They were pilots, gunners, navigators, wireless operators, bomb aimers. They were among the 10,000 young Australians posted to Britain to fly with Bomber Command. And 112 of them were back in Blighty last Thursday to witness the Queen unveil a memorial to their efforts – and their fallen comrades.
For Bomber Command had the highest attrition rate of any unit in the war, losing 55,573 crew – including 40 per cent of the Australian force. And when asked what the memorial means to them, a single word crops up again and again: "Everything."
Glen Arkadieff, a London-based Australian photographer, arranged to document the visit of these former airmen and make a video archive of their memories before it is too late: though they joined up when they were 17 or 18, the youngest is now 87; the oldest 97.
Their stories are extraordinary: of the camaraderie within their squadrons; of mounting anticipation (but surprisingly little fear) at their first missions; of losing their oxygen mask – and then consciousness – at 25,00ft; of being shot, bailing out and hiding for weeks before being found by the Resistance. And most especially of those left behind. Yet, even when wet in the eyes with remembrance, their once-youthful exuberance continues to shine through.
The memorial has been attacked in some quarters for commemorating the killing of German civilians; but for these men, after more than 65 years of waiting, they believe they at last have a rightful tribute to their role in bringing the war to an end.
The Bomber Command Memorial is situated at Hyde Park Corner, London W1