Some hidden history – ‘Did you know?’- back of the Chappie gum wrapper facts. Did you know Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris – the famous Commander of RAF Bomber Command during WW2 was in fact a Rhodesian and he also had a very strong South African connection, here’s an interesting story and it involves a bugle, a bombing and a baronet.
At the commencement of World War 1, a unit called the 1st Rhodesia Regiment was formed in August 1914. In October it consisted of 500 volunteers. In November the Unit went to Bloemfontein and on to Cape Town by train. On Christmas Day 1914 the Regiment landed in Walvis Bay to join the 4th South African Brigade. After that there were marches and skirmishes against the German troops. One young man in this Regiment was the bugler.
After one skirmish, he got fed up and buried his bugle. They had marched and marched in blazing desert sun in German South West Africa (modern day Namibia), from January to June 1915, when the campaign finally ended. He swore he would never march another step into battle. The young man was Arthur Travers (Bomber) Harris and with this act he gave up foot soldiering into battle and took up flying into battle instead.
We have all heard about his exploits and management of RAF Bomber Command during World War 2, but few know of his lifelong connection with South Africa. In fact, he was even a founder member and General Manager of SAFMARINE.
First World War
Born in the Gloucestershire, England, Harris emigrated to Southern Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) in 1910 when he was 17. When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Harris did not learn of it for nearly a month, being out in the bush at the time. Despite his previous reluctance to follow the path his father had in mind for him in the army, and his desire to set up his own ranch in Rhodesia, Harris felt patriotically compelled to join the war effort.
He quickly attempted to join the 1st Rhodesia Regiment, which had been raised by the British South Africa Company administration to help put down the Maritz Rebellion in South Africa, but he found that only two places were available; that of a machine-gunner or that of a bugler. Having learnt to bugle at Allhallows School in Devon, he successfully applied for the bugler slot and was sworn in on the 20th October 1914.
The 1st Rhodesia Regiment briefly garrisoned Bloemfontein, then served alongside the South African forces in South-West Africa under South African command during the first half of 1915. The campaign made a strong impression on Harris, particularly the long desert marches—some three decades later, he wrote that “to this day I never walk a step if I can get any sort of vehicle to carry me”. South-West Africa also provided Harris with his first experience of aerial bombing: the sole German aircraft in South-West Africa attempted to drop artillery shells on his unit, but failed to do any damage. How prophetic that his next idea of a “vehicle” to carry him into battle would be an aeroplane.
When the South-West African Campaign ended in July 1915, the 1st Rhodesia Regiment was withdrawn to Cape Town, where it was disbanded; Harris was formally discharged on 31 July.
He felt initially that he had done his part for the Empire, and went back to Rhodesia to resume work at Lowdale, but he and many of his former comrades soon reconsidered when it became clear that the war in Europe was going to last much longer than they had expected. They were reluctant to join the 2nd Rhodesia Regiment, which was being raised to serve in East Africa, perceiving the “bush whacking” of the war’s African theatre as inferior to the “real war” in Europe. Harris sailed for England from Beira at the Company administration’s expense in August, a member of a 300-man party of white Southern Rhodesian war volunteers.
He arrived in October 1915, moved in with his parents in London and, after unsuccessfully attempting to find spaces in first the cavalry, then the Royal Artillery, he finally joined the Royal Flying Corps as a Second Lieutenant in November 1915.
He served with distinction on the home front and in France during 1917 as a Flight Commander and ultimately CO of No. 45 Squadron, before he returned to Britain to command No. 44 Squadron on Home Defence duties, Harris claimed five enemy aircraft destroyed and was awarded the Air Force Cross (AFC) on 2 November 1918.
He finished the 1st World War a Major and remained in the RAF as a career choice. Although born British, he identified himself as a Rhodesian Intending to return to Rhodesia one day, to this sentiment Harris wore a “Rhodesia” shoulder flash on his RAF uniform.
Second World War
Much is written about ‘Bomber’ Harris in the Second World War and a lot of it very controversial. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Harris took command of No. 5 Group RAF in England, and in February 1942 was appointed head of Bomber Command. He retained that position for the rest of the war.
