Malcolm Gladwell doubles down on claim Bomber Harris was 'psychopath'

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell doubles down on claim that Bomber Harris was a ‘psychopath’ after WWII hero’s grandson brands writer an ‘armchair air marshal’

  • Sir Arthur received popular nickname after heading up RAF’s Bomber Command
  • The team of pilots dropped thousands of bombs on German cities during WWII
  • Gladwell said use of term ‘psychopath’ to describe Sir Arthur was ‘accurate’
  • He spoke after Sir Arthur’s grandson, historian Tom Assheton hit out at critics 

Author Malcolm Gladwell has doubled down on the claim made in his new book that Bomber Harris was a ‘psychopath’, despite criticism from the war hero’s grandson. 

Gladwell criticised the World War Two chief of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, whose full name was Sir Arthur Harris, in his book The Bomber Mafia: A Story Set in War. 

Sir Arthur received his popular nickname after orchestrating the RAF’s hugely controversial strategic bombing of German cities, in which civilian areas were deliberately targeted.

Over the course of the war, between 300,000 and 600,000 civilians were killed by Allied bombing, which almost totally destroyed cities such as Dresden.

Sir Arthur’s grandson, historian Tom Assheton, on Monday branded Gladwell and other critics of his grandfather as ‘armchair air marshals’ and said the military chief was misunderstood. 

On Tuesday, Gladwell acknowledged that his claim had earned him ‘the ire of some British historians’ but then doubled down by saying the ‘psychopath’ label was an ‘accurate description’. 

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he added: ‘I do not think history treats Bomber Harris kindly and nor should it.’ 

Author Malcolm Gladwell has doubled down on the claim made in his new book that Bomber Harris was a ‘psychopath’, despite criticism from the war hero’s grandson

Gladwell criticised the World War Two head of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, whose full name was Sir Arthur Harris, in his book The Bomber Mafia: A Story Set in War

Mr Assheton, who co-presents the podcast Bloody Violent History with James Jackson, criticised Gladwell whilst speaking to the Daily Mail’s Sebastian Shakespeare.

He said: ‘Never think that my grandfather’s pugnacity equated to lack of feeling.

‘He was someone who understood that war was terrible — and understood evil, as embodied by Hitler.’ 

Referring to what he called ‘armchair air marshals’ like Gladwell, Mr Assheton, 57, added: ‘I knew my grandfather. 

‘He was much more grounded than this murderous person who wanted to turn Germany into a pile of rubble and flame.

‘Canon Collins, who later helped found CND, was a cousin of his. He was a wartime RAF chaplain.

‘My grandfather didn’t boot him out [of the RAF]. He was quite prepared to have a discussion with anyone about what was right or wrong.’

Sir Arthur received his popular nickname after orchestrating the RAF’s hugely controversial strategic bombing of German cities, in which civilian areas were deliberately targeted. Pictured: The aftermath of the bombing of the city of Dresden

Harris’s attitude towards conflict was determined by his experiences in the First World War, Mr Assheton added.

‘He flew over Passchendaele in 1917, seeing the soup of mud and ground-up bodies. It made a very strong impression on him.

Who is Malcolm Gladwell?

Malcolm Gladwell, is a Canadian journalist, author and public speaker. 

Born in Hampshire, in England, Gladwell has published seven books.

The first five, which included The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and Outliers: The Story of Success; were on the New York Times bestseller list.

Gladwell also presents the popular podcast Revisionist History. 

The author is known for distilling published academic research into a popular format to reveal unexpected findings. 

Gladwell’s new book, The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War, is about the pilots who worked in Alabama in the 1930s to develop precision bombs which would only kill their intended targets. 

‘He wanted to be a farmer in Africa but spent the next 30 years serving his country.

‘He wanted to finish the war as quickly as possible . . . and the bombing campaign meant that a million able-bodied Germans were committed to air defence and couldn’t join the land battle against the Allies.

‘There is no glory in war. My grandfather knew that better than anyone.’ 

Gladwell’s new book is about the pilots who worked in Alabama in the 1930s to develop precision bombs which would only kill their intended targets.

The author said the men, who included US Air Force officer Haywood S. Hansell, did not want a repeat of the First World War, where millions were killed on battlefields in France and Belgium.

Speaking of Harris, Mr Gladwell said: ‘In my book I call Bomber Harris a psycopath, which I think is an accurate description. 

‘It has earned me the ire of some British historians. There is some division of opinion on this one.

‘I think it’s pretty clear during the Second World War when the Allied bombing campaigns veered away from the clean pursuit of strategic objectives and really turned in to exacting a kind of vengeance on German civilians.

‘That was inappropriate during the Second World War and it is certainly inappropriate with the benefit of hindsight.

