Bomber Harris, not a happy man (3)

As I mentioned in my two previous blog posts, Roy Irons’ book “The Relentless Offensive: War and Bomber Command” is one of the most informative I have ever read about the RAF’s bombing offensive over Germany, and the man from Southern Rhodesia in charge of it, Arthur Harris:

In the early years of the conflict, of course, the biggest problem faced by the RAF was that most fundamental of questions, namely whether the somewhat second rate aircraft of Bomber Command were actually hitting their targets in Germany:

An early attempt to find out the answer to that rather basic question was the Butt report, which examined night bombing by the RAF in as much detail as possible, and produced its rather disappointing conclusion in early August 1941.

The Butt Report discovered, for example, that most bombs dropped at night did not fall within five miles of their target. At the same time, though, the huge losses of aircraft and aircrew during daylight raids in 1939-1940 meant that the RAF could not possibly switch to that approach as a method of bombing the enemy with any claim to accuracy.

The only solution, therefore, was to continue with bombing at night, but, instead of worrying about civilian casualties, to pursue the Luftwaffe’s own tactic of bombing a whole area, rather than a specific target. Churchill and his war cabinet immediately ordered this change in policy from specific targets such as a factory or a railway junction, to the general bombing of an entire part of a city or town.

Area bombing, of course, could be extremely effective. It flattened the factories of the Third Reich and it destroyed the homes of the workers who worked there:

A new leader was appointed at Bomber Command to implement Churchill’s policy and to develop the tactics and technology to carry out the task more effectively. That man was Sir Arthur Harris, commonly known as “Bomber” Harris by the press and often within the RAF as “Butcher”. Harris was the most forthright of men and he did not suffer fools gladly:

Harris’ brief was to kill Germans. Anybody or anything which impaired the RAF’s ability to do this, he would subject to a severe tongue lashing. Even his ordinary opinions were extremely forthright, although there is little to fault in his thoughts about the conflict and what we had to do:

“War. The only thing that matters is that you win. You bloody well win !”

Such directness was why Harris ended up so hated by so many of his upper class superiors. He was, though, adored by the men under him, the “Old Lags” as he called them. Harris committed the cardinal sin of telling a large number of people, particularly those who outranked him, just how useless they were.

We have already looked at the problem of dropping bombs by night on, for example, the Gelsenkirchen tank factory and destroying it completely, but causing no damage whatsoever to the Gelsenkirchen Tea and Coffee shop next door.

That dilly of a pickle was solved, eventually, not just by the introduction of area bombing, but by improvements in the RAF’s technology and by training navigators until they knew what they were doing:

At the same time, another major problem was that enormous numbers of bombers were being shot down, either by flak or by nightfighters. This in turn, deprived Bomber Command not only of an expensive aircraft, but of a trained pilot, a trained navigator, a trained bomb aimer and any number of trained gunners and so on:


Many of these problems came from the fact that all British bombers were defending themselves with 0·303 guns, that is to say, guns of exactly the same calibre as an ordinary soldier’s rifle. In the 1920s, a lecturer at the RAF Staff College showed perhaps just how confused thinking was on this subject. Try as I might, I can make no sense of what he said:

“The aircraft gun is not likely to be required to penetrate armour and a couple of 0·5 inch bullets in a pilot will incapacitate him as much as the fragment of a one and a half pound shell. On the other hand a 0·303 bullet has but little effect on any aeroplane.”

Strange arguments, but whatever point is being made here, it is clear that the enemy pilot was being viewed as the target of the bomber’s defensive fire rather than his aircraft. All that was needed to hurt him was a rifle bullet, so the 0·303 gun was chosen. Here are the three turrets of a Lancaster:

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The official explanation for keeping the 0·303 guns was that eight 0·5 cannons, firing deadly explosive shells, were too heavy to be carried and would compromise the Lancaster’s bombload. Furthermore, the weight of the stored ammunition for the cannons would always affect the centre of gravity of the aircraft. That latter point is ridiculous, of course, because, in his design of any future bomber, the designer would automatically make due allowance for the weight of the ammunition, including any changes in that weight as the ammunition was used.

