Town honoured former Honiton schoolboy
- Credit: Archant
Although criticised for vigorously pursuing the World War Two bombing campaign, Bomber Harris was welcomed back to Honiton.
A small board outside Honiton Town Council’s offices shows the name of Sir Arthur Travers Harris, who was made a freeman on July 23, 1945, writes Tony Simpson.
Few would have predicted that young Harris, who spent his school days at Honiton between 1904 and 1909, would amount to much.
He left Allhallows School hungry, in both senses, with few achievements and even fewer prospects.
From Honiton, he migrated to Rhodesia where he took up farming and when World War One began he joined the Royal Flying Corps. The rest, as they say, is history.
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When Harris returned to Honiton in July in 1945, he would be as the famous (though some would say infamous) Sir Arthur Harris, chief of Bomber Command.
The idea of offering Harris the Freedom of Honiton Borough was made at a time when first Churchill, then Labour leader Clement Atlee, who had won the 1945 General Election, were distancing themselves from the air marshall, now one of the most controversial military commanders of World War Two.
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When Harris arrived in Honiton, he may have been grateful for the recognition of a borough council.
For though he had received distinguished honours from France, Poland, USA and the Soviet Union, in Britain he had been criticised by a cohort of bishops, MPs and writers for the area bombing of German cities.
Harris’s request for a campaign medal for bomber command was not granted and unlike other service chiefs he was not given a peerage.
No memorial of him was unveiled until 1992, when protestors shouted ‘war criminal’.
It was not until 2012 that a memorial to the air crew of Bomber Command was unveiled at Green Park.
Harris’s bombing campaign from 1942 to 1945 is estimated to have destroyed six million German homes and killed 600,000 people - mainly civilians.
More died in a firestorm at Dresden, which was only weeks before the Honiton ceremony, than during the entire blitz on Britain.
Area bombing was in fact approved by Churchill and the Air Ministry a week before Harris’s appointment in February 1942, though he pursued it vigorously and coined the phrase ‘Let him have it’, a version of which appeared on popular war posters following the blitz on Britain.
Ultimately Harris depended on the dedication of young air crews, whose losses were also staggering; more than 57,000 died.
At Honiton, he admitted their attrition could be compared to young front line officers in World War One.
Given that Harris was referred to by some crews as ‘Butcher Harris’ it may be ironic that the proposal to grant him the freedom of the Borough was made by Cllr Reg Dommett, a Honiton butcher.
Mayor Cllr C N Hatcher moved the ‘freedom’ proposal as a token of our high estimate of his services to the nation during the present war and being sensitive of the link made with the town made during his school days at Allhallows.
Accepting the council’s offer ‘with expressions of keen appreciation’, Harris asked that the ceremony could be deferred until ‘the end of the war in Europe’.
Within weeks, Honiton’s VE Day on May 8 had witnessed dancing and street parties as people looked to the future.
Those who had expected other famous military personalities at the ceremony may have been disappointed when Bomber Harris told the council he had no plans for guests - neither his son or two daughters from a previous marriage attended - other than his second wife Therese (Jillie) and his seven-year-old daughter Jackie. They stayed at the Dolphin Hotel.
Only days before the ceremony, Sidney Owen Gill, the proprietor of Gill’s Café (formerly the impressive Central Café run by H R Harris), told the committee wartime conditions might prevent him securing champagne, suitable wines and other drinks to accompany a meal of soup, roast joint with vegetables, dessert and coffee.
It was agreed that only the top table would be paid for from the general rate.
As the ‘Big Four’ super-powers met at Potsdam to arrange the future of Europe, Honiton Borough Council held one of their most important ceremonial occasions at the town’s Mackarness Hall.
They had spent £40 on a scroll and casket from Messrs Southwoods of Exeter, along with a special brochure and posters from Dimonds printer; Arthur Dimond had attended Allhallows and served in the RAF.
On making the presentation, Mr Hatcher described the air marshall as one of ‘the most distinguished personalities of the European War’.
After paying tribute to the men of Devon and those of Bomber Command ‘of which I can never say enough’, the Air Marshall reflected on the subject, not of the bomber war, but of war itself.
In a speech which was rare and has remained unpublished, he said: “If you stop to think, the result of war always has been and always will be barren.
“Twice in my lifetime I have seen the whole effort of the nation poured into war. If only one such effort were to be put into working for peace and progress what height of human happiness and decent human way of life might we attain.
“Twice I have seen the youth of nations butchered. Let us not see that again. All this will not be achieved unless a similar effort is put by the nations into waging of peace and progress as they are prepared to put into waging of war.”
Following his great day out to Honiton the acting air chief marshall’s appointment was relinquished and after being made marshall of the Royal Air Force he emigrated to South Africa.
He died at Goring on Thames in April 1984.
The brochure of his visit along with a plaque and school record are displayed in a glass case in Allhallows Museum - which was formerly the school dining room where once the young Arthur Harris ate meals with fellow pupils.n
*Dedicated to my friend Warrant Officer George Crabb, Tail gunner, Bomber Command, Dresden. Ex-service Movement for Peace, died May 15, 2016, age 92.