In the dark days of the early 1940s, Bomber Command provided the only ray of hope that something was being done to take the battle to the enemy in Nazi Germany. Bomber Command flew 392,137 operational sorties, dropped 1,030,500 tons of bombs and lost 12,330 aircraft in action. Besides giving Britain and the Allies hope, Bomber Command caused the Germans to divert considerable resources to defence of their homeland, at the expense of other operations.
Canada’s contributions were impressive and the stuff of legend. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan produced 135,000 aircrew for Bomber Command and other commands. One-third of all Bomber Command aircrew were Canadian – the only completely non-RAF formation in Bomber Command was the RCAF No. 6 Group. Fifteen RCAF squadrons plied their deadly trade in such legendary aircraft as the Albacore, Hampden, Manchester, Wellington, Halifax and Lancaster.
During the war, No. 6 Group flew 40,822 sorties, logged 271,981 hours, dropped 126,122 tons of bombs, and lost 814 aircraft in action. Eight thousand decorations for bravery were awarded to its aircrew, including one Victoria Cross.
Success had a terrible price. Out of 125,000 aircrew who served, 55,573 were killed and, of those, 10,659 were Canadian. This represents a debt that can never be repaid; but it is a debt that should never be forgotten.
At the end of the war, Bomber Command was officially denied recognition for their pivotal role in the allied victory. This was an act of political correctness in the face of criticism from those who disagreed with the its tactics and strategy. That oversight has finally been corrected for Bomber Command veterans.
“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 operations demonstrated the fiery gallant spirit which animated your aircrews, 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.”
– Winston S. Churchill
An impressive new memorial to the men and women who served in Bomber Command was built in Green Park near Buckingham Palace, in London. Canada’s Government announced a contribution of $100,000 toward the maintenance of the memorial. It was unveiled on June 28 by Queen Elizabeth II and will honour all members of Bomber Command from Allied countries and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The Bomber Command Memorial has an especially meaningful Canadian contribution. On 12 May 1944, Halifax LW682 commanded by Pilot Officer Wilbur “Wib” Bentz was shot down by a night fighter over Belgium. All eight crew members perished, but only five were recovered. Fifty-three years later, and under the sponsorship of the 426 Squadron Association, Karl Kjarsgaard of Canada’s Halifax 57 Rescue led the recovery of LW682 and her three lost souls, who received appropriate military honours.
Aluminum from LW682 was melted into ingots and acquired by the Bomber Command Museum of Canada, in Nanton, Alberta. In early 2012, the museum delivered 850 pounds of the aluminum ingots to Lethbridge and loaded it onto a 429 Squadron (Bomber Command 1942-1945) RCAF C-17 for transport to the U.K. The ingots now form part of the roof of the memorial in the unique geodetic design pattern of the Wellington bomber.
On the eve of the trip to London in front of the Lancaster at the Aviation Museum, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Veterans Affairs Minister Stephen Blaney announced that a special bar to the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal would be awarded to those who had served in Bomber Command and to the families of deceased veterans. Great news, indeed!
The next day, 42 very happy Bomber Command veterans and their caregivers boarded a Canadian Forces’ Airbus for London. Besides this author, they were accompanied by the Honourable Steven Blaney, Minister of Veterans Affairs; LGen Andre Deschamps, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force; LCol (ret) Dean Black, Executive Director of the Air Force Association of Canada; and superb CF and Veterans Affairs support teams to look after all the logistical arrangements and medical care. With the average age of the veterans at 90 and the eldest at 95, this was no small consideration. The flight both ways was accomplished with outstanding service by the crew from 437 Transport Squadron.
The veterans’ spirits were soaring and they enjoyed spending time in a cockpit much different than the ones they remembered. Landing at 1 AM, all were pleased to find the VIP bar open and several further enhanced their spirits with a pint or a dram, waiting for the immigration blokes to do their thing.
After getting to bed at 0330, we were off early the next morning to Runnymede (home of the Magna Carta) and the Royal Air Force Memorial to the 20,450 allied airmen who were killed in WW2, with no known grave. We held a very moving ceremony and spent time visiting the names inscribed on the walls. One moving tribute was an apparently annual birthday card to Sgt Alan Forster Muris, killed in February 1942, “with dearest love always from your fiancee Miss Betty Y. Hatton.” True love never dies.
Later, a veterans-only event was sponsored by the Bomber Command Association. Hundreds of veterans of the allied air forces shared memories and war stories. Pints and drams may have fueled a bit of embellishment, but all the heroes were happily back in their element.
June 28 dawned hot and sunny, and we were onto the buses early to fight the brutal London traffic. The grounds at Green Park were laid out in two areas, one for veterans right beside the memorial and one for lesser lights (like myself), where a big screen would bring us the ceremony. Proud chests full of flashing medals below wrinkled, smiling faces topped by white or forgotten hair were everywhere among the throng of about 7,000 people.
Shortly before noon, the excitement and anticipation were rewarded when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II arrived, along with Prince Philip, Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall and eight other members of the Royal Family. Following speeches and blessings, the Queen pulled the cord on the larger-than-life statue within the memorial and seven Bomber Command crew members, immortalized in bronze, emerged into the sunlight to the thunderous applause and the odd teary eye of hundreds of veterans and thousands of fans. This tribute to courage was 67 years coming, but it will be burned into the memories of all who witnessed it. A punctuation mark was provided by a V-formation of five RAF Tornado fighter-bombers and the point final was a Lancaster dropping one million poppies over the crowd. Many more teary eyes. The veterans were thrilled as the Queen and the other Royals strolled among them.
Following a reception at Canada House, hosted by High Commissioner Gordon Campbell, everyone dispersed for an evening with new and old friends. I suspect that some pubs may have been re-visited after decades of absence.
The flight back to Ottawa was definitely quieter; that is, until we were joined by two CF-18s from 425 “Alouette” Sqn in Bagotville, flown by “Squish” and “Sputnik”. Great excitement and many camera clicks followed and it was a most fitting end to a spectacular mission; and, no one got shot down.
We made 42 veterans very happy and thousands of others very proud with the long overdue celebration. It was not about a 67-year old controversy. It was about service, sacrifice and courage. As Dr. Nguyen noted, normally on a trip like this, the general health of the veterans declines. This time, their health seemed to improve as the trip went on. Some spirit never dies, and it was a personal thrill to share in that spirit.
The Canadian Victoria Cross recipient from No. 6 Group RCAF was Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski. He died while trying in vain to free the tail gunner from his jammed turret in their doomed Lancaster. Mynarski finally bailed out, but his parachute was on fire and he didn’t survive the fall. Miraculously, the tail gunner was thrown clear when the aircraft crashed and he walked away. His testimony resulted in the award of the Victoria Cross. When I was going through RCAF pilot training in Gimli, Manitoba as a teenager in the 1960s, we had several associate members of the Mess who used to buy us young pups beer and tell us war stories. One told the most incredible story, and his name was Pat Brophy. He was Andrew Mynarski’s tail gunner. It makes you wonder how many other Victoria Crosses were earned but never awarded, because no one survived to tell the story.
The Bomber Command Memorial will form a physical and emotional link to our past. We remember their dedication to the values of democracy and freedom that they fought and died to uphold. We remember their sacrifice. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.
Former fighter pilot Laurie Hawn, a federal MP representing Edmonton-Centre, is also currently co-chair of the Canada-U.S. Joint Board of Defence.
© FrontLine Defence 2012