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House of Lords Hansard
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World War II: Bomber Command
14 May 2009
Volume 710

Question for Short Debate

Tabled By

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will accord formal recognition to the men and women of Bomber Command during the Second World War.

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My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the Question of whether the Government will accord formal recognition to the men and women of Bomber Command during the Second World War. It is a short and relatively simple point, which I will not labour too much by repetition. The short point is that it seems to me to be a matter of plain justice and fair dealing that the members of Bomber Command who served in the war should be recognised on the same basis as those who were members of other services.

I approach this issue with very few preconceptions and with no particular ties to the Air Force. I did not serve in it; neither did my father. The only connections that my family have had with the services are two uncles who served on the Somme, who by some miracle survived, and a brief period a long time ago when I was a very junior Minister in the Ministry of Defence with responsibility for the Army. I do not come to this debate as someone who is committed to a particular service.

It seemed to me when I first looked at this matter, and it seems to me now, to be a matter of basic equity and fairness. I do not think that many people would question the huge support given by Bomber Command to the war effort. Nor do I think that anyone would dispute or quarrel with the statistics, a few of which I shall give the House because they are important in this respect. During the war, a total of 120,000 air crew carried out no fewer than 366,000 sorties of which 297 were by night. During those long and dangerous occupations, 55,573 pilots and crew were killed—a ratio of 1:2. Every other member of Bomber Command who flew was killed. One Member of this House, our noble friend Lord Mackie, was a pilot in Bomber Command. I am told that he went on no fewer than 70 sorties and was much decorated as a result for his bravery. He is still waiting, as are the others, for proper recognition of that valiant career.

When we are looking at the figures, it is also worth remembering the countries from which the total figure was made up. These are the realities of that dreadful time. The 55,000 members of Bomber Command who died while on duty included 38,500 Britons, 9,980 Canadians—no less than 58 per cent of Canadians who flew with Bomber Command were killed—4,000 Australians, 1,700 New Zealanders, 977 Poles, 480 Czechs, 218 Free French, 188 members who were then known as Rhodesians, 68 Americans who were attached to Bomber Command from the United States Army Air Force, 34 Norwegians, 12 South Africans and three Indians, as well as 1,479 ground crew and 91 members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Those figures have been slightly revised upwards, not downwards; but, no matter, the argument still stands. The casualties were huge whatever the difference may be in the statistics.

In addition to those who were killed, 8,403 members of Bomber Command were wounded in action. Nearly 11,000 were taken prisoner. They spent the rest of the war in German captivity and faced the harsh forced marches of the last months of the war. As many as 1,000 evaded capture after being shot down, most of whom made their way back to Britain to fly again. In all, Bomber Command was awarded 19 Victoria Crosses, nine of them posthumously. Two members of the Advanced Air Striking Force also received the Victoria Cross posthumously for a bombing raid on 12 May 1940 on a bridge being used by the Germany Army to advance into Belgium. They were Flying Officer Donald Edward Garland, aged 21, who was the first of four brothers killed in the war, and his observer, Sergeant Thomas Gray, aged 26.

As well as the war on land, the war at sea called for the attentions and exertions of Bomber Command, which carried out the mine-laying at sea. It sank German warships and bombed dockyards. It attacked submarine bases. It carried out the sustained bombing of Germany’s military forces, stores and supply lines on all the war fronts, striking at the German V1 and V2 sites, whose missiles were aimed specifically at Britain. That, too, was a Bomber Command task.

Weakening Germany’s formidable capacity to make war—its oil storage depots, munitions factories, aircraft factories and parks, railway marshalling yards and railway traffic, coastal fortifications and tank parks, troop concentrations and transport links—all depended on Bomber Command.

The scale of the achievement of the brave men who carried out these wide-ranging essential tasks was expressed by Sir Winston Churchill, when he wrote at the end of the war to Sir Arthur Harris, Air Officer Commander-in-Chief, Bomber Command:

“All your operations were planned with great care and skill. They were executed in the face of desperate opposition and appalling hazards. They made a decisive contribution to Germany’s final defeat. The conduct of the operation has demonstrated the fiery gallant spirit which animated your air crews and the high sense of duty of all ranks under your command. I believe that the massive achievements of Bomber Command will long be remembered as an example of duty nobly done”.

Today, there are approximately 30,000 pilots in the air crew of Bomber Command who are still alive. They and the next of kin of those who were killed in action, or who have died since the war, are still waiting for their campaign medal. It really is high time that justice was done for these brave men and women.