‘I do not think history treats Bomber Harris kindly and nor should it.’

Sir Arthur, who died in 1984 at the age of 91, refused to accept a peerage for his war service because his men had been denied a campaign medal.

On Tuesday, Gladwell acknowledged that his claim had earned him ‘the ire of some British historians’ but then doubled down by saying the ‘psychopath’ label was an ‘accurate description’. Pictured: Sir Arthur Harris

The Bomber Command, which had the highest casualty rate of any British unit after losing 55,573 out of 125,000 men, finally got a memorial in 2012.

The statue of Bomber Command pilots, in London’s Green Park, had paint thrown over it in 2019. 

The memorial was put up despite objections from some German politicians.  

In 2013, an interview with Sir Arthur emerged in which the former RAF commander said he would order the fire-bombing of Dresden again.

The attack, which was carried out by both RAF and US pilots over the course of just three nights in February 1945, killed an estimated 25,000 German civilians.   

Speaking in the interview, which was filmed in 1977, Sir Arthur said he would do it again if he had to.   

He said: ‘If I had to have the same time again I would do the same again, but I hope I wouldn’t have to.’  

Sir Arthur also claimed that the bombing ‘kept over a million fit Germans out of the German army… Manning the anti-aircraft defences; making the ammunition, and doing urgent repairs, especially tradesmen.’

Harris also hit back against the notion that area bombing was his idea. He instead saidit was already Government policy.

He said: ‘I lived in a shower of directives from the day I took over to the last day of war.

‘The directive when I took over was that I wasn’t to specifically aim at anything unless ordered to do so and to blast the German cities as a whole.’

WHO WAS RAF COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF SIR ARTHUR ‘BOMBER’ HARRIS?  

Born in Cheltenham in 1892, Sir Arthur Harris emigrated to Rhodesia, modern day Zambia and Zimbabwe, at the age of 17, returning to England at the outbreak of the First World War to serve his country.

He joined the Royal Flying Corps and in 1918, when it was created, he joined the RAF.

By the 1920s he was a Squadron Leader serving in the Middle East. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One Britain and France were in control of the region.

In 1922, with rebellions rising in Mesopotamia – modern day Iraq – Sir Arthur took part in bombing raids over villages held by rebel tribes. It was a learning curve for the RAF and was said to have inspired later attacks on German cities during the Second World War. 

Born in Cheltenham in 1892, Sir Arthur Harris emigrated to Rhodesia, modern day Zambia and Zimbabwe, at the age of 17, returning to England at the outbreak of the First World War to serve his country

Historian AJP Taylor wrote of Sir Arthur: ‘He genuinely believed that the German people could be cowed from the air as he had once cowed the tribesmen of Irak (sic),’ according to the BBC. 

Before the outbreak of the Second World War, he would serve in India, Palestine, Egypt and Persia. 

In the early part of the war, the Bomber Command’s raids had little effect. The bombers only flew at night to reduce the danger of being shot down, but with primitive navigation equipment, this made it difficult to identify and hit a small target.

In 1941, it was decided that The Bomber Command would target entire industrial cities – known as area or blanket bombing.

This policy was endorsed by Churchill and formally adopted in early 1942 as Sir Arthur took the helm of The Bomber Command.

Harris said at the start of the bombing campaign that he was unleashing a whirlwind on Germany.

Allied raids in February 1945 tore through the East German city of Dresden, killing up to 25,000 people

Working class housing areas were targeted because they had a higher density and firestorms were more likely. This disrupted the German workforce and the Germans capability of producing more weapons.

In May 1942, now serving as Commander in Chief of  RAF Bombing Command, Sir Arthur organised the first ‘Thousand Bomber Raid,’ launching 1,047 aircraft against Cologne in an overnight bombing raid to overwhelm enemy radar and defences. 

Over 3,000 buildings were reportedly destroyed and another 9,000 damaged.

Two more raids with similar numbers of raids happened in 1942 under Sir Arthur’s leadership – an uneffective attack on Essen and a raid on Bremen, which targeted factories and shipyards.

In July 1943, the Commander-in-Chief oversaw the Battle of Hamburg, codenamed Operation Gomorrah, which was a series of air raids which lasted for eight days and seven nights.

In February 1945, with the Second World War just three months away, Sir Arthur oversaw the firebombing of Dresden, which killed 25,000 German  people. 

In the space of two days, 3,900 tons of bombs and incendiary devices were dropped on the city in East Germany.

In 1975, Sir Arthur defended the attack on Dresden, saying: ‘The bombers kept over a million fit Germans out of the German army… Manning the anti-aircraft defences; making the ammunition, and doing urgent repairs, especially tradesmen.’ 

He retired from the RAF in 1946 and died in Oxfordshire in 1984, at the age of 91. 

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