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Like so many military and industrial cities, Plymouth experienced the full brutality of air power with a blitz lasting from July 1940 to April 1944, which claimed the lives of almost 1,200 civilians. It also changed the fabric of our city. Gone were our Elizabethan houses, our grand civic buildings and more than 3,000 homes. When Plymouth's principal place of worship, St. Andrews
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church, was severely damaged, a local headmistress placed the word “Resurgam”—I shall rise again—above the door, and Plymouth did indeed rise again.

I am proud to say that that strength and resolve lives on. It was apparent a few weeks ago when seemingly the whole city turned out to cheer home 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines and 29 Commando, Royal Artillery from their difficult but vital work in Afghanistan. It can be seen in the way our higher and further education institutions have united with our businesses and employers not just to work our way out of recession, but to keep on track with our ambitious growth plans which, with the Mackay vision for our built environment, will carry on the work of the civic leaders who set about rebuilding the city 60 years ago.

It was the same dogged determination that made the memorial possible in the first place, and the story of how the RAF and Allied Air Forces monument came about is remarkable. It started with a single individual, who saw something wrong and set about correcting it. It reached its goal with a crowd of 20,000, ambassadors from 15 countries, a flypast and, most importantly, a lasting tribute to those who gave their today for our tomorrow. It also seeks to mark the contribution of those who survived, and those who continue to serve the country in different but equally dangerous circumstances.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the international monument. She has touched on the vision of a few key individuals being vital to the project taking off, but does she agree that it was supported by the generosity of Plymouthians? In his book, a copy of which my hon. Friend has beside her, Jim Davis says that many small donations were received with letters stating that the donors were glad that the monument was being built because a father, son or other relative had been killed. The monument would not exist without those people. The same applies to the monument at which I attended a ceremony last week to celebrate American naval personnel who were stationed in Plymouth, and served and died. We should honour them also.

Linda Gilroy: We should indeed. My hon. Friend is right; the idea was first conceived by Jim Davis, and he would be the first to acknowledge that it took those many small contributions and some big ones.

As a young man, Jim lived through the Plymouth blitz. His experience of the “traumatic nights of fear” with the “dreaded sounds of sirens”, the falling ceiling plaster, the glowing orange silhouette of Plymouth burning during the night, and the piles of rubble in the morning made Jim vow to join Bomber Command, and he ultimately served as a rear gunner on Lancaster bombers. He flew some 33 missions, and in his telling book “Winged Victory” he says that lady luck seemed to be beside him on all those occasions, sometimes in extraordinary ways. He tells many stories of those who were, like him, fortunate, and of many of those who inevitably, given the casualty figures, were not.

Jim later settled back in Plymouth, and was dismayed that in the years following 1945 no memorial was built to honour the RAF, Commonwealth and Allied Air Forces. He later wrote:

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That was typical of his resolve, but it was no easy path. He started by writing to local councillors and air force associations, but was disappointed with their initial response. They simply did not believe that it could happen because the cost was too high, the public interest insufficient, and the political will absent. However, Jim was not going to let that set him back. Over time, he met every councillor he had written to, and persuaded each of them in turn to support the project.

Perhaps the most important development in the early days of the campaign was the decision in 1984 to ask for the help of Air Vice-Marshal Don Bennett who, as the youngest air marshal in the RAF, led the Pathfinders during the second world war. Given the international dimension of the memorial, there could not have been a more appropriate choice. He was born in Australia, and during the early part of the war he was responsible for arranging the delivery to Britain of hundreds of aircraft manufactured in Canada and the United States. A key part of persuading the council to allow the monument to be erected on the Hoe was his address during a visit to Plymouth.

It is worth taking time to reflect on the key role that Bennett's Pathfinders played in enabling D-day and the liberation of mainland Europe to happen. Only a few hours before the troops were due to land on the D-day that we have been commemorating, Bennett's Pathfinders attacked the 10 heavy gun emplacements along the Normandy beaches and, with the main force of Bomber Command, destroyed them all. One hates to think what might have happened on D-day if those emplacements had not been taken out.

Jim Davis said of Bennett's role more generally:

His name also has resonance in this place. He served for 73 days as Member of Parliament for Middlesbrough, West in 1945. Bennett's stature and charisma and Davis's drive and resilience made a winning combination. Unfortunately, Air Vice-Marshal Bennett unexpectedly passed away in 1986 before the project had come anywhere near fruition. That was a huge setback, but he continued to be an inspiration to Jim Davis. Indeed, Air Vice-Marshal Bennett’s ashes are interred beneath the memorial.

A committee of air marshals from all the wartime commands had been assembled, but without the leadership of Air Vice-Marshal Bennett, it came to think that the obstacles were insurmountable and that the project could not be achieved. With a customary display of fortitude, Jim did not let that stop him. He formed a committee of local supporters to continue the project. He did not care that they were not as distinguished or high powered; the only thing that mattered was that they had the will to make it happen.