I have been trying, in anticipation of this debate, to anticipate the arguments that the Government might use for continuing to refuse this request. I have to say that I cannot think of any that stand up to very close examination. Let me dispose, first, of the bureaucratic argument. It has been said on a number of occasions that, because the Honours, Awards and Decorations Committee had considered this issue in 1946, and then rejected it, it is no longer open to review. I would refute that. There is absolutely no reason I can see why the matter could not now be sent back to the committee for further consideration, or, alternatively, why the Government could not take the decision, thereby acknowledging that the 1946 decision was wrong. Certainly, a decision of that committee cannot be considered irreversible. It really would be a nonsense to hold that a decision made in 1946 is permanently binding, no matter what change there is in circumstances. I will be very interested to hear what the Government have to say on that.

The Early Day Motion put down by my honourable friend Austin Mitchell in another place has now attracted more than 200 signatures. The Canadian Senate, by unanimous resolution, has asked that Britain be approached formally to give,

“belated recognition to the effort and sacrifice made by Bomber Command”.

So there is an increasing political realisation that this anomaly should be corrected.

Their contribution was immense. Their treatment has been shabby and neglectful. It is time this is put right. The time is long overdue, and I hope the Government will recognise it.

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My Lords, I wholeheartedly support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, about formal recognition of the men and women of the Bomber Command during the Second World War. Born and bred, as I was, in Lincoln, the second home of many of those men and women at the time, I grew up in a city that revered and loved those who, as the noble Lord just said, played a decisive role in the outcome of the war.

More recently while serving in Australia, I became aware that 20,000 Australians served with the Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force during the war. Under what was then called the Empire Air Training Scheme, the Royal Air Force in 1941 was, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, recruiting approximately 20 per cent of its pilots from Commonwealth countries. I am advised that Australian casualties in Bomber Command were 3,486 dead and 246 injured, and after the war, 750 Australian air crew were released from German prisoner of war camps.

The first Australians to see action with Bomber Command were Australian-born Regular Royal Air Force officers, some of whom like Group Captain Hughie Edwards, who was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1941, had trained with the Royal Australian Air Force. Australians continued to fly with Bomber Command until the end of the war, as did Canadians, New Zealanders and citizens of the other countries mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Richard.

Memorials may be dismissed by some as mere tablets of stone. To most they are a tangible and continuing reminder of the heroism and sacrifice of a generation which helped to secure the liberties that we now take for granted. They are a reminder and, for some, an inspiration for the present. The Minister has visited Australia and other countries whose men and women fought in Bomber Command and she knows as well as anybody in Parliament the importance with which our military and other links are still regarded both publicly and privately in those countries. I hope that she may be able to give some positive support to the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and that recognition and gratitude will be accorded in tangible form to those who fought in Bomber Command.

We are now reconciled with our former enemies in war. That reconciliation should include a constant reminder to present and future generations of the horrors and sacrifices undergone by all our and their forebears.

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My Lords, as someone much swept up in the events of 1942 to 1944, latterly at what might be described as the sharp end, perhaps I may make three points. First, however much we may now regret having had to reduce so many German cities to ruins, there is no doubt that the bomber offensive by night by Bomber Command and by day by the US Eighth Air Force made a major contribution to writing down the German war effort, making it difficult for the Germans to go on sustaining their armed forces against the Soviet Union and latterly against the forces they faced from the west. That shortened the war because Hitler would never have surrendered.

More than that, because those offensives put so much pressure on the Luftwaffe to counter them, by 1944 the Luftwaffe as a potential weapon of war had virtually ceased to exist, which as much as anything else made the Normandy invasion possible, for which I personally was very grateful, otherwise it would have been hazardous in the extreme. Finally, against that background, and bearing in mind that statistically service as air crew in Bomber Command during the war years was by far the most dangerous assignment for the armed services who served in the front line, it seems more than appropriate that they should have special recognition, perhaps in the form of a special rosette on their Air Crew Europe medal.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for bringing forward this debate. It is one of those ones where you thank whoever there is to thank that you were not around then. Fifty-five thousand died, and the figure I have is a 44.4 per cent casualty rate. I would not fancy being in a line of 10 with those odds.

The casualty rate was immense. I had better say outright that there has also been historical controversy about whether these young men’s sacrifice was used in the most productive way. Questions have been raised about that. The fact is that we were in total war and those young people who were manning those air crews did not make the decisions. Damn the generals if you like, or the air marshals in this case, and the politicians who gave them their permission, but do not try to condemn the memory of those who suffered out there.

I feel something of a fraud in that I do not have the company, and am some way in the stead, of my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie. He could not be here today. I asked him for anything he would like to be said and remember that my noble friend is in his 90th year, though young in spirit. He said:

“Remember, I was a grizzled, hard, veteran squadron leader”,

and he was a navigator, by the way, “of 24”. He was one who had survived beyond late teen age, beyond his 21st birthday, in a large, fragile aircraft, and had to fly through walls of red hot bits of metal flying through the aircraft and tearing people apart. Luck and judgment would have helped people get through this, but they were the most exposed part of our Air Force.

