Thursday, 18 February 2010

Arthur "Bomber" Harris takes over RAF Bomber Command 1942

In taking over Bomber Command when he did, Harris enjoyed more luck that he imagined. On the face of it, this was not a good appointment for a career officer. Loss rates had been growing steadily during 1941, for little apparent effect on the German war effort. The debacles of the great Berlin raid and the Channel Dash were still fresh and even the advent of the new heavy bombers had proved to be a big disappointment.

Underlying these drawbacks, however, Bomber Command was on the brink of transformation. The new training regimes were beginning to deliver a steady flow of well trained crews to squadrons, new types of bomb were becoming available and new aircraft were coming into operations. But it must be admitted that the biggest change of all was Harris himself.

At this stage in his career, Harris had many years of sometimes arduous service behind him. He had been in Rhodesia when World War I broke out enjoying a varied career as gold miner, cattle herder, big game hunter and, finally, tobacco farm manager - all by the age of 21. He joined the local regiment as soon as war was declared and spent the following months taking part in the invasions of German African colonies. When those campaigns ended he volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps and travelled to England to join a nightfighter squadron protecting London from the dreaded Zeppelin bomber airships.

After the Great War, Harris opted to stay in the RAF, becoming a squadron leader in India. In the 1920s he decided that night bombing would play a major role in any future war and trained his squadron, No.58, in the necessary skills. He was then trained at the Staff College for staff jobs, taking up the command of RAF Intelligence and then Operations. It was while in these posts that Harris developed his already clear grasp of technical matters to the point where he could understand quickly what any boffin was trying to explain to him - and then pose questions that often drew out the advantages and disadvantages of the scheme.

In 1938 he was sent out to command the RAF in Palestine and Transjordan, but the hot dry climate affected his health so he was soon back in Britain to take up command of 5 Group of Bomber Command. He commanded the Hampden-only Group until November 1940, after which he was sent out to the USA to liaise with American companies and government officials about the purchase of aircraft supplies for the British war effort.

He came to take over Bomber Command with a reputation for technical skill, knowledge of night missions, administrative skill and, above all, a grim determination to get the job done - no matter what that job was. If the staff at Southdown were worried about any aspect of their new commander it was his well known lack of affability. Harris was not one for jokes, pep talks, socialising or being friendly. So far as Harris was concerned he was there to do a job, and so was everybody else. So long as everybody got on and did their jobs properly he was content. He wanted men who knew what they had to do and how to do it. Harris saw little need for the morale-boosting tours of stations that other senior commanders indulged in. As a squadron commander he had dreaded such visits as an upset to his routine and, now that he was head of Bomber Command, he assumed his subordinates would take a similar view. That is not to say that he did not take a close and detailed interest in his command and his men - he did. It was just that he saw no need to interfere if everything was going well. If a man or unit did particularly well he would let them know that he had noticed, and if they did badly he would let them know that he had noticed that as well.

One of the key features of Harris’s command that everybody at Southdown noticed instantly was that he did not live on the base. He took up the option of a family house three miles away where he lived and indulged his only known hobby: cooking. In some ways this was a relief for his staff. Once Harris had gone home everyone could relax without worrying if the Air Officer Commanding was about to walk around the corner.

With a few exceptions, Harris ran a generally happy command. His men knew that he trusted them to do their work competently and responded accordingly. The fact that he was known to keep an eye on everyone ensured that all staff tightened up their act. The new atmosphere of determined professionalism soon spread down the command structure to infect all stations, units and squadrons. After Harris arrived Bomber Command was transformed.

This is an extract from RAF Bomber Command at War by Rupert Matthews.

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