One of the committee members is the secretary of the monument committee, my constituent Mr. Douglas Taylor. He trained as an Air Force electrician and was inspired by Jim when they met at a static air display at Plymouth airport. With the help of the committee, Mr. Taylor has taken on the significant organisation behind the monument service each year. Jim says that

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The original monument committee included Cliff Platt, Lauri Scott, Bill Flynn, Dennis Teague, Doug Dawson and Ray McSweeny, who are all ex-RAF personnel. That stalwart team was joined 12 years ago by Squadron Leader Francis Reis of volunteer reserve training, who is now chair of the monument committee. Mentioning his role reminds me of the strong links between the six squadrons of air cadets in the city, which are about 300 in strength, and the support that they give every year in organising that event.

The project slowly gathered pace. A letter-writing campaign collected supporters and donations. Important links were made with key foreign embassies. Plans were put in place for the unveiling ceremony. The United States pledged servicemen for a guard and aircraft for a flypast, and Holland was sending warships. The Russian embassy met with Jim and gave its support. The representatives of 17 allied countries pledged that they would attend.

The momentum was then sufficient to get through the significant opposition from the military establishment in Whitehall. By refusing to support the project from the outset, the establishment believed that it would be stopped in its tracks. However, it had not counted on the determination of Jim Davis and his supporters. Whether it approved or not was irrelevant: the event was going ahead.

The date was set, but the costs escalated suddenly. Jim and his team redoubled their efforts to make it happen. Tarmac donated the granite for the plinth, English China Clay provided the lorries and cranes and ARC the cement. The 3 ft gunmetal eagle insignia was crafted in Devonport dockyard. As my hon. Friend said, numerous individual donations were received from members of the public. The family of Air Vice-Marshal Bennett have played a key role and given important support, not only at that time but over the 20 years since the monument was built.

The memorial was inaugurated on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the second world war, Sunday 3 September 1989. Over 300 guests were invited from 15 countries, including an admiral and an air marshal from the USSR. The unveiling was undertaken by Air Marshal Sir John Curtis, who drew on his experiences in Coastal Command and as commander of the RAF in the Falklands war, which was still fresh in many memories. His speech drew a comparison between the defeat of the armada 350 years before and the defeat of the Luftwaffe by “the few”.

The crowning glory of the memorial is a 6 ft high bronze statue of a gunner who has since been named the unknown airman by locals. I am sure I am not the only person who has gazed up at that figure, with the blue sky behind him, and recalled John Magee’s immortal poem “High Flight”, which each year forms part of the ceremony. I have attended most of the ceremonies over the past 15 years and pay tribute to the voluntary effort that has kept up the significant logistics required to deliver what is a moving service. Many of the embassies that attended the unveiling ceremony 20 years ago still send representatives. It is a ceremony with very human dimensions. At the end of the formalities, families and
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children add single carnations to the wreaths laid by representatives of the allied nations and the air force associations.

With the staggering losses in the 1939-45 war and in subsequent conflicts and the way in which the monument marks all who have given and continue to give service to the allied air forces, the monument sadly has a very personal meaning for many families. Many names of those who lost their lives were included on a scroll that was buried alongside the ashes of Pathfinder Bennett.

It was agreed several years ago that the monument service could be held each year on the last Sunday of June, which by happy coincidence was the same weekend as veterans weekend last year and armed forces day this year. That means that the combined force of the committees that support those events and the Lord Mayor’s office, which has had an important role since the monument was built, have come alongside the efforts of the monument committee.

I will read the words of Air Vice-Marshal Bennett that are read out each year at the ceremony, which he wrote as an active member of the United Nations Association:

There are many opportunities in the civic life of Plymouth to reflect on matters such as the sacrifice of the thousands of allied airmen, thanks in large part to this magnificent monument and the tireless efforts of those who turned a vision into the reality it is today. I hope that the Minister will recognise the work of Jim Davis, and the people he worked with and inspired to be part of this.

To conclude, I pay tribute to the successive councils and lord mayors of Plymouth for supporting the work of this international monument. I am sure the Ministry of Defence will maintain its commitment to the attendance of senior representatives at the annual ceremonies. As one of the committee members put it:

The MOD’s recognition study last year created a major step change in the way in which we value the work of our armed services, their families and those
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who support them in so many ways. Armed forces day is an important part of that. In recognising the important work of the monument committee, I hope that the Minister will consider what role the MOD can play in helping the monument to gain the broader recognition that its thousands of supporters believe it deserves.

4.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): It is a pleasure to appear under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) on securing this debate to highlight something of which she and the people of Plymouth are very proud. I also commend her commitment to the armed forces in general. I was privileged to serve with her on the Defence Committee and know that she takes a keen interest in such matters. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck). No two people advocate on behalf of their city as strongly as my hon. Friends.

