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Bomber Command (Campaign Medal)

Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I called for this debate because we are approaching that time of year when we remember and honour those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in defending our freedoms and liberty. I also wish to pay my own personal tribute to the contribution made to that freedom by Bomber Command. I pay tribute in particular to my constituents Stan Franks, Jack McCorkell and Jim Gooding—all veterans of Bomber Command, all stalwarts of the Grays RAF Association club, all now in their 80s, and all teenagers when they risked their lives defending our freedoms. The contribution of Bomber Command was significant, and the bravery of its members was crucial in bringing the second world war to an end. The failure to recognise that contribution with a dedicated campaign medal is a snub, and it is a snub that they feel personally.

Although many years have passed—obviously, I cannot hold the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) responsible for decisions taken many years ago—it is not too late to celebrate and recognise their contribution, just as we remember the fallen every Armistice day. The Minister will be aware that a memorial to Bomber Command is under construction. Will the Government consider whether completion of that memorial offers an opportunity to right this wrong and for the Minister to consider what we can do to recognise the contribution that Bomber Command made and honour those brave pilots who are still with us?

To make the case for this honour, I would like to remind hon. Members of a few facts that illustrate the very real contribution that Bomber Command made to victory in the second world war. For example, in 1940, Bomber Command played a pivotal role in the evacuation of Dunkirk, allowing the escape of 218,000 British troops. Although Fighter Command was at the forefront of the battle of Britain, Bomber Command also played its part by taking the fight to Germany and preventing German bombers from ever arriving here. While the battle of Britain raged and RAF Fighter Command fought off the Luftwaffe, Bomber Command repeatedly attacked the advance of German troops and German shipping. However, its contribution to the battle of Britain still goes uncelebrated because the pilots from Bomber Command are not eligible for the battle of Britain Bar.

In the closing days of the war, Bomber Command’s raids ensured that Germany was unable to strike terror campaigns against mainland Britain and that ultimately victory was secured. It was then that Bomber Command’s contribution seems to have been sidelined, if not ignored. In the spirit of celebrating peace, the then Government chose not to celebrate Bomber Command’s contribution, which was a decision that I believe was wrong.

It has been suggested that to celebrate Bomber Command’s role is to condone the civilian casualties that ensued as part of its raids. However, that is to ignore the fact that we were at war. Awful things happen during war. Many people in this country were killed in the blitz, so to fail to recognise the contribution of these pilots is to diminish their courage and loyalty to a country that they risked their lives to save. The risk to life was very real. On just one night during the battle of Britain—13 August 1940—82 squadron was sent on an operation to occupied Holland. Of the 12 Blenheims sent on that mission, only one returned. That was not unusual. Of the 125,000 men and women in Bomber Command, 55,573 lost their lives. More than 10,000 aircraft were lost. A further 11,000 men were made prisoners of war. Those figures are even more remarkable when we consider that Bomber Command was made up of all volunteers who had an average age of just 22.

It is clear that we owe those people a great deal and I am pleased that work has finally commenced on the memorial, which has been funded by private donations, including a very generous donation by the Bee Gee, Robin Gibb. He is currently undergoing hospital treatment and I am sure we would all like to wish him well. When the memorial opens next year, we should take the opportunity to honour the 3,000 bombers who are still with us as a way of honouring the 55,000 who never came back and right the wrong committed by our previous political leaders. The real point is that the decision to bomb was made at a political level. As early as July 1940, for example, Churchill wrote to the Minister responsible for aircraft production, urging him to increase the production of bombers as it was the only means of defeating German military power. That decision was also supported by Roosevelt. The reality is that air power offered the only military means of striking back.

Some might say that too many years have passed since that decision was taken to reconsider the matter, but I would like to remind hon. Members that there is a precedent for issuing a campaign medal so long after the second world war. In 2005, it was decided to recognise the service of the Arctic convoys. An award was given to eligible veterans that included an emblem that could be worn alongside other medals. We should take advantage of that precedent and show some pride in Bomber Command’s achievement. These people are our heroes. Each time they got into a plane, those young men took their lives into their hands—and they were young men. My constituent, Stan Franks, was just 19 years old. He flew 31 missions and was the youngest flight engineer to complete a tour. As he says,

“I lost many friends. I didn’t want to kill. I just wanted to fly and defend my country—all I want is recognition for what we did”.

We should also remember that getting in those planes was not like getting into today’s high-tech fighter jets. While flying at altitude, frostbite and asphyxiation were very real risks. Arguably, Bomber Command won the war. It took the battle to the enemy and we should honour its bravery. There is real support for doing so outside this place and within it. More than 100 Members signed an early-day motion on this subject last autumn. Let us end the hurt we have perpetrated on these honourable men. They served their country with pride and courage at great personal risk to themselves. It is time that we finally awarded them a campaign medal.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) on securing today’s debate. The issue has been raised on a number of occasions in both Houses with the support of many hon. Members, yet Bomber Command veterans and their families are still fighting for the recognition that they most certainly deserve, which they earned in the most desperate and ferocious of situations.

