Thursday was an important day for me and thousands of others who either served in, or have relatives who served in, the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command. When I was a child, my Grandad never mentioned the Second World War. I knew that he’d had a career in the RAF and that he’d been flying at the time, in the sort of nebulous and foggy awareness that children have when they’re young, but I never really understood what this meant. As a small child, I couldn’t get my head round why he didn’t want to talk about flying aeroplanes round the sky, but as I got a bit older I began to get the feeling that, maybe, being in Bomber Command hadn’t been as much fun as I thought it must have been.
When I was a bit older, my Grandad taught me a new game, called Morse Code and we used walkie talkies to send messages to each other. He was much better at it than I was (perhaps being only six or seven didn’t work in my favour), and he focused his teaching on instructing me in how to send emergency messages for help. I thought this was all terrific fun of course, and it was very cool to have a Grandad who knew how to transmit messages in code. Things started to get serious, however, when he asked me what I would do in a plane crash and I gave him the standard response of adopting the “brace position” as films, TV, and schools tell us to these days. Apparently, jumping from the cargo doors of the plane, well clear of the tail, with a parachute on is a much better option. Then I found out what to do to attract a rescue plane if you were stranded either in the Alps or in the sea. At the time, I just assumed that my Grandad was taking being overprotective to a new level, trying to make sure that I would be safe even when I was on an aeroplane.
The statue at the centre of the new Bomber Command Memorial, designed by Philip Jackson, hauntingly depicts a crew of seven men looking up bereft towards the sky, searching for the planes and men that will not return after the previous night’s mission. 55, 573 members of Bomber Command were destined never to return to their airfields. These days, looking back, I can understand that my Grandad probably had lots of friends who did not come back from operations, and that he must have stood there on an airfield looking up to the sky for any sign of another Lancaster making it back to base, just as the figures in the statue search the sky for any sign of life. While the returned airmen wait, their friends would have been killed in combat or shot down over Europe. Now I understand why my Grandad thought it was so important to teach me what to do in a plane crash, how to survive being in the Alps for a day or two, and how to attract a rescue plane if I was in the sea.
To watch the unveiling of the monument, click here to go to A Tribute to Bomber Command on BBC iPlayer.
The Bomber Command Memorial is now being maintained by the RAF Benevolent Fund, which also cares for RAF veterans and their families. To make a donation to the Ben Fund, please visit their official website.