These aren’t mutually exclusive

‘Bomber’ Harris wasn’t a villainous psychopath. He won us the war

No comment on whether either are true, it’s just that they’ve not mutually exclusive.

47 thoughts on “These aren’t mutually exclusive”

  1. Villainous psychopaths are quite handy if you’re fighting villainous psychopaths. Not that he was one. He saw what the Germans were doing to his country, and had done elsewhere, and decided to fuck them up using the tools at his disposal. It’s only traitorous revisionist scum, possibly with Nazi sympathies and certainly with totalitarian sympathies, who think differently.

  2. There is no doubting that he was a strange man. However, to win a war of that magnitude, you need leaders with such levels of drive and commitment. He was able to get his flyers to keep going despite massive levels of attrition – was it around 45%? The bombing campaign probably wasn’t very effective. I’m still wondering why they found it necessary to drop 10 tons of bombs on Rouen cathedral when the railway marshalling yards would have seemed a more obvious target

  3. The bombing campaign probably wasn’t very effective. I’m still wondering why they found it necessary to drop 10 tons of bombs on Rouen cathedral when the railway marshalling yards would have seemed a more obvious target

    Because a big tall building towering over its surrounds is a rather handy visual marker from 30000′. And only landing 10 tons on it is pretty good going considering that that’s less than two Lancaster loads.

  4. Bombing alone didn’t win the war for sure – but it certainly helped. Smashing Germany from end to end certainly helped win the peace. Germany has not been a strategic threat for nearly 80 years now. Their rather chastening experience last time lingers to this day.

  5. The WWII bombing campaign has provided me with one of my more satisfying retorts.

    Whenever someone responds to me criticising/making fun/being mean etc by saying “that was an easy target”, I reply

    “So was Dresden, but that didn’t stop us”.

  6. He was a realist. War is ugly and the ultimate goal in a war is survival. Kill or be killed. You do everything to ensure that your enemy loses. You kill soldiers, kill the girls that would be sleeping with the soldiers, you blow up the bars the soldiers use, you kill their mothers, you destroy the clean water system, the factories, the infrastructure for food. You create death, mayhem and dysfunction. And you go so hard that they think twice about doing it again.

    The critics of Arthur Harris do so from a comfortable chair in a peaceful world where they have never had to face the possibility of the Wehrmacht marching into town.

  7. “The critics of Arthur Harris do so from a comfortable chair in a peaceful world where they have never had to face the possibility of the Wehrmacht marching into town.”

    Some of them do so from the armchair of *welcoming* the prospect of the Wehrmacht marching into town.

  8. ” The critics of Arthur Harris do so from a comfortable chair in a peaceful world where they have never had to face the possibility of the Wehrmacht marching into town.”

    Yes, thank goodness our country wasn’t invaded by hostile foreigners who then proceed to rape, loot and murder the native brits…

  9. While his aim to end the war by destroying civilian morale lacked the scale to achieve it, he wasn’t necessarily wrong though: Curtis Le May showed it was possible in the Japanese theatre (and that was multiple incendiary raids, not just the last 2).
    Even the Germans noted that 3 or 4 Hamburgs would have done it, if delivered in rapid succession: but that was beyond Bomber Command’s ability.
    Regardless, he did create an attack to which the Germans were forced to defend.

    Tens of thousands of artillery guns were forced to AA duty, and hence denied to the Russian front. Likewise fighters. The Luftwaffe was forced to fight a defensive air war and comprehensively destroyed, permitting air supremacy for and after D-Day.
    It was indeed exactly the strategy employed by the Germans in 1940, in their effort to achieve air supremacy over the channel for their invasion. They failed to do this, so the cross-channel invasion was impossible.

    Fighting major wars is very nasty and it takes a particular type of leader to stand up. Just thank your lucky stars he wasn’t born in Germany.

    There’s a nice tale about him being stopped at a road-check, and asked by the constable: “And what do you do Sir?”
    Reply: “I kill people”
    Harris had no illusions over what his job entailed. But after 75 years of European peace, there’s plenty who have no idea at all.

    NB Bombing Rouen cathedral: when half the bombs don’t get within 5 miles, hitting a rail-yard means aiming at the city. Precision bombing was rare and very limited: the mass fleet of raw crews were taught to drop when their leader did so, so you’d get a wide dispersion. This was deliberate, since the aiming was so poor. And so the Allies became the dragon.