In 1942, a seminal paper was put to the British Cabinet advocating the idea of area bombing of German cities in a strategic bombing campaign. It was accepted by Cabinet and Harris was directed to carry out the task. It became an important part of the ‘Total War’ strategy waged against Nazi Germany.
At the start of the bombing campaign, ‘Bomber’ Harris famously justified the idea of area bombing by quoting the Old Testament:
“The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”
Images: Colourised images by DB Colour and RJM of Bomber Command Lancaster and crew.
Winston Churchill regarded the idea of area bombing strategy with distaste, official public statements maintained that Bomber Command was attacking only specific industrial targets, any civilian casualties were unavoidable and were unintentional. By 1943, Harris urged the government to be honest with the public regarding the purpose of area bombing and said:
“The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive … should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany … the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.”
Harris pressed for raids on a much larger scale and launched the first RAF “thousand bomber raid” against Cologne in May 1942, his successes using this method of aerial warfare saw him promoted to Air Marshal and even acting Air Chief Marshal by March 1943.
The Butcher’s Bill
Leading up to and after D-Day, 6 June 1944, the bombing campaign continued to attract controversy, but the most controversial was the bombing of Dresden on the night of 13 February 1945. More than 1,200 heavy bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the city in four successive raids. An estimated 25,000 people were killed in the bombings and the firestorm that raged afterward. More than 75,000 dwellings were destroyed, along with unique monuments of Baroque architecture in the historic city centre. The scale of the death and destruction, coming so late in the war, along with significant questions about the legitimacy of the targets destroyed have led to years of debate about whether the attack was justified.
Image: Colourised Royston Colour image of Dresden post bombing.
This issue on whether Dresden qualified a military target or not and in fact may have been an unnecessary bombing continues to this day, with evidence even pointing to targeting the ‘old city’ for a firestorm rather than the industrial sector as was the officially stated objective. In either event, what is known is that area bombing by nature was very inaccurate and indiscriminate and the death toll extreme, and the RAF and Bomber Command would admit that the entire area bombing campaign including Dresden was ‘somewhat overdone,’ but this sentiment was wrapped in secrecy for many years after the war.
To see this Butcher’s bill in total, consider these estimates. Civilian deaths in Germany from Allied bombing was more recently estimated at 380,000. Bomber Command dropped 53 per cent of all the ordnance sent to Germany. Firestorms caused by Bomber Command’s incendiaries killed over 34,000 civilians in Hamburg in July 1943, 5,600 in Kassel in October 1943, at least 7,500 in Darmstadt in September 1944, 25,000 in Dresden and 17,600 in Pforzheim in February 1945 and 4,000-5,000 in Würzburg in March 1945: nearly 100,000 dead for the half-dozen deadliest raids.
The attitudes to this style bombing of Nazi Germany populace at the time were becoming very ‘hard’, an attitude exhibited by nearly all the Allied combatants involved in it, as the war had rung out an alarming butchers bill on civilians in all the countries of Western and Eastern Europe. Notwithstanding the Nazi Blitz campaign of British cities at the start of the war and Nazi ‘wonder weapons’ indiscriminately bombing London’s civilians towards the end of the war. This hard attitude was best surmised by a British Bomber Command air-crewman when he said this during a World at War interview:
“If you couldn’t get the Kraut in his factory, it was just as easy to knock him off in his bed, and (if) Granny Schicklgruber in the seat next door got the chop that’s hard luck!” (The sarcastic reference to Schicklgruber was Maria Schicklgruber, Adolph Hitler’s paternal Grandmother).
Image: Avro Lancaster Bomber ‘B’ MkI ‘Victorious Virgin’ crew showing the attitude of the day, this 4000 pound ‘cookie’ bomb was dropped on an Oil Refinery in Hemmingstedt in March 1945, near Heide in Germany. Colourised by Tom Thounaojam.
The culmination of Bomber Command’s offensive occurred in March 1945 when the RAF dropped the highest monthly weight of ordnance in the entire war, mainly on Berlin to support the Russian offensive to take the city. In all Harris was asked if strategic area bombing would work in winning the war at the beginning of the campaign and his reaction was “we shall see”. In hindsight, the campaign went a very long to way to ultimately break resolve and bring Germany to its knees economically, but it happened at a tremendous cost in human lives, not only civilian, lets examine the butcher’s bill on Bomber Command:
Of every 100 airmen who joined Bomber Command, 45 were killed, 6 were seriously wounded, 8 became Prisoners of War, and only 41 escaped unscathed (at least physically). Of the 120,000 who served, 55,573 were killed. Of those who were flying at the beginning of the war, only ten percent survived. It is a loss rate comparable only to the worst slaughter of the First World War trenches. Only the Nazi U-Boat force suffered a higher casualty rate. On a single night, Bomber Command suffered more losses than did Fighter Command during the entire Battle of Britain.