Not connected with this book by Roy Irons are the almost irresistible stories of aircrew using their initiative to protect themselves. Somewhere I have read of turrets being taken from the B-24 Liberator and used as rear turrets on Lancasters. Somewhere else I am reasonably sure that I have heard of unofficial swaps between the turrets from Lancasters and the turrets from Vickers Wellingtons.

Whatever the truth of this, The  RAF did order 600 Rose turrets in June 1944. They were equipped with the two of the standard American defensive weapons used in the turrets of the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator:

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The weapon in question was the American light-barrel Browning ·50-calibre AN/M2 heavy machine gun. Four hundred turrets were completed by the end of the war although only a mere one hundred and eighty  were fitted. Typical of Harris’ remarks was his statement that:

“this turret was the only improvement made to the defensive armament of the RAF’s heavy bombers after 1942, and those responsible for turret design and production have displayed an extraordinary disregard for Bomber Command’s requirements”.


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

26 responses to “Bomber Harris, not a happy man (3)

  1. War brings out the best in men and highlights the stupidity at the same time.

    • It certainly does. A lot of the stupidity goes into the process of starting a war, such as our recent involvements in the Middle East although it’s difficult to see how World War II could have been avoided. The Japanese would certainly have had a go at capturing Australia.
      By the way, I have heard nothing about the poetry books. Perhaps they’ll turn up but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

  2. fascinating details John. Well done!

    • Thank you, Andrew. I really enjoyed Roy Irons’ book. It’s nice to hear the truth of what a very outspoken man actually said to people that he identified as fools. I’m eagerly looking forward to the day when Prince Phillip writes his unexpurgated autobiography.

  3. Fascinating to me, too, John. I had not known that Harris was Rhodesian. I thought ‘dilly of a pickle’ a fun phrase.

    • Yes, Derrick, ‘dilly of a pickle’ is used by Ned Flanders who is a character in the Simpsons. He is a very devout church goer and a very keen Christian: “I followed all your rules, God, even the ones that contradicted each other.”
      Harris was born in England, but like so many young men, he emigrated after WW1 to make a new life, in his case, in Rhodesia . Apparently, in later years, when he was asked his nationality, he always gave it as Rhodesian.

  4. Did any one have to answer to the fact that so few turrets were installed?

    • No, I don’t think so. Like so many things, it wasn’t ever anybody’s fault. Harris had tried literally for years to get improvements in turrets and in the effectiveness of the machine guns they contained but without any success. By the time that Harris and Rose had designed the new turret the air war was coming to the beginning of its end and so there was not quite as much urgency about improving defensive capabilities. The Luftwaffe was not the force it used to be and RAF raids could now be flown in daylight.
      And that of course, suited the civil servants, of whom Harris once said “Well, yes, they are fighting a war. It’s who their opponents are that none of us are too sure about.”

  5. Protection of bombers was always considered – stupidly – safety in numbers. A large formation would protect itself and so there would be no need for fighter protection. The USSAF realised the fallacy of this very quickly as did the RAF early on in the war. Turrets, or rather the guns, of RAF bombers were as effective as pea shooters, one thing that may well have led to many lives being lost that may not have been otherwise. If it had not been the dogmatic approach of the likes of Harris, Bader et al, the Second World War may well have had a different outcome.

    • I fully agree with you. At the beginning of the war the top brass of the RAF were refusing to bomb the docks at Kiel because they were private property. Thank God that soon changed. Harris was absolutely right with his “War. The only thing that matters is that you win. You bloody well win !”
      An American admiral had his slogan pasted all over his aircraft carrier. It was somewhat like Harris: “Kill more Japs”.
      If you’re interested in air warfare, then I could recommend the admittedly rather expensive but 500-page “Darwin Spitfires” written by a history teacher in the city. He has recreated the dogfights between the Spitfires and the Zeroes in great detail and I hadn’t realised that the Japanese were so good, with three aircraft carrying out rehearsed set moves

      • It was all very ‘Gentlemanly’ wasn’t it. Many of those ‘in power’ had obviously been asleep for the previous decade and were oblivious to the harm and damage that had been inflicted by the Nazis as they rampaged across Europe. Bombing German civilians though was just not cricket! Thank you for the recommendation, I’ll keep an eye open for it.