My right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for veterans has confirmed on a previous occasion that the campaign for medal recognition of Bomber Command personnel is currently being considered as part of the Government’s wider review into medals, which is expected to report shortly. Like many others, I am looking forward to the review’s findings, but I warn the Minister of the deepest disappointment—indeed, resentment—that will be felt by veterans, their families and many others if Bomber Command is overlooked for the seventh decade running.

Let us always keep in the forefront of our minds that these young people—some just boys—made extraordinary sacrifices doing their duty. Their acts of bravery and dedication certainly shortened the war and we should be eternally grateful to them. I would like to declare a personal interest in these matters and explain why I feel as strongly as I do. My grandfather on my mother’s side served in Bomber Command. He was born in southern Ireland, so he did not have to serve because Ireland was a neutral country. However, he emigrated at the age of 17 from Tramore in Waterford and enlisted as an air gunner. A few months later, he was a rear gunner over Germany on operations night after night.

After operations over Germany and then the Mediterranean, my grandfather fought against the Japanese, where he was shot down over Malaysia and found several weeks later in the jungle suffering from malaria. Let me help to put that into perspective. My 19-year-old son Dominic is older than my grandfather was when he started his service. As much as I trust Dominic—I hope that he forgives me for saying this—I would not be happy leaving him the keys to my car let alone imagining him flying a bomber above Germany at such a young age.

As my hon. Friend said, aircrew had no say over strategy, target choice or their mission. They just did their duty. A large number of aircrew came from further afield than even my grandfather did and they too should be recognised for their bravery and loyalty. In fact, one in four Bomber Command aircrew were from overseas. They came from Australia, New Zealand, Poland, free France, the United States, Norway, Jamaica, Rhodesia and India. Of the 55,573 Bomber Command pilots and crew who were killed, including 91 members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, 15,661 were from overseas. Some 9,887 of that number were from Canada, which represents nearly 60% of the Canadians who flew with Bomber Command. Those young people from the dominions showed true loyalty to our nation in its time of greatest need. They were volunteers who answered the call out of kinship, a strong sense of duty and shared values. If successive Governments continue to fail in recognising the huge contribution that Bomber Command made in defending our nation, they dishonour not only our own veterans, but those who came from overseas.

The aircrew of Bomber Command faced incredible challenges on a daily basis. Whatever the statistics, the cold reality was that in 1942 less than half of all heavy bomber crews would survive their first tour and only one in five would make it through a second. In 1943, only one in six bomber crews would be expected to survive their first tour, and only one in 40 their second. In the face of their achievements and bravery, how can we let restrictions and protocol, or breaking precedent, deprive Bomber Command personnel of a campaign medal for their service to our nation?

In 2008, 209 hon. Members signed an early-day motion calling for a campaign medal for Bomber Command personnel; surely a demonstration, if one was needed, of the depth of this wrongdoing. The policy of not instituting medals more than five years after the campaign can be overturned. Exceptions to King George VI’s intention not to award any further world war two medals post-1948 can be made again. Yes, the pilots and aircrew were eligible for other medals, such as the France and Germany star, but what about the ground crew? They kept the aircraft flying and made the missions possible. In total, 1,479 ground crew were killed in the line of duty. Should their sacrifices not be recognised?

There are other reasons given, including the reluctance to give awards to specific military units and to those who served the war inside the UK. Neither of those reasons is insurmountable, but again they demonstrate the lack of political will. Successive Governments have failed to address the issue, but where there is the will there is always a way. I urge the Minister to let this Government be the one to right this grave injustice. During the war, the men and women of Bomber Command were unanimously regarded as heroes. As Churchill himself declared in 1940:

“The fighters are our salvation but the bombers alone provide the means of victory”.

Churchill’s bombers did not fly or crew themselves. Let us now acknowledge the contribution of those that did, and made that victory possible.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) on securing this debate on the very brave men and women of Bomber Command, and their appalling sacrifice, which she has described, during the second world war. I will cover this in more detail, but there are two issues here. One is the respect and admiration that we should have for those very brave people who gave up their lives in many instances in service to their country in incredibly difficult situations. The second issue is how we should recognise their bravery and continue the world’s knowledge of what they did, 66 years after the end of the second world war.

