Harris: Master Bomber
Globe and Mail War Correspondent
"In his hands the mightiest instrument of destruction in history is as flexible as an infantry platoon handled by a competent sergeant"—Allen
SOMEWHERE In England (By Cable)—Along the threshold of the Second Front the war of nations and of machines comes at last to the phase to which all wars must come—the war of man against man. Now it is the test of one will against another. One human constitution against another, one brain against another. In its simplest, meanest and bloodiest terms it is Tommy Atkins and Johnny Doughboy against Fritz. The waiting world comprehends it dimly as Montgomery against Rommel and Eisenhower against Von Rundstedt. Only a handful of tired men working in a cathedral-like dugout in southern England remember that this, too, is the last round of the war between Sir Arthur Travers Harris and Heinrich Himmler.
These two have never met. They are in different lines of business. Harris is commander-in-chief of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command. Himmler is head of the German Gestapo. Yet in the truest sense of expression they are opposite numbers. Harris’ job of bombing out the industrial foundations of the German war machine and destroying its political buttresses with fire has been vastly complicated by the night fighters of the Luftwaffe and the mobile anti-aircraft defenses of the Reich. But at Bomber Command headquarters they recognize their greatest adversary not as the man behind the controls of the Junkers-88 or behind the sights of the belching flak batteries. Their man is Himmler.
For every Nazi the Luftwaffe dares send aloft at night, Himmler has 5,000 fullor part-time agents at
work below, driving German factory hands back to their benches, roaming the occupied countries to stop, with truncheon and with pistol, the eager ears that listen for the wings of freedom. For every Allied airman who crosses the Channel on a 1,000-plane raid, Himmler has 300 policemen on the ground to supervise the job of cleaning up the debris, restoring the factories as best they can be restored, “discouraging” defeatist talk, and generally supplying that widely discussed and still largely unknown quantity called German morale with regular and highly compulsory palliatives.
It has been estimated that Himmler’s domestic army now includes 3,000,000 members employed
either permanently or on a piecework basis. Their main task is to ensure that western Europe’s “inflexible will” to work out its destiny in harmony with Adolf' Hitler is not influenced by the activities of the RAF and the United States Army Air Forces.
In assessing the effects of the strategic bombing of Europe—both its past efTects and the effects it is likely to exert in conjunction with the impending land operations— it is important to keep the private war of Harris and Himmler constantly in mind. Of late there has been a noticeable tendency among armchair experts on this side of the ocean, and possibly on that side too, to ask, “If our bombing is as terrific as the papers make it sound, how do the Germans stand up under it?”
The answer is that until they find the strength to stand up to Himmler they must stand up to Harris. It is not a question of human will and human courage and human endurance acting normally within normal limits. Italy was bombed out of the war by a few thousand tons of high explosive —but not until the hold of the Fascist Party had first been broken and the reflexes of the Italian people had been freed to take their normal course. From England alone from the start of the war to April 30 this year, not counting the activities of Mediterranean-based planes, Harris’ Bomber Command dropped 265,000 tons of bombs on Germany and another 75,000 tons on the rest of Europe. During the same period U. S. strategic bombers based in England dropped approxin»tely 120,000 tons on Germany and occupied Europe—a
grand total of nearly half a million tons of bombs from British airfields alone.
The targets of Bomber Command, however, are not people. They are factories, fortifications and lines of communications. And here it is possible to lift the private war of Sir Arthur Harris and Heinrich Himmler out of the sphere of conjecture and to assay its progress on the basis of hard, known results.
Harris’ side of it is all set. He has it down in black and white and little blobs and whorls of colored crayon. When you ask him for an opinion of strategic bombing and what it has done to the enemies of his country, Harris declines to answer in words. If you carry the proper credentials he will show you, instead, his famous blue books and his “juke boxes.” Then he will say, “We don’t ask people to believe the things we might tell them about what Bomber Command has done. We ask them to believe only the things that their own eyes tell them.”
The “juke boxes” are the visual, day-to-day photographic records which show in blown-up stereoscope slides what Allied reconnaissance has found out about the work of our bombers. These slides record acre after acre, mile after mile of black, gutted devastation, gaping geometrical figures that somehow look all the more orderly for the very symmetry of their ruin. Only here and there is the puttern broken by the giant crater of an 8,000-pound bomb. The rest is a vista of roofless walls which enclose nothing. Bomber Command still uses a preponderance of fire bombs.
