No sooner does Bomber Command get approval for its own grand memorial -- to be precise, a £3.5 million neoclassical pavilion in London's Green Park commemorating its 55,000 dead -- than Fighter Command trumps it with a proposal for an even grander memorial: a 'Battle of Britain Beacon' at the RAF Museum at Hendon, which would cost £80 million and stand 116m tall, making it 10m taller than Big Ben and visible from central London. It would also serve as a permanent exhibition hall. The bomber boys just can't catch an even break.

As I noted recently, at least the question of how Bomber Command should be remembered gets discussed in the UK, unlike in Australia. Having said that, Australia and New Zealand both already have Bomber Command memorials. Admittedly, New Zealand's memorial looks like it might originally have been designed by Nigel Tufnel on the back of a paper napkin. Then again, Australia's (much bigger) one was designed by a Kiwi and built in New Zealand. I'm sure this must be meaningful in terms of the longstanding trans-Tasman rivalry but wouldn't venture to guess how exactly!

Thanks to peacay and ErrolC for the tips.

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30 thoughts on “Oneupairmanship

  1. Post author

    Thanks, ErrolC.

    I was a bit quick off the mark with this post (for once) -- there wasn't anything on the RAF Museum website about the Beacon when I looked, but there is now. In fact there's a whole website.

  2. Erik Lund

    A 116m tower memorial for dead pilots (and those poor Defiant air gunners)?* Does anyone else see the potential for tragic irony? All the New Zealanders need is some midgets to dance around their memorial, and they may yet have the last laugh.

    *I single out Defiants over Blenheims and Beaufighters and Marylands because I want a separate memorial for Blitz aircrew. It could be just like the Battle of Britain memorial. Except unlit.

  3. If this is all about accessibility, why don't they spend the £80 million improving the Northern Line so the museum's easier to get to in the first place?

  4. Post author

    I don't think it's just about accessibility! It's pretty clear from the video on the website that a lot of it is about turning the RAF Museum itself into an icon -- it will be one of the world's most recognisable buildings, the world's tallest museum, gateway to London, etc. When you consider how much competition there is for tourists in London, linking an adventurous piece of architecture with the already-iconic Spitfire and Battle of Britain is pretty canny. If expensive.

  5. I do like Alan's idea. In addition to this funding and new building the museum has also been gifted the statue of Park that stood in Trafalgar Square.

    Given the controversy surrounding the unveiling of the Harris statue a few years back it is good to see some form of memorial to Bomber Command. They have been left out of the memorialisation process for many years.

    Now where is that statue to Leigh-Mallory;)

  6. Chris Williams

    I put in a complaint to the Beeb about their characterisation of Bomber Command in the linked report. No reply: which is odd because in the past they've been pretty quick to acknowledge complaints.

  7. Chris Williams

    PS - In the complaint, I did make it clear that I support the BC memorial. It's long overdue.

  8. Post author


    Do you mean this part:

    Its role was to attack Germany's airbases, troops, shipping and industries connected to the war effort.

    During the war the command ensured the damage caused to London's squares, streets and parks from German bombs was not as extensive as it could have been.

    I didn't even notice that! I'd guess that the BBC journo got that interpretation from the Bomber Command memorial people -- on their website they have the following:

    One of the key reasons for siting the Memorial in London is that the city owes its comparative safety from aerial bombardment during World War II, to Bomber Command. Their continued offensive throughout the war ensured that the battle was fought over Nazi Germany and that their aircraft production was focused with producing the fighters needed to defend Germany from our bombers – and not bombers with which to attack the cites of the United Kingdom.

    Which is interesting, telling, and, well, wrong. So not only are Dresden, dehousing, 'collateral damage', etc not mentioned, but it's also apparently not enough to claim that Bomber Command contributed to the war effort by damaging and diverting German production, or that, at least initially, there was no other way to strike back at Germany -- it now has to be argued that Bomber Command directly defended the British people from attack. Implicitly, this is trading on the 1940 myth; yet again, the memory of Fighter Command sets the standard by which Bomber Command is to be measured.

