Britons debate appropriateness of honoring Arthur 'Bomber' Harris

January 05, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun Ian Johnson contributed to this article from Berlin.

LONDON -- The Queen Mother will arrive sometime this spring at a perfect little 10th century church in downtown London called St. Clement Danes, and there she will dedicate a statue to the commander-in-chief of Britain's bomber squadrons during World War II, Sir Arthur Harris.

Or maybe she won't.

It is not something the Queen Mother's spokesmen care to be definitive about. All that one can get out of them is that her participation in a ceremony, whatever form it may take, has not yet been decided.

The guest list for the May 31 ceremony is still a little unfirm, too, as is the appropriateness of the whole idea in some people's minds. Relatives of the 55,573 men of Bomber Command who died in the war have been invited as well as representatives from some of the German cities they bombed.

The statue of Harris is being finished by the sculptor, Faith Winter. She did the 9-foot rendering of Air Chief Marshal Lord Hugh Dowding already standing on the south side of St. #F Clement's cobbled plaza on the Strand.

Lord Dowding headed the Royal Air Force fighter command. His statue was unveiled by the Queen Mother about three years ago in her capacity as commandant of the Women's Royal Air Force.

Over that there was no fuss.

But "Bomber" Harris, as Sir Arthur was known, remains a figure of hot controversy in parts of Europe. He is even controversial here, and Britain's royal family has a strong aversion to controversy.

Thus the indecision at the palace.

Bomber Harris is said to be responsible for killing about 500,000 German civilians during the war. He did this, starting in 1942, by sending thousands of Lancaster and Halifax bombers in night raids over cities such as Cologne, Hamburg and Dresden, Rostock, Luebeck and Wurzburg, turning them into incinerators which consumed their inhabitants.

Forty-thousand people were killed in Hamburg alone. Then, about 100,000 died in Dresden when, in one February night in 1945, "Florence-on-the-Elbe" was firebombed by British bombers. (The Americans hit it the next day.) Another 20,000 civilians were killed in Pforzheim.

Some argue that such assaults were necessary to bring the war to a quicker end, thereby saving more lives in the long run. But not everybody believes the attacks on non-strategic cities were necessary, even justifiable. Said Joachim Becker, mayor of Pforzheim, "It is a disturbing idea to honor a man whose plans did virtually nothing to shorten the length of the war but much to increase its suffering."

The more-in-sadness-than-anger nature of Mr. Becker's reaction to the proposal to honor "Bomber" Harris has been typical of the German response. Many newspapers in the Federal Republic have mentioned the proposed memorial, but there have been no expressions of massive outrage or shrill denunciations. The tone is one of incredulity that anyone could think of honoring him.

Der Spiegel of Hamburg wrote that if Sir Harris is to be criticized, then so too should Sir Winston Churchill. It was the wartime prime minister who ordered the raids on civilian targets after military targets proved too costly to attack. Der Spiegel also observed that this was the same strategy Hermann W. Goering ordered in 1940, when he turned the Luftwaffe away from military installations onto cities,

The defense of "Bomber" Harris here in Britain has not been passionate. In response to a request by Herbert Wagner, the lord mayor of Dresden, that Britain drop the idea of honoring Harris, the Daily Telegraph seemed to attempt to deflect some of the blame for all the civilian deaths in Germany away from Harris by pointing out that the "architect of area bombing" was Churchill, Harris only the instrument of the policy.

Other papers, the Independent and the Times, oppose the memorial. Of Harris, the latter wrote, "He never pretended he was only obeying orders. He was a fanatical believer in carpet bombing of civilians. . . ."

The Telegraph is the conservative newspaper of note here and, more than any other, celebrates traditional values, especially military expressions of them. It argued that Harris, "a notable wartime commander" deserved a memorial.

Paul Oestreicher, a canon at Coventry Cathedral, has been drafted to advise the Queen Mother in the matter and to create a ceremony that will not offend too many people, though clearly his heart is not in honoring Bomber Harris.

The original Coventry Cathedral, an architectural treasure, was destroyed on Nov. 14, 1940, by German bombs. The new cathedral, consecrated in 1963, "has become a symbol of reconciliation" between Germany and Britain, Canon Oestreicher said. Coventry is Dresden's sister city in Britain, both having suffered similar wartime traumas.

"Personally, my feelings are that it is unfortunate that the commemoration of the 55,000 dead men of Bomber Command is being done in this way," said Canon Oestreicher. "But I take the view that to stop it [the memorial] being erected would compound the problem. I wish it had never been commissioned in the first place. But to stop it would create a great deal of anti-German feeling."

The canon hopes to create a ceremony in May that will not be so much a celebration of Bomber Harris as one "of remembrance and grief" for all the bomber crew members who died on both sides.

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