Arthur Harris, the son of George Steele Travers Harris and his wife, Caroline Harris, was born in Cheltenham, on . His father was an engineer and architect in the Indian Civil Service. He was educated at Gore Court in Sittingbourne and Allhallows in Honiton, while his parents were in India. At the age of seventeen, against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to join the army, he went out to Rhodesia, where he tried his hand at goldmining, coach-driving, and farming.
When the First World War broke out he joined the 1st Rhodesia Regiment and fought in the successful campaign to capture German South West Africa from the German Army. Harris returned to England in 1915 and with the help of an uncle joined the Royal Flying Corps. The following year he qualified as a fighter pilot and joined the 44 Squadron in France. Harris also helped organize the defence against the Zeppelin Air Raids in 1916 before taking command of the 44 Squadron and training it for night fighting.
According to his biographer, Richard Overy: "Harris married, on 30 August 1916, Barbara Daisy Kyrle, the daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Ernle William Kyrle Money, of the 85th King's Shropshire light infantry, with whom he had a son and two daughters... Posted to 70 squadron in France, he was invalided home after a crash, but he returned in May 1917 for fighter work with 45 squadron. Here he displayed many of his later qualities as a commander. He proved to be a cool and effective pilot and was attributed with five aerial victories. He constantly searched for ways to improve the tactical or technical performance of his squadron. He was also a strict officer, with high standards that he imposed on those around him."
In 1919 Harris was given the rank of squadron leader of the recently created Royal Air Force (RAF). Over the next few years he served in India, Iraq and Iran. He led the 58 Squadron (1925-27) before serving on the air staff in the Middle East (1930-32). During this period the RAF used terror bombing, including gas attacks and delayed action bombs, on the Iraqi tribes rebelling against British rule. One RAF officer, Air Commodore Lional Charlton, resigned in 1924 after visiting a hospital that contained limbless civilian victims of these air raids. However, Harris remarked "the only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand."
During 1928–9 Harris attended the Army Staff College at Camberley, where he was taught by, among others, Bernard Montgomery. He refused the offer to stay on as an instructor at the college, and was posted for two years to serve on the air staff in Cairo. In 1932 Harris was appointed commander of the 210 Flying Boat Squadron. Promoted to group captain in 1933 Harris was appointed deputy director of plans in the Air Ministry (1934-37). In this post he argued for the production of bombers that could reach the Soviet Union. Harris believed that communism was the main threat to Britain and was considered to be one of the earliest "cold war warriors". However, he believed that eventually Britain would go to war with Nazi Germany and correctly forecasted the starting date as 1939.
By the outbreak of the Second World War Harris had reached the rank of air vice marshal and spent the early months of the war in the United States purchasing aircraft for the war effort. In November, 1940, Harris was appointed to serve under Charles Portal, the head of Bomber Command. In May 1941 Portal sent Harris back to the United States as head of the RAF delegation to try to speed up the supply of aircraft and engines from American industry, many of which had been on order since 1939. Harris found his relationship with the Americans difficult. He told friends that he disliked having to deal with "a people so arrogant" that they simply refused to listen to technical advice from the British. Harris also complained that they "are not going to fight" unless pushed into war.
In February 1942, following the sacking of Air Chief Marshal Richard Pierse the previous month, Harris was recalled from Washington to be appointed commander-in-chief of Bomber Command. Richard Overy has argued: "The choice of Harris was recognition of his long experience, enormous capacity for work, organizational capabilities, and clear-mindedness. It also came despite his less flattering reputation as a man who spoke his mind bluntly, who would suffer fools not at all, and who had often in the past allowed his candour to get the better of his sense of responsibility. Though many in the Air Ministry regarded him as gruff and unapproachable, he was also able to inspire intense loyalty in those who served with him. The force of fewer than 400 operational bombers that Harris inherited had only a handful of the new four-engined aircraft, and was capable of only the most modest and inaccurate attacks on areas of western Germany."
Arthur Harris claimed that his brief was "to focus attacks on the morale of the enemy civil population, and in particular, of the industrial workers". According to Richard K. Morris: "During March and April he had begun to experiment with attacks which concentrated bombers in time and space, to engulf radar-controlled flak and fighters, and overwhelm a city's fire-services. The force inherited by Harris was nevertheless too small to do this on any scale, and his efforts to increase it were being sapped both by losses and what he called the robbery of trained crews by other commands. To make his case, Harris decided to gamble Bomber Command's reserves in an attack of unprecedented weight: a thousand aircraft against a single objective."
