and equipment for his men to use on realistic targets, Gibson was working to improve bomb-aiming and air-gunnery at a squadron level. The partnership was one that was to last.


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