If any open space in the country is sacrosanct you might assume it would be London's Royal Parks. Yet for many months a substantial chunk of Green Park has been a building site. Yesterday the wraps came off, as the Queen unveiled an imposing edifice dedicated to the memory of Bomber Command.
In that summary, I have tried not to sound negative. The sight of very elderly war veterans and their families on parade, as they were in the bright summer sunshine yesterday, cannot but tug at the heartstrings. And this memorial – their memorial – crowns a long campaign to right what they saw as an even longer wrong.
Bomber Command suffered casualties out of all proportion to any other arm of the services – more than 55,000 died, a fatality rate of almost one in two. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris was the only major commander not to be rewarded with a peerage; he received a modest memorial only in 1992. It can also be argued that the controversy which has raged about the carpet bombing of German cities is a historical one, representing the inhibitions of our age, rather than the exigencies of a conflict in which Britain's very survival as a free country was at stake. Whatever position you take on, say, the destruction of Dresden, it is surely unjust to blame those who flew the raids for a strategy that became integral to Britain's total war against Nazi Germany.
That is the argument for this memorial. But without the interest of some big donors and celebrities, including the late Bee Gee, Robin Gibb, the controversy would probably have ensured that it never saw the light of day.
I must admit that I'm sorry it has. It is the wrong memorial, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. It can only perpetuate a controversy that was gradually retreating, rightly, to its historical context.
In position and size it eclipses many other war memorials and, like so much of what is built in the capital today, it is too big for its surroundings. Almost 70 years after the war, it also offers another excuse for the sort of nostalgic wallowing in our glory days that today's Britain most emphatically does not need.
It has some saving graces. It was raised by subscription and gifts; it has not cost the taxpayer a penny. The sculpture of the airmen is not triumphal, but raw. And the inscription acknowledges not only the crews, but their victims. Another consolation might be that this tribute to Bomber Command, now it has been built, will become just another part of London's largely ignored monumental scenery. I hope it does. But I also hope that it will be the last new memorial to a past that hascast its shadow for too long.Reuse content