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Bomber Offensive, by Sir Arthur Harris

London: Colins, 1947/Barnsley, South Yorks: Pen and Sword Books, 2005. Pp. 288. Index. 15.95. ISBN:1-84415-210-3.

As the commander of the RAF’s Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris was one of those in charge of taking the war to Germany. He has been vilified, particularly in recent times, for his actions in that regard. People who have heard the critics might assume that Sir Arthur was not much better than the Nazis he fought. Reading Bomber Offensive will show that such comments are unfounded. The World War II memoirs of Sir Arthur Harris give a very broad overview of the bombing campaign, but also present his side of the story. It is essential reading, particularly for those who have heard the criticism.

From the beginning, Harris speaks bluntly as a commander who believes he lost men due to the lack of investment in the Royal Air Force throughout the 1920s and most of the 1930s. One of the examples he cites in detail is the problem of getting sufficient defensive armament. This was one of the biggest differences between American and British bombers. The typical American defensive gun on a bomber was the famous M2 .50-caliber machine gun. The standard British defensive gun was chambered in .303 British, a less powerful round. Even quad mounts proved inadequate against German fighters, whereas the twin-mounted .50-caliber machine guns gave B-17 and B-24 crews a chance to fight off (or destroy) a German fighter.

Sir Arthur’s memoirs also tell of Bomber Command’s contribution to holding off the planned German invasion, “Operation Sealion”. While the Spitfire and Hurricane fighter pilots got the glory, the Bomber Command pilots, without fanfare, carried out the raids that destroyed the fast barges planned to carry troops.

Indeed, one can see why the British ultimately shifted to night bombing: They simply lacked the technology to carry out the type of raids that the United States did in World War II. Harris also goes into other areas of discussion, bluntly, but thoroughly, and in keeping with British laws regarding the release of classified information. One apparent omission seems to be that of the Holocaust – and while it is not part of the story of the bomber offensive, it is probably a major omission. The Holocaust is one of the more disgusting aspects of Nazi Germany, and it defies logic to attempt to describe the raids that Sir Arthur Harris ordered in an effort to stop that regime as the same sort of action. In fact, one can argue that Germany, by virtue of having started World War II and carrying out the Holocaust, had Dresden, Hamburg, and other massive bombing raids coming. Auschwitz and Dachau are the real crimes that should be given far more weight than any alleged crimes of Bomber Command under Harris.

This book is not just important in terms of it being the story of a major World War II commander who is presenting his version of events. This book also details some significant lessons applicable today, including the costs of penny-pinching in the defense budget. This makes the memoirs of Sir Arthur Harris a worthy read on its own merits. Before Sir Arthur Harris can be fairly judged, it is only fair that his side of the story – and his rationale behind his actions – be considered.

Reviewer: Harold C. Hutchison    

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