[Cross posted at The Second World War Military Operations Research Group]

The BBC announced today that a rare interview with Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris had been ‘uncovered’ in the archives. A young Group Captain R.A. ‘Tony’ Mason conducted the interview when he was Director of Defence Studies at the RAF Staff College at Bracknell in July 1977.[1] This was a new position within the RAF and Mason was directed by the then Commandant of Bracknell, Air Vice-Marshal John Curtiss, to conduct a series of interviews with what he termed the ‘greats’ of the RAF.[2] The purpose of these interviews was to learn lessons from surviving senior officers of the RAF who had held command in the Second World War, and utilise it as a pedagogical tool for officers preparing for the possibility of future conflict. The Harris interview is a unique record as he conducted few interviews in retirement; thus, it is ‘rare’. The only other interviews I am aware off are those conducted for the BBC series ‘The World at War’, a short interview with the British Forces Broadcasting Service in 1977, and an interview conducted by the Imperial War Museum in 1978. Given that, Harris had been relatively quiet on the subject of his role in the Second World War since the publication of his wartime memoirs, Bomber Offensive, in 1947; it seems the seventies were a busy time for him.

I am lucky enough to have seen several large sections of this interview over the course of my PhD. As the BBC report claims it had been gathering dust in the RAF’s archives, and here they are referring to the Air Historical Branch. However, my first recollection of seeing it was back in 2010 at a day school organised in honour of the now Air Vice-Marshal (ret’d) Professor R.A. ‘Tony’ Mason CB CBE MA DSc FRAeS DL by the Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham. Mason had been Professor of Strategic Studies and Director of the Centre for Studies in Security and Diplomacy at Birmingham. Additionally, much of Mason’s academic library now resides in the office of my supervisor, Air Commodore (ret’d) Dr Peter Gray, who had also served as Director of Defence Studies (RAF) at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and whom had worked with Mason several times in his career. Indeed, in paraphrasing a term often applied to Trenchard, Mason in many respects can be considered the ‘father’ of academic air power studies in Britain. While several themes were discussed at this day school, the video emerged when Sebastian Cox, Head of the Air Historical Branch, showed a section of it at the beginning of his talk on, ‘Constructive Dissent: the Portal-Harris Controversy over Oil’. I believe this was the first time Mason had seen the video in many years. Thus, it has clearly been ‘gathering dust’ somewhere. More recently, Mason provided a detailed commentary on this video at a War Studies Seminar at Birmingham back in October 2012. This was a great opportunity to hear first-hand about what must have been a fascinating experience.

This is not the place to go into a discussion of the interview’s content; however, it is worth pointing out some of the background to it. At the 2012 seminar, Mason explained some of the thinking behind the interviews in general; there is at least one other in existence that was conducted with Group Captain The Rt. Hon. The Baron Cheshire VC, OM, DSO & Two Bars, DFC. One point that is obvious is that that there was a great deal of deference held for Harris, both in preparation for, and during the interview. Harris had been Curtiss’ ‘old boss’ when he served in Bomber Command, 1943-45. It is clear that he was held in high respect, which is not unusual for many Bomber Command veterans. Mason was given three weeks to prepare for the interview with Harris and it is clear that he is nervous during its conduct. It is obvious that Mason gave deference to Harris’ rank and status as one of the key commanders in the RAF’s history. This may seem an obvious point but it goes someway to explaining Mason’s nervousness during the interview. Harris, despite his age, holds a commanding presence during the interview, and during the course of the seminar, Mason lamented that he was not convinced that he actually ‘nailed’ him on several key issues. This was probably because of the limited time Mason had to prepare for the interview, and as he admitted, he was only able to conduct ‘superficial research’.  Despite the obvious respect, that Mason has for Harris it is clear in the interview that Harris was the master of ducking and weaving on key questions. This raises an important question about these interviews as a source. Simply put, is Harris a credible witness? If you ever get a chance to watch this interview, and indeed listen to the IWM interview, make sure you have a copy of Bomber Offensive to hand because what you will notice is that it sometimes feels as if he is citing directly from it. Of course, Harris himself had almost certainly prepared for the interview and it would make sense that he had re-read his own account. Nevertheless, the passage of time does not appear to have assuaged his views on numerous issues such as his view that ‘we were right’ concerning the apportionment of resources during the Battle of Atlantic. However, as I have mentioned elsewhere Harris’ ability as a senior leader has been questioned. Concerning his credibility, it should be noted he is not the only senior RAF officer of the Second World War to feel as if they are quoting directly from the pages of their memoirs or autobiographies. At the same time as Harris, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor was also interviewed by the IWM. Again, listening to his answers appears as if they come direct from the pages of his autobiography, The Central Blue. I think we have to accept that while these men held very strong opinions and were often honest about their views, they also had reputations to defend. This is especially true of Harris and the vociferous historiographical debates that surround the conduct of the bomber offensive. Any deviation from his established narrative would have opened him up for even more criticism. There are clear methodological problems with using interviews conducted many years after an event but if you can accept this and understand concerns relating to issues of memory and the passage of time, then this interview, and others like it are a valuable historical source and we are lucky that they were/are conducted. Copies of both the Harris and Cheshire interviews have been placed in the Cadbury Library within the School of History and Cultures at the University of Birmingham and remain a valuable source.

[1] ‘MASON, Air Vice-Marshal Richard Anthony, (Tony)’, Who’s Who 2013, A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 2013; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2012 ; online edn, Nov 2012.

[2] ‘CURTISS, Air Marshal Sir John (Bagot)’, Who’s Who 2013, A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 2013; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2012 ; online edn, Nov 2012.


4 thoughts on “Rare ‘Bomber’ Harris film uncovered

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