Bomber Command deserves its WWII memorial – and here's why
Distaste over memorial to the airmen who obliterated Dresden ignores the extreme danger they faced
THE QUEEN will unveil a memorial to the men of wartime Bomber Command in Green Park on 28 June. The late Queen Mother would strongly approve. As our wartime Queen, she understood what they had been through and their contribution to ultimate victory.
She was also a great admirer of their uncompromising and single-minded commander-in-chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, whose statue she unveiled in 1992 outside St Clement Danes on the Strand.
There was a lot of whingeing when she did this from various Germans who somehow view the bombing of their country as unfair - including the German far right who disgracefully describe the Anglo-American strategic bombing offensive as 'Bombenholocaust'.
Twenty years later the whingeing has already begun in the British media about the "glorification" of the tactic of area bombing - the memorial, they say, is "insensitive" or "inappropriate".
The ever politically correct BBC has relegated live coverage of the unveiling to its news channel - a blessing in disguise, perhaps, given its laughably poor coverage of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
Bomber Command's achievement in the Second World War was astonishing.
After Dunkirk, until D-Day four long and bitter years later, its planes and pilots provided our only offensive capability against Hitler's madness. Its aircrew experienced extreme danger. The cockpit of a Lancaster bomber over Germany was the most dangerous place a British serviceman could be anywhere in the war. Each cohort of 100 airmen could typically expect one of the following fates:
- 55 killed on ops or as a result of wounds
- 3 injured on ops (usually anti-aircraft shrapnel penetrating the body or burns)
- 12 POWs
- 2 shot down and evaded capture (most spirited home by various resistance organisations)
- 27 survived a tour of operations.
The odds were better on the Death Railway where only one in four perished as a result of Japanese cruelty.
But at the end of the war, as British ground troops entered the Reich and saw the scale of the destruction, war guilt began to play an active part in denying Bomber Command a campaign medal of their own and ultimately a fitting memorial in the centre of London.
More than anything else, the bombing of the Saxon city of Dresden on the night of 13 February 1945 has come to represent to many refined sensibilities all that was wrong and excessive about Bomber Command.
In the UK a distaste for Bomber Command is often based on snobbery.
The names of its glorious dead are more likely to be inscribed on village and town memorials than in the chapels of the great public schools and Oxbridge colleges.
Other criticism is based on a misplaced affection for the monuments of German high culture. One English historian of the war who was critical of the raids described Dresden thus: "The home of so much charm and beauty, a refuge for Trollope's heroines, a landmark of the Grand Tour." Please.
A snapshot of the state of the war in Europe that night might be useful for perspective.
First, an obvious fact - the German High Command did not surrender until 8 May 1945, so the war in Europe still had three ghastly months to run.
Second, a little background - the Allied entry into Germany had been delayed by the Battle of the Bulge, the Wehrmacht's last offensive in the west. Thirteen German divisions attacked all along the American-held front line on 16 December 1944. By the time the offensive was eventually contained and repulsed in late January, the US Army had sustained more than 100,000 casualties, including more than 19,000 dead GIs, and experienced their toughest fighting in the European war.
The experience of a typical British Army formation is instructive.
Let's take 11th Armoured Division, which was in action constantly since D-Day and was to liberate Belsen concentration camp on 15 April.
The night Dresden was bombed the division was resting and refitting. Anne Frank and her sister Margot were still alive in Belsen on that night.
Sadly, two months of hard fighting lay ahead for 11th Armoured - by men who probably just wanted to go home - before they could bring any relief to the wretched souls in Belsen. By then Anne and Margot Frank and thousands of others had perished miserably.
Even back in Blighty the Third Reich was still managing to kill our fellow countrymen: 2,754 of them to be exact. They were almost entirely civilians and were killed by German V2 rockets launched on London. The last one fell on 27 March, killing 34-year-old Mrs Ivy Milichamp in her home in Orpington – six weeks after the incineration of Dresden. Oh, and 20,000 prisoners died in the concentration camp that supplied the slave labourers to the project.
We now know that the European war was in its last phase, but it did not necessarily look like that to contemporary combatants. Hitler was still alive and the Wehrmacht was still fighting. A military coup would have been comparatively easy to organise in Berlin, but none was forthcoming. The German officer corps, which still controlled the vast bulk of the German armed forces could have called it a day at any point. But they did not.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris justified Dresden a few days after the raid thus: "I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier. The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden, could be easily explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually, Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East.
It is now none of those things."
Bomber Command deserves its belated memorial. It is 67 years overdue.
They were and are brave men brilliantly led by Harris and his senior officers. We should salute them all.