Nearly seven decades after the end of the Second World War, the service and sacrifice of Bomber Command, including that of tens of thousands of Canadians, has been recognized.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney announced that a special bar is being created for Canadian Bomber Command veterans to wear on the ribbon of the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal (CVSM). As well, Queen Elizabeth II unveiled the new Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park in London, England, on June 28.
The centrepiece of the stone memorial in London is a sculpture of a seven-man aircrew, protected by a roof made of metal recovered from a Handley Page Halifax III bomber shot down over Belgium. It honours the 55,573 members of Bomber Command, including 9,980 Canadians, who died in missions over Europe, as prisoners of war or in training accidents.
“I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it,” said Jim Fawcett, who was among the 42 Canadian veterans of Bomber Command who accompanied Blaney to London for the ceremony. Recognition for Bomber Command service has come “a little late,” he said, “but better than never.”
Nearly 50,000 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force served in Bomber Command operations, many of them in the only non-British group in Bomber Command—the RCAF squadrons of No. 6 Bomber Group.
The odds were against them. Although each mission had on average a four per cent chance of being shot down, crews had to complete 30 missions. Of the 125,000 who served in Bomber Command, 55,573 died in action—a death rate of 44 per cent. Nearly 10,000 crew members were taken as prisoners of war.
At the end of the war, medals and bars were awarded to veterans, but no special recognition was given those involved in the perilous missions of Bomber Command, at least in part due to a controversy over the civilian death toll in Germany and Austria.
“I can see their point,” said Jim Watson, a Halifax pilot who flew “12 ¾ missions—I got shot down outside Brussels… and spent three years in a prisoner of war camp. It’s a terrible thing to bomb cities; war is a terrible thing.”
“The bombing we did, I was quite in favour of,” said Richard Sellen, a pilot who flew 39 missions in Halifaxes and Lancasters. “That was the method they had to use to try to stop the war.” But, he adds “we didn’t just bomb a city.” First, targets were identified through aerial reconnaissance work and sometimes through espionage. Sometimes those targets were industries or operations of which nearby civilians were unaware. On missions, “Pathfinders would mark the targets as well as they could.”
Even if civilians were not targeted, heavy industry and war factories were located in cities. With the imprecise targeting of the day and the fact most missions happened at night, civilians were bound to be hit, said Sellen. “There was no way around it.”
Bombing was a tactic used by both sides during the Second World War. Scores of British cities suffered. London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights during the blitz.
Against this background, many Canadian air force veterans had lobbied for years for recognition for Bomber Command service. One problem was that Bomber Command was a British entity.
Although the CVSM was authorized by Britain in 1943, the Canadian government has since authorized bars to be added to it for service in Dieppe and Hong Kong.
“With the production of this bar, our government is honouring those Canadians who fought for peace, freedom and democracy through their service in Bomber Command operations over Europe,” Blaney said in making the announcement.
Bomber Command veterans or their families may contact Veterans Affairs Canada online for further information about the bar and when and how to apply for it at www.veterans.gc.ca or by calling 1-866-522-2122 (English) or 1-866-522-2022 (French).