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Archive for the category “Bomber Command”

Music Matters (Even More)…

I have waxed lyrical on here many, many times about the power of music. About how it has stirred me, soothed me, made me nostalgic…and on Friday night I had another of those moments.

Last week was a big week for the history of the RAF. The unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial in London brought together the RAF from today with the RAF of yesterday. Airmen and Airwomen coming together across time, sharing with their families, and with the families of those who fought but did not enjoy the peace. It was a moving, emotional day for those veterans.

But for me, it didn’t really stir me as much as I thought. I was concentrating on trying to get the story of the day, and whilst I met and talked to people all day, I didn’t really feel the emotion of it. I was a step away from it. I understood the sacrifices, I knew the suffering, I was aware of the hardships…it was a step away from me. I had no direct link with the Bomber Boys you see. I could feel the power of what was happening amongst those people directly affected by it…I still felt a little…adjacent, but not involved in it.

That was until the following night. When I went to the RAF Museum at Hendon, where a local Brass and Wind Band were to play an evening concert in the shadow of the Lancaster – an original Bomber Command aircraft that flew 137 missions with 83, 463 and 467 Sqns.

Now, brass and wind bands aren’t really my thing. But I thought that it’d be a nice evening out, and the chance to have a wander around the Museum with very few people there would be lovely.

And it was. I’d enjoyed good company, enjoyed a nice Spitfire Ale beer sat BESIDE a Spitfire, had a nice chat and taken some cool photos. All was good, but still no real emotional connection.

And then the band played a song called ‘Evening Hymn and Sunset’.

And the gentle strains of the wood wind instruments moved quietly through the museum. It built slowly, getting louder, not with an urgency, but with a gentle insistence. It rose, it built and just as you expected a shout from it there was a change of key and the same air was repeated and the loops of wind and brass instruments rolled around again. It truly was like evening and sunset.

It was the musical equivalent of the sun setting and the sky fading. I looked up and was under the wing of a Lancaster. The power and the glory of this aircraft. I closed my eyes and imagined the aircraft flying into the evening, the sun setting and the camera in my minds eye saw the Lanc heading off into the distance, powering off and away and below me. Then with a tip of the wing, a slow bank away to the right, the four Merlins running at an easy pace, no where near the full power it had available…cruising away…and then…and then the music changed. A gentle drum roll and two cornets took over the theme. It changed from a gentle hymn into the striding tune that was instantly recognisable as the Last Post. Achingly beautiful. Poignant. Evocative.

The band took the music to it’s crescendo. I opened my eyes and looked up again at the wing of the aircraft above me, the two visible engines, the open bomb bay. But then my focus was shifted to the cockpit, the forward turret, the mid-upper, the rear guns. Where the people were.

This is where men flew. That Lancaster in my minds eye, flying through into the night, was flown by men. It was here that the emotion in me was pricked. The connections were made. 125,000 men flying. 55,573 who didn’t return. This music, this machine, both together came to represent more than the sum of their parts.

And as the Last Post theme faded away and the music came to a stop I finally felt connected to the whole thing. The power, the glory, the sadness. The sheer and utter pointless waste of it all.

Because war is pointless. You can argue that it was good against evil and that it was where fine and noble and brave things happened; where freedom was fought for, where good battled evil. But it was also where young men with such potential were cut down. They gave their lives for us, and for our freedom and for our future, for good to win over evil ideas, but war, in itself is totally absolutely and bloody pointless.

It shows us as a species of contrasts. The most evil and stupid of things, but the most beautiful and bravest of things. In war we reach the lowest lows of morality, and yet the highest highs of ideals. People give their everything for others…they give their lives. But if we as a species could be just that little bit cleverer when all that waste wouldn’t even be necessary. We are too stupid to see that war is so stupid. That is why we continue to peruse it. And we always will, because we as a species are too stupid to see any other way.

