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London: The Bomber Command Memorial – Part III

Emmett Sullivan speaks to Seb Cox about the time it has taken for public memorials to the RAF in the Second World War to be made.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: We’re very grateful for the opportunity to speak to Sebastian Cox, who is the Head of the Air Historical Branch for the RAF. Now when we’re considering memorialisation in the post ‘45 period, you were the historical advisor to both the Coastal Command Memorial, which is in Westminster Abbey, but also the Bomber Command Memorial, which opened in 2012. Or it was unveiled in 2012. Seb, why do you think it took so long for those memorials, and particularly the Bomber Command Memorial, to be made public?
SEBASTIAN COX: It’s quite a complicated issue in many ways, I think. In the immediate post-war period, much of the guys who’d fought in the Second World War were either going to become RAF regulars, in which case they were busy being RAF regulars. Or they left the Air Force and they went into civil life, and they had to get a career, get a job, provide for their families, et cetera, et cetera. And their focus really was not in necessarily completely forgetting the war, but that was not their main concern, anymore. Their main concern was living life. Having survived, the last thing they wanted to do was keep looking backwards.
They get older and things change and they retire. They’ve got more time to think about these things. In the immediate post-war era, I think the concentration is really on the dead. And in that sense, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission sets up or expands on existing cemeteries to literally bury and memorialise the dead. And it establishes the Runnymede Memorial and the other memorials at Malta, El Alamein, Singapore, and Ottawa to commemorate those who have no known grave. And the concentration is on doing that. You then have a sort of ’60s and ’70s, where particularly in the light of the Vietnam War, military power is not the popular– not considered to be quite a nice subject, if you like.
There’s a lot of anti-war feeling. Also wrapped up with anti-nuclear sentiment and all the demonstrations about theatre nuclear weapons in the ’70s and the ’80s, et cetera. One of the sea changes, I think, comes with the ’90s and the increasing deployment of British military forces from Gulf War One onwards through the ’90s and into the early 21st century. And there is a public perception, partly driven by the media of, well, these guys are important. They’re doing an important job, but it involves a great deal of sacrifice. Lots of them get killed and maimed. And we need to recognise their sacrifice and et cetera .
So there’s a change in public attitude to the armed forces, from a partly or potentially hostile or certainly not sympathetic view of the armed forces in the ’60s and ’70s and much of the ’80s, to a more sympathetic view, perhaps starting with the Falklands War, but really generated by Gulf War One and then onwards into Iraq and Afghanistan. And the recognition that despite the fact that you might characterise some of those wars as not successful– some were, some weren’t– that that’s not the fault in many ways of the guys fighting the war. And that their sacrifices need to be recognised. I think all those in combination create a new atmosphere. And you begin to get a push to create memorials.
And actually the first one unveiled is the Coastal Command Memorial in Westminster Abbey.
That’s followed by the Battle of Britain Memorial on the Embankment. You also have the Battle of Britain Memorial again at Capel-Le-Ferne. And then you finally get the Bomber Command Memorial, which is probably the most controversial, in 2012. Unveiled by the Queen in 2012. Interestingly, with practically all the living adult members of the Royal Family present at that unveiling, which is a not insignificant political point. It’s their choice.
This was not a government memorial. It was privately funded. They all were privately funded. Obviously the RAF supported that in the sense of it was pleased to see the memorial erected and dedicated. And it sent people to the unveiling on a fairly large scale. But there was no public money. And it was not driven by any sort of public body. The committee that had the memorial erected, partly at the instigation of Bomber Command Association. That was not an RAF or a Ministry of Defence or a government committee in any sense. So these things are more complicated than people feel.
And feelings are important because it’s a sea change in public attitudes, combined with an increased recognition of the current armed forces, and then a recognition that perhaps their predecessors who’d fought a much larger war on a much greater scale with much greater sacrifice, perhaps we haven’t recognised them. So if you start talking about the heroes of the wars of the ’90s, then you start to create a public aura, which allows you to talk about the heroes of 1939-45, again, which many people had simply forgotten about.

Seb Cox

We welcome Seb Cox back to discuss the issue of memorialisation – Seb was the historical advisor to both the Coastal Command and the Bomber Command Memorial committees.

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