  10. “The bombing campaign probably wasn’t very effective.”

    Given the resources the Germans had to dedicate to countering it, it was pretty effective. In its absence all those Luftwaffe pilots and planes defending Germany would have been on the Eastern Front, as would all of the flak guns and the troops manning them, slowing Russian advance or even halting them. And while German war production rose right up until the very last few months when everything collapsed, imagine how much higher it would have been if we hadn’t been bombing the buggery out of anything and everything 24/7. Bombing didn’t win the war on its own but it made a solid contribution.

  11. Tim the Coder:

    The story I heard was of him racketing back to London one night in his powerful car, and being stopped by a young copper. Having established his identity and credentials, the copper delivers the mild warning:

    “You should be careful, Sir, you might kill someone”.

    “My dear boy, I kill thousands of people every night!”.

  12. Diogenes. The marshalling yards are about a kilometre from the cathedral. At 200 mph, that’s about 10 seconds. But a Lanc actually releases it’s bombs over Rouen’s suburbs, a couple of miles back. Because they have about 4 miles to drop before they hit the ground. All done in the dark. Making a hole in Rouen’s quite an achievement, let alone which bit.

  13. Bloke on M4:

    Yes, that’s exactly how he thought. In “Bomber Command”, his book about his career, he says that he targeted cities because precision bombing was then impossible; because that’s where the road and rail routes converge; and because killing the civilian population erodes productive capacity and demoralises troops when they get the news of families killed.

  14. That’s probably the aspect of the night bombing campaign that raises doubts. Not the bombing of German cities or Dresden. Luftwaffe got the ball rolling on that by their night bombing of cities. It’s using it against targets in occupied Europe. Have you seen what it did to Caen? It was known how inaccurate it was in practise & that there would be considerable collateral damage.

  15. Even when precision bombing permits accuracy, the effects on a factyory are not great.
    Yes, you can bring the roof down. One or two machine tools may be destroyed, a dozen maybe knocked over. A few hours tidying, and back at 90% or higher. Result: raid ineffective.
    The skilled lathe operator however: much softer target, and far harder to replace.

    And in moral terms: is the weapon manufacturer any less of a threat/more innocent than the weapon firer?

    But that wasn’t really the issue: at night, with primitive navigation support, and large number of raw crews, just find a city was hard enough. In bad weather, after 4 hours of drift and nightfighter evasion.
    Even the later nav aids: G, Oboe, were only good for near targets ‘cos of the Earth’s curvature. H2S was intended to extend the reach, but wasn’t all that effective inland, and the Germans soon built dummy radar cities in fields, and reflectors floated on lakes, etc, to break up the picture.

    I can recommend “Bomber” by Len Deightonas a gripping novel telling the real story.

  16. “Just thank your lucky stars he wasn’t born in Germany.”

    They had them.. The city centre of Rotterdam is a “nice” example of modern architecture because of it… They very deliberately missed the harbours..
    The Nazis were quite able and prepared to flatten anything if it threatened to stop the momentum of the Blitz. It was a major part of the tactic.
    The barstards actually used Rotterdam in their Blitz propaganda: “See what happens when you resist us…”, even when they claimed it was an “unfortunate delay in communication” to the dutch.

    And it’s not as if parts of London and other places in the UK weren’t reduced to rubble.. They just couldn’t get enough bombers across because Spitfires spat fire, and all that…
    They knew they’d have to near-flatten most of the major cities to stand a chance of invading the UK. And they damn well tried.

  17. @Tim the Coder
    I’m old enough to have known some of the people participated. My mother’s brother ‘failed to return’ in a Wellington. An uncle piloted a Lanc in 617 squadron. The landlord of our pub was a tail gunner in one. Couple of others through social or work contacts. My father was with the Army in N. Africa. An uncle in subs in the Atlantic then Pacific. They were always talking about the War. My father seemed of greatly enjoyed it, couldn’t shut up about it. A lot of the fighter boys wrote books & generally revelled in it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of the blokes in the bombers ever talk about it. The attrition rates were horrific. You were fortunate if you survived. Yet you flew off, spent several hours with the enemy trying to kill you & if you were lucky got back to do it again another night. Not something you want to remember

  18. I find it odd that Dowding, Harries’s boss, rarely features in these agonised debates. I wonder if the Yanks thik of Curtis Le May, who used identical tactics, in the same way to the same degree.