It’s a romantic image that I painted of the Lancaster rolling off into the setting sun, the engine noise roaring, the colours of the sky, the strains of a band playing beautiful music…but the romance should be tempered with the fact that this is all about war. About death. About killing. About the crazy dichotomy that is the human race. It can produce something so absolutely bloody beautiful as a Lancaster, but do it for the reason of something so absolutely bloody hideous as the purpose of war.

And that piece of music connected me to that. It reminded me of that. We should honour and remember those who took part in that battle, whatever nationality they were. Whether they were in the air or on the ground. Whether they were loading the bombs, dropping them having the explosives dropped on them. War is stupid. Death is stupid. No matter what the reason for war, it is ultimately stupid and pointless; just or not, it brings out the worst and the best in us. And the memorials to those who fought and died in wars are not just about those people who did the fighting and dying, they are about us as a species.

They are about how clever we are in building and designing something that stirs the emotions and evokes thoughts and feelings in us, but also about how stupid we are to keep going to war. The grandness and pomp and sombreness of a memorial is not just a monument to those people named therein, they are monuments to our stupidity for the actions that led us, as a species, to get involved in a war in the first place.

If we were wise we’d remember both of these things when we look at a monument or a statue or an aircraft or any other memorabilia in a museum and remember…we are bloody stupid to go to war in the first place. War brings out the very worst in some people, but even if it brings the very best in others…war is bloody, bloody stupid. If the dead of Bomber Command, and the dead of their actions, can teach us but one thing, they would shout to us today, louder than the loudest music that we should put as much effort into finding a different and better way than war of solving our problems.

As beautiful and clever as the human race is, we are too stupid to be able to do things differently. We will keep on fighting and killing. We will keep on hoping and praying. We will keep on creating horror and beauty. Whether it is in the skies over Germany, or in the fields of Afghanistan, or wherever the next war and conflict will be…in the Middle East, in Africa…wherever…sadly for all the memorials we build, we will keep on fighting and killing.

War and death. Honour and sacrifice. Two sides of the same coin.

And the beauty of friends fighting for friends, heroic deeds, of the aesthetic image of a lone aircraft flying away into the setting sun is a testament to that. That aircraft, flying into the darkness can represent us as a species; beautiful, stupid. And it represents everyone who has fought in a war before them, with them, after them. Their loss is a testament. A message of hope that for as long as there is stupidity and hate and evil, there are good and great and beautiful men and women who will give their all for the rest of us.

And we owe it to them to keep on trying to find a better way so they don’t have to.

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Closure…

I’ve been a lucky sod.

No I have. I’ve had a fairly charmed life and certainly a charmed career.

Lucky in the places I’ve been to, people I’ve worked with, things I’ve done, things I’ve seen.

But to be in Green Park today, to be part of the Bomber Command Memorial Opening Ceremony, to just be able to wander around and take pictures and talk to people and chat and listen. That is the luckiest thing ever. No pressure, no stress, just doing my own thing, going places and chatting to these amazing people, being around them…it’s the highest honour. The very best thing I have done as being part of the RAF.

I spoke to an Ex-Aircraftman II, who fixed Fairy Battles in the Battle of France and was evacuated from Brest instead of Dunkirk, and who was quickly commissioned after and spent the rest of the war as a staff officer.

I listened to an old pilot who talked me through a picture of a Lancaster, telling me that it was a picture that had been taken just after take-off, that the pilot had 10 degrees of flap selected, and why the Flight Engineer was facing the way he was and why the gun turrets were facing that way… I spoke to the son and grandson of a Flying Officer who was too infirm to make it to the ceremony, and that the grandson will be taking Granddads medals to show and tell at school tomorrow.

I chatted to an Air Gunner who suddenly said, do you want to meet my Navigator…and we trotted across to the chairs where we talked about flying and fighting and the weather and the crowd.

I listened to the daughter of an Air Gunner as she talked about her father and how much she missed him even though she could never remember meeting him (she was too young to remember him).

