Friday, 20 July 2012

Strike Hard, Strike Sure; The Bomber Command Memorial


Strike Hard, Strike Sure (all images author's photos)
On the 28th June last, Her Majesty The Queen unveiled the new Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, near Hyde Park Corner. The memorial attracted much attention from some quarters, ranging from the location in one of London’s Royal Parks, to the design and size of the memorial and even after seventy years, as to whether Bomber Command should be commemorated at all, given the controversial nature in some people’s eyes of the tactics used by the Command in the area bombing of German cities, even though these were the same tactics as used by the Luftwaffe only on a much larger scale and which the Nazis would surely have replicated had they been in possession of the necessary equipment. 

RAF Bomber Command seemed to attract controversy almost throughout the War; at the beginning the Command was equipped with mainly obsolescent twin engine designs which were totally unsuited for the tasks given to them of bombing German industrial and military targets. One early attack on German warships at Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbuttel was particularly disastrous with almost a quarter of the twenty nine aircraft despatched being shot down and with the bombs nearly all missing their targets. Ironically, the only bombs to do serious damage fell on the Danish city of Esbjerg, some 110 miles off course, where the two innocent people killed paid testament to the lack of training and preparedness of the crews.

The training of the men was to improve and the quality of the aircrew assigned to Bomber Command was never in doubt. The road to getting better and more suitable bomber aircraft was a long and tough one however. To begin with, like the Luftwaffe, the British bombers were mainly twin-engine and obsolescent designs but unlike the Luftwaffe who were operating from captured airfields in their newly occupied territories in France and the Low Countries, Bomber Command had to travel over almost exclusively hostile territory in order to reach their targets. The Hampdens, Blenheims and Whitleys were completely unsuited to the task and the Wellington, whilst being an ingeniously designed aeroplane from the genius of Barnes Wallis, could not on its own deliver a worthwhile bomb load over these distances. To begin with though, these aircraft were all that there were and the men had to make do with what they had. 

The centrepiece of the memorial
In the early days of the ‘Phoney War’ and after the early fiascos described above, the Command had nothing more lethal to drop than leaflets but following the Blitz on British cities and the change of politcal leadership in Britain, a re-appraisal of the Command’s role took place. It was quickly realised that the original plan for daylight precision bombing was not viable given the equipment available and the level of the defences. It was quickly decided to switch to area bombing by night, where the bombers would be safer from the German defences. This was the same lesson that had been learned the hard way by the Luftwaffe. As the war went on, Bomber Command was to continue to learn and to develop and would quickly leave its German counterpart trailing far behind.

One of the first developments were the night navigation aids called ‘Gee’ and ‘Oboe’, which were both radio beam aids which greatly improved accuracy. The obsolete aircraft types were steadily phased out with new four-engine ‘heavies’ coming into service, first the Stirling which was frankly not a success, followed by the Halifax and the supremely successful Lancaster, which was to become synonymous with Bomber Command. The manpower was greatly expanded, with large numbers of Commonwealth aircrew coming into play, along with many other Allied airmen – Poles, Free French, Czech and many others.

Aircrew looking skywards
The greatest change in the Command’s fortunes came with the appointment of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris as C in C of Bomber Command in early 1942. His appointment coincided with the Area Bombing Directive of 14th February 1942, which ordered Bomber Command to target German industrial cities and the morale of the civilian population. The Command began to go on the offensive; the first German city to feel Harris’s wrath was Lubeck, which was firebombed by a modestly sized bomber force in March 1942. This was followed by Operation Millennium, when the city of Cologne was overwhelmed by a massive one thousand bomber force, in which attack Harris gambled the entire force of Bomber Command on the night of 30th/31st May 1942. The effect was shattering; the German civilian population was never allowed to feel secure and city after city began to tremble under the weight of Harris’s bomber force.

One of the many personal messages
There were many setbacks of course; for one, the Battle of Berlin as Harris dubbed it, did not result in the end of the war as he predicted but in a horrific sort of stalemate in which huge swathes of the city were destroyed at a cost of the lives of thousands of British and Commonwealth airmen. Hamburg, Dresden and Kassel amongst other cities were laid waste. Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Charles Portal, who as Chief of the Air Staff had been a leading advocate of area bombing, wrote post-war how he had visited Potsdam, a near suburb of Berlin and described how “Bert Harris removed the town of Potsdam in half an hour one night in April 1945.” So complete was the destruction that even Portal, a hardened airman well used to the horrors of bombing, was taken aback.

This victory of total bombing was not without cost; 55,573 British, Commonwealth and Allied members of Bomber Command died in carrying out their missions, as well as some 600,000 German victims of Allied bombing and 60,000 British victims of German air attacks. The controversy never left Bomber Command either; even at the time, there were those who questioned the morality of stooping to the same level as one’s enemy. After the destruction of Dresden, even Churchill began to distance himself from the policy of “bombing for terror’s sake alone” as he described it, although he was not responsible for the refusal of the incoming Labour government in 1945 to award a campaign medal for the “Old Lags” of Bomber Command as Harris had christened his ever-loyal aircrew. When he returned to power in 1951, Churchill made good his promise to honour Harris, who would accept nothing more than a Baronetcy and who would insist on wearing the Defence Medal, the same decoration as his men.

Lest we forget
Whatever the rights and wrongs and undoubted horrors of the Allied area bombing campaign, it was surely an outrage to continue to ignore the sacrifices made by the men of Bomber Command. Seventy years on, it looks as if no campaign medal will ever be forthcoming but at least the men now have a fitting memorial. Designed by Liam O’Connor, the striking memorial is built from Portland Stone and features as the centre piece a 2.7 metre high bronze statue, designed by Philip Jackson of seven bomber aircrew who have just returned from a mission and who are looking skyward, perhaps for their returning colleagues. The roof of the memorial is built from aluminium salvaged from a crashed Canadian Halifax bomber, discovered in Belgium (with the bodies of three aircrew still strapped in their seats) in 1997. The roof has been formed to evoke the Geodesic design of the famous Wellington bomber, a mainstay of the Command in the early years.

The memorial cost £5.6 million, which was raised by public donations as well as from substantial gifts from Lord Ashcroft, the businessman John Caudwell and from the late Robin Gibb, whose own father had served in Bomber Command. The result is a worthy memorial to the men of Bomber Command, as well as to the victims of all bombing during the Second World War.

When the memorial was officially unveiled by The Queen, some 6,000 surviving veterans and their families were present and no doubt many memories were rekindled during the course of the ceremony.

A glimpse of the roof formed from aluminium from a crashed Halifax bomber
When I visited the memorial a few days ago, I was extremely impressed by the design and execution of the monument, especially of the statue of the aircrew. I was also very moved by the many personal messages which had been placed at the feet of the aircrew and which made poignant reading, as well as reminding one that real people were involved here and that many memories still remain.

This is a fitting memorial, not only to the 55,573 brave men of Bomber Command but to all of the victims of bombing during the Second World War.

Lest we forget.

Published Sources:

Bomber Boys - Patrick Bishop, Harper Press - 2007
Bomber Command 1939-45 - Richard Overy, Harper Collins 1997
VCs of the Second World War - John Frayn Turner, Pen & Sword Military 2004

3 comments:

  1. We are visiting the memorial in July 2013 along with attending the 550 Squadron reunion in North Killlinholme. Looking forward to both

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  2. I think that you will be impressed Sue - I find it a fitting and most suitable memorial.

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