Mary Dejevsky: Wrong size, wrong place, wrong memorial

This recognition of Bomber Command can only perpetuate a controversy that was retreating, rightly, to its historical context

Share

If any open space anywhere in the country is sacrosanct, you might assume that London's Royal Parks would top the list. Yet for many months, a substantial chunk of Green Park has been a building site, first anonymous, then revealed on hoardings to be the site of a new memorial in the making. Yesterday, the last of the wraps came off, as the Queen unveiled an imposing neo-classical 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 or, at very least, inspire respect. And this memorial – their memorial – crowns a long campaign to right what they saw as an even longer wrong.

Between 1939 and 1945, 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 and even that was fiercely contested. The proliferation of new monuments in prominent positions in recent years, to the Women of World War II (in Whitehall in 2005) and even Animals of War (on Park Lane in 2004), can only have exacerbated the sense of injustice felt by the veterans of Bomber Command.

There is also an argument to be made (still) that the controversy which has raged about the carpet bombing of German cities is ahistorical, 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. And it follows from this that new ways of conducting war invariably raise questions.

Today's equivalent might be the use of drones against specific groups and individuals – which is sharply condemned in some quarters for turning the life and death gravity of war into a computer game for the powerful, even as it is welcomed by others for sparing servicemen's lives. Consider cyberwarfare, too, with its potential, at relatively little cost, for the enemy to identify and disable civilian infrastructure.

The truth is that war in any period, with any technology, is by definition ruthless and inhumane and the innovations of the Second World War were no different. Today, some believe that the destruction of Dresden, in particular, was a war crime; others believe Germany could not have been defeated without it. Whatever position you take, though, it is surely unjust to blame those who flew the raids and their families for a strategy that became integral to Britain's total war against Nazi Germany.

That is the argument for this memorial. Without the interest of a number of benefactors and celebrities, however, including the late Bee Gee, Robin Gibb, the questions – to put it mildly – about Bomber Command would probably have ensured that the memorial unveiled yesterday would never have seen the light of day. As someone who will pass it regularly, I must admit that I am sorry it has. It is the wrong memorial, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

It is the wrong memorial because it can only perpetuate a controversy that was gradually retreating, rightly, to its historical context. It is in the wrong place, because in position and size it eclipses most other Second World War memorials. Like so much of what is built in the capital today, it is too big for its surroundings. Its neo-classicism is ponderous. Its temple plan looks like something that would be more at home among the grand monuments of Washington DC. And it is the wrong time because it has taken the best part of the past 70 years for Britain's relations with Germany to reach the still sometimes uneasy equilibrium that prevails today. Another war memorial offers another excuse for just the sort of nostalgic wallowing in our glory days that today's Britain most emphatically does not need.

Yes, this memorial has saving graces. It was raised, as so many of London's much earlier memorials, by public subscription and gifts; it has not cost the taxpayer a penny. The campaign even had to fund yesterday's opening ceremony – though maybe the Palace could be persuaded to help out. The image of the sculpture is not triumphal, but raw. And the inscription – as ahistorical as the controversy – acknowledges not only the crews, but their victims, something that drew appreciation from the Mayor of Dresden and immense sighs of relief, I suspect, from diplomats in London and Berlin.

One consolation might be that, now Bomber Command finally has its memorial, it will settle into a general monumental landscape that is increasingly ignored. Another is that it should be the last of the major Second World War memorials. But will it be? I hope so, although there could yet be pressure for another.

One of my uncles was a padre who accompanied the first Allied troops into Belsen; another was an army surgeon; another was shot down at Arnhem. They all received public recognition. But my late father served as a code-breaker at Bletchley. And it was less the oath of secrecy that rankled with him, than the fact that code-breakers received no medals.

A national memorial was completed at Bletchley Park last year, and there may now be pressure for more. But, personally, I would resist any move to add either a London monument or to award belated medals. Almost seven decades after the war, the enduring reputation of the code-breakers is tribute enough.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Operational Risk Manager - Asset Management

£60,000 - £80,000: Saxton Leigh: Our client is an leading Asset Manager based...

Year 5/6 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Permanent Year 6 TeacherThe job:This...

KS1 & KS2 Teachers

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: KS1+KS2 Teachers required ASAP for l...

Year 2 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Year 2 Teacher The position is to wo...

Day In a Page

 

In Sickness and in Health: Waking up to my 4am witching hour of worry

Rebecca Armstrong
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past