Saturday, 30 June 2012

Bomber Command Memorial

I usually feel ambiguous around Rembrance day - and  I was even more troubled at the prospect of the unveiling of a memorial for Bomber Command on Friday. And today, realisng that it is Armed Forces day - an unabashed rehabilitated day of flag-waving and militarism - I am doubly so.

The story of the 'bomber boys' of the Second World War has been undeniably neglected. The popular image of the wartime RAF is the romance of the fighter pilots - a small band of  cavalier public-school boys saving us from invasion in the Battle of Britain.  Our own version of Thermopylae and the 300 Sparatans. On the other hand, the story of the bomber crews has been swept under the carpet.

For starters the bomber crews were more numerous and less glamorous. Their role was not to dash around the skies in aerial dog-fights but to sit in tight wing tip-to-wing tip formations every night like sitting ducks. Waiting to be picked up by searchlights or radar and shot down by night fighters or flak. Statistically they faced the most dangerous job on the allied side - one in twenty odds of not returning from a mission when an operational tour lasted thirty missions. It is not surprising that a kind of stoic fatalism and dark humour characterised  Bomber Command.

Their social composition was more diverse than Fighter Command - many sergeant-pilots were working class or at least lower middle class grammar school boys.  Becoming  an air-gunner was one route in which an 'erk' from the ranks could actually get into the air.

But most importantly, unlike the fighter pilots of 1940, they were not the heroic defenders preventing the bombing of women and children - they were the ones doing the bombing. Causing death and destruction on an industrial scale that between 1942-5 eclipsed anything seen in the Luftwaffe's attacks on this country.

It can be - and is - argued that the young men of Bomber Command cannot  be held responsible for the morality of decisions made by their political and military commanders. Maybe so - and maybe we are in no position to judge from the comfort of our peactime lives - although clearly many veterans did feel this responsibility for the rest of their lives.

It is an added tragedy that many wars seem to generate buried tales of  heroism. Perhaps in this case simply telling their forgotten story is more appropriate than commemorating them in stone. 

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