Monday, 2 July 2012

Bomber Command Memorial Dedication & Unveiling Ceremony

On the hottest day of the year so far we took Mum and Dad, a veteran of The Pathfinders to London's Green Park for the long awaited Unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial to commemorate the tragic loss of 55,573 young Bomber Command airmen in the Second World War who sacrificed their lives.

In what has been the wettest June in living memory we were blessed to have a lovely hot summer's day for this very special event.

On our arrival at Kings Cross we were delighted to find that a number of black cab drivers were offering to ferry veterans and their families to the event free of charge. Kev, the cabbie who chauffeured us was chatting to Dad the whole journey and said how honoured he felt to have him in his cab. He couldn't believe that Dad had survived 47 missions. When we offered him a tip he was having none of it. In fact, he wanted to have a picture taken with Dad when we got to Green Park but due to security there and traffic, this wasn't possible. So I'd like to thank all the London cabbies for their support to Bomber Command.

This was our view as we arrived at the Memorial. 

There were two areas allocated for the Ceremony. The first area was the smaller Memorial Area right in front of the Memorial. We had been allocated tickets in the much larger Salute Area. You would have been forgiven for thinking from the TV coverage that there were only a few hundred people at the event but we were amongst a crowd of around 7000 watching the live event on a huge screen. We arrived to the sound of Jane McDonald belting out Impossible Dream. Quite a fitting tribute to the occasion. The entertainment leading up to the unveiling at 12 Noon was fabulous.

Our view and as many again behind us

I looked around the crowd and had a massive lump in my throat at how many veterans had managed to attend this very special day. Dad was one of the youngest to join Bomber Command and at 88 he is still very fit and active, unlike some of the other older veterans who were in wheelchairs but proudly displaying their medals and I'm sure wouldn't have missed this day for anything.... each and every one of them with their own story to tell. You could see how proud they were etched in all their faces. All had lost comrades from Bomber Command so this day was to proudly remember them.

The Ceremony itself was a truly emotional event and when the Queen unveiled the incredible 9 foot bronze statue of the seven Bomber Command Airmen there were gasps of admiration from the crowd. It is a remarkable work of art. Philip Jackson, the sculptor, took great care to ensure an extremely high level of detail and was able to depict both facial expression and body language to show the story of this crew searching for their comrades who have not yet returned. Five of the group looking to the sky searching, one of which shielding his eyes and two of them looking down evoking a true sense of sadness and grief. An absolutely incredible work of art. 

The height of the plinth and the scale of the sculpture means that visitors will always see the profiles of the figures against the sky above them, day and night. The roof structure is made from steel and supports a ceiling constructed from aluminium from a Halifax Bomber shot down over Belgium in 1944 in which 8 crew were killed.

After dabbing my eyes seeing this wonderful sculpture, the Last Post was played which always stirs up many emotions. Then we heard the sound of the five Tornados approaching which flew over us in perfect formation. I didn't have time to get my camera out to capture them unfortunately. Everyone was on their feet, cameras at the ready, as we all knew what was coming next. A moment later there was the unmistakable sound of the Merlin engines of the beautiful Lancaster. As she soared above us, she dropped her precious cargo of poppies. They looked like red smoke billowing out of her bomb bay until the poppies separated and floated towards Green Park. Unfortunately, the wind got hold of them and they didn't actually land near us. Maybe we should have asked Dad to do his "Pathfinder" bit and mark out the target with a flare!

I had visions of office people sunbathing during their lunch hour in the un-cordoned off area of Green Park being literally showered with thousands of poppies  ....  how wonderful! There wasn't a dry eye in sight. That is a memory that will last with me forever. There is something truly magical and so very emotional when you see the Lancaster. When she dropped her load of poppies, it was a poignant moment and I'm sure we all thought of the 55,573 airmen who sacrificed their lives for our freedom.

Here are a couple of YouTube links with the poppies dropping on Green Park (outside of the ceremony area). Amazing!!

Poppy drop

Poppies dropping over Green Park "Take cover!!"

At the end of the Ceremony, Dad, Chris and I couldn't wait to get hold of some of the poppies as a memento of the occasion. We left mum looking after our stuff as she's not too good on her feet and we rushed over to where the poppies had landed. 

We then made our way to the Memorial to look at it in more detail and jumped the queues because being with a Veteran gave you preferential treatment! Dad missed meeting Prince Charles, which was a shame, as he had expressed his wish to shake hands with all the Veterans.

Dad and I

Whilst wandering round the Memorial I spotted this lady holding up her wedding photo and snapped the shot which a professional photographer was lining her up for. I had tears in my eyes taking this picture as I know she must have lost her beloved husband. Absolutely heartbreaking.

I saw many veterans admiring the sculpture, all lost in their own thoughts, some in wheelchairs, some on walking sticks, it really did bring a lump to my throat seeing them and chatting with them, all of them remarkable. So many stories to tell and such brave men. Dad once said he didn't think he was brave, he just "went along for the ride"

I've looked at some of Dad's missions when he was in 97 Squadron and night after night after night they would go up in their Lanc with their bomb bay full, not knowing if they would all get down again safely. How can that not be brave? Then, on their return many hours later, they find out some of their comrades didn't make it, seeing the empty beds ... one just cannot imagine it.......

After a breathtakingly emotional and wonderful day, we hailed another cab to take us back to Kings Cross. This cab driver also didn't want to take anything for the journey saying that it was his absolute pleasure and that the journey was "on him". How wonderful.

After collapsing at home and watching the event again on BBC2 I collated my tickets, programme and poppies collected from Green Park. My brother-in-law, who is opening his own picture framing business in Lincoln in September, is going to frame these for me.  A wonderful memento of the day!

With thanks to The RAF Benevolent Association and Bomber Command Memorial Appeal for organising this magnificent event and huge thanks to all the benefactors who made it happen. So sad that Robin Gibb who had campaigned vigorously and was President of The Heritage Foundation wasn't able to see it unveiled, but I'm sure he would have been there in spirit.

Also, thanks to Carol Vorderman MBE for all her support and to all the RAF men and women who helped out on the day, especially with handing out a plentiful supply of water on an extremely hot day!

The RAF Benevolent Fund are now the guardians of the Bomber Command Memorial and rely on the public to preserve the Memorial for future generations. You can Donate to RAFBF here 

Poppy drop (take cover!!)