4. HARRIS AND SAUNDBY
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It has been pointed out many times that "Bert" Harris had no part in the decision to switch from selective to area attack, from the precision bombing of what were known as self-evident military objectives to the devastation of industrial towns; but it bears repeating again. The experience of 1940 and 1941 had convinced our leaders that this was the only way in which Bomber Command could be employed effectively. Plans for area attack took shape in 1941, and the formal directive from the Air Ministry preceded Harris's arrival at High Wycombe. Harris himself was in America at the time. It may be said, though, that in subsequent years, on the tactical and practical grounds that it was better to hit what we could rather than go on missing what we couldn't, he became the staunchest advocate of a policy that was often challenged.
The popular impression of Harris as a ruthless purveyor of brutality, a man filled with an implacable blood-hatred for Germany and for anyone who stood in the way of his plans for its wholesale destruction, is so wide of the mark that it needs some correction at the beginning. Harris had his weaknesses but he had the basic attributes of greatness. No doubt to some extent he was a man with an obsession; but as a man of vision he was second in Air Force history to Trenchard alone. He had absolute faith in ultimate victory over Germany through the power of the bomber. Just as there would have been no independent Royal Air Force without Trenchard, so there would have been no independent bomber offensive without Harris. Or anyway without Harris and Saundby.
Harris believed that involvement in land campaigns, especially Continental ones, served to reduce us to the level of the horde. To make a premature landing on the Continent, before the bomber had done its work, spelt disaster—as it had already done at Dunkirk. Our aim should be to destroy the industrial basis of Germany's war effort by bombing, producing a situation in which shortage of essential war supplies would sap the energy, effectiveness and morale of her armed forces and entire population. Harris, indeed, foresaw a situation, given a large enough bomber force, in which intervention on the Continent by land forces would amount to little more than police action.
Disruption and heavy civilian casualties in German industrial towns did not, in Harris's view, constitute terror bombing. Indeed, terror bombing as such was not likely to produce decisive results. On the other hand, the erosion of the enemy's power and will to resist could never be achieved by the destruction of key factories alone, even if they could be hit. They would always reappear elsewhere, and function for a time.
Germany, by unprovoked aggression on weak sovereign states at her borders, had pushed the frontiers of war far beyond her boundaries. Other countries, other peoples, were to suffer the horrors of war, not the Germans. Bombing was the answer to this presumption.
Harris had the ability to focus resolutely on one side of a question and to refuse to let his purpose be weakened by other facets. But he had the breadth of view when he wanted to employ it. A direct and forceful personality, he had no use for mincing his words or beating about the bush, or for anyone who did so. He had a gift for pungent language which he could not resist exercising, and this made him enemies. But he was the reverse of callous and brutal. In reality he was warm-hearted, although he did his best to hide it. He was filled with anger and remorse when he was obliged to sacrifice crews on operations in which he felt they could not be wholly effective, and it was in arguing the case against such operations that he made many of his enemies. He was resentful of interference, and felt that if he was going to have the responsibility of running the Command he must have the final say in the tactical control of his force, if not in strategic policy. As a commander he was never satisfied. As soon as he had achieved one purpose he was working enthusiastically on another. He never rested for one moment on his laurels.
The gift for pungent expression did less harm when it was employed orally. It was more likely to give lasting offence when put to paper. A typical broadside was provoked by the Government's refusal after the war to award a campaign star to the men of Bomber Command. When he received his Defence Medal he wrote that he would wear it proudly, although it put him and the men of his Command on a par with a fire-watcher who had spent alternate Thursdays playing whist in a dug-out in Blackpool. However much this sort of thing might be disliked it was no more than the truth, and it endeared him to his men. From the moment he took over, they knew he was ready to fight for them with all he had.
Harris was capable of a righteous anger terrible to behold. And he never dissembled. If he hated something, or someone, he never made any secret of it. He inspired in his officers a healthy terror. God help them if they made a mess of something and hadn't got a good reason for it. But if they genuinely failed in something and went to see him and put their cards on the table, he would be the first to think up a way of righting matters and getting them out of trouble.
Inevitably he took refuge in a cynical view of his role. One day he was driving from High Wycombe to an Air Ministry meeting in his canvas-topped Bentley. On his front bumper was a plate clearing the car from all speed limits. He was speeding on the Great West Road near Uxbridge when, in order to avoid an accident, he allowed himself to be overtaken by a police patrol.
"Do you realise you were doing more than ninety?" they asked.
"Have a look at the front of the car."
"That's all very well, but you're liable to kill people at that speed."
"I'm paid to kill people."
