Every veteran of the Armed Forces has days that he will remember for ever: the day he first enlisted, the day he first saw combat and his last day of service are just three of them.
Today, the surviving members of Bomber Command – along with their supporters – can add another day to that list that they will savour for the rest of their lives. For at 12.08pm in Green Park, central London, the Queen unveiled the new Bomber Command Memorial.
I was privileged enough to share that special moment – one that I, too, will never forget – as a guest of the Bomber Command Association. As one of the principal donors of the appeal for the new memorial – I gave £1 million to the cause – I felt both proud and humbled that a 67-year-wrong has finally been righted.
Today was an emotional occasion, too, at which everyone present was united by a feeling that justice had been done and the contribution of a special group of airmen from the Second World War had finally been recognised.
How appropriate it was too that the Queen, the Head of our Armed Forces and whose own father was on the throne throughout the war, should be the one to unveil and dedicate the memorial to the memory of more than 55,000 airmen.
Under blue skies, 6,500 war veterans, their families and the relatives of the fallen gathered to witness the magnificently-designed memorial being unveiled.
For me, the most emotional moment of the proceedings was when the Queen approached a group of veterans as she prepared to take her seat after the unveiling. All were elderly, some were wheel-chair bound, others were propped up by sticks or a family member’s supportive arm. But as the Queen walked in front of them, they raised their frail, bent bodies one by one in order to stand and salute her.
At the event, I spoke to war veterans from Australia, New Zealand and Canada, many of whom thanked me personally for my donation that has enabled the memorial to be built so quickly.
In honour of today’s event, I was wearing a special commemorative Bomber Command tie and one of the Canadian veterans said that he had been unable to get hold of one for himself. I told him that, if he gave me his name and address, I would send him the one I was wearing by FedEx delivery. Indeed, I am confident that Bill Baxter’s tie will be waiting for him in Calgary, Alberta, before he arrives home.
Although I like to think of myself as a tough businessman, I could feel the emotion welling up inside of me throughout the morning and during the service. However, I was always confident that what we were doing with the memorial was right – and long overdue.
A flypast by five RAF Tornados and a the dropping of thousands of poppies by the RAF’s last Lancaster bomber added to an occasion which reduced many a proud, but now frail, war veteran to tears. Some were clearly relieved that the long wait for recognition was over; for others, perhaps, painful memories had come flooding back.
I cannot remember the last time, other than a State occasion, when there were ten senior members of the Royal family at an event. They certainly did the veterans proud. Furthermore, the proceedings were enhanced by the lack of politicians and their usual hangers-on.
I made a £1 million commitment to the £7 million appeal because I wanted the memorial to be built while some Bomber Command veterans, now in their late 80s and early 90s, are still alive.
Rarely, if ever, can any group of servicemen have been more deserving of a memorial to their courage than Bomber Command. The new monument will be a fitting tribute to men who helped to shape the free world in which we live.
Bomber Command consisted of some 125,000 volunteers from Britain, the Commonwealth and Allied countries that had to endure some of the most terrifying combat conditions of the Second World War. Indeed, Bomber Command was the only British fighting force that took the war directly to Germany, destroying vital infrastructure and supply lines – but at a very heavy price.
The average age of the aircrew was just 22 and the youngest were only 18. Three out of every five airmen became casualties and the more detailed statistics tell their own story: 55,573 men were killed, 8,403 were wounded and 9,838 were captured and held as Prisoners of War.
The losses of Bomber Command were greater than those of any other service – accounting for 10 per cent of all British fatalities – yet, perversely, its members have been the only Second World War servicemen not to have been publicly honoured by their country.
One reason for the lack of a memorial has, undoubtedly, been the controversy over the targeting by Bomber Command of German cities and the resulting deaths of thousands of civilians during the raids.
However, the Allied bombing of German cities was in direct retaliation for the decision by Hitler to blitz Rotterdam on May 14, 1940. Moreover, members of Bomber Command were simply carrying out orders and the consequences of the bombing should not detract from their relentless bravery.
Yet, even now, the fund raising is not over: £1.5 million is needed to maintain the memorial. It is for this reason that I have decided that I will donate all author’s royalties from my latest book on gallantry – Heroes of the Skies – to the RAF Benevolent Fund, which has today become the custodian of the new memorial.
It was Harold Wilson, the former Labour Prime Minister, who famously said: “A week is a long time in politics.”
Having witnessed today’s dignified events in Green Park, I realise that, in the lives of the members of Bomber Command, just an hour is a long time. Some 70 years ago, one hour, and one mission, was too often the difference between life – and death.
Today, an hour was a long time but for a very different and more poignant reason. At 12 noon, those who served in Bomber Command were unsung heroes – in the bitter words of one veteran even “outcasts”.
Yet by 1pm, the veterans, along with the families of the fallen, were safe in the knowledge that the self-sacrifice and courage of Bomber Command airmen will be remembered forever more.
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