The blue books, big rectangular folios containing air maps of the major German cities ringed off in red, green and black, contain the progressive composite box score of the bombings. On the aerial maps industrial areas are bordered in black, built-up urban areas in red and suburban areas in green. When a building or section of buildings is devastated by bombs the evidence is entered in the appropriate page of the blue book. This is done by superimposing neat little squares or rectangles of blue on an aerial map of the terget area. No guesswork or opinion is involved in Bomber Command’s box scores.
Unless reconnaissance pictures show that a German factory block has been 90% destroyed, that area remains untouched in the blue book. And the RAF’s aerial cameras take pictures from 30,000 feet that are as sharp and clear and unmistakable in their details as the pictures a news photographer’s Leica will take at 100. It is not a matter of opinion that six of the built-up areas of Cologne and Hamburg are 75%
destroyed and those of Dusseldorf and Hanover more than 60% gone. The urban heart of Wuppertal has been 90% flattened and only half of Essen and Dortmund are left. And these are only a few random samples taken from the total reckoning.
Himmler’ssideofit is set down in the blue books, too. Where the Germans succeed in restoring bombed out areas to productiveness, Bomber Command’s box score impartially gives them full marks by covering its own blue patches with an upper coat of white. On many pages of the blue books there is no white at all. On others there is a tiny, forlorn fragment, almost lost in the patchwork of blue. And when the white grows large enough, Harris or Spaatz, commander of precision bombing for the United States Eighth Air Force, gives an order and with ordinary luck it will soon be blue again. The process is as impersonal as an operation in surgery.
Yet to master bomber Harris the foe himself is very real. He has fought the Hun in two wars—first on the ground as a dirty, exhausted, sore-ridden buck private in the festering hell that was German Southwest Africa in 1914, and later in the air as a green pilot in the Royal Flying Corps of 1915-18.
Left Home Early
SIR ARTHUR was born in Cheltenham, April 13, 1892. Later, as a 16-year-old boy, the idea that his eventual career would be a military one was farthest from his mind. He had no clear idea of what he wanted to be—except that it wasn’t a soldier. Indeed, it was the threat of a military career that impelled him to leave home at that early age.
His father, a British civil servant, had watched two older sons drift into the unlikely profession of Oriental scholarship despite a long and honored family tradition which dictated that practically all able-bodied Harrises must seek the King’s commission. So it was that he sought with redoubled vigor to salvage his third offspring for the Army. But young Arthur wasn’t having any of it. His aversion to the Army was partly instinctive and partly cultivated but he never did manage to explain it to the satisfaction of his baffled parent. Anxious to see the matter closed before he might weaken, he told his father one day, “I don’t want to join the Army because I have my heart set on going to Southern Rhodesia.” He felt it unnecessary to add that until he had chanced to see a play about Southern Rhodesia the night before this final interview he had scarcely heard of the place. The senior
Harris knew when he was licked. He presented his son with a steamship ticket, his blessing, and a small grubstake. The boy was 16.
In Rhodesia Harris began life as a brickbuilder, drove a mail coach, built houses, raised tobacco, and hunted big game partly for fun but mostly for profit. In most of these varied trades he was his own boss and in all of them he prospered. At 22 he was well on his way to becoming a modest financial success when World War I broke out. On a characteristic impulse he beat his way down from the bush to enlist.
Wars were more exclusive affairs in those days and in order to obtain admission to the only accessible unit—the South Rhodesia Regiment—Harris had to recall and slightly elaborate on his brief career as a bugler in his school cadet days back in England. Once safely embarked on his first campaign, he lost no time in burying the bugle with which his regiment had imprudently provided him.
This first, and Harris’ only Army campaign, was under the command of General Botha and consisted of pursuing the retreating Germans across German West Africa, a march that still stands as one of the textbook feats of British infantry. When Botha’s exhausted and disease-ridden band returned, the South Rhodesia Regiment was disbanded. Harris decided to return to England. He had two ends in mind—the first to get back into the war and the second to avoid walking one more single unavoidable step.
So he joined the Royal Flying Corps. When he first applied he found 6,000 other applicants ahead of him. But he returned the following day, used a different avenue of approach and the same night made his first flight in an airplane. A sergeant instructor took 15 minutes to show him as much as it was then thought necessary to show new pilots about airplanes before they were allowed to fly. Harris took another 15 hours to teach himself the refinements.
At his first operational station he was given the exotic-sounding title of night Zeppelin patrol officer. That night a guide showed him his plane—a BE 2A. It was raining and Harris had never flown in the rain before. He had never flown at night before and he had never flown a BE 2A. He was poking around in the cockpit of the plane when the station commander abruptly and firmly relieved him of his duties.