    (Also, the claims here strongly echo some of the justifications for bomber parity in the 1930s under the knock-out blow paradigm ... but let's not get into that.)

  9. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    One cannot expect accuracy from the BBC or even bomber command. Certainly the latter played a vital role in taking the war to Germany and in diverting German resources from the Eastern Front (and one has to remember Stalin was very keen on the allied bombing). However, we cannot even classify this as a direct defence as the need for that had long since evaporated by the time bomber command was effective and besides which the ultimate defence was in the hands of the Royal Navy. Truth be told the air force did not have a particularly good war and this smacks more of rewriting history than a realistic description.

  10. Erik Lund

    Oh, come on, Christopher. Bomber Command was the siege battery that reduced the greatest fortress in human history. If that's a bad war, I would like to see a good one.

    I understand that we don't want to celebrate an extended bombardment and its concomitant civilian misery and death. Thus the rather defensive "the Germans did it first, and we stopped them from doing it more." That's wrong. What stopped the Germans from doing it more was that the Germans had involved themselves in an Eastern war.

    But that points to a moral justification that is not a pansy move. Every day Hitler's regime survived was another day the Holocaust (and his other race wars) went on. Yes, there is an irony in killing civilians and assisting a civilian-killing regime to end mass murder, but if you see equivalencies, you have already gone a long way down the wrong road.
    The attack, in all its unfortunate moral compromises, helped win this necessary war. That is all that is needed to defend and commemorate Bomber Command's war.

  11. Chris Williams

    OK Eric, but I don't think that "The war was morally justified" therefore means that "Everything that helped to win it, however inefficiently, was not only justified but also needs to be celebrated". The ghost of Arthur Harris will disagree with me, but I will conjure up the ghosts of Zuckerman and Tedder to take my part.

    Of course, the debate about BC as a command, and its effectiveness (or not) needs to be separated from the consideration of the BC crews and their experience, which ought to be commemorated.

  12. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    Eric - I'm actually thinking about the whole air force's poor war rather than bomber command's part in it. The air force performance on a grand strategic level was poor to say the least. However to answer the point that it was bomber command which reduced Germany - it wasn't. This was done on the ground by mainly the Soviet army with supporting parts from the British and Americans. Bomber command was incapable of finishing the war by itself. I am in agreement with your last point but this was not what I was commenting on but challenging the assertions on the direct defence of Great Britain.

  13. Erik Lund

    After the fall of Lille in 1708, Louis XIV famously sued for peace and came close to accepting the most humiliating conditions imaginable in order to lead France out of the agonies of the War of the Spanish Succession. Six years later, he forced the Emperor out of the war by taking Landau and Freiburg.

    The interim demonstrated the basic rule of fortress warfare. Engineering buys time, and the even the mightiest state's effort may flag, given time. France's fortresses held out longer than the English taxpayer. (And the Queen, admittedly; it's all quite complicated.)

    We look back at the end of the Second World War as a foregone conclusion, forgetting that those massive Soviet armies were the projection of a nation that had taken brutal losses and only had so much to give, that putting a modern army onto a hostile shore was by orders of magnitude the most expensive and difficult industrial undertaking ever attempted.

    It is in that light that we need to see Bomber Command's campaign. Guns do not take cities. You set them up outside the town, tootle about for a few weeks, and then one day the infantry goes surging forward through the walls and plants the flag on the citadel. What a waste of time all those cannons were!

    And what's more, they started firing so far away from the walls that they obviously could do no good. Later, they were moved closer. I mean, that's such an obvious thing to do, one can only wonder why they weren't set up on the lip of the ditch in the first place. Instead, they lazed about for a few weeks, while the only people making any obvious effort were those smelly peasants digging latrines or whatever in the forefield --and then, bang, one day the guns show up on the ditch!

