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4.39 pm

Lord Addington: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for bringing forward this debate. It is one of those ones where you thank whoever there is to thank that you were not around then. Fifty-five thousand died, and the figure I have is a 44.4 per cent casualty rate. I would not fancy being in a line of 10 with those odds.

The casualty rate was immense. I had better say outright that there has also been historical controversy about whether these young men’s sacrifice was used in the most productive way. Questions have been raised about that. The fact is that we were in total war and those young people who were manning those air crews did not make the decisions. Damn the generals if you like, or the air marshals in this case, and the politicians who gave them their permission, but do not try to condemn the memory of those who suffered out there.

I feel something of a fraud in that I do not have the company, and am some way in the stead, of my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie. He could not be here today. I asked him for anything he would like to be said and remember that my noble friend is in his 90thyear, though young in spirit. He said:

“Remember, I was a grizzled, hard, veteran squadron leader”,

and he was a navigator, by the way, “of 24”. He was one who had survived beyond late teen age, beyond his 21st birthday, in a large, fragile aircraft, and had to fly through walls of red hot bits of metal flying through the aircraft and tearing people apart. Luck and judgment would have helped people get through this, but they were the most exposed part of our Air Force.

I had prepared other things to say, but we come back to a point that was touched on on Tuesday, when I suggested that we should start being slightly better at remembering those who survive conflict. That was in relation to the two surviving veterans of the First World War. We should remember this.

My noble friend Lord Mackie said to me that he was not too bothered about the medal but he was bothered about there being somewhere where people could possibly see the list of all the names, some monument on the level of 55,000 names and ages. That would help bring it home to those who are fortunately too young to have served in a conflict of this level. I do not have to tell the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, who has that unenviable task in this House of reading out the names of those who die on active service, that 55,000 died taking on a job that was not only dangerous but has become politically unacceptable in certain sectors of our society. Surely we should remember them and honour their memory at all levels and at the first opportunity. Let us not wait until we have the last handful left. Let us do something now, because time is not on our side, and these things

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take time to get organised. It would be nice to think that my noble friend will see some monument produced in his lifetime.

4.43 pm

Lord Luke: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for introducing this debate. It is a subject which has caused controversy since 1945 and will continue to do so until formal recognition is granted to the immensely brave men and women who died for our freedom.

On 31 May 1992, Her Majesty the Queen Mother dedicated a statue of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris. Her Majesty reminded her audience that western Europe had been at peace for over 45 years, as it had been then, but that it was right that we should not forget those dark days of war, when we were in such grave danger and Bomber Command gave us hope and the means of salvation. Arthur Harris, as we all know, followed a strategy of area bombing, which has provoked immense controversy, as noble Lords mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, gave us some of the amazing figures involved, so I will not repeat them. The campaign inevitably caused vast destruction and loss of life among civilian war workers, German and slave labour, and the military. As we have heard, more than 55,000 British air crew died producing this destruction, yet we cannot say how many lives were saved by the area bombing strategy, which continually disrupted the German military industry, thus contributing enormously to Allied successes in France, Italy and Russia. The great Russian campaigns were greatly helped by the German need to divert a large number of their new fighters that were coming through, and of course their air crews, to defend against Allied bombers flying from Britain, thus, I believe, shortening the war considerably.

All the men who flew with Bomber Command were volunteers and their average age was just 22. As has been said before, they included thousands of men from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the other Allied and Commonwealth countries. My noble friend Lord Goodlad emphasised that point. In recent years the Battle of Britain Flight has, rightly, become extremely popular in this country. It includes various Spitfires and Hurricanes and one precious Lancaster bomber. Would it not be appropriate to rename it the “Battle of Britain and Bomber Command Flight”? Lancasters were undoubtedly the best of the heavy bombers involved, but of course there were also Halifaxes, Stirlings, Wellingtons, Hampdens, Blenheims and, not least, the extremely effective Mosquitoes. All of these, and maybe others, should be mentioned on the memorial that I am sure will eventually be built.

Bomber Command also had other activities, which have been mentioned. There were the pathfinders, whose activities, highly expensive in terms of lives, made sure that the bombers eventually arrived at the right place to drop their bombs. There was mine-laying, which again disrupted the movement of troops and supplies east from Germany into Russia. It is right that, included with the incomparable air crew, we remember the indomitable ground crew and engineers who maintained these aircraft and kept them flying.

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It is good to recall that that bombing campaign in Europe also included the great efforts of the 8th and 9th United States Air Forces, with their “flying fortresses”. They also lost many lives in the combined day and night offensives. Incidentally, from 1943 to 1945 I lived one mile from the end of a runway; I remember the flying fortresses flying in and out, and they were marvellous.

It is on record that Arthur Harris always got on well with his American colleagues, and that reminds us once again of the importance of maintaining a close relationship with our greatest allies. What recent discussions have the Government had with representatives of the Bomber Command Memorial Campaign? Do the Government have any views about the construction of a memorial to the many non-UK service personnel who served and died with Bomber Command?

After the war Sir Arthur Harris said:

“There are no words with which I can do justice to the aircrew who fought under my command. There is no parallel in warfare to such courage and determination in the face of danger over so prolonged a period, of danger which, at times, was so great that scarcely one man in three could expect to survive his tour of operations”.

The Conservative defence team remains very supportive of the Bomber Command Association’s campaign for a proper memorial and continues to be in close touch with the association to see whether it can assist its fund-raising endeavours.