  19. I always understood the purpose of the mass bomber raids were more for propaganda than any strategic effect.

    It sent a message that the allies could reach Germany and bomb anywhere so they had the overwhelming resources to win the war sooner or later. The Hun could either surrender and avoid further bloodshed or fight to the bitter end and lose anyway.

    This was also the purpose of the atomic bombs on Japan.

    I’d say the campaign worked because the generals surrendered once Hitler killed himself (or high tailed it to Argentina lol).

  20. @BiS
    Quite. A myth seems to have risen that bombers were killing defenceless women and children and it was all terribly unfair.
    Apart from the distances involved the air war was as close as you can get to a fight with cudgels, to the death, at the back of the pub.

  21. He was a realist. War is ugly and the ultimate goal in a war is survival. Kill or be killed.

    Especially as this wasn’t some gentlemanly 18th century dynastic conflict. The consequences of defeat are obvious, even to the most dim-witted Twitter user.

  22. @BiS
    Aye. My mum was one of the legions of staff supporting the code breaking machines scattered around Bletchley Park. Her boyfriend at the time was a glider pilot who did not survive D-Day.
    She very rarely said anything about either.

  23. Let’s not forget that the Hun started it, not in WW2 but in WW1, with Zeppelin raids. A recently deceased friend of mine’s father was orphaned in one. Most of the U-boats’ targets were civilian. The Hun got only a fraction of what they deserved.

    The real point of it all was (in retrospect) to keep all those guns and men still in Germany. The 88 could double as an antitank gun. With a kill ratio of 1:1 the guns in Germany could have wiped out all the Allied tanks on the western, eastern and Italian fronts. They did better as anti-tank guns than as anti-aircraft guns.

    When I was a child I saw the devastation in British cities that were only ‘slightly’ bombed, and having been born in Germany (after the war to British parents), I saw the devastation still in evidence there when I was old enough to take notice.

    It was as a child that I discovered that most German women smell of piss. ON my most recent visits to Germany and Austria, I confirmed my childhood recollection. Perhaps that’s why they didn’t get raped so much by the Brits as by the troops of the other Allies – which is probably why they don’t like us all that much.

    (I was very blonde as a child, and they apparently thought I was a Kraut, adopted. Even in my 70s, German women – still smelling of piss – have tried to pick me up! Sometimes they succeeded when I was small, but they don’t nowadays!)

  24. Post war there was a lot of “oh noes, bombing people is bad!” horror, and Harris – who did not set strategy, but carried it out – was made the scapegoat for all those puir wee German bairns we bombed at Dresden (it’s always Dresden, nobody ever talks about the way we obliterated Chemnitz a week or two later) and strategic bombing was held to have been an unfortunate mistake, ineffective, won’t do that again…

    Except that it was effective. Adam Tooze plots how in mid-1943 German war production – rising rapidly, more than doubling each year – suddenly flatlines, with the increase stalled for months, as the RAF did some explosive rearrangement of the Ruhr factories.

    It picked up for a while in the spring of 1944, while the heavy bombing was wrecking French railways ready for D-Day, then from the summer of that year it started to fall and then it plummeted.

    Bombing German industrial cities sharply reduced their war production. It also drew off huge effort (by 1944 half of German production capacity was devoted to AA guns, the vast quantities of ammunition they needed (16,000 shells per bomber downed!) and defensive fighters; and once the USAAF started escorting their bombers, the Luftwaffe’s fighter force was rapidly eliminated by swarming hordes of Thunderbolts and Mustangs (by the spring of 1944 the average life expectancy of a newly-qualified Luftwaffe fighter pilot was less than a month)

    One counter-argument is that Speer “revolutionised production” and kept the numbers rising despite the bombing: the problem being that he, bluntly, cheated. Fighter production rose… but they were mostly obsolete Bf109Gs (decent aircraft in 1942, death traps in 1944). Other aircraft production – transports, bombers, patrol aircraft, all urgently needed – were kept out of sight of Goebbels’ propaganda, since production of them basically stopped. Fighters repaired and put back into action were double-counted both as “repaired” and as “new production”. Aircraft were counted as “produced” once the first component had a serial number attached, even if the half-built airframe was then incinerated by bombing before it got off the shop floor. All of this looked fabulous for Speer’s Ministry, but didn’t provide much in the way of fighting power.

