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The Bomber Command Memorial – a fitting tribute for all?

29 June 2012

A memorial to the men of Bomber Command was finally unveiled yesterday, sparking off the debate once more about the rights and wrongs of venerating men who took an active role on one of the most controversial elements of World War II. The fact that even 70 years after the event, it still generates such opposing passions shows the importance of this issue.

Having met and worked with many of the surviving WWII veterans on the campaign to initially seek planning permission for the memorial, and then to raise money for its build, it was a moving moment for me to see veterans and family members from every corner of Britain, Europe, America and the Commonwealth coming together for an occasion that they never thought would happen.

125,000 volunteers signed up to serve with Bomber Command during WWII. Their average age was just 22 years old and in 1943 the crews had a 16 per cent chance of surviving. No branch of the Allied war effort suffered a worse casualty rate.

But after the war, even though nearly half of them never came home, Bomber Command’s role was ignored. As the dust settled, the politicians who sent them to bomb Germany distanced themselves amid controversy over raids on cities like Dresden and the resultant civilian death toll. Until yesterday, the veterans of Bomber Command were the only servicemen from WWII not to have been recognised either by a medal or a memorial.

Nearly 70 years later, not only has the sovereign paid tribute to the dedication of the veterans who served for their country and the lives lost, but also the German people have given the memorial their blessing. The Mayor of Dresden is quoted in The Times as saying “it is a further gesture of reconciliation between Britain and Germany”. I remember the moment when this was not the sentiment of the Mayor of Dresden, and the media was reporting on her plea to Boris Johnson not to allow the memorial to go ahead. We turned this into an opportunity and seized the moment to emphasise that the memorial was to remember the sacrifice made by people who had yet to be recognised. Nothing more, nothing less.

It is perhaps too easy, this distant from the events themselves, to decry decisions that were made during the war. The ‘Bomber Boys’ who lost their lives were given their orders, they flew out at night not knowing if they would return and only thought of protecting their family and fellow citizens.

This is why the human story is so important. While working on the project I heard from men in their 80s and late 90s who survived losing the wing on their aircraft, who survived being prisoners of war, and who survived being sent over the skies of Germany again and again, despite the terrifying odds. These personal stories of loss and of survival are what matters and are why this memorial has been built. It’s also why it is hugely important that the memorial also publicly recognises the terrible toll of the bombing raids on German citizens living in the cities that were targeted. The purpose of a memorial should be to remember, to consider and to learn from, not uncritically accepting the prevailing point of view, but stopping to consider the big questions – what would I have done, was the right action taken, what was achieved through their sacrifice?

Hearing Douglas Radcliffe’s reading during the opening ceremony was the most touching part. Doug flew as a wireless operator with Bomber Command and he has dutifully kept things running as secretary of the Bomber Command Association – he has counted all the cheques, read all the letters and remained ever-optimistic even when the fundraising task seemed overwhelming. His words will have resonated with many yesterday, and I can’t think of a better way to close this blog:

“They shall not grow old as we are left to grow old, age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.” (Laurence Binyon)