    It's almost strange enough to make you actually want to pay attention to people who talk and talk about diodes and rectifiers and wave guides and gyroscopes and carburettors and octane ratings.

    Almost. After all, John Terraine doesn't. he just writes hundreds of entertaining pages about how stupid the Air Council was, and ends up with a one-page discussion about how everyone must have been stupid and wrong to think that long range fighters were impossible when the P-51 just spontaneously showed up one day.

    Seriously, a more sober understanding of the interaction of industry and technology in this great strategic undertaking is required to evaluate the air force's war. It's because these difficulties are still not rated fairly, in my opinion, that we continue to chase the illusion that somehow, in some way, the firestorms could have been avoided.

    As, of course, they could have been. If the RAF had announced, on the morning of the 14 May 1940, that it had been fooling everybody, that its newest planes were Vulcans and Victors and Camberras, that it was setting out that day to cut every bridge over the Rhine, there would have been no Holocaust. To hear people like Terraine (and Hastings and, above all, Barnett) talk, this is something that could actuallly have happened if everyone had just taken _Lives of the Engineers_ to heart back in the 1890s.

    It wasn't. And even if my counterfactual had actually come to pass, there would still have been plenty of civilian deaths. The fact that those civilians had, by and large, cheered the "removal" of their local Jewish populations --does that count for anything? I think General Sherman had something to say about the process by which American slavery was brought to an end that might be apropos here. Once a nation has chosen war, especially for a morally-indefensible cause, it cannot entirely disclaim responsibility for the consequences on the grounds that the enemy did not fight in the most restrained of ways --even at the expense of losing that war.

  14. Neil Datson

    I really don't want to get into this one - it's a minefield in the middle of a toxic swamp.

    But . . . I don't know what Sherman said about ending slavery Erik, but I know that secession and the American Civil War were predicated on states' rights, not slavery. The Union 'ended' slavery in the Confederacy before they ended slavery in the Union. Any post facto defence of barbarity 'for the greater good' risks stinking of humbug.

  15. Christopher Amano-Langtree

    Fortress warfare was actually a dead end though. Generals got so fixated on fortresses and the formalities involved that they actually prolonged things. It took Napoleon to show that fortresses were not so important - by bypassing them or ignoring them he was able to apply main force to defeating the enemy's army which should really be the main goal. The Soviets when the invaded Germany went for the main target - Berlin and everything else was ancillary.

    Bomber command made a contribution it is true and a big contribution but from the sheer point of effectiveness was it the right contribution? Could bomber command have been employed better? It is not so much the application of technology as how that technology was used in achieving war aims. I personally don't think that it was but I am not per se exercised by the firestorms - war is a brutal business and total war is even more brutal and inhuman. One only has to think of what the alternative would have been if the Allies hadn't won to see why they had to win. The point is not to make extreme claims one way or the other. Bomber command were not the saviours of Britain as is claimed by some nor were they the war criminals claimed by others. But it is legitimate to question whether they could have been put to better use.

  16. There was a strategic rationale for bombing Germany at the time, and I think there can be little doubt that eventually BC did make a major contribution to defeating Germany. There was never going to be a single solution to wearing down Germany's war making power - BC did help significantly to degrade it from 1943 on. Whether the enormous investment involved was the most effective use Britain could have made of its resources is a different question. The gamble that a massive concentration of effort on an unproven, inflexible technological approach would solve the dual problems of defeating Germany and preserving British power and influence didn't really come off. Whether an alternate balance of resources would have done any better is always going to be open to speculation, as is whether an alternative path existed - BC took a long time to become an unstoppable force militarily, but it was pretty quickly an immovable object in terms of the domestic war effort.

    So it would be quite appropriate, perhaps, if we were as a nation to spend vast amounts of money on a memorial for Bomber Command and as a result be unable sufficiently to commemorate other things - say, the role of Britain's long term financial exploitation of the rest of the world (which is really what saves us in 1940).

