Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The memorial has been in the news for all the wrong reasons this week, after its defacement by some mindless hooligan. The gentleman seen in some press photos standing alongside the memorial afterwards in an understandably proprietorial fashion was WO Douglas Radcliffe MBE; an ex Lancaster wireless operator/gunner, he is the full time Secretary of the Bomber Command Association at the age of 90 - which gives some idea of the calibre of the man. I had the pleasure of meeting him last night; we are privileged to share the planet with men of his ilk.
Recently I attended a presentation on the long drawn out history of the memorial. Much of the delay in its creation was due to the sensitivity of the widespread civilian deaths caused by the German bombing campaign. In the immediate post-war phase acknowledging their scale would have been a PR gift to the Russians. Then the Vietnam War served to bring civilian deaths to the notice of a new generation. Whilst it is often thought that Bomber Command veterans have been singled out for being ignored for far too long, it is worth noting that both the Fighter and Coastal Command memorials were not constructed until the 21st century.
It is also often mentioned that the C in C of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, suffered a lack of appropriate recognition (relative to the cohort of military leaders) after VE Day. In fact he was offered a peerage, but turned it down as a protest against the lack of recognition afforded to his hard-working ground crews. The decision for which campaigns to award medals was made in December 1944, i.e. before the Dresden raid, which later attracted so much opprobrium. (Vincent Orange’s book, Churchill & His Airmen, reviewed on this site, is useful here).
The sculptor of the figures inside the memorial was Philip Jackson. He was strongly motivated for the task as his father was a BC pilot. I think he has come up with a stunning result. Philip sought a sculpture which was reflective, non-heroic, and avoided jingoism – he has achieved his aims. During the design process he made several maquettes, of increasing scale, and at each stage invited the views of BC veterans. They were not slow to come forward. The result is that the technical detail is, I am told, now flawless. The concept behind the grouping of figures is that they are looking to the skies to seek the arrival of their comrades; it is intended to underline the link between the living and the dead.
It is worthy stressing that the memorial is intended to commemorate the dead of all nations who suffered in the Bomber Command offensive, and the BCA has received great help from the German embassy and its staff. Not quite so helpful were the panoply of quangos and councils with whom the BCA had to deal. There was a lot of fuss about the need to install bat boxes, for example. The authorities have also been less than helpful this week: access for the BCA to its memorial was delayed, which allowed the chemicals in the graffiti to soak further into the stone. Nonetheless there is complete resolution that the memorial will be restored to its previous state.
Whilst its opening last year will have come too late for most veterans, it is clear that the memorial has become a treasured place for others. Family and descendants of these brave men now have somewhere to visit where they can contemplate their illustrious forebears. The little notes at the memorial’s foot bear witness to this (see the photo bottom right). I highly recommend a visit.