Remembering what, exactly? Reflections on Britain’s Bomber Command Memorial

Since the Bomber Command mermorial was unveiled to commemorate the lives lost by aircrew during the Second World War, the tributes left at its feet have questioned its message of a necessary national sacrifice.


Image: Rosa Vilbr

When the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park was unveiled by the Queen in June this year, a Second World War Lancaster Bomber dropped a red spray of paper poppies and Tornado fighter jets performed a flypast. The memorial commemorates the 55,573 Bomber Command aircrew who lost their lives during the Second World War.

The RAF alone dropped one million bombs on Germany through the course of the bombing campaign. Around 600,000 people were killed by the tactical bombing of densely populated civilian areas. The aim was to break German morale by killing as many people as possible. 131 towns and cities were attacked; many of them flattened and 3.5 million homes were destroyed, leaving 7.5 million people homeless by the end of the war. One of the worst incidents was the destruction of industrial city Hamburg in July 1943, when one night during an eight day bombing campaign, codenamed Operation ‘Gomorroh’, a 1,500 metre firestorm obliterated all in its path, killing over 40,000 civilians.

The price paid by Bomber Command was also high; nearly half of the young men who signed up were killed. Whether it was worth the loss of life on both sides was debated by politicians, commentators and historians at the time and since.

The memorial was built after a five-year campaign by the veterans’ Bomber Command Association, with the support of Bee Gee Robin Gibb and the Telegraph media group, to prevent the aircrew being ‘forgotten’. The Telegraph said veterans blamed their lack of recognition on "political correctness". The lack of a memorial to the aircrew lost in the war was all the more glaring given that a statue to ‘Bomber’ Harris, the man who fervently led the policy of area bombing, had already been erected on the Strand in London in 1992.

But while its creators’ main intention was to make sure the sacrifice of the aircrew was never forgotten, the memorial presents the loss of life as a necessary price for freedom and victory and does not include any overt ambivalence about whether the bombing was morally or strategically justifiable.

Inside the memorial’s classical, Portland stone pavilion walls (typical of so many national monuments) stands a metal statue depicting a Bomber crew of five men. They appear to have just returned from a mission, and are standing together about to put their kit down. Apart from their larger-than-life size, the figures are presented in a realistic but idealised style, as a typical bomber crew.

The use of a group of men as the subject portrays camaraderie reminiscent of the “deep horizontal comradeship” that Benedict Anderson writes is required for the nation to be imagined as a community, and an essential condition for its members to be ready to kill and die for it. The memorial remembers the aircrew, but their individuality gets lost in a larger story about national sacrifice.

The inscriptions around the memorial include quotes from Pericles — “Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it” —,  and Winston Churchill, in 1940: “The fighters are our salvation but the bombers alone provide the means of victory”. The only reference found to the Germans killed by the bombing, commemorating “those of all nations who lost their lives in the bombing 1939-1945”, seems out of place and was only included as a concession to the mayor of Dresden, where 25,000 people were killed by the bombing in February 1945.

The memorial intends to tell the visitor that the sacrifice of life by Bomber Command was meaningful; while tragic it achieved concrete benefits for the nation today. Memorials don’t have to be this unambiguous of course – and the Bomber Command one seems retrograde in comparison with, say, the abstract Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, which manages to convey both ambivalence towards the difficult history of war it represents and personal grief for the individual soldiers who lost their lives.

However, the meanings of memorial sites do not remain static over time but change as a result of interaction with their visitors. Since it has opened the memorial has been altered by the flowers and messages left at the site by veterans and their descendants.

A large number of tributes, including photographs, poppies and small wooden crosses have been left among the feet of the statue, and in the side alcoves, transforming the memorial into a shrine. When I visited, many visitors were looking at the tributes, which contained information about individuals otherwise missing from the memorial.

I was struck by a bunch of flowers left at the base of the statue with a card pinned to it addressed to ‘Dad’, the sole survivor from a shot down plane. It concluded “although you never spoke much about it, I know it was hard for you”. Looking at the tributes, you are reminded that each death was an individual tragedy. The sadness of their loss is brought to the fore and an atmosphere of bereavement, not celebration, is created.         

The memorial was intended to commemorate Bomber Command within a specific, national narrative of sacrifice, but it has nevertheless re-opened debate. Only veterans’ perspectives that confirmed the dominant narrative were given a special status in the creation of the memorial, but others have come forward to share very different emotions and reflections. One veteran told the BBC:

“At the time, as I thought, I was helping my country and citizens  . . . But when one has had a long time to think about it you think about the people you have killed yourself, and it didn't go down that well. I must admit as an old man I am very anti-war . . . We were too young to realise what we were doing. We thought we were enjoying ourselves but we were killing people in our attempt to enjoy ourselves.”

As Paul Gilroy and Les Back wrote on openDemocracy concerning the centenary of the first bombing from the air in November 2011, what’s needed is a “dialogue… to connect the experiences of bombers and bombed in unforeseen patterns, not in order to render them interchangeable or equivalent but to affirm their interrelatedness and the humanity they hold in common”.  

About the author

Rosa Vilbr is an oral historian and co-director of On the Record, an oral history cooperative. On the Record is currently recording memories of Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park and providing training in oral history and community heritage.