EMMETT SULLIVAN: Could you tell us a little bit more about the RAF Benevolent Fund and the role that it plays in the 21st century?
MIKE NEVILLE: I can. the RAF Benevolent Fund isn’t all about tragedy. It isn’t all about death. What we like to really see ourselves is providing a spectrum of care, from the very young to the very old. So we’re talking really about dependents of the current servicemen and women who are in trouble, and helping them out, be it with mobility, be it with medical, be it with housing, or be it with the stresses and strains that come with service life now, particularly when the partners are posted overseas and the mum or dad is left behind, working as well as looking after the children. That generates a great deal of stress and marital stress.
So we do things like Relate and we partnership with them. We partnership with the Citizens Advice Bureau to help people overcome their angst with their going into debt or if they don’t know how to do things. We offer an advocacy and advice service. We do housing trust properties, as well as what I should think what most people think of the RAF Benevolent Fund, in terms of helping the older generation. So we’re now pretty much evenly split between helping the current serving generation and helping the old ones. And of course the old ones suffer from social isolation and loneliness.
And what we try to do is give them a bit of friendship and a bit of dignity in their old age, because what they’ve done for the nation has been absolutely superb. And we are here to support them.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: In terms of the contribution that RAF crew have made in the past, we’re standing in front of the Bomber Command Memorial, which is a tribute to the Second World War crews, but has resonance and importance for those serving today. Could you tell us about the Benevolent Fund’s association with this memorial and the memorial itself, please?
MIKE NEVILLE: It’s a hugely important memorial. And it was absolutely essential that someone stepped in to secure its long-term future. It wasn’t going to get planning permission unless there was an organisation to support it long term. And by long term, I mean way over 100 years. We’re very proud at the RAF Benevolent Fund to have been able to step in and secure the freedom and the maintenance of this wonderful memorial, and to make sure it was built. And there’s a number of reasons why. Again, I’ll go back to an early one. Many people think an RAF Benevolent Fund should just be about welfare.
This actually does represent welfare, because when I show the old boys around, when I show their families around, and those families of those– of the men who didn’t come back from 1939, 1945, the Second World War, you see the joy and the enrichment of their faces. You see the love and you see the remembrance. And you see the reflection of times past. And it’s not just those people connected with Bomber Command, either the veterans or their families. It’s also the general public. It’s been number one on TripAdvisor as a site to visit for over three years now. So it’s absolutely fantastic. And the amount of visitors we get is great.
But I would like to say it’s not a symbol of triumphalism. And it’s very important to remember that. It’s a symbol of reflection more than anything else, and the debt we owe to the– the nation owes to those brave men of 1939, 1945. And the reason, one of them, we really wanted to make certain that people knew it wasn’t a triumphant memorial, and at the back on the last inscription across the top is to commemorate all those who lost their lives, not just the Air Force, and not just the British, because we had many, many different nations taking part. And of course many, many people lost their lives in bombing campaigns against the UK and against Germany.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Mike, you’d like to talk to us about the actual structure and the composition of the statue itself.
MIKE NEVILLE: Just very quickly about the memorial, the stonework. Portland stone, designed by Liam O’Connor, who’s getting particularly well-known now in terms of being an architect of some renown. He’s done an amazing job, and it’s absolutely right and fitting. Many people will say it’s in the shape of an aircraft. I’ve got to say it’s not, because if an aircraft was built like this, it would not get off the ground. But it does have– people think there are wings going down the side, and there’s the central fuselage here. They also think that there are seven columns either side of the main memorial, and those seven columns represent one member of each of the crew of the Lancaster.
Again, I’d love to say that was the case. It’s not. It’s just right and fitting that the spacing of the columns resulted in seven. But if we go inside, I think that’s probably the most interesting part, dare I say, because I can really relate to the sculpture that Philip Jackson made of the seven Lancaster crewmen. This is a statue that was created superbly well, I think, by Phillip Jackson. And for me, it’s captured so many of the emotions and so many of the strengths, and indeed some of the weaknesses of the human spirit. I’ll just relate it, if I may, to my experiences in the Air Force.
Back in 1993, three aircraft got airborne, three C-130 Hercules aircraft got airborne from RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire. And the plan was for them to do a three-ship formation at low level, and then climb to high level, and then let down low level into Scotland, and then individual, as singletons, go and practise low flying and airdrop. They were then meant to meet up 10 miles, and then flying off from RAF Lossiemouth, and fly in as a formation. Two aircraft met up. One sadly didn’t. And the reason why it didn’t is about 20 miles away or so from RAF Lossiemouth, it crashed into the mountains for no explainable reason. Desperately sadly, all nine men on board were killed.
Now I know, because they’re all friends of mine, I know the guys who actually made it there to RAF Lossiemouth. I know that some of their actions are replicated here from the guys from 1939, 1945. And this one in particular to me is so resonant of what my friends were going through in 1993, and what the guys are going through in 1939, 1945. To me, this man represents hope. He’s looking out, looking out for his mates as they’re coming back, probably knowing full well that they’re not going to come back. So the emotion on his face, the hope that they’re coming back, would just be tremendous.
And it’s just strange, really, how 50 years on from the height of the Bomber Command offensive, my friends were in exactly the same position, hoping that their friends were coming in landing, albeit slightly late, but landing alongside, which they never did. Now, next one I really want to draw attention to is the chap at the back. And again, to me, similar to my experiences in 1993, but in 2005 I was officer commanding of Number 47 Squadron, a C-130 squadron at RAF Lyneham. Sadly and tragically, one of my aircraft was shot down in Iraq, and all 10 guys on board were killed. We had to replace that aircraft and we had to replace that crew.
So I asked for volunteers to come with me to Iraq and take over the duties of my lost men. And I had no shortage of volunteers. Everybody put their hands up. And I was very fortunate that I could pick the crew to come out to Iraq with me. But I do know, both personally, but from many of my friends on the squadron, they were looking a bit like that chap. They were thinking, why me? Why have I survived? Because we’d all been out there. We’d all done the job, and we hadn’t suffered. And yet those 10 men, no reason, no fault of their own, they weren’t coming back to their loved ones.
And I think the last one I’d like to draw attention to the chap on the end. And again, I’ll relate this to my experiences in Basra in 2006 and 2007, where we’re under fairly heavy rocket attack by the insurgents out there, and a lot of moral courage was needed. And this man typifies moral courage in the extreme. If you have a look at his right fist, which is tensed really tightly, real signs of stress, real signs of combat stress and PTSD as we call it today, but again, if you look at his eyes, and the way Phillip Jackson has hollowed out those eyes, it almost creates a hollowness of the soul, and the despair.
But the courage that man must have been going through, time and time again, to get strapped into his Lancaster, to take the fight to the Nazi Germans, was just absolutely tremendous. And they all did this. They did it time and time again. They did 20 missions or 30 missions, then have a bit of time off. But then they’d go back for another tour. And they’d do another 20 or 30 missions, knowing fully well that almost one in two of them would not be coming home. For we lost 55,573 men out of 125,000 during the Second World War of Bomber Command alone– just tremendous, tremendous courage needed.
And I think what Phillip Jackson has done, he’s brought the emotions of 1939, 1945, the emotions of yesteryear, very much to today. And I can really relate that to my time in the Royal Air Force.
INTERVIEWER: We’re very grateful, Mike, for your time. And thank you very much for talking to us today about the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund’s responsibilities here at the Bomber Command Memorial, and also your views and the emotions behind them when it comes to what this memorial actually represents. Thank you very much.
MIKE NEVILLE: Absolute pleasure.
INTERVIEWER: Been a pleasure, sir. Thank you.