One must also caution here, whilst the figures on both sides of the Butcher’s Bill are high for British and American combined Bomber Command Ops, Germany by no means comes through smelling of roses – their campaigns and targeting of civilians is staggering – in all about 90,500 British civilians were killed and that’s nothing compared to the estimated civilian deaths in Yugoslavia of 1.2 million, Poland 5.7 million and USSR 7.0 million. To say that attitudes had hardened when it came to the combatants would be an understatement.
It would be unfair with a modern day sense of sensibility to look at Bomber Harris and the men of Bomber Command as a war criminals, one has to look them him in the context of their time and the great struggle surrounding them, especially the extreme choices taken to bring about an end to a war of this nature.
However, in his ‘Butcher’s Bill,’ one cannot help but note there is a ‘World War 1’ mind in Bomber Harris, but it’s not an uncommon one for a Commander in his time, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery can also be accused of the same. It is one whereby ‘attrition’ is used to gradually overwhelm using overwhelming odds, it rings true to the WW1 Battle of Verdun, a meat grinding approach to who runs out of resources, especially human resources first. It eventually wins wars, no doubt, but at a tremendous cost in human lives.
After the war Harris moved to South Africa where he founded and managed SAFMARINE, short for the South African Marine Corporation. Safmarine, is a South African business success story involved in international container shipping and break-bulk shipping services worldwide. It is now owned by its parent company, the Maersk Line.
In 1953 he returned to the United Kingdom to accept a Baronetcy, which strangely, Winston Churchill insisted he receive, and here he lived out the rest of his long life in Goring-on-Thames passing away at 91 years old in 1984. He even managed to see the creation of his much loved Rhodesia into Zimbabwe as a nation state.
In all, it’s a fact that Southern Africa in its harshest form would fashion the man into what Arthur Harris was to become, it’s also clear that the German South West African Campaign in World War 1 would fashion a steel willed and uncompromising attitude of endurance and perseverance in a world of hardships, and one in which he would look to aviation instead of marching into battle to ultimately win wars. With all the modern day accusations of Harris been a ‘war criminal’ for his actions against civilians I wonder sometimes if someone may eventually dig up his buried bugle in Namibia and what that would come to symbolise.
Images: Sir Arthur Harris GCB, OBE, AFC and the Green Park Bomber Command Memorial
To the opening statement, I hear some colleagues say “everyone knows he was a Rhodesian”, well nope- the reason I say his South African and Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) heritage and history is relatively unknown, and for that matter this includes a great many other Rhodesians and South Africans (including two Victoria Cross recipients – Wing Commander John Nettleton VC and Captain Edwin Swales VC) who were sacrificed whilst taking part in Bomber Command operations, is that when the Bomber Command War Memorial was finally unveiled in Green Park in London in 2012, not one South African or Rhodesian military veteran association member and not one dignitary from South Africa or Zimbabwe took part in it. From the Commonwealth, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, even West Indians – all got a nod, I watched the entire unveiling ceremony on BBC and not even a mention of a South African, not even the Victoria Crosses and numerous other decorations for valour won by them whist in Bomber Command.
Some may even say, given all the controversy, better not to have been there anyway. But that would be to dishonour a generation that sacrificed so much, physically and mentally, for our modern freedoms. Especially our countrymen in Bomber Command who found themselves in this most extraordinary and very tragic period of our wartime history, these are men who had to face hard and very fateful decisions, the world at times has forgotten our WW2 contributions, lest we forget them too.
Researched by Peter Dickens.
Large content and additional research with much thanks to Buskruit Burger.
Large extracts from wikipedia and Bomber Command Museum on line. Statistics referenced from Andrew Knapp: The Horror and the Glory: Bomber Command in British Memories since 1945 and the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.