    And as for the US… they were happy (in Europe) to claim that unlike the brutish RAF who did evil “area bombing” of civilians, they did ‘precision strikes’ on military targets. Unfortunately, this was defined as “a formation of aircraft two miles wide and a mile deep, all drop blindly when the leader says”, often ‘aimed’ through cloud or smoke by radar or dead-reckoning: by 1944, there wasn’t a lot of difference between USAAF and RAF bombing accuracy (and the RAF delivered a lot more payload, typically two or three times the throw-weight per aircraft)

  25. Perhaps the outcome of the Afghan war might have been different if the US had been prepared to kill on this scale.

  26. @Boganboy
    Hard to justify such an attack, given that Afghanistan is largely an internal issue with no global threat on the scale of the Nazis.
    Indeed, hard to see any external military threat: at most, the risk of terrorist infiltration, and why worry about just one place?
    Even 9/11 was largely the Saudis, but they have the oil.
    Never understood any justification for Afghan involvement: perhaps as a testing ground, to use up munitions, make some threats to Saudis – and others – about “you’re next”.
    Or White Man’s Burden. Again again again? Failed 3 times already and long out of fashion.
    Or what exactly? Were there ever any war aims?

  27. Philip,
    Harris’ boss was Portal not Dowding.

    Actually a B17 and a Lanc had very very similar lift capabilities. The yanks chose to use at least half of it to provide comprehensive armour and guns – leaving a lot less for bombload. They were a lot more dangerous to the Luftwaffe. Despite operating at day the USAAF had dramatically lower loss rates than Bomber Command. Pays your money makes your choice.

  28. Tim the Coder
    April 20, 2021 at 11:53 am

    As I understood it, Bush demanded the surrender of Osama Bin Laden. The Taliban refused. Bush invaded, and then thought that since we’re there, we might as well civilise the place.

    He didn’t invade Pakistan when Ossie fled there since the Pakis had nukes.

    I’d have to agree with you. The war was and is absolutely pointless.

  29. Pratchett encapsulated the issue when he wrote that war is a crime so big that it’s not even illegal.
    We’ve no right to judge the actions of people in an existential fight.

    Take it down to a personal level; if I have to fight some punk, the queen of marksberry can fuck right off!

  30. “Smashing Germany from end to end certainly helped win the peace.”

    That’s the key point. After the light punishment of Germany after WWI she came back for a second round. Then you really have to smash her up to ensure there isn’t a third.

    For an example in our domestic history contrast the punishment meted out after the ’15 and the ’45. Same story.

  31. I once had a rather heated argument with some Yank about the bombing campaign. I had to shut him up in the end by saying that it didn’t matter if every man woman and child, every building and every blade of grass in Germany was destroyed, Hitler had to be defeated. Besides if the war had gone on any longer into the summer, there was a very good chance that the Big One would have been dropped on Ludwigshafen or Berlin as soon as the Trinity test had happened.

  32. My father was a Squadron Leader during WW11 spent four years in the Far East.
    He always referred to Harris as Butcher Harris.

  33. > Despite operating at day the USAAF had dramatically lower loss rates than Bomber Command.

    Is that actually true for all periods of the War? Just from popular fiction think “Memphis Belle” and “Catch-22”. I think until they got fighter cover the daylight raids were virtual suicide runs.

  34. Ian
    Unfortunately it was true. One or two specific USAAF missions suffered very high casualty rates (such as Schweinfurt ball bearing plant x2) but overall they suffered very much less than Bomber Command. Worth also noting that in 1943 into 1944 they were deliberately using B17 missions as bait to bring up the fighters so they could be eliminated. Huge ‘come and get me motherfucker if you think you’re hard enough’ circuses of bombers with fighter escorts. It worked a treat. The Luftwaffe fighter force was fucked by late 1943 and obliterated in any meaningful sense by Operation Pointblank in early 1994 pre-invasion. The B17s contributed a surprisingly high number of fighter kills (as well as fighter plant hits from bombing) to the US fighter kills of inexperienced German pilots.
    The USAAF destroyed the Luftwaffe.
    The RAF destroyed Germany.

