Continuing our occasional series on the RAF and Bomber Command leadership, here is a priceless story about Bomber Harris and the London Blitz in 1940. Bomber Harris is seldom equated with a sense of humour but this is surely what lies behind his account of a sentry who has a direct lineage to Shakespeare’s clowns.

During the Blitz, Harris used to go up on the roof of the Air Ministry to watch the sight. On what was probably the night of 29/30 December 1940, he watched ‘the old city in flames […] with St Paul’s standing out in the midst of an ocean of fire – an incredible sight’. He was alone on the roof with the sentry, and in order to make conversation Harris said to the man that if his history was right, the last time London had burned had been 1666, and he told the sentry that he was looking at history.

This seemed not to make the slightest impression on him; he did not even answer beyond sucking his teeth. I asked him how long he had been there, and he said for the whole of the war, as he was over-age for active service. I asked him whether he wasn’t very bored on ordinary nights, and he said that he wasn’t because he was a student of natural history. That seemed to me a somewhat extraordinary pursuit to engage in on the roofs of Whitehall, and I asked him to explain what he meant. He said that there were some 40 to 50 cats from Government offices on the roofs at night, and that what with the fights and one thing and another there was plenty to see, especially as there was an “unexploded tom” amongst them.

Sir Arthur Harris, BOMBER OFFENSIVE, 1949

Harris wrote that watching London burn that night was the only time he ever felt vengeful against the Germans, and even then it only lasted for a moment.