If I may recap, more than 8,000 aircraft were lost. Out of 125,000 air crew, 55,573 were killed. Statistically, a Bomber Command crew member had a worse chance of survival than an infantry officer in world war one. Some 19 members of Bomber Command received Victoria crosses. I can assure everybody here that the Government maintain a deep appreciation—a real appreciation and admiration—of the courage and sacrifice of all those who served in Bomber Command during world war two. We owe them a great deal. My own view is that every schoolchild should know what they did, and I fear that they do not. Everybody in this country should understand that one in six UK fatalities in the second world war were in Bomber Command—a staggering number.

Aerial bombardment was not new in 1939. Indeed, the first recorded example of aerial bombardment took place in the summer of 1911 when Italian aircraft, sent to north Africa to fight the Turks, dropped modified grenades on to an enemy camp near Tripoli. Damage was slight and world reaction insignificant, but it was a significant development in air power. World war one firmly established this new role. Between 1914 and 1918, two distinct types of aerial bombardment emerged. The first, practised eventually by all combatants, involved the fairly simple concept of dropping high explosives on to enemy rear areas, hitting lines of supply, command networks, fuel dumps and military concentrations. This became known as tactical bombing or, if it entailed isolating enemy forces from their own support echelons, interdiction bombing. Exactly where close support and ground attack ended and tactical bombing began was, and often still is, a debatable point.

The second form of aerial bombardment was the concept of strategic bombing. The founder of the RAF, Lord Trenchard, had postulated that the bomber was a potential war-winning weapon, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock suggested. If raids could be sustained, industrial plant would be destroyed and civilian morale undermined to the extent that the enemy would be unable to continue the war. So persuasive were those arguments by 1939 that it was a widely held fear, particularly in Britain, that city areas were doomed to destruction within days of the outbreak of war.

The RAF went to war organised into four separate command units: Fighter Command, Bomber Command, Coastal Command and Training Command. My hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock and for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) will need no reminding of the feats of Fighter Command during the desperate days of the battle of Britain, but it was then, at least, primarily a defensive force. Bomber Command’s great asset was that it could take the fight to the enemy—an all too precious occurrence in those early war years. However, by the time he took over as head of Bomber Command in February 1942, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris had become disillusioned with the effects of precision bombing and was turning to area bombing. This technique required the assembly of very large bomber fleets, up to 1,000 or more, and the inundation of whole areas with high explosives and incendiaries. The aim was to use statistical probability rather than selectivity to destroy military targets, and to make a direct assault on German civilian morale. At the time, it was considered a proportionate response to the terrible damage inflicted on London, Coventry and many other British cities during the Blitz and the later V-bomb attacks.

I do not think that there should have been any guilt felt then, or now, because this was a war to the bitter end. I certainly do not believe that anybody who was involved in Bomber Command should believe that they were doing anything other than furthering the British war effort between 1939 and 1945. Debates may still rage about the strategy, but there is no doubt about the bravery and integrity of those who took part. Night after night, these brave volunteers risked giving their lives—indeed, many gave their lives. The danger was enormous: enemy night fighters, anti-aircraft fire, mechanical failures, extreme navigational challenges, and the prospect of imprisonment for those who managed to bale out in time. Sorties could take eight to nine hours and brought with them a mental as well as a physical ordeal, the intensity of which would be unfamiliar to their colleagues in uniform on the ground or at sea.

I recommend that hon. Members visit the RAF museum in Hendon, look at a Lancaster and see how the whole crew had to get out of a hatch in the front, no bigger than one of the chairs in this room, while wearing a parachute. That is, of course, one reason why so many did not get out, which is a terrifying prospect. Bomber Command pilot Mike Lewis described the experience thus:

“We went in under an absolutely cloudless sky. We were literally over the harbour when the next thing people started reporting was that fighters were climbing up. The German pilots...turned in and just sat blasting away at us and blowing us out of the sky until eventually they ran out of gas and had to go home themselves. If there had been more gasoline I think none of us would have reached our home. We were sitting ducks. It was terrifying.”

Let us not forget the absolutely crucial role of the ground crew and the in-flight engineers—more than 100,000 of them. Without them, Bomber Command would not have been able to carry out 364,514 sorties, drop more than a million bombs, and tie up vast amounts of scarce German resources that would otherwise have been used elsewhere in their war effort.

The dedication and sacrifice of those who were part of Bomber Command is not in question; the debate has always been about how best to recognise it. Those who served in Bomber Command during the second world war were eligible for one of the stars instituted for campaign service: for example, the 1939-45 star. In addition, a series of campaign stars were created for participants in particularly hazardous campaigns—this was certainly one—and many Bomber Command personnel qualified for the much-prized Air Crew Europe star or the France and Germany star.