I had prepared other things to say, but we come back to a point that was touched on on Tuesday, when I suggested that we should start being slightly better at remembering those who survive conflict. That was in relation to the two surviving veterans of the First World War. We should remember this.

My noble friend Lord Mackie said to me that he was not too bothered about the medal but he was bothered about there being somewhere where people could possibly see the list of all the names, some monument on the level of 55,000 names and ages. That would help bring it home to those who are fortunately too young to have served in a conflict of this level. I do not have to tell the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, who has that unenviable task in this House of reading out the names of those who die on active service, that 55,000 died taking on a job that was not only dangerous but has become politically unacceptable in certain sectors of our society. Surely we should remember them and honour their memory at all levels and at the first opportunity. Let us not wait until we have the last handful left. Let us do something now, because time is not on our side, and these things take time to get organised. It would be nice to think that my noble friend will see some monument produced in his lifetime.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for introducing this debate. It is a subject which has caused controversy since 1945 and will continue to do so until formal recognition is granted to the immensely brave men and women who died for our freedom.

On 31 May 1992, Her Majesty the Queen Mother dedicated a statue of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris. Her Majesty reminded her audience that western Europe had been at peace for over 45 years, as it had been then, but that it was right that we should not forget those dark days of war, when we were in such grave danger and Bomber Command gave us hope and the means of salvation. Arthur Harris, as we all know, followed a strategy of area bombing, which has provoked immense controversy, as noble Lords mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, gave us some of the amazing figures involved, so I will not repeat them. The campaign inevitably caused vast destruction and loss of life among civilian war workers, German and slave labour, and the military. As we have heard, more than 55,000 British air crew died producing this destruction, yet we cannot say how many lives were saved by the area bombing strategy, which continually disrupted the German military industry, thus contributing enormously to Allied successes in France, Italy and Russia. The great Russian campaigns were greatly helped by the German need to divert a large number of their new fighters that were coming through, and of course their air crews, to defend against Allied bombers flying from Britain, thus, I believe, shortening the war considerably.

All the men who flew with Bomber Command were volunteers and their average age was just 22. As has been said before, they included thousands of men from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the other Allied and Commonwealth countries. My noble friend Lord Goodlad emphasised that point. In recent years the Battle of Britain Flight has, rightly, become extremely popular in this country. It includes various Spitfires and Hurricanes and one precious Lancaster bomber. Would it not be appropriate to rename it the “Battle of Britain and Bomber Command Flight”? Lancasters were undoubtedly the best of the heavy bombers involved, but of course there were also Halifaxes, Stirlings, Wellingtons, Hampdens, Blenheims and, not least, the extremely effective Mosquitoes. All of these, and maybe others, should be mentioned on the memorial that I am sure will eventually be built.

Bomber Command also had other activities, which have been mentioned. There were the pathfinders, whose activities, highly expensive in terms of lives, made sure that the bombers eventually arrived at the right place to drop their bombs. There was mine-laying, which again disrupted the movement of troops and supplies east from Germany into Russia. It is right that, included with the incomparable air crew, we remember the indomitable ground crew and engineers who maintained these aircraft and kept them flying.

It is good to recall that that bombing campaign in Europe also included the great efforts of the 8th and 9th United States Air Forces, with their “flying fortresses”. They also lost many lives in the combined day and night offensives. Incidentally, from 1943 to 1945 I lived one mile from the end of a runway; I remember the flying fortresses flying in and out, and they were marvellous.

It is on record that Arthur Harris always got on well with his American colleagues, and that reminds us once again of the importance of maintaining a close relationship with our greatest allies. What recent discussions have the Government had with representatives of the Bomber Command Memorial Campaign? Do the Government have any views about the construction of a memorial to the many non-UK service personnel who served and died with Bomber Command?

After the war Sir Arthur Harris said:

“There are no words with which I can do justice to the aircrew who fought under my command. There is no parallel in warfare to such courage and determination in the face of danger over so prolonged a period, of danger which, at times, was so great that scarcely one man in three could expect to survive his tour of operations”.

The Conservative defence team remains very supportive of the Bomber Command Association’s campaign for a proper memorial and continues to be in close touch with the association to see whether it can assist its fund-raising endeavours.

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My Lords, I am afraid that I must start with what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, rightly called my most difficult responsibility. I invite the House to join me in offering condolences to the family and friends of Lieutenant Mark Evison from 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who died earlier this week from injuries that he sustained a few days ago on operations in Afghanistan. This is a salutary reminder of the dangers that are faced daily by our troops who are on operations now, working to sustain our security in the same way as those who fought in the Second World War, with very heavy losses; they did so bravely, as do those on operations now.

