Home > General Politics, Socialism > My father, and the meaning of the Bomber Command memorial

My father, and the meaning of the Bomber Command memorial

I have mixed feelings about the new Bomber Command memorial.

I can understand what has motivated the veterans who have campaigned for so long for it: the brooding sense of resentment that they alone have failed to be recognised for their heroism, the need to put the record straight.

But I’m pretty sure that my father, a Lancaster bomb-aimer who bombed Dresden and other German cities at the age of 21, would not approve.  I’m pretty sure of that because, until he was killed in 1979, he resolutely declined to talk about the war.  He stayed in touch with none of his squadron, attended no memorials. He walked on the hills on Remembrance Day.

My mother, likewise, largely maintained that silence, in quiet respect for the way my father approached post-war life, but she has confirmed well enough what I’d long suspected but wasn’t old enough to ask my father before he died: that he hated everything about the war,  most especially what he was ordered to do, and that he felt guilt about what he had done till the day he died.

Of course I accept that other veterans view what they did quite differently and that for them it is a legitimate source of pride.  

I accept fully that is easy enough now to see the carpet bombing of German cities (rather than continued attacks on strategic power and transport installations) as a needless act of retribution, but that the decision-makers of the time were subject to pressures, and emotions, that we can only guess at. 

For those who flew under these decision-makers’ orders, it is quite understandable that they should have agreed, or come to agree, that what was done needed to be done, and that they should be honoured equally for their part in winning the war against Nazism.

Even so, I can’t help feeling that the memory of my own father is just a little bit sullied by the new memorial: that his way of dealing with the past –  family ties and the local solidarity of his workmates in the steelworks to which he returned after the war –  has been shoved a little too unthinkingly to one side, in favour of what is actually a very modern politics of  recognition.

Fifteen years ago or so, a Labour MP (it might have been Clare Short) was brave enough to suggest that 2014 or 2018 might be a suitable time for the very last Remembrance Day, a hundred years on from the war around which the institution grew up; the brave men we commemorate each 11th November will soon be as distant as the Napoleonic wars were to those same men.  Eventually, history must replace remembrance.

Thar MP’s wasn’t a very popular view even then, but I can’t imagine any MP of any colour now calling for a time-limit on remembrance which, if we’re brutally honest about it, may often be more about our need for occasional solidarity and collective emotion by any means available, in a world where day-to-day solidarity can seem hard to come by.

  1. Darius Jedburgh
    June 29, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    I think your Dad was right. Intentionally carpet-bombing non-combatants (ie women, children, the elderly and the infirm) is not “a needless act of retribution.” It cannot be anything other than mass murder. In which case I don’t know why you say that “for [other veterans] it is a *legitimate* source of pride” (my emphasis).

  2. Steve
    June 30, 2012 at 9:03 am

    My father flew Lancasters and was shot down. He survived the Gestapo and Stalag Luft III and the march towards Berlin as the Russians came. The Germans were slaughtering jews at the highest rate of the entire war in 1945 while frightened US,UK and Russian soldiers were having to progress overland sticking bayonets into people and uncovering atrocity after atrocity if they didn’t die on the way.

    The Germans had to be defeated. There was no other option. Asking them nicely to stop was never going to work. Yes, it was unpleasant bombing cities towards the end of the war – of which my father only really bombed Nuremburg as he only made a few mission such was the inevitibablity of death or being shot down – his other targets were canals, Walcheren Island, mine laying and railyards etc – but it’s a damn good job we won and that there were people with the balls and brains to do it. Flying at night in temperatures well below zero, in incredible noise, finding your way to Germany while all the time people were trying to kill you and with odds that made it the most dangerous job of the war was not only terrifying it, it was also extremely difficult.

    We are free because of these people, and the fighter pilots, D-day soldiers, US Air Force etc It is very, very easy to condemn people on the internet, but fighting fascism sometimes has to be done for real and it will involve doing horrible things to win. My father never crowed about it and never mentioned it much at all but one thing he did sometimes say was “if it’s you or them, you’d better make sure it’s them”. Darius, you’ll never hopefully beplaced in that sort of situation as the world is a better place now but It’s a damn good job it was us and not the Nazis who won. If you’d walked into Belsen, Buchenwald or Chemnitz in 1945 and seen first hand (as my father did in one camp) just what had been going on, you’d know just why we had to win.

    Regarding the memorial, the remaining people who flew in the war seemed very pleased with it and it’s for them, not for our vanity or for our soul searching about something most of us could never contemplate having to do. Anyone who steps up time after time with an ultimate 50% survival rate to ensure my future freedom and my freedom of speech, and ends a regime like the Nazis can have a monument in every town and village across the country if they like. I can think of no higher achievement in life than having played a part in fighting and ending Nazism. Great, Great people.

  3. June 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    Thoughts about there being a ‘last’ Remembrance Day strike a chord with me. Whilst it’s easy to justify almost anything in the memory of the men and women who experienced the horror of wars and came home to help rebuild the country, firstly they were still just ordinary men and women. They had foibles and failures just like everyone else. Secondly – and more importantly – concentrating on the heroism of such people (and it’s heroic precisely because they were just regular people) obscures the political uses to which remembrance and related concepts are put.

    Take a look at the new younger brother of Remembrance Sunday – Armed Forces Day. Billed as being a family day, it’s really a day for local worthies to gather and for their strutting in patriotic regalia (in or out of uniform). It’s a day for the brass to wax lyrical about everything reactionary in our society, ameliorated by this appeal to some collective spirit. Plenty of examples can be found in the speeches of various Generals around the Queen’s Jubilee. Collective spirit – solidarity between people – is important, but allowing these generals and these local dignitaries to associate themselves with that is just wrong.

    Soldiers are not the enemy of the ordinary working man – but the command staff are, whether it’s breaking strikes or putting down rebellions, most soldiers would prefer not to be fighting their fellows. Most generals are bloodthirsty murderers – and years after the fact we see this in their written communications from Ireland and their testimony before various investigations since the army left the streets of the North. An armed forces day glosses over this key distinction in favour of some happy-clappy makebelieve solidarity.

    Meanwhile the sort of worthies who get in on the action – pictures taken for campaign material, for the local paper, perhaps a speech and whatever – are the sort that are happily ripping up the NHS, selling off the education which the children of ordinary soldiers rely on, since unlike the brass they won’t be able to afford Eton and generally spitting on the ordinary people in this country. Not that it’s limited to this country. The hand-in-glove march of faux patriotism, military ostentation and ruling class pomp has both a long history and exists everywhere.

    If there’s a reason to oppose the continuing exploitation of self-sacrifice by our political overlords it’s because those same overlords know nothing of such self-sacrifice, and to have Cameron, Miliband, Clegg or any one of them – never mind any member of that insipid and rotting body that is the so-called Royal Family – near any such monument to the men and women of Bomber Command is just vomit inducing.

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