    But I think the most interesting point about this ought to be the difficulties in commemorating moral ambiguity. For me, the whole point of such a memorial should not be to preach a didactic version of Bomber Command's achievements, but rather to force a consideration of the evil things that even (relatively) liberal democracies can do in the pursuit of victory in war. Evil does not in this case necessarily mean unjustified or ineffective or morally equitable to Nazism - it is an absolute judgement that it can never be morally right to kill babies. Positioning Bomber Command as the defenders of British civilians, however historically contentious, actually underplays the sacrifice of those involved - it wasn't just that they offered their lives, but that they did something awful for our sake. To avoid that judgement is an obscuration of history just as bad as not commemorating Bomber Command at all - but commemoration should not mean celebration in this case I think, however hard that dialogue is to enter into whilst veterans and their relatives are still alive.

    So rather than this neo-classical blandness, my proposal is for a massive figure symbolising British industry with one foot crushing a German child and its hand round the neck of a granny wearing a swastika. This would be unbelievably offensive and totally inappropriate, cause immense upset, and might finally lead us to a national reconsideration of the ambiguities inherent in war.

  17. Chris Williams

    I was thinking more along the lines of a collage picture of a random selection of 1940s Germans (including among the grannies, Ordnungspolitzei, SS, workers, and babies, Sophie Scholl) with a cross-hair in front of it, as an attempt to portray the moral ambiguity involved in area bombing.

  18. So it would be quite appropriate, perhaps, if we were as a nation to spend vast amounts of money on a memorial for Bomber Command and as a result be unable sufficiently to commemorate other things

    Better still, they could blow up all the Coastal Command memorials and use the masonry to build the Bomber Command memorial.

  19. Chris Williams

    Or perhaps etch a line on the Merchant Navy memorial in Liverpool showing how much smaller it could have been if Harris had agreed to divert 10% of Lancaster production to Coastal Command.

  20. It is interesting that the Battle of Britain is presumed to have enough resonance that a memorial like this can be suggested 70 years on - the war's grip on the national imagination seems to continue unabated. Although I suppose the supposed similarity between post-financial-castastrophe 'austerity' Britain and the 1940s seems to have given rise to a wave of nostalgia - Keep Calm and Carry on and all that.

    I don't particularly like the proposed beacon; the logo's nice though. And the BC memorial is a blandly overblown - I'd personally go for a small Cenotaph-like obelisk with the Bomber Command badge and an inscription.

  21. Neil Datson

    'they could blow up all the Coastal Command memorials'

    Wouldn't they have to blow up a large - and more or less random - area around them as well?

  22. Excellent, yes, of course, after the first two years of building the memorial, it should be revealed that only 20% of the stone which the contractors claim to have delivered has made it to the 5 mile surrounding area... ... and then at the end (depending on your take on Harris), they should carry on building it after it's already complete and some other form of memorial would be much more effective.

  23. Post author

    I'm looking forward to Dan's campaign for a proper Bomber Command memorial. Time to set up a website and start soliciting for funds!

  24. Neil Datson

    I heard a rather telling little snippet of casual memorialising and sanitising on BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme a couple of days ago.

    I paraphrase from memory. Reporter (filing from the Dunkirk commemorations): 'flying above, a single Lancaster from the Battle of Britain . . .'

  25. ...Memorial Flight" would be correct.

    Yes, one can make something of the name of the unit. However they are named for the RAF's most important battle honour (prior to the Lancaster joining the unit as well) and commemorate transport crews with the Dakota as well as Bomber Command with the Lancaster.

  26. Neil Datson

    JDK, thanks for coming back on this one. Probably the reporter did say 'Battle of Britain Memorial Flight' and I missed the point. Anyhow, I'm not going to try to find it in order to check up!

  27. My fingers did hover over BBC's Today website, but thought it pretty futile to find!

    It's an interesting point, that if you heard that, then that's what the man on the Clapham omnibus probably would too, and another layer of obscurity is added to Bomber Command's history.

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