This was his way of showing himself off as a ruthless commander, of fulfilling the image that had been thrust upon him. For those who took no notice of this sort of thing, and had real ability, he was a wonderful person to work for, supporting his staff in the same way as he supported his crews. His staff officers were in no doubt that the combination of Harris and Saundby was a great one. They had never served under better commanders, never worked so hard, never been so happy.
The nickname "Butcher" hurt and surprised him when he first heard it, but he soon saw that for his crews it was a term of endearment, originating as "Butch" among Commonwealth crews who used it freely as a nickname among themselves. For them, as for others, he became a symbol of Britain's determination to hit back at Germany. "Five for the Butcher," they used to say in the Pathfinder Force, when they had finished their sixty missions, and they really were doing these extra five sorties for Harris.
How did he achieve this astonishing respect, affection and loyalty? Unlike Montgomery, who believed in showing himself to his troops, Harris, due to the necessity for him to be at his headquarters to direct almost nightly operations, was hardly ever seen by his men. One of the most remarkable things about Harris was the way he succeeded in imposing his personality on operations from a distance. He did it, first, because the crews knew he was on their side. This began when he took over the Command. Previously, if crews failed to hit a target, there were always people ready to wag their heads and countenance the view that the crews must be lacking in resolve. Of course they could hit their targets—if they were really determined to do so. But Harris—and Saundby with him—was an expert. He had proved by his own experience in peacetime that targets were extraordinarily difficult to find at night, let alone to hit Without radar aids to navigation and target finding he saw no prospect of improvement. He backed his crews to do the job if they were given the equipment.
Secondly, Harris gave the Command a sense of purpose. The bombing of Germany was going to win the war. It might be contributory, it might be absolute, but it would be a decisive factor either way. This meant everything to men who, in any one tour of operations, faced almost certain death.
A man with as powerful a character as Harris could dominate people so easily that there was always the danger that he would frighten them into becoming yes-men. Those who, in order to deliver an expert opinion, had to stand up to Harris, generally found that it was necessary early in the association to have one good row with him. That was enough.
Robert Saundby had had his row with Harris twenty years earlier, in 1922, soon after Harris arrived to command No. 45 Squadron in Iraq. Saundby, in addition to being senior flight commander, had the extraneous duty of President of the Mess Committee. One morning, without his knowledge, Harris gave orders for Saundby's office in the Mess to be moved. The result was that when Saundby went there he found it in chaos. He went straight to Harris and burst in upon him in a great rage. "As President of the Mess Committee," he shouted, "and as your senior flight commander, I think I should be the first to know of any changes, and to learn from a Mess steward that I've been thrown out of my office without warning is absolutely monstrous."
Saundby had been too angry to think of such niceties as closing the door, and the row could be heard all over squadron headquarters. Harris moved quietly behind Saundby and closed the door. "Now" he said, "you'd better get it off your chest." Saundby did. "I think you're right," said Harris. "You'd better move back.*'
Four years later, when Saundby returned to England, he got a letter from Harris, who was then commanding No. 58 Squadron, the first night bomber squadron. "I know you've got a couple of months of your leave to go," wrote Harris, "but I've just lost a flight commander and I'd like to have you in his place. Unfortunately I can't wait—I must have someone now." Saundby's interests lay especially in navigation and night bombing, and he reflected that he might get a much less congenial posting if he let matters take their course. He admired Harris and was pleased to be wanted by him. The flyfishing season, one of his greatest joys, was nearing its end. He decided to say yes.
For the next twelve months he worked harder than at any time in his life—up to the war. Harris was a slave-driver, and Saundby found himself flying three or four nights a week besides working in his office all day. But he was thoroughly enjoying himself, learning all the time about night flying and night bombing, It was in this period that he and Harris discovered for themselves how difficult it was to find targets at night, even in good weather and without the distraction of enemy action. "Targets will have to be marked", pronounced Harris, and he pressed for marker bombs. While in Mesopotamia, he and Saundby had improvised their own markers by fastening a white Very light to a 20-lb. practice bomb so that the light fired as the bomb hit. It was a requirement that Harris continued to press for, but without success up to the war.
Harris was a great innovator, and he brought about many changes in equipment and method. Pilots had nothing more to guide them in instrument flying than a bubble and an airspeed indicator, and at night, poor visibility, with no horizon, flying was too dangerous for all but the most skilled pilots, and too dangerous even for them in turbulence. Harris realised the need for a stabilised instrument panel, with an artificial horizon, and these were among the improvements he worked on and demanded. He had car headlamps mounted as landing lights, fitted on a swivel so that the angle of the beams could be altered during the approach, and he also called for an electrically-lit flare-path to replace the paraffin flares of the time.