And I talked and talked to a Canadian couple who had spent the last month in Europe researching the gentleman’s uncle who had flown just three missions before he was shot down and killed. I learnt that they’d visited the town where the aircraft had crashed and had been shown to the exact spot where their uncle had hit the ground – by a local German who had seen the Halifax crash.

And I realised one thing. In each of the conversations the theme was closure. In their own way there was some closure here. That finally the monument and the memorial to each and everyone of their fathers, relatives, friends, was finally built and was finally open. It may be 67 years late, but it is here now.

And what a structure! What a memorial! The words ‘fitting tribute’ have been used so many times that they are cliched, but I have nothing left…the statue shows a crew of seven. One shading his eyes from the sun, others in contemplation, one deep in thought, another eyes closed, his mind clearly elsewhere. This whole monument is beautiful, thought provoking, magnificent.

And now it is here, it will stay there. It will be maintained by the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund as a permanent reminder to everyone who visits or passes of the sacrifice the honour and the glory of what those 55,573 men gave their lives for.

For us.

So whilst this memorial is about the Bomber Command, it’s not just FOR them. It’s for all of us. It gives the surviving Aircrew closure, the knowledge that at last their efforts are recognised and appreciated. For those who lost their fathers, uncles, brothers, it gives a place of pilgrimage. And for the rest of us…it gives us a reminder of the duty and sacrifice that that generation gave for us today. Truly, they gave their tomorrow’s for our today and finally that has been recognised. Magnificently.

Family…

A father and his son. Standing to the rear of the crowd. Slightly apart from everyone else. A fatherly hand on the son’s shoulder. Pride, emotion, learning.

Young Jamie and his dad, Glen stand and think of F/O Michael Carroll, DFC. A Flight Engineer on Lancasters and Halifaxes, who flew 36 missions into Germany. Indeed the very Halifax he flew in is immortalised in the Airfix model of the Halifax.

But This family is not just here to remember though. Michael is one of many of the veterans of Bomber Command who are still alive, but who are unable, for many reasons, to make it here today. They are not here to remember. They are here to represent.

Jamie proudly wears the medals of his Grandfather. And stands to the attention as the last post is played. He looks to the sky as the Lancaster flies over and he peers to see the 1,000,000 poppies that fall from the bomb bay. He stares to the sky and thinks of home and his grandfather watching it all on the TV. He listens to his father as the proceedings are explained.

It is a shame that Michael can’t be here to be a part of all this today, but Michael’s medals are and are being worn with just as much pride by his grandson Jamie, as they would be by Michael himself.

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Memorial…

Today is the day. 28th June 2012. The day, after 67 years, that the men of Bomber Command are finally given a fitting memorial.

It may be 67 years late, but we can’t do anything about the past, other than of course learn from it. This permanent memorial, built in Green Park in London, that Her Majesty The Queen will unveil at about 12 noon, is now here. It is and will be a fitting tribute to not only the 55,573 who died, but also to the ones who survived the war, who grew old, who passed away, who are still here.

And here we are today. In Green Park. Through modern tech, I can blog live from the Opening Ceremony. I am here, standing in the presence of greatness. All around me are old men, occasionally unsteady, some in wheel chairs, others still sprightly. All wear jackets with a badge or emblem on their breast pocket a Squadron badge, the Bomber Command Association badge…and above that are rows of medals.

A few have three or four medals 39-45 Star, Defence Medal, France/Germany Star, Victory Medal. a few more have a longer row. Some have blue and red striped DFC or AFC. Others wear commemorative medals given by the occupied nations – Operation Manna for instance.

All, irrespective of how many and what they have on the outside of their chest all today have something worth even more valuable than that. They have something inside their chests instead.

It’s pride.

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There’ll be more later during the day!

About time…Interview with an Air Gunner…

It’s noisy. It’s cold. It’s pitched black. Outside the clouds whoosh past. Occasionally the moon and the stars shine through the higher cloud. You are flying in a Lancaster, heading for Germany. And at least you have a view, albeit an uncomfortable one. You are stuck in your gun turret. Scanning the sky.

