RAF tribute stirs up 'war crime' storm

A memorial to 55,000 aircrew in the bombing campaign has angered critics of the Dresden raid.

by David Smith
Sunday August 20, 2006
The Observer

Some battles never end. For more than 60 years veterans of RAF Bomber Command have sought to escape the shadow of Britain's most controversial action in the Second World War: the firebombing of cities such as Dresden.
Next week the 'heroes Britain chose to forget' will finally be recognised when a memorial is unveiled at Lincoln Cathedral, honouring the 55,888 aircrew who died. But far from healing the acrimonious debate, the tribute carved in Lincoln limestone has reopened old wounds.

The Peace Pledge Union, a pacifist organisation which demonstrated against the bombings at the time, regards the attack on Dresden as a crime against humanity and is dismissive of the memorial. 'This is part of the sentimental, nostalgic, crazy age we live in,' said its co-ordinator, Jan Melichar. 'It's a bit like kids wearing badges, it's all so childish.'

The union, which distributes white poppies as an anti-war symbol, staged a public protest when the Queen Mother unveiled a statue of Sir Arthur Harris, commander-in-chief of Bomber Command, on London's Strand in 1992. In remarks likely to infuriate veterans, Melichar disputes the claim that their courage deserves to be saluted: 'I don't know how brave they were. Bravery is a funny thing. Is it brave to sit in a plane and drop bombs on people you've never met, knowing that the chances are you won't be coming back?'

On the night of 13 February, 1945, Bomber Command Mosquitoes and Lancasters carried out two raids over Dresden, three hours apart. A firestorm burnt out large areas of the city, and next day the US air force dropped more bombs. It is now accepted that between 40,000 and 50,000 casualties resulted from the attacks, but some estimates are as high as 135,000. At first Winston Churchill tried to distance himself from the attacks, which some historians see as a war crime.

Melichar added: 'Bombing civilians from the air was against a number of conventions, but the victors don't like to refer to their own actions as "war crimes". '

The inscription in the cathedral will read: 'Dedicated to the men and women of Bomber Command 1939-45, over 55,000 of whom gave their lives in defence of our liberty.'

Douglas Hudson, now 90, a navigator on Lancasters, will unveil the memorial next Sunday along with Sylvia Watts, a member of Bomber Command clerical staff. Hudson said: 'The members of Bomber Command have had a very raw deal since the war. They have been accused by historians and writers of being murderers, destroying German culture. The critics don't think that 55,888 men gave their lives for this country.'

Hudson, who was advised to take Bomber Command off his CV after the war in case it harmed his job prospects, said 'Bomber' Harris had been pressured by the government, which in turn was under pressure from the Russians to target Dresden and ease their advance. 'He was a scapegoat,' Hudson added. 'We carried out his bidding in good faith.'

'Scotty' Scott, 70, who ran the campaign for a memorial, agreed: 'They are wonderful men and it's shameful they have not been recognised. They flew seven nights a week over Germany and were knocked out of the sky like ninepins at the start. They shortened the war by six months and saved hundreds of thousands from the gas chambers by bringing it to a halt. Politicians have treated Bomber Command disgracefully.'

AC Grayling, a philosopher who assessed the moral case for the bombings in his book, Among the Dead Cities, said: 'The tremendous courage and sacrifice of Bomber Command is something to admire. On the other hand, area bombing was a very serious mistake and a moral crime. Somehow you've got to hold those facts together. Any memorial is worthwhile, but to think of applauding Bomber Command in mass murdering civilians night after night would be wrong.'

There was strong support for the memorial from the Dresden Trust, a UK charity which helped to raise funds for the reconstruction of Dresden's Frauenkirche cathedral. Its chairman, Alan Russell, said: 'I do not think the Dresden raid was justified in the way it was conducted, but this is not to be taken as a criticism of Bomber Command.'