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.Reuse content