Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Ugly things.

BOMBS are ugly things.

Up close, they're inelegant, clunky, heavy chunks of metal which seem to contain more mass than they should. They sneer like Steptoe and they smell cold.

In practice they are indiscriminate, uncaring, violent and unpredictable. They are not pretty, never do anything we'd like to look at, and they've been part of the military strategy of every nation since explosives were first discovered.

They are the things politicians unleash, and then wash their hands of while the blood pools around their feet.

And without bombs - without the brutal, sudden and horrid death they deliver without checking names against a list first - the world would be a different place.

These days there are rules about what and how you bomb (not that they make a lot of difference) but in 1939 it came down to how you felt and what you could get away with, so when the Second World War began the British promised not to drop bombs on Germany so long as they behaved the same.

Inevitably the gentleman's agreement fell apart. When the Germans invaded the Netherlands they threatened to blitz Rotterdam in order to force a surrender. As negotiations continued on the ground, an order to abort the attack never got through and the city centre was destroyed.

A thousand people were killed and 85,000 made homeless, and all that was left standing was the city's cathedral.

The next day Winston Churchill - who had been Prime Minister for just five days - authorised RAF Bomber Command to unleash hell on Germany.

And hell was what everyone got. British bombers were so few, slow and old they had been confined to dropping propaganda leaflets, and the few missions they'd flown attacking airfields and ports ended disastrously. Now they were sent, young men in lumbering planes using navigational equipment Christopher Columbus would have recognised, to attack oil refineries, factories and blast furnaces in cities protected by modern German fighters.

In the first night only a quarter of the bombers claimed to have found a target; pretty poor you might think, but it was one of their more successful sorties. In the first year of the campaign less than one in ten bombs was within five miles of its target, so to compensate they dropped more.

Accuracy was so bad they dropped bombs and hoped for the best. One in every 20 bombers was guaranteed to be shot down, and sometimes the rate was much higher.

Hitler felt justified in returning the favour, and he launched the Luftwaffe into the Battle of Britain. We sent some bombs to Berlin, he dropped a few on the East End, and none of us hit anything we were aiming at. Then we were drawn into the screaming terror of the Blitz, the months-long bombing campaign which devastated cities all over Britain to soften us up for an invasion which never came.

Children were buried alive in schools; Coventry was all but destroyed; forty thousand people were killed in consecutive days and nights of never-ending air raids over London, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow, Southampton and other towns and cities.

Necessity sped up invention, and Britain began building bigger, better, faster planes. Half of British industry was churning out parts for new bombers and fighter escorts, and my dad can remember sitting on the floor of his father's workshop sorting out nuts and washers as they turned scrap into vital components of our own war machine.

We killed 45,000 in bombing Hamburg, 30,000 at Dresden, and elsewhere another 500,000 because we dropped so many bombs the subsequent flames developed their own wind systems and became firestorms.

In 1945 we did this to Wesel:

By that point we had thousands of planes, and we needed them because we had lost 8,325 in action. We had 125,000 air crew, and 55,573 were killed. By 1943 the chance of surviving a first tour of 30 missions was just one in six, and only one in 40 survived a second tour.

Their average age was 22.

Those men didn't like the smell of bombs any more than the rest of us. They knew, more than anyone back home, what devastation they were being asked to wreak on our behalf.

It wasn't their fault they found themselves in the middle of an arms race upon which the fate of the whole war hung. They didn't want to turn a city into a moonscape. Very few fancied the idea of flying for hours across enemy territory with the Luftwaffe trying to fill them with lead all the way there and all the way back. They all had parents, lovers, or children to think of.

They did it anyway.

And when the few who survived came home, they were not thanked. Pictures of the devastation were published, and the fact that we had not only stooped to the Nazis' level but in some respects surpassed it was politically unwelcome and swiftly forgotten.

Memorials were thrown up to all those who helped win the war - to Churchill who made the decisions, to the commanders, to the heroes of army, navy and air force and the women who went out to work while their men were fighting.

