On 28 June 2012, the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, unveiled a new memorial, the Bomber Command Memorial, to the airmen of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command who fought during the Second World War.
The Bomber Command Memorial, made of Portland Stone and situated in London’s Green Park, has, as its centrepiece, a nine-foot-high bronze sculpture of a typical seven-man crew, five of them gazing into the distance as if waiting for their comrades to return.
Many never did. 55,573 British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and other Commonwealth pilots and crewmen lost their lives and 8,403 were wounded, a sixty per cent causality rate, far higher than most other forms of armed service during the war. A further 9,838 were taken prisoners-of-war. Allied crewmen who survived being shot down in Germany, if not taken prisoner, were often lynched.
With only one in four aircrew surviving their allocated thirty missions, the attacks were eventually halted. Yet following the war, it took 67 years to officially appreciate what these men did. (The crews were even denied a campaign medal for their dangerous work.)
Designed by architect, Liam O’Connor, the Bomber Command Memorial cost almost £6 million to construct, the funding coming from public donations and private sponsors, such as Lord Ashcroft (a generous man for sure but could be accused of being overly greedy in his purchasing of so many Victoria Crosses for his own collection) and Bee Gee, Robin Gibb, who died in May 2012, but not, it has to be said, the government.
Initially, Dresden, the German city interminably linked with the destruction wrought by Bomber Command, objected to the memorial but an inscription commemorating all the lives lost during the bombing raids eased their concerns. The RAF’s last flying Lancaster Bomber flew over the proceedings releasing a shower of red poppies in a sign of remembrance for the fallen. Some 6,000 veterans and their families attended the ceremony, for whom the occasion was an emotional one.
So why did it take so long for the Bomber Command crews to have their own memorial? Those involved in the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940 have longed received recognition for their services rendered in defending the country against Hitler’s Luftwaffe, and London boasts a fine Battle of Britain memorial, unveiled in 2005, on the Victoria Embankment. Their work was noble – dogfights over the English Channel and the fields of Kent, defending our Sceptred Isle. No civilians were directly involved, as men and their machines slugged it out. Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, immediately praised their bravery and sacrifice with his immortal words, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’.
But the work of Bomber Command was different. Their whole purpose was to target civilians, to kill them, to shatter their cities and ultimately their resolve. Hitler had tried much the same tactic, earlier in the war, when London, Glasgow, Birmingham, Coventry and other British cities suffered German bombing. But rather than breaking Briton’s resolve, the Blitz merely hardened it.
‘My name is Meyer’
In 1939, Hermann Goring, head of the Luftwaffe, boasted, ‘If bombs drop on Germany, you may call me Meyer.’ Sure enough, early RAF bombing missions were considered too dangerous by day and too ineffective by night. But later, on 30 May 1942, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who was appointed commander of Bomber Command in February 1942, organized the destruction of Cologne using no less than a thousand bombers in a determined act to terrorise civilians. German war production suffered but German anti-aircraft guns and the vulnerability of British planes resulted in high casualty rates for the RAF.
In January 1943, Harris (pictured) joined forces with his American counterpart, Carl ‘Tooey’ Spaatz, in a renewed initiative to bomb Germany. The RAF bombed cities by night in a policy of ‘de-housing’, the express purpose to target and demoralize the civilian population (despite the evidence of the contrary as experienced from the Blitz); while the US Air Force bombed industrial and military targets by day. Residential neighbourhoods were considered prime targets for inflicting greater demoralization. Hamburg was razed in July 1943 by incendiary bombs causing firestorms that engulfed the city, melting cellars, and killing 50,000 people.
Numerous other cities were also targeted. Timed bombs were dropped, programmed to explode a day or two after impact in order to maim as many as possible. Another RAF strategy was to drop their bombs forcing people to run to their bomb shelters where, the RAF knew, they could remain for three hours until conditions inside became too hot, forcing them to re-emerge – and it was at that point the bombers dropped a second wave of bombs. This was no less then ‘terror bombing’.
On 13 February 1945, Bomber Harris sent his planes over Dresden, 100 miles south of Berlin and brimming with refugees fleeing the Soviets sixty miles away to the east. Dwarfing the devastation caused in the Blitz four years earlier, Dresden, with only minimal anti-aircraft guns, was obliterated, with ten times the number of bombs dropped and ten times the number of casualties sustained in this one attack than during the whole of the Blitz, and almost double the casualties caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.
The objective was justified in that Britain had to use any and all means to defeat the Nazi foe. But even Churchill began to have his doubts, questioning Harris’ methods of ‘bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror’.
‘Bomber’ Harris, who died on 5 April 1984, has had his own statue near London’s Strand since 1992. Unveiled amidst huge protests and cries of ‘war criminal’, the threat of vandalism meant that the statue had to have a round-the-clock guard during the first months of its existence.
Ultimately, the Bomber Command Memorial is dedicated not to the commanders, the politicians or the strategy but to the young, ordinary men of the RAF that risked so much during the war and have suffered from our uneasy conscience for so many decades since. What these young men had to do, fortunately for most of us, is beyond our imagination. For that at least they deserve our recognition – even if it was 67 years overdue.
Rupert Colley’s new novel, The Sixth Man, is due 12 April 2017.