Total concentration. For four and a half hours. Then manic activity. Frantic. Praying for the words you are desperate to hear from the Bomb Aimer – ‘Bombs Away’. Then the aircraft dives back into the cloud. Homeward bound. But still unable to relax. Another four and a half hours until you see the runway lights of home.

If you are lucky, then the most you will have had thrown against you was some ineffective anti-aircraft fire – flak. If unluckier then maybe a searchlight will have scanned over you. If really unlucky then two or more lights from the ground will have found you and the pilot will have had to have corkscrewed the massive aircraft down and round.

Worse would be three or more lights on you…difficult to shake…even worse the flak stopping and the streaking flashes of light of the tracer rounds from a German night-fighter swooping in at you. As gunner, the aircraft pilot will be looking to you to guide him. ‘Skipper, Mid-Upper. Bandit 10 o’clock. 500 yards.’ The pilot will take evasive action as you engage the enemy. The Lanc will climb or dive and turn to try and shake the enemy as you fire your .303 machine guns. Your tracer rounds (1 in every 5 of the 10,000 rounds or so you have) slashing through the night sky towards the JU-88, aiming off and in front of the enemy flier, like a giant version of clay-pigeon shooting, but one where BOTH of you are moving…

Maybe though the German will have been clever. Maybe he’ll wait. Maybe he’ll just shadow you home. Wait just off your tail. You knowing someone or something is out there, but unable to identify it or shoot at it. Waiting – waiting for you to be at your most vulnerable – as you descend to land. Your pilot concentrating on the approach and the fog-bound runway suddenly lit by the FIDO lights. You still scanning the sky, starting to relax, and then the pounce. The German strafing across the top of you…you shouting the bandits position and intention again, you returning fire…Praying all the while that between yourself and the other gunner in the tail you fend him off so the pilot can climb again and head for the safety of cloud.

But hopefully, you’ll have had a quiet easy run. Landing just after midnight so you don’t have to fly again tomorrow night. Looking forward to a quick de-briefing and then off to bed – you and the other Non-commissioned in one direction, the officers in another.  Maybe to get to go for a beer.

Time to relax. Time to write up your log book. Time to sleep. Time to think about how you were lucky and didn’t go down in flames. How you didn’t have to jump into the darkness. How you didn’t get blinded, shot or injured by the flak or the night fighters.

Before it all starts again.

We’ll thankfully never experience this for real and reading things like this are just the memories of someone else. Vivid, sharp. Like the faces of the six other members of your crew – your band of brothers – people who will become closer than your brothers. But still memories. Shared by chatting in the beer garden of a pub in the Surrey countryside, enjoying a nice lunch and a couple of beers. Answering the odd and daft questions posed by the modern generation.

And I was the lucky lad asking the questions. And Mr Ron Thorpe, a remarkably sprightly man in his very late 80’s, and former Lancaster Air Gunner, was the man answering them. To meet him, one of ‘The Many’ according to RAF history and called ‘Bomber Boys’ at the time…it’s almost impossible to say how much of an honour it is to be there. How lucky I am to be able to asking him the questions. Just to be in his company. I am slightly in awe of him. At 18 I was sitting in a classroom dreaming of the day I might be a Radar Technician…at 18 he was in the turret of a Lancaster. All volunteers. Every one of them volunteered to be in the air, often chosing to go up there because it would bring them into the fight sooner. The choice was often wait for your call up, or else volunteer for the fight in the air now.

And the three or so hours we had for a chat that lunchtime went by so fast. One moment we were ordering a plate of scampi, the next the pub was closing and we were forced to leave. On here, writing here I can’t do it justice.

