EMMETT SULLIVAN: In considering how the RAF was memorialised after the Second World War and into the Cold War, we bring you today to the Air Forces Memorial in Runnymede, Surrey. This is actually immediately adjacent to one of the halls of residence for Royal Holloway, University of London, where I work. Now this is established as a memorial to not just the Royal Air Force, but all of those who flew and fought in the Second World War, who lost their lives, but were missing. So what we have inscribed around the walls of this memorial are the names of servicemen and servicewomen who were lost in action during the Second World War.
Now this memorial was first established in 1953, and was opened by the Queen in October of that year. And it pays homage not only to those who fought bravely in RAF colours, but to all of those from the Allied side who flew with the British Commonwealth. So we think about the RAF as been reasonably homogeneous. But do remember that 303 Squadron, arguably the most successful fighter squadron in the Second World War, with 126 kills, was piloted by Poles. That Guy Gibson, in 1942, the most decorated servicemen in all the forces, who went on to lead 617 Squadron in the Dam Busters Raid, was actually born in India.
And we have an entire group of RAF Bomber Command, Six Group, staffed by Canadians. So this memorial reminds us that as the Cold War becomes a more active force in people’s memory, that we have the end of the Korean War coinciding with the establishment of this particular memorial, that it was the British Commonwealth that contributed to the defeat of Germany, and Japan, and the Axis powers in the Second World War. Just at a time when the British Empire is becoming dissolved in that form, and is reemerging as the Commonwealth under the Queen.
Outside of the Cold War period, but still relevant to our general discussion of how the RAF is memorialised, is the 2005 Battle of Britain Memorial, established on the Victoria Embankment. Now this really does embody the activity of the scramble. The idea that to defend Britain, young men, predominantly young men, had to engage in a form of gladiatorial warfare. In this case, dealing with single piloted aircraft. Attacking the bombers coming to destroy RAF installations, and eventually, the general public, from Germany. Now the opening of this memorial in 2005 was welcomed universally, because, in some respects, the Battle of Britain is culturally enormously important to British identity.
It may, in some respects, represent the cultural high point of the British Empire and the British Commonwealth, more generally. Because amongst the pilots who flew during this period was one Jamaican, but over 100– 110, 120– coming from New Zealand and Poland. Fighting for the defence of this country. Now what we have depicted in front of the frieze that I’m standing by is the activities of the 3,000 or so crew and support staff who made the RAF Fighter Command operational in the Battle of Britain. And behind us is a commemoration in a frieze, which deals with the home front, and those who had to deal with the German bombing.
So if we’re looking at a very positive image that’s put forward after the Second World War, I think this really does give us an example of Britain’s feeling towards the RAF. In 1992, a statue was finally erected to Sir Arthur Harris, Marshal of the Royal Air Force. And we’re standing by it on the Strand, right next to St. Clement Danes Church. Now this was opened, or rather unveiled, by the Queen Mother in 1992. And it became a matter of some considerable controversy. So controversial that for some time afterwards, the statue had to be guarded to prevent vandalism. The role of Bomber Command during the Second World War became controversial in the Cold War period.
Actually, it started to become controversial from February of 1945 and the bombing of Dresden. Now Bomber Command still existed up until 1968, when the strategic nuclear deterrent was transferred to the Navy. And it takes 50 years, from the beginning of the strategic bombing campaign in 1942, before the statue to Sir Arthur Harris is put up. You may know Arthur Harris by one epithet, Bomber Harris. Others were less kind and called him Butcher Harris.
The numbers who died as a result of nighttime bombing by the RAF ran into the tens of thousands. The official history of the Second World War suggests that during 1943 and 1944, perhaps 200,000 Germans died as a result of Allied bombing. So the erection of a monument to Harris remained controversial. And it took a long time for the powers that be to decide that one of the foremost engineers of the RAF’s strategy in the Second World War should be honoured such. The controversy about how Bomber Command has been remembered for its role in the Second World War continues up to the present day.
Quoting from one of the books that was associated with the Bomber Command Memorial itself, it suggested that as a result of the Dresden Raid
in February of 1945: “Disgracefully, Churchill attempted to distance himself from the attack, shortly after the raid. The first of many snubs to Bomber Command, culminating in, among other acts, the omission of a mention for the Command in Churchill’s post-war victory speech, and the denial of a specific campaign medal.” So this lack of recognition lasted the entire Cold War period.
The controversy about the role of Bomber Command in the Second World War rumbles on today, into the second decade of the 21st century. A Guardian article in 2006, when the memorialisation of Bomber Command was being discussed, quoted a 135,000 death total for Dresden. That is a figure that has now been substantially discredited. And the current estimate is between 28,000 and 35,000 who died in the four raids of the RAF and the United States Army Air Force in February of 1945. Now that is not to downplay the 35,000 people who may have died during those raids. But it’s also to diminish, just slightly, the actions of the RAF in trying to take the war to Germany.
And to give some purpose, in that regard, to the efforts domestically.