This debate recognises the work that was undertaken on the memorial. I had the privilege of receiving an extract from Jim Davis’s book from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton. I read it last night with great interest. It shows that the determination of the individuals involved ensured that they were not defeated in creating the memorial. It also says something about the people of Plymouth. They are certainly supporting our armed forces today. Indeed, my hon. Friend referred to the welcome home parade, and I thank the people of Plymouth for that.

When one reads the history of the war, one realises that Plymouth lost about 1,200 people and suffered 4,000 casualties during the blitz, and that parts of a beautiful city were destroyed. However, it shows the tenacity with which the people fought back that they not only rebuilt the city that Plymouth is today, but ensured that the monument was built. My hon. Friend referred to the part that Plymouth plays in our D-day celebrations. I was privileged at the weekend to be in Normandy, and saw the support given by the city of Plymouth, not only with the Pathfinders but throughout the second world war. We should recognise that.

May I make another important point, one that I know my hon. Friend is conscious of, which is the importance of passing on the message that future generations should remember the sacrifices of the past? The memorial in Plymouth is a good way of achieving that. I know that my hon. Friend is keen to ensure that future generations do not forget the debt of gratitude and honour that we owe those individuals.

Having read Jim Davis’s book, I would like to pay tribute to him. I pay tribute, too, to the late Air Vice-Marshal Don Bennett and to the present members of the committee. They want to ensure not only that the monument is maintained but that the service takes place annually. May I say a big thank you to Doug Taylor and everyone else involved? The memorial is unique, as my hon. Friend said. It recognises the sacrifice made by more than 100,000 RAF personnel between 1939 and 1945, and by more than 80,000 Americans and 40,000 Soviet personnel. It also recognises the other Commonwealth air forces that made the defeat of fascism achievable.

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The monument was erected and is being maintained through the efforts of individuals. I am sorry that I could not take up my hon. Friend’s kind invitation to attend this year’s event, but I will visit Plymouth shortly and I will be sure to include a visit to the memorial in the itinerary.

Linda Gilroy: Although we could not get the Minister to come to the monument this year, I have managed to get the monument to come to the Minister: it would be greatly welcomed if he could spare the time to meet the monument committee.

Mr. Jones: As I learned when serving with my hon. Friend on the Defence Committee, she uses various methods to get her way. I look forward to my visit to Plymouth. I have visited the city on a number of occasions with my hon. Friend and the Defence Committee, and I know of its contributions not only in support of our armed forces in general but also locally. This year, the RAF will be represented by Air Vice-Marshal Lindsay Irvine at the annual thanksgiving commemoration and the wreath-laying ceremony on 28 June. That shows the Department’s commitment to ensuring that high recognition is given to the monument and to the event.

My hon. Friend referred to armed forces day; the first falls this year, on 27 June, and it builds upon and incorporates veterans day. Across the country, some 80 events will be taking place that have been directly funded by the MOD. Again, I pay tribute to the tenacity of the hon. Lady in securing a contribution of £10,000 from the MOD for the event in Plymouth. Veterans day was a success. The recognition study, supported by veterans organisations, ensured that we could widen it to incorporate serving people, and it is now called armed forces day. This year’s is the first such day, and I want to build on that. There is growing interest in, and growing support for, recognising the debt of honour that we owe not only to our veterans but to the men and women serving in the armed forces. They come from communities large and small across the country, including Plymouth. It will be an annual event, and I hope that it will get into the nation’s psyche, ensuring that on at least one day a year, people can say thank you to the men and women of our armed forces.

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Today’s debate is being held not only in recognition of the tremendous work involved in securing the memorial but to ensure that we continue to support it and perhaps gain more recognition for that work. During my tenure in this post, I will try to ensure that the MOD is involved in the annual event. I want to discuss with my hon. Friend how we can promote the memorial, possibly through publications or the MOD website. The events in Normandy last weekend showed that there is an increasing interest not only in memorials but in some of the great stories behind the individuals who took part in the nation’s defence during the second world war. As Veterans Minister, I believe that it is important to transmit those stories to future generations. We must ensure that people know of them.

Linda Gilroy: Before the Minister concludes, may I say how pleased I am that he was able to read the chapter about the memorial that I gave him? I mention again the book written by Jim Davis, and especially the front cover, because he was quite an artist. He won a scholarship to Plymouth college of art and design and he is a well-known local artist. I commend the book to the Minister—I may buy him a copy so that he can read the rest of it—because it contains some simply remarkable stories, not only about Plymouth but about Jim’s time in Bomber Command.

Mr. Jones: I look forward to receiving a copy. It is important that people’s memories are not forgotten. When I meet veterans and veterans organisations, I try to encourage people to put the information in writing or on tape; it is important that it is kept. Again, can I say no to my hon. Friend? No, I cannot.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I look forward to my visit to Plymouth. Again, I thank her and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport for their support of the armed forces and for ensuring that veterans matters remain at the top of the Government’s agenda.

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