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World War II: Bomber Command

Volume 700: debated on Wednesday 19 March 2008

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I draw attention to my non-pecuniary interest shown in the Register of Members’ Interests.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, for the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Air Force, they will accord greater recognition to those pilots and crew members who served in RAF Bomber Command in World War II through support for the erection of an appropriate memorial, comparable with their support for the Battle of Britain pilots’ memorial.

My Lords, I can assure the House of the deep appreciation that this Government have for the courage and sacrifice of those who served in Bomber Command. However, it has been a long-standing policy of successive Governments that the cost of war memorials and associated projects is met from private donations or public subscriptions. I would also remark that in 2006, a memorial to Bomber Command was dedicated at Lincoln Cathedral, which served as a homecoming beacon for the bombers during the war.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on 3 September 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill told the Cabinet:

“The Fighters are our salvation, but the Bombers alone provide the means of victory”,

making it very clear that the bomber offensive was determined at the highest level, and that the offensive was carried out by young men who went out night after night on extremely dangerous missions under the constant threat of being blasted from the skies? Almost half of them—some 55,000—did not survive the ordeal. Is it not time to commemorate, in a memorial comparable with and complementary to that for the Battle of Britain, not just the heroism of the few, but also the courage of the many?

My Lords, I have great sympathy with much of what the noble Lord says. It is true that many of those who joined Bomber Command were killed—as he says, more than 55,000—and the average age of those who died was 22 years. We all owe them a great debt and need to recognise their contribution. The Ministry of Defence would welcome any appropriate efforts to celebrate their achievements and to recognise their sacrifice but, as I said, the money cannot be raised from public funds. We would be quite happy to provide guidance and help and, were there to be a memorial, we would try to help with any dedication.

My Lords, there is time for both noble Lords. I think the House is saying that it should be the Liberal Democrats first, but of course the noble and gallant Lord must come in immediately afterwards.

My Lords, the Minister’s reply is very disappointing. Indeed, the Government helped financially with the Fighter Command memorial. The achievements, let alone the sacrifice, of Bomber Command were and are appreciated by those who know. The destruction of the towns of Germany called for a large response from the German Air Force. This led to the Germans not manufacturing enough bombers and not training enough aircrew because they were all engaged in trying to control Bomber Command.

It is coming, my Lords. Albert Speer, the Minister in charge of industrial production in Hitler’s Government, said that there was no question in his mind that the work of Bomber Command and the Eighth Air Force was a major factor in the defeat of Germany. I have talked too long about that, but it is worth saying. Will the Minister consider the matter again? Will she read a book called Bomber Boys by Patrick Bishop, which might enlighten her as to the achievements of these young men?

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord speaks from direct experience, and I think that the House has listened to him with great care. As I said, no one in Government underestimates the contribution made by Bomber Command. I spoke, as did the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, of the very significant sacrifices that were made—ones that we should all be grateful for. May I correct what the noble Lord said about the Battle of Britain memorial? It was not taxpayers’ money; the lead was the Battle of Britain Historical Society, and Westminster Council gave the site. We are happy to recognise the great contribution of Bomber Command and, I repeat, we will be happy to help in any appropriate way, but we cannot help financially. Were there to be a memorial, we would certainly help to encourage the right people to attend any dedication.

My Lords, the whole House will welcome the Government’s support, as I know will a now decreasing number of those who served in Bomber Command, their friends and relatives. The noble Baroness will recall that 55,573 aircrew, average age 22, lost their lives, 8,403 were badly wounded, and 9,838, having bailed out or crashed, were taken as prisoners of war. Following the evacuation of Dunkirk and until 1944, the only way that this country, which was fighting for survival, could bring the war to the enemy heartland was with strategic bombing. Does that not deserve remembrance by a memorial for a very long time into the future? Will the noble Baroness recall that it is important, not only to this Bomber Command generation but to today’s Armed Forces, that they are reassured that Governments will continue to remember, long after the time has passed, what they have done?

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble and gallant Lord that we all have a responsibility to remember long after the event the sacrifices that were made. I simply repeat that we would welcome any appropriate efforts to celebrate the achievements of Bomber Command. I remind the House that we are approaching the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the Royal Air Force. There will be many opportunities during the celebrations to recognise the tremendous effort that many people have made over many years to safeguard the future of this country.