  6. Thank you for sharing!… I were always interested in history and read a number of books about WWII and Great Britain.. one I read about bombers were about the 617 Squadron, the Dam Busters, led by Guy Gibson… 🙂

    • My pleasure. My Dad started in 103 Squadron but then towards the end of the war, he was transferred to 617 Squadron. By then, all of the Dambusters were either departed or dead and it was possible to fly in daylight on all of my Dad’s missions. Even so, he did not see a single enemy plane….thank God !!

  7. Chris Waller.

    I, too, had not known that Arthur Harris was Rhodesian. He was, or at least became, a very contentious figure and one imagines he was not the easiest of people to deal with, but one has to admire his clarity on the objective of war. While one regrets the destruction, as the French say, “C’est la guerre.”

    Coincidentally I saw a programme on one of the Freeview TV channels in which both a 0.303 machine-gun and a 0.5 were tested by firing them at a brick wall. The 0.303 succeeded in chipping the brickwork; the 0.50 demolished the wall. For that seemingly small increase in calibre the destructive effects are greatly increased.

    • I hadn’t realised that there was such a great difference between the two calibres. I had expected somebody to ask about the possible use of cannon, but that was turned down because the ammunition was too heavy and would have compromised the bombload and possibly changed the centre of gravity of the aircraft.
      Harris was not an easy person to deal with but he did get results. He was an “absolute tartar” and whenever he came across an aircraft which was not in service, he wanted to know why it was still being repaired, why it was not yet in action, and when it would be possible for it to return to combat.
      My Dad saw Harris at Elsham Wolds when he came to speak to 103 Squadron. He was greeted with sustained cheering by everyone present, and sure enough, Harris spent much of his time trying to find out why aircraft were being repaired, how long the work would take, and exactly when they would be back on strength, ready to drop bombs on the Germans.

  8. I am quite surprised the guns in the RAF planes were not like the Americans until late in the war. It would’ve helped. There was an Australian gentleman on TV a few years back who had flown on missions over Dresden who echoed the sentiments of Harris. War is a horrible thing but if you’re going to be in one you need to win it. It is all pretty sad though. Thank you for the post John.

    • My pleasure, Lloyd. I think you are absolutely right about war. I suppose though, that WW2 was probably one of the more justifiable wars in history which cannot be said of some of the more recent ones. There must be a lot of sad mothers and fathers in England and Australia who wish they had never heard of either Iraq or Afghanistan and wish that they knew what their sons and daughters had died for.

  9. Jan

    The Bristol 159, had it progressed beyond the drawing board, would have been a much spikier customer for the Luftwaffe. No peashooter 303s defending the Beaubomber but punchy 20mm cannons. The Lancaster, with its tail-dragger layout, looks somewhat old fashioned in comparison.

    • It was the Lincoln, I think, which was the first bomber to have cannon. The RAF top brass were worried about the weight of the ammunition required which would have compromised the bombload. Another possible problem was the type of cannon used. I have just finished “Darwin Spitfires” and they were fighting Zeroes at 25,000 feet and more. The Hispano cannon did nothing but jam, jam and jam again. This occurred on 60% or more of the occasions the firing button was pressed and was put down to the effects of altitude.

      PS For anybody who, like myself, had never heard of the Bristol 159, here it is. A very formidable looking aircraft:

  10. Pierre Lagacé

    Reblogged this on RCAF 425 Alouettes and commented:
    Troisième article de John Knifton sur Bomber Harris

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