I was told so much. Unlike popular media portrayals of flying on a bomber mission the crew didn’t chat, or have time to tell a joke or to read poetry…they were on constant watch. Total concentration for 10 and a half hours at the worst. Jammed into an aircraft that would conspire at one moment to be their saviour – power, manoeuvrability and ability to take a lot of damage – and one moment to be their end – cramped, cold, difficult to move about in. They would be totally focussed on the job they had to do. Thinking about the task in hand was all they had time to think about. Flying to the target, working out their position, watching for the enemy, this is what they spent their time whilst airborne doing.

They even had little time to think about the target. The idea was to concentrate on the factory, the train yards. Not the people. Maybe one of the reasons that it has taken so long for the Bomber Boys to be properly honoured by a monument and memorial is due to the nature of their task. Bombing the enemy. Taking the war to the German heartland. And in an age of area bombing and all that ‘area’ means that is difficult ground. Nowadays we discuss collateral damage and we try to minimise the chance of injuring ‘innocent’ civilians. But back then in the mid 1940’s..in an age of ‘Total War’ it could be argued that everything is part of the war-effort. And in an age when your own cities and town had been levelled by bombing trying to weaken the will to fight the urge for revenge must have been incredible. After all it was an age of ‘sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind’. Time, sensibilities, dogmas were all different. It’s difficult to criticise what young men did then with the morals of today.

Somethings, of course are hard to justify. The bombing of Dresden is hard to countenance. And this itself had an effect not only on the civilians on the ground but also those involved in the event from the air. To find out what you have done can be difficult for someone to come to terms with…and to see the effects of the whole thing; everything that you and your peers are involved in; to face those dangers time and time and time again, that must be almost unimaginable to face. And for those who couldn’t take it any longer, who just couldn’t handle it all, and to go mad as a result and then be tarred with the brush of having a ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’…cruel. The whole thing is cruel.

But war is cruel. Evil things are done in war. They always have been. They always will be. That is the whole point of war, to destroy and kill. And the people who are involved in fighting wars have to be a special kind of people. No matter what stigma they were given, not one of them; not one man who had to fly in those aircraft and face those dangers and fight and fight and fight have a lack of anything.

They are all heroes to me. They are all greats. If they won a gallantry medal, or if they just did their job mission after mission after mission. They did what they had to do, and they all, particularly the 55,573 who died doing it, deserve to be honoured by a memorial. They deserve to be remembered and we deserve to hear their stories. We MUST hear their stories before they are all lost to time.

Even if that monument is overdue…a permanent memorial to the 55,573 who died has finally been built and it’ll be unveiled next week.

It’s about time.

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You can hear a snatch of audio from my chat with Ron by clicking on this link…You can stream the audio or you can download it and listen again and again. It’s worth the download.

Names on a wall…

20,456.

Just a number.

A fairly big number.

It’s slightly more than the price of a new Ford Mondeo (£18,100). It’s not quite as big as the number of miles around the circumference of the Earth (24,901 miles).

But it’s still a big number. But what is it significant for? Why so important?

It’s the number of names carved onto the walls of the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, in Surrey. Each of those names is a member of a Commonwealth Air Force who flew or fought in Northern Europe, and who has no know grave. They are the Missing of the Royal Air Forces that took the war to Germany, between 1939 and 1945.

It’s hard to imagine that number of people. It’s the population of a small town. It’s more than the average attendance of a Championship football match. Just imagine. If you went to watch Forest play Birmingham, you’d have been in a crowd of 20,556. All of them gone. Missing. No grave. No tomb. No where to be laid at rest.

It’s staggering. It’s sobering.

Built in the 1950’s it lists 20,456 names. Each name an airman or airwoman. Each name a person without a grave. Each name a person with a story, a life, and a death.

These sorts of numbers are staggering. Hard to get your head around. Difficult to comprehend. And when you visit, and you SHOULD visit, you’ll find a beautiful and calm memorial near to Egham in Surrey, built onto the side of a hill over looking London, just near to the flight path of Heathrow.

