Harris led RAF Bomber Command in World War Two, earning him the nickname 'Bomber Harris'. His implementation of the policy of 'saturation' or 'area' bombing of German cities has made him a hugely controversial figure.
Arthur Travers Harris was born on 13 April 1892 in Cheltenham. His father was in the Indian Civil Service. Harris went to boarding school in England and then settled in Rhodesia in southern Africa. At the outbreak of World War One he joined a local unit and then returned to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps. His experiences as a pilot on the Western Front shaped his opinion of air bombing as preferable to the mass slaughter of the trenches.
In 1918, Harris became a squadron leader in the newly formed RAF, and during the following two decades served in India and the Middle East. He returned to England at the outbreak of war and in early 1942, he took over as commander-in-chief of Bomber Command and was promoted to air chief marshal. At the time, heavy losses of bombers on daytime raids and wildly inaccurate nighttime raids had led to the suspension of long-range sorties by the RAF. Harris set out to implement a new and more efficient bombing strategy.
In May 1942, he gathered together the maximum number of available bombers and devastated the German city of Cologne in the first 'thousand bomber' raid. New tactics were learned and though subsequent raids of the same size were not as successful, the raid helped boost the morale of Bomber Command and the British public. There was initially support for Harris' belief that area bombing alone would destroy Germany's will to fight, but mounting losses, combined with evidence that the German spirit was unbroken, eroded this support and brought him into conflict with Winston Churchill. The most controversial raid was in February 1945 when the German city of Dresden was obliterated.
Harris commanded respect from his subordinates and enormous loyalty from his crews. But the debate about the morality - and indeed efficacy - of the bombing raids was already under way in the closing stages of the war, and to Harris' disappointment, his request for a special campaign medal for the Bomber Command was refused.
In 1946, he retired from the RAF and embarked on a successful business career in South Africa, but later returned to Britain where he was made a baronet. He died on 5 April 1984.