The men of Bomber Command had nothing. They didn't even get a medal.

As years passed and the survivors became fewer thoughts turned, as they often do, to marking what they did - to mourn the dead and mark the sacrifice, on all sides.

So for five years they wrote letters, rattled tins and sought donations to raise £6.5million for a memorial which was unveiled by the Queen this summer.

Three times as many people as expected wanted to be there, who needed portable toilets, chairs, a sound system, security, barriers, catering, insurance and other arrangements which all cost £827,000. The veterans were going to be charged another million or so VAT as well, until public disgust forced the Treasury to waive it.

Two government departments - the Department for Culture, the Media and Sport and the Ministry of Defence - promised to pay £250,000 each towards the opening costs. The DCMS stumped up £200,000, and the MoD has stumped up £0.

Let me say that again. The Ministry of Defence has paid £0.

It says it's given more than that in organising a flypast and sending personnel, which means that eight trustees of the memorial, including three Bomber Command veterans, are now personally liable for a shortfall of £550,000.

So that's three men who volunteered to fight for their country, who followed instructions to rain death from the sky, who were brave enough to climb into a plane they had little chance of getting out of in one piece, who went off to do the dirtiest work a politician ever considered, who against all hope survived to bear witness and who were never thanked for the hell they went through, face losing their homes and pensions because they are appreciated by everybody except those who ordered them to do it.

One wrote to the Prime Minister two months ago asking for help. He didn't even get a reply.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond was happy to be seen at the event, along with veterans from Australia, New Zealand and Canada who were in our crews and whose governments contributed not just to the memorial but also their travel expenses.

A government spokesman has told the veterans it "does not usually support opening ceremonies for public memorials". Fair enough, it doesn't.

But then veterans do not usually need to provide their own damn memorials. Heroes are not usually  forgotten. Official disdain is not usually so public and debts are usually paid.

But then the Ministry of Defence has more important things to do with its money, like buy aircraft carriers without aircraft, make thousands of military and civilian personnel redundant and never notice the fact it's charged £400 for every spanner.

Why on Earth should it spend the equivalent of one 71,000th of its annual £39.4bn budget on the men who didn't have the good grace to die quietly?

A few months ago the MoD announced it had balanced its budget for the first time in a decade. The trouble is that in war the balance sheet is not just about money - it's to do with who did what, and why, and how, and recognising there are some things you will always be owed and that the first of these is a 'thank you'.

The biggest debt of all is owed by politicians who sit in comfortable chairs ordering men into hell so they can get re-elected then choose to forget, and it's the ugliest thing I've ever seen.

If only they had the heart to know it.

Perhaps the lucky ones didn't come home.


Roger Neilson said...

Politicians ought to be ashamed, they are happy enough to get the media bytes from such things......

Anonymous said...

My father was on ground crew for Stirling bombers during WW2. He often talked about the young crews who didn't return and how he and his comrades sat up all night waiting for them. I still have photos of many of the those crews with their planes. Yes, they rained death on the land of our enemies; one horror fighting another in order to prevent more horror. It's called war.

AliBB said...

My dad was a 'bomber boy'. He was 'lucky' enough to have been shot down in 1943 otherwise it is unlikely he would have survived the war. Until about 15 years ago he never talked about the war - never. He was a modest, unassuming man and not only would everything he did have haunted him but his contribution to the war, and those of others in Bomber Command were glossed over once the war was over. They did as they were ordered - that's what you do in the military and in wars and if you were part of my Dad's generation.He was supposed to be at the unveiling in June but he wasn't well enough. He died 6 weeks ago. 11 surviving Bomber Boys gave him a guard of honour but only one of them was able to salute as they were all on sticks. Thanks for this recognition FSF. I know that's all they wanted. Thank you.

graham said...

Another excellent and moving article Foxy - the question I have is....what can we do to help? Who do we need to lobby (apart from writing letters to our MP which will be ignored)? Where can we make donations to see that those who gave so much don't need to do so again?

Anonymous said...