If Saundby had a great admiration for Harris, and felt that after all their years together he understood him fully, Harris was no less appreciative of Saundby. He knew that in Saundby he had a man whose ideas were absolutely sound. But the two men were thoroughly dissimilar. It was true that Harris's bark was worse than his bite, but he had a bark, and he had a bite. Saundby, on the other hand, was perhaps the most approachable high-ranking officer there has ever been in any Service, a man able to put other men at their ease whatever their rank. Harris has described him as having less side than anyone he ever knew.
Saundby was a man of culture and sensitivity, tall and heavily built, with brown hair and moustache, extremely sociable, yet with a liking for his own company. It was in recognition of the leisure hours he had once spent at the contemplative sport of fishing that all targets in Germany bore the code-names of fish. Berlin was Whitebait—Saundby took a delight in calling this great capital city by the name of one of the smallest fish. Cologne was Dace.
As befitted one of the hardest workers in the Air Force, Saundby relaxed easily, whether hunting butterflies and moths in uniform in the Chilterns near High Wycombe, as he sometimes did, or having a drink and a chat in the company of junior officers for an hour or so at the end of the day, which he did frequently. In the first activity he protected his mind from obsession. In the second he provided the essential link in command between the body and the head.
What was Saundby's role? He had gone to Bomber Command as senior air staff officer in November 1940, and he stayed there until the end of the war. In this appointment, and from February 1943 as deputy C-in-C, he took charge of day-to-day operational matters, leaving Harris free to absorb himself in questions of high policy. His occupation of these two posts under Harris was one of the happiest chances of wartime personnel selection. Here was a man who drew affection and loyalty from his subordinates naturally and easily yet who was himself at his best when required to serve loyally under another. He and Harris were complementary, one man pro-duced from an amalgam of two, the aggregate of their qualities amounting to something far greater than the sum of their parts.
In serving at Bomber Command for four and a half years Saundby undoubtedly earned the major credit for the building up of the bomber force, technically and in every other way. In seeing bis task through he jeopardised his career. He was offered command elsewhere but refused it. He had built up the bomber force almost with his own hands and he was determined to guide it to maturity. When Harris told him that Portal had said that his refusal would affect his career, Saundby s reply was terse. "I am not concerned with my career," he said, "but with winning the war and protecting our crews." 1 Saundby rightly felt that on his personal knowledge and skills the safety of the bomber crews to a large extent depended.
1 Comment by Sir Arthur Harris.
Another factor in his loyalty to the Command was the health of Bert Harris. The strain of being responsible for what amounted to a major battle almost nightly for over three years was a frightful one. Apart from the very few nights when there was no flying, Harris hardly had a complete night's rest throughout that time. With weather and other hazards and uncertainties it occurred to him almost every night that he might lose a quarter or even a half of his entire force, losses which would be altogether crippling, quite apart from his concern for his crews. Harris himself has recorded his fearful apprehension about the weather, night after night, in conditions under which he could easily have justified himself if he had kept the entire force on the ground nine times out of ten. But while he was justifying himself, Britain would have lost the air war. The final responsibility, whatever the forecasts, rested squarely on Harris, and he had to make these decisions at least once every twenty-four hours. Failure to measure up to this responsibility would have held fatal implications for our own cities and destroyed our whole war strategy, completely aborting the invasion of Europe.
In addition to the overriding operational and administrative responsibility of running what became the R.A.F.'s biggest command, Harris found himself forced to conduct a public relations campaign, with the aid of stereoscopic photographs, to demonstrate to his own side the effectiveness of bomber operations. This political and social obligation was a tremendous additional strain, both on himself and on his wife. In just over three years, he and Lady Harris entertained (and often put up and fed) over 5,000 people at Springfield, the Commander-in-Chiefs solid Victorian house outside High Wycombe, in order to instruct them in what Bomber Command was doing and could do. The result was that Harris was so over-burdened that a failure in health was always a possibility.
The whole organisation of bomber operations became so complex as time passed, with pathfinder techniques, radar spoofing, feint raids, intruding, mining, evasive routeing, all attuned to the weather and to the latest German counter-measures, that the departure of a man of Saundby's experience and background would have left a gap that only time could fill. During that time Harris would be bound to have to shoulder some of Saundby's responsibilities. It might prove too much for him. So Saundby stayed, and never for a moment regretted it, though at the end of the war he collapsed from a recurrence of an injury sustained in the First World War and was invalided out of the Service.
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