  35. Patrick,

    Worth remembering that one reason the USAAF had lower loss rates, was that after the disaster of Second Schweinfurt (26% of the force lost) they took a six-month break from any attacks into Germany: as their own Official History put it, “The fact was that the Eighth Air Force had for the time being lost air superiority over Germany… By mid-October 1943 the daylight bombing campaign had reached a crisis. Its cost had risen alarmingly while its successes remained problematical.”

    It wasn’t until the end of February 1944, with the P-51B becoming available as a long-range escort, that they returned (albeit very effectively, starting with ‘Big Week’) – which pause, coincidentally covered some of Bomber Command’s hardest times and heaviest losses.

    But, the destruction of the Luftwaffe by the 8th Air Force was in 1944: in 1943 the USAAF thought the B-17 and B-24 could self-escort, and took very heavy losses discovering how wrong that was before pausing for long-range fighters to become available.

  36. The Lancaster had the bigger bombload by virtue of the size of its bomb bay. The RAF had the biggest bombs too. The USAAF used British bomb carriers to suspend the atomic bombs in the B-29s because they had nothing themselves to take the weight. B-17 stripped of guns, armour and crew could have done the weight but there was nowhere to put the extra bombs at least internally.

  37. Seems a bit pointless arguing about whose airforce were the more effective. They performed different tasks. The Yanks could have night bombed with heavier loads, if they’d stripped some of the defensive capability out of the aircraft. The RAF had already tried day bombing & suffered the consequences. They did try up-gunning some Lancs with ventral guns to cover the blind spot under the tail. But then ended up with much the same capacity as the Yanks had.
    As for the Yanks night bombing. Worth remembering that a lot of American crews were only second or third generation Yanks. A surprising number of them came from German families. So, to them, they were bombing their own kin. Daylight missions to hit defined strategic targets is one thing. Carpet bombing cities by night might have had a lot of the USAAF refusing to fly the missions.

  38. As Noel Coward sang in 1943:

    Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans
    You can’t deprive a gangster of his gun
    Though they’ve been a little naughty to the Czechs and Poles and Dutch
    I can’t believe those countries really minded very much
    Let’s be free with them, and share the BBC with them
    We mustn’t prevent them basking in the sun
    Let’s soften their defeat again and build their bloody fleet again
    But don’t let’s be beastly to the Hun

  39. The USAAF used British bomb carriers to suspend the atomic bombs in the B-29s because they had nothing themselves to take the weight.

    Plus, RAF Lancasters were the atomic-bomber backup if the B29 development project didn’t succeed (it was pretty iffy for a while). The US had no alternative suitable aircraft so the RAF planes and crews got pretty advanced in preparation.

  40. “Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans”

    A wise statement.
    Many of Hitler’s early claims on Poland & Czech lands were to reclaim German lands that had been carved out in the betrayal at Versailles, 1919. Even the French knew this would cause another war: “This is not a peace treaty, it is an armistice for 20 years!”
    Germany was no more to blame for WW1 than anyone else, especially the Russians, and Edward Grey was just as bad. But a scapegoat was needed and Germany fitted the billing.
    There was also widespread hatred across the victorious and losing Powers at the industrialists, financiers, cosmopolitan traders and international businessmen thought to have profitted from (and therefore prolonged) the war. All of course, synomyms for You Know Who.

    The validity of these claims, and the patent unfairness of the 1919 border changes were strong drivers to ‘set right the wrong’. Trouble is, once you set off that sort of grievance, it isn’t only cream that floats to the surface. The European part of WW2 is a direct outcome of that Versailles act of folly.

    And note that when Czechoslovakia was carved up in early 1939, Poland was only too keen to grab a bit for itself (Monrovia IIRC). Few months later, they came for Poland…

    Sort of a reverse “when they came for the…”

  41. Freeman Dyson (working at Bomber Command analysing the results of bombing raids) calculated that Lancasters could be made more effective by stripping out all the guns – as its speed would increase by ~50 mph, reducing time spent over occupied Europe by an hour or two, and only 5 crew would be lost rather than 7 if shot down. His officer declined to pass this information up the chain of command.

