A memorial to the RAF's bomber command was unveiled by the Queen today, attended by veterans from Britain and the Commonwealth, dedicated to the thousands of airmen who lost their lives in the Second World War.
The nine feet bronze sculpture of a seven man air crew bore the inscription 'We remember those of all countries who died in 39-45”, a gesture of reconciliation towards German cities which had been subjected to firestorms in raids during the conflict.
As a Lancaster bomber dropped red poppies during a fly-past on those gathered below, some of the survivors of the missions, which took a terrible toll of casualties from among those flew them, recalled their experiences.
Les Ellingham, 89, from Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, was a wireless operator on Stirling bombers flying out of RAF Oakington in Cambridgeshire in 1942 and 1943 when he got shot down over Belgium.
"I was on foot in Belgium and Holland, tying to escape, but I was finally caught in France. I was taken to Stalag IV-B near Mulhberg [ 30 miles from Dresden in eastern Germany]. It wasn't that great, but I had to stay there until the end of the war. What do I think about what happened? Well it was a job we had to do.”
Another former airman, Cecil Hayley, said "I sometimes look back in horror to think what I was required to do. But it was what we were trying to do... it was part of the task of finishing the war and I console myself that this is what we had to do."
The project initially raised concerns in the city of Dresden, where 25,000 civilians were killed in Allied bombing raids in 1945. Heike Grossmann, spokeswoman for the mayor of Dresden, Helma Orosz, said "We are close friends with people in Britain, we are twinned with Coventry, and at first we were surprised that the memorial was being constructed," she said.
But she added, there were now no longer any objections: “The inscription to all those who died was a further gesture of reconciliation between Britain and Germany".
The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshall Sir Stephen Dalton, told those gathered for the service of dedication: "It's a great honour to see so many veterans from the Commonwealth and elsewhere today. This country and the Commonwealth have shown the veterans that their service and courage have been recognized.”
Councillor Alastair Moss, of Westminster council, which granted planning permission to the project, said: "Since our decision, this memorial has been the subject of controversy by a vocal minority who have unfortunately distracted from its significance. We believe Westminster Council was absolutely right to grant consent for a monument which reflects what the majority of today's public want to say about bravery, sacrifice and suffering."