George Harris was first introduced to flying as a small boy, thrilled to take to the air in a bi-plane on a trip to pioneering aviator Sir Alan Cobham’s celebrated Flying Circus.
From that moment on he was hooked on flying but it wasn’t until he joined the Edinburgh University Air Squadron that he got the chance to start training as a pilot.
By that time the Second World War was raging and Harris was still only 18. But, despite a couple of false starts, he proved a bold and determined airman, surviving numerous missions and close shaves as a Lancaster bomber pilot and winning the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Posted to No 1 Group in 101 Squadron, a Special Duties squadron, he found himself on a pioneering path when his Lancaster crew acquired an eighth member – a German speaker brought in to operate a top secret radio jamming system and countermand German fighter control instructions.
Breaking radio silence made them vulnerable, easy targets for the enemy to track, and resulted in the squadron suffering the highest casualties of Bomber Command, but his crew were a lucky crew, Harris maintained. After completing 30 operations by the age of 21, he went on to train other pilots before going on to Cambridge and subsequently playing a leading role in the field of executive search consultancy, establishing one of the UK’s first headhunting firms.
George Henry Gordon Harris was born in Holbeach, Lincolnshire and was educated at Moulton Grammar School after winning a scholarship. In early 1941 he went from school into the RAF via the Edinburgh University Air Squadron and was sent to Alabama and Georgia for training. However just before he was about to gain his wings he failed an American medical, on technical grounds that had not applied to his earlier RAF medical, and was taken off flying duties.
It was a grave disappointment to the young airman and after returning to the UK it took him another six months of persistence to get back into flying. He joined a course at the RAF College Cranwell and finally gained his wings and a commission in September 1943.
Harris then went to an Operational Training Unit flying old Wellingtons and, on his last flight of the course, a night practice bombing and fighter affiliation trip, suffered an engine fire just after take-off. He came down in darkness in Sherwood Forest and came to in hospital. A wooden propeller had shattered on impact, sheared through the airframe and his seat, taking a slice out of his back and leaving him with several broken ribs, a punctured lung and lacerated kidney.
His parents were warned he may not survive but within six weeks he was flying again, back in Wellingtons, then on Halifaxes, before finally moving on to Lancasters and a posting, along with three other crews, to No 1 Group 101 Squadron in Ludford Magna, Lincolnshire. It had taken three years of training and frustration and now he and his crew were replacements for those recently killed in action.
The squadron’s Lancasters were equipped with the radio jamming system known as the Airborne Cigar, or ABC. It covered the frequencies used by the Luftwaffe but its presence also deprived them of a vital navigational aid which heightened their vulnerability. On average only one in four crews survived and that was the case with those Harris had been posted with: all were lost, the first on its first operation.
His missions ranged from major night attacks on Germany and tactical support attacks on German troop strongholds, communication centres, V-1 flying bomb sites and airfields in France and the Low Countries. He was subsequently invited to take his crew to the Pathfinder Force but turned down the opportunity as it would have meant leaving behind his German-speaking Special Operator, which he felt was wrong. Anyway, he regarded 101 as a very special squadron with huge spirit and said the Lancaster was “a simply splendid” aircraft to fly.
Among his hair-raising exploits were coping with another engine fire – resulting in an emergency landing on three engines with a full bomb load – braving electric storms which could throw the Lancasters around like corks and dodging the searchlights above enemy territory.
On one occasion, returning from a night raid on Brunswick on 12 August 1944, the searchlights locked on him and he desperately performed a violent corkscrew manoeuvre to escape the beams. Failing to shake them off, he dived at full bore with a full bomb load, descending so rapidly the navigator said he had exceeded the plane’s reported break-up speed. “The slipstream and engine noise was like a banshee,” he recalled. Miraculously they remained in one piece to tell the tale and, after debrief, took an idyllic stroll back to their quarters as the sun rose and the dawn chorus began. That night 24 of their men did not return and 101 maintained its reputation as a “chop” squadron
Reflecting on the end of his operational tour with his Lancaster Z-Zebra, he said he felt “strangely flat, rather old and empty” but had gained much, including the sheer freedom and joy of flying, the magic of cloud hopping and, as a flight commander, the responsibility for life and death decisions over other men. His award of the DFC, for valour in the face of the enemy, was announced in February 1945. Seventy years later he received the Legion D’honneur for his part in the operations to liberate Caen.
After the war he completed a BA in modern languages and economics at St John’s College, Cambridge and took posts at Liverpool and Glasgow universities before moving to the Mobil Oil Company in 1954. Four years later he joined PA Management Consultants and in 1967 established executive search company Canny Bowen and Associates, the UK arm of the US firm Canny Bowen, undertaking searches at chairman, managing director and director level for major British and international companies.
He also helped to form the international executive search partnership incorporating Canny Bowen and AMROP International which embraced companies in the USA, Europe, Scandinavia and Brazil and became one of the leading groups of its kind in the world. He served as chairman of the partnership and retired in 1982 as managing director, although he continued as a director with a limited range of clients.
Harris, who had lived in Kent for over 60 years, took up golf in his 30s and was a member of Wildernesse Golf Club in Sevenoaks where he established a Battle of Britain Memorial trophy hewn from the piston head of a Hurricane shot down over the golf course.
Last August he was an honoured guest at a Combined Operations Military and Air Show at the county’s Headcorn Aerodrome where he witnessed the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight MK XIX Spitfire. Amazingly, the aircraft, named Elizabeth, had escorted Harris and his crew on one of their missions more than 70 years earlier.
Predeceased by his wife Christine, he is survived by their daughters Penelope and Rosamund.