Strike Hard, Strike Sure

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (July 2012)

To the east and south, London is surrounded by the sites of former RAF stations, some still in civilian use, a very few (eg Northolt) still part of RAF military use, that defended the city and took part in the Battle of Britain. This is well known and much admired. Go north up England’s east coast from Suffolk through Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland and you find the airfields that served Bomber Command. The controversy over whether bombing Germany so fiercely was right, whether the right targets were chosen, Dresden in particular, caused the deaths of 55,573 British and Commonwealth airmen to be neglected, in comparison to their colleagues in Fighter Command. The men of Bomber Command were never awarded a campaign medal. The men of Europe and the Commonwealth may well have been properly honoured in their home countries, as were the men of the USAF who flew from England and Scotland but, notwithstanding the memorial in Lincoln Cathedral, there was no national memorial until this weekend.

The Bomber Command memorial was unveiled by the Queen in Green Park (one of London’s Royal Parks very near Buckingham Palace if you don’t know London) on Thursday. Sadly there wasn’t room for every veteran who wanted to attend but many of those well enough to make the journey were accommodated round the memorial and others in a seating area with giant TV screen a few yards further down the park. The memorial was built through public subscription and some major donations, one of which was from Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees who died recently.

The BBC did not feel that the service merited being broadcast live. Sky News did give it proper attention with a simple dignified coverage of a simple and dignified service. After the Queen unveiled the bronze statues inside the Portland stone portico there was a flypast of 5 modern RAF typhoons and the City of Lincoln, the Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight which dropped poppies over the memorial area. Security was tight so members of the public could not get near the memorial itself but a friend of mine who was present in the crowd in Green Park took some video of the Lancaster’s flight. These are two stills taken from that footage, the whole of which (and some others) can be seen here.

My family and I went to Green Park on Saturday. We couldn’t get back far enough to photograph the whole memorial as workmen were still removing the seating from Thursday’s service but we were free to walk around and go inside. There were many people with the same idea.

Flowers were heaped around the feet of the bronze aircrew and in every available niche around. Some were formal wreaths, others posies dedicated to lost brothers and fathers and their comrades.

The sculptor Philip Jackson (also responsible for the statue of England footballer Bobby Moore at Wembley Stadium) has shown a seven man crew on return from a mission, capturing the moment they leave the aeroplane and put down their heavy gear.  

The heavy bombers the Lancaster, Stirling and the Halifax took a seven man crew.  These varied but had to cover the tasks of Pilot, flight engineer (or co-pilot), navigator, wireless operator, bomb aimer/nose gunner, mid upper gunner and the incredibly brave tail gunner. The Blenheim took 6 men, the lighter bombers smaller crews. The Mosquito was classed as a medium bomber because of the amount of payload it could carry. It took a two man crew, was considered to suffer from the weight of the second man and was made mostly of wood. A lot of the wooden parts were made in the furniture workshops of Shoreditch and Bethnal Green and it is time I learnt more about this hardworking aircraft.

The roof of the portico is partly open to the sky, into which several of the young men are still peering, seeking returning comrades. Others, exhausted, look down. The roof was inspired by the inside of a Wellington and contains aluminium salvaged from a Blenheim.

The back of the podium contains the words of Pericles: Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.

The County of Lincolnshire is known as Bomber County. Although Lincolnshire is thought of as flat there is a ridge of limestone running north/south between the River Trent and the sea that was a particularly good foundation for the landing of heavy bombers. Many of the airfields still exist and can be visited.

RAF Coningsby is a working Typhoon Station but also home to the BBMF where you can visit the hangar and see the Lancaster The City of Lincoln (one of only two flying – the other is in Canada) the famous Spitfires and Hurricanes and other historic aircraft.

RAF Scampton is now home to the Red Arrows display team but in 1943 it was the base from which Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC and the men of 617 Squadron flew on the Dambusters Raid. There is a fascinating museum there; visiting is by appointment and subject to security procedures and you may get a chance if in the area to see Red Arrows practicing. You can also see the grave of Guy Gibson's pet black labrador Nigger who was run over and killed minutes before the Squadron set off on the raid. Modern PC has required the dog's name to be changed to 'Digger' in a proposed film to be made soon. The original remains an excellent film.

It goes without saying that if in Lincolnshire a visit to Lincoln and Lincoln cathedral is imperative.

Also in the area is the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre on what was RAF East Kirkby. The site was bought by the Panton family and set up as a museum in memory of Christopher Panton who was killed during a raid over the Ruhr. Part of their collection includes the Lancaster Just Jane which can taxy around the airfield but is too precious to the family to be made airworthy to fly.

There are plenty of other sites, in Lincolnshire and elsewhere. The Imperial War Museum at Duxford, the RAF museum at Hendon and the Yorkshire Air Museum in Elvington spring immediately to mind. There are restored and part salvaged aircraft of many types – just use google. Some of the Canadian collections also sound very interesting.

It was only 4 years ago that the last veterans of WWI passed away. The average age of a member of a bomber crew in 1943/4 was 22. This makes the average age of a veteran now 91. I looked at the faces of the veterans on television on Thursday and realised that it will not be very many years before there are no veterans of WWII left.  Whatever the mistakes of the top brass in policy and selection of targets I am glad this memorial to the loss of enough men to populate a town the size of Hereford has been opened while there are still veterans alive.

Photographs by E Weatherwax, S Sto Helit and Ben. Left, Lancaster over Essex in 2010.


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