“Under no circumstances are you to go up tonight,” he was informed by the C.O. “I’ll take the patrol myself.”
Thirty minutes later Harris was helping to dig the
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body of the station commander out of the wreckage of a crash landing. On Harris’ second night of duty he was one of 15 British pilots who went aloft in England. Thirteen of the others cracked up fatally and the 14th was seriously injured.
In a less or perhaps a more imaginative man those early night disasters might have induced a permanent antipathy toward night flying. They only served to arouse Harris’ interest. As the war progressed he flew on virtually every type of operational mission but when it ended it was to night flying that he turned again. By that time he was a major with a wealth of night flying experience. He not only had commanded a flight in the squadron that shot down the first Zeppelin over England but in 1918 had been awarded the Air Force Cross.
Remustered to RAF
He remained in the RFC after the Armistice and when it moved aside for the Royal Air Force he remustered as a squadron leader. He commanded and trained Britain’s first postwar squadron of heavy night bombers and while it was under his command the squadron did more night flying, according to semiofficial estimates, than all the rest of the world’s air forces combined. Between World War I and World War II advancement was slow but Harris’ talent for experiment had won him promotion to air commodore by 1937. In February, 1942, he was made commander-in-chief of air operations at Bomber Command and his feud with Himmler began in earnest.
For his part, Harris is bearing up under it well. At 52 he is a vigorous, chunky six-footer who somehow contrives to look both mild and explosive at one and the same time. How he manages this display of physiological virtuosity is a complete mystery. Perhaps it is because his firm, ruddy face boldly advertises a strong will while his gentle, whimsical sky-blue eyes and his well-groomed, silky white hair suggest an almost professorial gentility. There are no such contradictions in the personality this façade represents to the students of color photography. He carries perhaps five pounds of excess weight and of all the United Nations leaders whom I have seen he shows the least sign of strain and appears to have best-learned the art of complete relaxation.
He is essentially a simple man— meaning by that a man who knows exactly what he thinks, exactly what he wants to do and exactly how he proposes to do it. At Bomber Command he is the boss. He has made his word law without making his opinions sacred. “When I ask another man’s opinion,” he has said, “I already know my own. What I want is his.”
He works with a minimum of fuss,
considering the vast and terrible forces he controls, and believes the best way to avoid trouble is to avoid mistakes. In his hands the mightiest and most delicate instrument of destruction the world has ever seen is as flexible as an infantry platoon handled by a competent sergeant.
His working day starts with a morning weather conference at which he meets meteorologists, gunnery officers and liaison officers from fighter stations, and other specialists. Depending on how the weather looks he lays out tentative plans for the night’s operations. Returning to his office above ground he stays there until late afternoon, checking the plans as they are brought to him for his final approval. When the bombers are on their way that night, he keeps in contact with headquarters by telephone, snatching short naps in between reports on the raids.
In his own home, where I spent several hours with him recently as an overnight dinner guest, he is not much different from a million other Englishmen. I almost said “a million other Englishmen of his class,” until I realized that Sir Arthur Harris, the successful war lord, no more belongs to any one class than Arthur Harris the mail coach driver or Arthur Harris the Army bugler could have belonged to any one class. The Harris house, large and comfortable but not lavish, usually has a complement of two or three house guests. When I was there the oldest house guest in point of seniority was the five-year-old daughter of Sir Arthur’s batman. Sir Arthur belongs, if anywhere, to that classless class of Englishmen who are happy with their families; who love and respect but do not blindly revere their country; who try to get along with their neighbors; who expect the future will be at least as interesting as the past; and who would like the war to end tomorrow morning. His wife, Lady Harris, is a charming, striking and youthful brunette and they have a five-year-old daughter.
His friends know Sir Arthur as an intelligent, witty and occasionally devastating conversationalist. He might have made a fine member of Parliament, though such a suggestion would probably horrify him. Inevitably the overflow of business from Bomber Command’s famous underground operations room trickles down the road and seeks him out after hours in his home but his surprising freedom from evidence of strain testifies to the commander-in-chief’s faculty of making the most of his leisure. He likes to read biographies, smokes moderately and drinks an occasional Scotch and soda. If he has any personal vanity it would be in the skill with which he drives his $9,000 coupé at improbable speeds along improbable and winding roads while his chauffeur sits in the back seat as ballast.
His nickname is “Bert.” He doesn’t like flying.
He doesn’t like Himmler either.