A memorial to murder

Published: Tue, 05/11/21

When I was in London last month I arrived at Green Park underground station. While waiting for the march to begin I noticed a structure which was new since I was last in the area, maybe 20 years before, maybe longer. At the West corner of the park and facing Piccadilly there is a memorial to Bomber Command and those who died serving in this unit during WW2. Since this particular edifice was only unveiled in 2012 I had not actually seen it before. The building is placed on a high point in the park with the ground sloping away on the South side. The design is meant to suggest a classical temple with two sides open and the roof supported by huge columns. The roof is partly open to the sky, reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome. Inside is plinth on which stand seven larger than life bronze statues which are intended to represent the crew of a Lancaster bomber.

I usually like a good war memorial, but there is something a bit creepy about this one. The design is a bit too close for comfort to a Roman temple complete with statues of ‘gods’. There is also a good reason why no memorial to Bomber Command was built before 2012. The Battle of Britain fighter pilots who took on the Luftwaffe in 1940 were genuine heroes who did their best to defend the country against bombing raids and may have deterred an attempt to invade the UK after Dunkirk.

Bomber Command, on the other hand, was a tactical asset looking for a strategic purpose which was dedicated to attacking cities in order to kill and demoralise the civilian population of Germany. Winston Churchill was very determined that massive bombing raids were the way to take the war to occupied Europe, and in particular attack the German homeland. The justification was always that targets of strategic importance were being destroyed and civilian casualties were just unfortunate collateral damage. In fact German war production kept increasing throughout the war and peaked in late 1944, so it is highly debatable that there was a real desire to hit well protected targets of military significance, when poorly defended conurbations could be reduced to rubble much more easily. A 1956 West German Government report estimated civilian deaths resulting from the air war at between 500,000 and 635,000. The bombing of Dresden on 13th and
14th of February 1945 is officially recorded at ‘not more than 25,000’ civilians, but there is good reason to believe that the actual total was much higher. Even 25,000 deaths in one night, in one city, is horrific enough.

During the war there was a good deal of unease at the deaths of civilians in Germany. Prominent public figures such as the writer Vera Britain had spoken out against the actions of Bomber Command and the USAF and become very unpopular as a result. Once the war was over, and the real extent of the damage and the casualties became clear, the bombing of Germany was seen as, at best, a necessary evil to win the war.

Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who led Bomber Command from 1942 until 1946 and was instrumental in the bombing campaign against Germany, did not have a modest statue erected in his honour until 1992. Even then there was a good deal of ambivalence towards this memorial, which was also intended to commemorate the more than 55,000 airmen who died serving in Bomber Command.

Now we have substantial temple in the heart of the capital city as a shrine to those who carried out so much death and destruction.

There is of course a paradox here. Those who crewed the bombers, and risked odds of surviving the war that were only slightly better than 50/50, were some of the bravest and best of the nation’s young men. Men such as squadron Leader Guy Gibson, who earned the Victoria Cross leading operation Chastise in May 1943 (better known as the Dam Busters Raid) was undoubtedly an inspirational leader, a fine pilot, and a very brave man. Even so, the breaching of the dams on the Ruhr had little strategic value and yet killed many thousands of prisoners of war held by the Germans in work camps further down the river. Gibson himself was fatally shot down with his navigator while flying a Mosquito plane over Germany in September 1944. At the time the deaths were attributed to enemy fire. It now seems that a British gunner mistook Gibson’s Mosquito for a Junkers 88 and blasted it out of the sky. Gibson was just 26 years old.

If the Bomber Command memorial represented a past we had learned from and left behind it might have some value. But in the past couple of days Israeli air strikes have killed 20 civilians in Gaza including 9 children. When are we going to realise that no child can just be ‘collateral damage’ whatever it is the adults are quarreling over?



P S If you are interested in seeing what the rather dubious memorial looks like, here is a link to the Wikipedia page, I do not fully agree with the sentiments expressed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAF_Bomber_Command_Memorial