The case for awarding a medal to those who served in Bomber Command was also considered by the relevant Committee at the time, 66 years ago. However, it was decided that this would not be appropriate specifically for service in a particular command. There is no other example that I can think of, of a particular command getting a medal. That decision was made with the benefit of evidence from all interested parties at the time—something the present Committee does not have the benefit of now.

It should be clear that these brave men and women were not overlooked. They were considered at the time. In 1985, Lady Harris awarded an unofficial medal and began a campaign historically supported by the Daily Express. Both my hon. Friends have said that there is a huge body of opinion supporting this; actually, although there is a great deal of sympathy and a huge amount of respect for those who served in Bomber Command, I have not seen the evidence of a huge weight of opinion that says that we should institute a medal now.

I wrote to the Minister on 13 August last year on this very point, and included a copy of a letter from Mr Henry Pam, who served in Bomber Command. He made the point:

“The Air Crew medal was not presented to those of us operating after the invasion of France etc. in 1944. Why?”

Many of those gentleman—and ladies perhaps, but mostly gentlemen—who served in Bomber Command are no longer alive. It seems mean-spirited not to consider what is happening to those who remain and to the families. We should grant some recognition by way of a medal.

I am just coming to recognition, but I point out to the hon. Lady that, if we were to institute a medal, that medal should go to every person who was killed in the second world war, or their descendants, and indeed to all those who served in the second world war. It would not only be the survivors; everyone would deserve a medal. If people were killed in the first or second world war, their campaign medals were still awarded. That is how such things are done. People who served and were killed certainly deserved their campaign medals, which were given to their descendants. That is right and proper and still happens today.

Were those particular gentlemen not extraordinary in their courage and bravery? As the Minister wrote in his letter to me, Mr Pam had received the 1939 to 1945 star, the France and Germany star, the defence medal and the war medal for 1939 to 1945. The peculiar situation in which Bomber Command found itself should surely be a prerequisite for handing out some sort of medal in recognition.

The hon. Lady is of course entitled to her opinion. Those people were incredibly brave and I in no way wish to detract from my admiration for them. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke referred to his son, and yet the even younger men of Bomber Command did things one can hardly believe—but then, so did those who served in Fighter Command, and they did not get a medal, and nor did those brave men and women in the Special Operations Executive who parachuted into occupied France, the majority of whom were executed when they got there. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock is saying that the people of Bomber Command were brave, and I believe that we recognise their bravery—we should do so, and we pay tribute to it—and that is what I am coming on to.

Since I became a Minister, I have been involved with the Bomber Command memorial. The Bomber Command Association is establishing a national memorial and has even cut the turf—I went to the turf-cutting ceremony in the summer. In October 2008, the Prime Minister, while in opposition, said:

“I have always believed that the 55,000 brave men of Bomber Command who lost their lives in the service of their country deserve the fullest recognition of their courage and sacrifice.”

I believe the same.

The Ministry of Defence is pleased to chair the Bomber Command memorial funding campaign, which is moving ahead with pace, and that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock. A construction contract has been awarded and the Bomber Command memorial will be located in Green park, opposite the RAF club on Piccadilly. We are aiming at a completion date in 2012. I am actively supporting the memorial and was meant to be having a meeting in a little over an hour with Malcolm White of the Bomber Command Association. Unfortunately, we had to cancel that meeting, but I shall be meeting him shortly to discuss how to facilitate the memorial, as well as various issues that have been in the newspapers. That will be the best and most fitting memorial, which will last long after we have all gone, reminding people of the sacrifice of our forefathers.

On the medal review, in the coalition’s programme for government it set out its intention to review the rules governing the award of medals, as a part of the commitment to rebuild the military covenant. A draft review was produced to enable us to consider the various views, and we sent the draft report to the campaign groups, including the Bomber Command Association, along with an invitation to submit comments. That review has now been carried out and the closing date for responses from the campaign groups has now passed. The formal responses we received have been carefully considered, but it is worth noting that the Bomber Command Association offered no comments on the medals review. The review will be published in the not-too-distant future.

There is no doubting the bravery and sacrifice of all those involved in the thousands of sorties made by Bomber Command over occupied Europe during the second world war. They made a real difference to the outcome of the war. It is equally clear that that difference was a crucial one, recognised by the other side. Hitler’s armaments Minister, Albert Speer, who more than anyone else in Europe knew about the true effect of the bombing campaign and the ability of the Germans to maintain the war, summed it up thus:

“It made every square metre of Germany a front. For us, it was the greatest lost battle of the war.”

In a sense, there could be no more convincing testimonial.

We support the erection of a fitting memorial to those whose courage made such a critical contribution to the successful prosecution of the air campaign in the second world war. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock is right when she says that it is not too late to honour the brave men and women who took part in Bomber Command. We are honouring them next year with the erection of the memorial, which I applaud.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.