This article made me cry not just for those veterans and the young men who never came home but through frustration and anger at the treatment they have received. It makes my blood boil, I am seething! What kind of people have we got in power? Heartless, ungrateful hypocrites, that's who. Do they not understand the stress these old men must be under to have that amount of personal debt. It wasn't their individual duty to recognise and remember those men, it was ours as a nation and if it means that some of my taxes need to be spent then they have my permission. It's time this sorry appology of a government stumped up and for once did the right thing.

SherpaPsy said...

Your story brought tears to my eyes...I hope enough publicity and the stink of the selfishness of these people and agencies will get the correct results. "Lest We Forget" is sadly forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Is there anywhere to donate?

Anonymous said...

If I could vote for you I would.

Martyn Freeman said...

Spot on again Foxy, sadly all you said is very true. My grandad was in Lancasters
All through that war and was over most of the places you mention, he also went to
Peenemunde (spelling?) it was only a few weeks before he died that he ever said
anything about what he and his mates went through, I only hope that put in the same
position I could do the same as him. They all deserve so much better.

Anonymous said...

Actually Berlin was only bombed after the Germans bombed the east end of London. The RAF was banned from bombing Berlin before that.

The bombing raids of Germany were political and necessary. Political because Stalin was desperate for the allies to open a second front in Europe and that was not possible until 1944, so Churchill agreed to the mass bombing raids as a way of showing Stalin that we were in the fight.

Also the mass bombing of Germany diverted thousands of aircraft, anti aircraft guns, men and materials from the eastern front. Even that diversion of resources may have been what helped Russia stand fast against the Germans.

Much of the bombing of Germany was authorised personally by Churchill. I've never understood why this arsehole is so respected by people. Not only his he shaft Hugh Dowding in the back (Dowding was never forgiven by Churchill for refusing to allow more fighter aircraft to go to France in 1940) he also personally ordered the bombing of Dresden and allowed Bomber Harris to take the blame for it (Dresden was never a priority target for Bomber Command)

The US 8th air force lost about 25,000 men, yet RAF Bomber Command lost 55,000, but people still think the yanks lost more men, just as people think the yanks landed the most soldiers on D-Day.

It should also be remembered that the famous Dam Busters raid forced the Germans to divert thousands of construction workers to rebuild the damaged dams and improve the defences of the rest of the main dams in Germany. This delayed the construction of the Atlantic wall, the defence system to prevent invasion of France. Had that been completed the D-Day landings would have been an even bigger slaughter than they were and may have even failed.

Going back to that idiot Churchill, did you know he banned Polish fighter pilots taking part in the flypast on VE day because he was obsessed with not upsetting Stalin. We went to war to free a Country that had been invaded by a nut case mass murderer. In 1945 we abandoned that same Country still being run by a lunatic mass murderer, just a different one.

We stick up statues of that moron Churchill everywhere, yet the REAL heroes of WW2 be it the pilots, the seamen or the soldiers (like the ones who fought in the far east) are forgotten.

Scask said...

To make a donation, go to

Hayley said...

Started reading this article thinking it was another knocking piece about these extraordinary men. It was not. Great read, well written and so true. My father flew with Bomber Command in 44 Squadron. Sadly not with us any longer but so proud of him. Our politicians are a disgrace. I will happily make another donation. It won't go far in making up the £550,000 shortfall. But it is the right thing to do whereas this government's broken promise has yet again failed to recognise the sacrifice and bravery of Bomber Command, their fallen comrades and my father.

Nick said...

Thank you for this article. It sums up exactly what I feel. My Dad was in Lancasters too and miraculously survived. He never talked about his experiences. He died earlier this year somewhat comforted by the fact that there was some public recognition at last. It's too late for a campaign medal now alas.But that was what they deserved.

Anonymous said...

a politician is someone who would lick out a dirty toilet to get votes, but has the memory of an amnesic goldfish, and the moral integrity of a a turd.
what can you expect from such a creature, they do occaisionally slip and show what they really think of us "plebs" though.

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