This was something that had passed me by. Air Commodore Henry Probert, one of Britain’s leading air power historians died this past Christmas. Here is his obituary from the Times.
A career education officer who took a permanent commission in the RAF after doing his National Service, Henry Probert became head of the Air Historical Branch in retirement from the Service. Both then and in final retirement, he wrote a number of books about various aspects of RAF history.
Undoubtedly, the most significant of these is his biography of the head of wartime Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris. Bomber Harris: His Life and Times, which appeared in 2001, was an attempt to redress the balance of critical commentary which had, as Probert saw it, by and large accused Harris of conducting a strategic air offensive against Germany which caused needless destruction and loss of life, without significantly damaging Germany’s capacity to wage war.
Having, for the first time, access to all Harris’s private papers, Probert produced a more sympathetic, though by no means uncritical, account of one of the war’s most controversial commanders on the Allied side. In doing so he took issue with the core critique of Harris’s method – that the “area offensive” against German cities had been futile – enlisting some of the most persuasive German testimony on Harris’s side.
He quoted Albert Speer, Hitler’s director of the Reich’s war industry, who wrote from prison in 1959: “The real importance of the air war consisted in the fact that it opened a second front long before the invasion in Europe . . . Defence against air attacks required the production of thousands of anti-aircraft guns, the stockpiling of tremendous quantities of ammunition all over the country, and holding in readiness hundreds of thousands of soldiers, who in addition had to stay in position by their guns, often totally inactive, for months at a time . . . No one has yet seen that this was the greatest lost battle on the German side.”
Probert’s account of the bomber offensive came down on the side of those airmen and strategists on both sides who, broadly speaking, concurred with Speer’s testimony.
Henry Austin Probert was born in Cheadle, Cheshire, in 1926. Consequently, though he was too young to be called up for war service in 1939-45, he had vivid memories of the conflict. He read modern history at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, before doing his National Service in the RAF.
Electing to stay on, in the education branch, he was to serve for the next 30 years. In that time postings took him to Northern Ireland, West Germany and to RAF Changi, Singapore, where he began to research his History of Changi, which was published in 1965. Subsequent postings were to the RAF Engineering College at Henlow, the Staff College, Bracknell, to HQ Bomber Command and, in 1976, as Director of Education.
On his retirement from the RAF in 1978, he was asked to become head of the Air Historical Branch, in the Ministry of Defence. This was a post that involved him in administration, writing and editing tasks, notably helping with the RAF’s in-house history of the force’s role in the Falklands campaign of 1982.
In second “retirement” Probert continued to write. Among his works were the valuable High Commanders of the Royal Air Force (1991); The Forgotten Air Force (1995), a history of the RAF in the Burma theatre during the Second World War; ‘128′: The History of the Royal Air Force Club (2004), the title alluding to its address, 128 Piccadilly; and The Rock and the RAF (2005), an account of the RAF’s association with Gibraltar.
Probert was appointed MBE and was awarded the Air League Gold Medal for his Bomber Harris biography.
A keen rower from his Cambridge days, Probert coached RAF crews and became president of the RAF Rowing Association.
Henry Probert is survived by his wife, Audrey, whom he married in 1955, and by their son and daughter.
Air Commodore Henry Probert, MBE, RAF education officer and air historian, was born on December 23, 1926. He died on Christmas Day, 2007, aged 81