As Harris later pointed out: "The organization of such a force - about twice as great as any the Luftwaffe ever sent against this country - was no mean task in 1942. As the number of first-line aircraft in squadrons was quite inadequate, the training organization.... We made our preparations for the thousand bomber attack during May." It was given the code word "Millenium". More than a third of his force was composed of instructors and trainees. Heavy losses among them would have a "paralysing effect" on Bomber Command's future.
On 20th May, 1942, Harris notified his group commanders of the plan and all leave was cancelled. Harris decided that the target should be Cologne. "The organisation of the force involved a tremendous amount of work throughout the Command. The training units put up 366 aircraft. No. 3 Group, with its conversion units put up about 250 aircraft, which was at that time regarded as a strong force in itself. Apart from four aircraft of Flying Training Command, the whole force of 1047 aircraft was provided by Bomber Command.... Nearly 900 aircraft attacked out of the total of 1047, and within an hour and a half dropped 1455 tons of bombs, two thirds of the whole load being incendiaries."
Leonard Cheshire, one of the pilots involved in the attack, explained in his book, Bomber Pilot (1943): "I glued my eyes on the fire and watched it grow slowly larger. Of ack-ack there was not much, but the sky was filled with fighters.... Already, only twenty-three minutes after the attack had started, Cologne was ablaze from end to end, and the main force of the attack was still to come. I looked at the other bombers, I looked at the row of selector switches in the bomb compartment, and I felt, perhaps, a slight chill in my heart. But the chill did not stay long: I saw other visions, visions of rape and murder and torture. And somewhere in the carpet of greyish-mauve was a tall, blue-eyed figure waiting behind barbed-wire' walls for someone to bring him home. No, the chill did not last long.... I felt a curious happiness inside my heart. For the first time in history the emphasis of night bombing had passed out of the hands of the pilots and into the hands of the organizers, and the organizers had proved their worth. In spite of the ridicule of some of their critics, they have proved their worth. They have proved, too, beyond any shadow of doubt that given the time the bomber can win the war. Not only have they proved it, they have written the proof on every face that saw Cologne."
Harris explained in Bomber Command (1947): "The casualty rate was 3.3 per cent, with 39 aircraft missing, and, in spite of the fact that a large part of the force consisted of semi-trained crews and that many more fighters were airborne than usual, this was considerably less than the average 4.6 per cent for operations in similar weather during the previous twelve months. The medium bomber had a casualty rate of 4.5 per cent, which was remarkable, but it was still more remarkable that we lost scarcely any of the 300 heavy bombers that took part in this operation; the casualty rate for the heavies was only 1.9 per cent. These had attacked after the medium bombers, when the defences had been to some extent beaten down, and in greater concentration than was possible for the new crews in the medium bombers. The figures proved conclusively that the enemy's fighters and flak had been effectively saturated; an analysis of all reports on the attack showed that the enemy's radar location devices had been able to pick up single aircraft and follow them throughout the attack, but that the guns had been unable to engage more than a small proportion of the large concentration of aircraft."
Under his leadership the policy of area bombing (known in Germany as terror bombing) was developed. Harris argued that the main objectives of night-time blanket bombing of urban areas was to undermine the morale of the civilian population and attacks were launched on Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, Dresden and other German cities. This air campaign killed an estimated 600,000 civilians and destroyed or seriously damaged some six million homes. It was a highly dangerous strategy and during the war Bomber Command had 57,143 men killed.
In March, 1945, Winston Churchill gave instructions to Harris to bring an end to area bombing. As he explained: "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land." As Richard Overy pointed out: "Harris reacted angrily to the charge by arguing that he had 'never gone in for terror bombing’ and that city bombing was still justified in order to speed up surrender and avoid further allied casualties. He had already crossed swords with the chief of air staff, Portal, in December 1944, over his preference for city attacks over attacks on specific target systems. The new arguments angered and puzzled him."
Harris became a marshal of the Royal Air Force in 1946 and soon afterwards retired from active duty. He published his war memoirs, Bomber Command, in 1947. Upset by criticisms of his bombing strategy during the Second World War he went to live in South Africa where he ran a shipping line, the South African Marine Corporation.
When Winston Churchill became prime minister again in 1951 Harris was asked if he wanted a peerage, but he refused. In January 1953 he accepted a baronetcy instead. In the 1960s public opinion turned against Harris and he was viewed by many as a "war criminal" because of his area bombing strategy. When it was decided to erect a statue to Harris to stand next to Hugh Dowding outside the RAF church of St Clement Danes in the Strand in London, there were widespread objections.
Arthur Harris died at his home in Goring-on-Thames on 5th April, 1984.