  42. Germany was no more to blame for WW1 than anyone else…

    You don’t have to accept the whole Fischer thesis to find his evidence persuasive that Germany (pre-WW1) was the only Great Power with a critical mass of influential opinion within the Court, Political, Military, Diplomatic Establishment that sought to pursue the national interest by means of, as opposed to at hazard of, a general European war.

  43. Dyson wasn’t calculating, but using the figures for the stripped-down Lancasters used for trans-Atlantic mail and courier work.

    Unfortunately – being only about 19 at the time – he seems to have neglected to include the jet stream in his calculations, which was actually responsible for most of the apparent speed increase.

    Consideration was given to removing gun turrets, or reducing the weight of ammunition carried, but the actual weight saving was marginal: the nose turret weighed about 250lb and was manned by the bomb-aimer when he wasn’t actually aiming bombs, and removing the mid-upper turret and gunner would save about 500lb at most (the tailgunner was considered too valuable to lose) – or, the same as removing one 1,000lb bomb from the payload (e.g. going out with 13 rather than 14 bombs).

    Just on guns and ammunition, a Lancaster carried eight .303″ Brownings with 10,000 rounds of ammunition, weighing about 800lb (plus gunners and turrets) – a B-17G hauled 13 .50″ guns and 11,000 rounds of ammunition, for about 4,000lb of weight (before gunners and turrets). The Lanc wasn’t actually wasting much weight on defensive armament – there wasn’t a lot to remove compared to the bombload…

  44. Jason, you’re right about the weight reduction but the drag reduction of removing two turrets and proper fairing over would be well worth it at night. Especially if combined with using max cruise rather than economical cruise. Use the weight saving in fuel if necessary. The net speed increase would produce several benefits.

    Reduced time over enemy territory.

    Reduced time for Luftwaffe controllers to identify routes and targets and vector nightfighters

    Reduced engagement time for flak.

    Much reduced overtake speed for nightfighters. Bf110 and Ju88 would have their speed margin over the Lanc much reduced. Taking longer to penetrate the stream and to make an attack. Probably much longer. This is a major benefit in survivability. The downside being that the modified bombers could not be used in daylight raids, or at least that is why it wasn’t done.

    ( I’m finding, from limited resources, no indication that the 8th USAAF had a much different loss rate than Bomber Command overall. At certain times the pendulum swung in favour of each. But overall not much difference in loss rates in aircraft. BC had many more losses in personnel. Wouldn’t mind seeing a reference.)

  45. One major downside to Harris’ fixation with night area bombing is that he drastically reduced the bamount of tactical support for the land forces. One the very rare times that he was persuaded to allow the use of the heavies for such work, they were rather effective – operation Crucible in Normandy just before the breakout. Montgomery wanted significantly greater use like that but Harris refused and Churchill backed him up.

    There was another such op when the Rhine was crossed in an assault crossing, but rather overdid it. Destroyed all the units directly defending the crossing but made such a mess that troops and tanks could not easily get through and allowed the defences to be partially reestablished.

    Given that supportive allied armies might well have been able to use the complete defeat that Normandy was to advance into Germany in 1944. However that failure is probably mostly due to politics and the unpalatability of giving Montgomery all the resources and assigning a lot of uS divisions to his command. After retreating across the Seine following the elimination of the Falaise pocket, the German’s did not have an intact mobile division available outside of Italy or Russia to be used to try to block a single powerful thrust, in fact they had something like 50-100 tanks in total between the Seine and the German border, and were in total disarray.

    The one bombing policy that was really effective at a strategic and tactical level was actually the pre Normandy campaign to cripple the French (and Belgium) rail network. The strategists got it right, instead of attacking lines, tunnels, bridges etc, they went strategic and crippled the ability to repair stock and to route supply by attacking marshalling and repair yards. By D-Day, traffic and supply was less than 10% of the required quantity to maintain supplies and reinforce units. That almost alone was the critical reason that the invasion succeeded.

    As for Harris, I don’t think it is easy to render a clear verdict. Certainly the results were eager for the casualties measured directly, and indirect measurements are hard to assess. Possibly, like Haig in WW1, Harris had to work with what he had and what could be done, and not with what was really needed and perhaps wanted doing.

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