I am pleased that we have had this debate, however brief. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Richard, on securing this Question for Short Debate, which is one of the House’s useful procedures to give an airing to a topic that might otherwise get squeezed out of other debates that come up from time to time. One theme of unity throughout the speeches of all who have been able to contribute is that nobody—but nobody at all—disputes the fantastic contribution of Bomber Command or the fact that Bomber Command was very important in securing our future and making such a difference in the Second World War. Its was an historic contribution. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, who knows far more about these things than I do, gave his assessment that it without doubt shortened the war. Hitler’s Armaments Minister, Albert Speer, who knew more than most people about the impact of Bomber Command, said:

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

That sums up some of what people have been trying to say today about the very significant contribution of Bomber Command.

However, as others have pointed out, that very significant contribution came at a terrible cost. More than 8,000 aircraft were lost and, out of 125,000 pilots and crew, 55,573 were killed. Mention has been made of those who came from the Commonwealth—25 per cent of the pilots and crew. It is right that, when we think about how we should remember Bomber Command, we should take into account their feelings as well. It is important to remember that people from Commonwealth countries and from Britain worked closely together during that time and it is good that the bonds, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad said, with Australia, but also with Canada, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries, are still so strong today. So there was a terrible cost.

Statistically—this is one of the most salutary facts—a Bomber Command crew member had a worse chance of survival than an infantry officer during the First World War. That shows the scale of the challenge that they took on and why people are so concerned that they should get recognition. As the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, 19 members of Bomber Command received Victoria Crosses, nine of them posthumously. Their contribution was very significant indeed.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, who participated in a debate that originated with a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, in March of last year. The whole House was silent when they realised that he had that direct experience and therefore was entitled to talk about these issues in a way that others could not. I assured the House at the time of the deep appreciation of this Government for the courage and indeed the sacrifice of those who served in Bomber Command during the Second World War. That certainly remains the case. We owe them a great deal.

The age of those who flew on operations has also been mentioned—the average age was only 22. The dangers were clearly many: night fighters; anti-aircraft fire; the development of new aircraft; mechanical failure; navigational challenges; the prospect of imprisonment if you managed to bail out; and sorties that could take eight or nine hours and brought with them a mental as well as a physical strain and ordeal—an experience that could rarely be matched. We should not forget the contribution made by all those who died, were injured or were taken prisoner.

I, of course, include in that the absolutely crucial role of the ground crew and the in-flight engineers. Without them, Bomber Command would not have been able to carry out hundreds of thousands of sorties, drop more than a million bombs and tie up vast amounts of scarce German resources that would otherwise have been used elsewhere against Allied forces, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, said. Many of the ground crew also suffered. I was glad that we heard mention of the many women in the ground crew support teams who made a very significant contribution. Night after night these brave volunteers— noble Lords have stressed that these were volunteers and it is important to remember that—risked their lives and, as I said, many gave them. There has never been any doubt about the bravery and integrity of those who took part.

All speakers have said that there should be appropriate recognition of that contribution. Given the extraordinary service that these people gave, there is, indeed, a very strong case for that. People understandably ask for that recognition. As has been said, 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 and many Bomber Command personnel qualified for the much prized Air Crew Europe Star or the France and Germany Star.

Noble Lords have said that this issue should be revisited to consider awarding extra recognition. The case for a specific Bomber Command recognition medal was considered by the relevant committee at the time but it was not considered appropriate at that stage. That was not just the situation for Bomber Command; it applied also to Fighter Command and others. The committee’s long-standing policy has been that retrospective consideration of awards and medals for service performed many years earlier should not be given and that remains the case. Ministers do not interfere in the working of the HD Committee—the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, will recognise, from his experience as a Minister in the department, that many problems would arise if Ministers interfered in the allocation of medals.

As regards noble Lords’ suggestions about creating a memorial and the campaign to erect a memorial to recognise those associated with Bomber Command, we are actively supporting the Bomber Command Association in its efforts to establish a national memorial for Bomber Command that will pay tribute to all those who died serving in Bomber Command. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, said that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, was concerned that the names of those who died should be recorded. I understand where he is coming from. The actual design of a memorial has not yet been determined but I am sure that any suggestions coming from the Bomber Command Association or veterans of the campaign will be taken into account. The House will know that a Bomber Command memorial funding campaign was launched last year, to which the noble Lord, Lord Luke, referred. I understand that the fundraising is going extremely well, which is good to know. The Ministry of Defence chairs the Bomber Command memorial committee, which is looking at locations in London. I understand that good progress is being made about possible locations; discussions, however, have not been finalised. I undertake to come back and inform the House once a decision has been made.

I hope that your Lordships will acknowledge that the unity that exists in this House about the need for recognition is shared by the Government. The dedication and sacrifice of those who were part of Bomber Command is absolutely unquestioned. This debate is about how best to recognise that contribution and how to move the situation forward. The Prime Minister said in October last year:

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

I hope that your Lordships will agree that a national memorial to those who perished is a fitting tribute and one that we can all support.

House adjourned at 5.01 pm.