And despite the noise of the aircraft taking off and landing at the countries busiest airport, there you’ll find an oasis of calm in a mad and rushed world; a sense of timelessness.  Built like a monastic cloister, with a central tower – reminiscent of an Air Traffic Control tower – there stands panel after panel after panel. Each listed with names. Name after name after name.  I am not going to pick out a name, or a story.  Each is as important as the other, no one stands out. No one should stand out.  Irrespective of rank, gender, role or organisation each should be remembered as one who gave his or her life in the ultimate human folly – war.

And below each panel is a small stone seat.  But often the seat has a picture, or a small posy of flowers, or a candle.  These maybe the names of the missing, but they are not the names of the forgotten.  This is a living memorial.  It is where the people – men and women – flyers and ground crew – of the Commonwealth Air Forces who have no grave are remembered by their families, often by generations who never knew or met them.

It is quite simply a beautiful place and it is a fitting memorial to the Missing.  A journey to pay homage to the men and women listed here is essential for all of us.  We should visit.  We should honour them, and as ever we should all remember them. All 20,456 of them.

Each name a story, each story a life, a death.

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The next blog in this series, coming soon, will be the first hand account of a Bomber Command Veteran Air Gunner. Keep checking back, or even better, subscribe to this blog to get new posts delivered to your email inbox.

Remember them…

70 years ago, Europe was in flames. Total war.

It’s hard to imagine a concept like Total War now. We are used to a different type of warfare, different combattants, different tactics. Assymetric Warfare. Counter Insurgency. Remote, limited conflicts far from our homes.

Then, however, the war was every where.  It was all encompassing.  And everyone was focussed on the goal of winning the struggle – a struggle described as a battle for survival; of good against evil.

It is easy to buy into this, because the regime of the enemy was clearly evil. Based upon a dogma of hate. Terrible acts were perpetrated by some in the name of their ‘Reich’. But it was more than just that. Some of the enemy were not evil. Some were just young men conscripted to fight, who may not have believed in the ideals of the command.

And sometimes the ‘good’ did bad things. Maybe not evil, but certainly questionable things. But are those things only questionable in the light of 20:20 vision of history?

Take the air dimension for instance. In this, thousands…hundreds of thousands…of casualties occurred. And with today’s view, this is un-imaginable. It’s simply almost impossible to comprehend that many casulaties. 65,000 British civilains, 67,000 French, 400,000 Germans – 25,000 in Dresden alone.

We can look at event like Dresden and say that it was wrong, that it was a crime. But that is unfair. It was a different time, and it’s difficult to put yourself in the place of someone who was there at the time. The British had seen London, and other cities like Liverpool and Plymouth, pounded, and of course had seen the center of Coventry destroyed by German bombing raids. If you had been there, would you not have stood up and agreed with Arthur Harris who told the nation that the enemy had ‘sown the wind’ and will now ‘reap the whirlwind’?

Different times, different values.

One thing is certain though. ALL deserve to be remembered. Because by remembering, we see the pointlessness and the waste of war. The deeds done by those who fought were great, even if ideals behind them were not always perfectly noble. But in a time of Total War, everyone fought. And everyone deserves to be remembered and commemorated.

Those on the ground in Dresden are commemorated, likewise in Coventry. But there exists no memorial to the 55,573 members of Bomber Command crews who died, and they deserve to be remembered.

And finally a memorial to those crews is being built in Green Park, in London, and this opens very soon.

It is overdue. Whatever the politics and the ethics of what went on, the fact is that the participants need to be remembered. It is right and fitting that the memorial has been built.

And it is right and fitting that, at last, the crews of Bomber Command who conributed so much to the war effort – and argueably bringing the war to a swifter close – are to be honoured.

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This is the first of a series of Posts scheduled to coincide with the opening of the new Bomber Command memorial. Keep checking back for updates, or better still, sign up as an email subscriber by clicking in the box over on the sidebar on the left of the homepage.

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