4.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, I am afraid that I must start with what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, rightly called my most difficult responsibility. I invite the House to join me in offering condolences to the family and friends of Lieutenant Mark Evison from 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who died earlier this week from injuries that he sustained a few days ago on operations in Afghanistan. This is a salutary reminder of the dangers that are faced daily by our troops who are on operations now, working to sustain our security in the same way as those who fought in the Second World War, with very heavy losses; they did so bravely, as do those on operations now.

I am pleased that we have had this debate, however brief. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Richard, on securing this Question for Short Debate, which is one of the House’s useful procedures to give an airing to a topic that might otherwise get squeezed out of other debates that come up from time to time. One theme of unity throughout the speeches of all who have been able to contribute is that nobody—but nobody at all—disputes the fantastic contribution of Bomber Command or the fact that Bomber Command was very important in securing our future and making such a difference in the Second World War. Its was an historic contribution. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, who knows far more about these things than I do, gave his assessment that it without doubt shortened the war. Hitler’s Armaments Minister, Albert Speer, who knew more than most people about the impact of Bomber Command, said:

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“It made every square metre of Germany a front. For us, it was the greatest lost battle of the war”.

That sums up some of what people have been trying to say today about the very significant contribution of Bomber Command.

However, as others have pointed out, that very significant contribution came at a terrible cost. More than 8,000 aircraft were lost and, out of 125,000 pilots and crew, 55,573 were killed. Mention has been made of those who came from the Commonwealth—25 per cent of the pilots and crew. It is right that, when we think about how we should remember Bomber Command, we should take into account their feelings as well. It is important to remember that people from Commonwealth countries and from Britain worked closely together during that time and it is good that the bonds, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad said, with Australia, but also with Canada, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries, are still so strong today. So there was a terrible cost.

Statistically—this is one of the most salutary facts—a Bomber Command crew member had a worse chance of survival than an infantry officer during the First World War. That shows the scale of the challenge that they took on and why people are so concerned that they should get recognition. As the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, 19 members of Bomber Command received Victoria Crosses, nine of them posthumously. Their contribution was very significant indeed.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, who participated in a debate that originated with a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, in March of last year. The whole House was silent when they realised that he had that direct experience and therefore was entitled to talk about these issues in a way that others could not. I assured the House at the time of the deep appreciation of this Government for the courage and indeed the sacrifice of those who served in Bomber Command during the Second World War. That certainly remains the case. We owe them a great deal.

The age of those who flew on operations has also been mentioned—the average age was only 22. The dangers were clearly many: night fighters; anti-aircraft fire; the development of new aircraft; mechanical failure; navigational challenges; the prospect of imprisonment if you managed to bail out; and sorties that could take eight or nine hours and brought with them a mental as well as a physical strain and ordeal—an experience that could rarely be matched. We should not forget the contribution made by all those who died, were injured or were taken prisoner.

I, of course, include in that the absolutely crucial role of the ground crew and the in-flight engineers. Without them, Bomber Command would not have been able to carry out hundreds of thousands of sorties, drop more than a million bombs and tie up vast amounts of scarce German resources that would otherwise have been used elsewhere against Allied forces, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, said. Many of the ground crew also suffered. I was glad that we heard mention of the many women in the

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ground crew support teams who made a very significant contribution. Night after night these brave volunteers— noble Lords have stressed that these were volunteers and it is important to remember that—risked their lives and, as I said, many gave them. There has never been any doubt about the bravery and integrity of those who took part.

All speakers have said that there should be appropriate recognition of that contribution. Given the extraordinary service that these people gave, there is, indeed, a very strong case for that. People understandably ask for that recognition. As has been said, those who served in Bomber Command during the Second World War were eligible for one of the stars instituted for campaign service—for example, the 1939-45 Star. In addition, a series of campaign stars were created for participants in particularly hazardous campaigns and many Bomber Command personnel qualified for the much prized Air Crew Europe Star or the France and Germany Star.

Noble Lords have said that this issue should be revisited to consider awarding extra recognition. The case for a specific Bomber Command recognition medal was considered by the relevant committee at the time but it was not considered appropriate at that stage. That was not just the situation for Bomber Command; it applied also to Fighter Command and others. The committee’s long-standing policy has been that retrospective consideration of awards and medals for service performed many years earlier should not be given and that remains the case. Ministers do not interfere in the working of the HD Committee—the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, will recognise, from his experience as a Minister in the department, that many problems would arise if Ministers interfered in the allocation of medals.

As regards noble Lords’ suggestions about creating a memorial and the campaign to erect a memorial to recognise those associated with Bomber Command, we are actively supporting the Bomber Command Association in its efforts to establish a national memorial for Bomber Command that will pay tribute to all those who died serving in Bomber Command. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, said that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, was concerned that the names of those who died should be recorded. I understand where he is coming from. The actual design of a memorial has not yet been determined but I am sure that any suggestions coming from the Bomber Command Association or veterans of the campaign will be taken into account. The House will know that a Bomber Command memorial funding campaign was launched last year, to which the noble Lord, Lord Luke, referred. I understand that the fundraising is going extremely well, which is good to know. The Ministry of Defence chairs the Bomber Command memorial committee, which is looking at locations in London. I understand that good progress is being made about possible locations; discussions, however, have not been finalised. I undertake to come back and inform the House once a decision has been made.

I hope that your Lordships will acknowledge that the unity that exists in this House about the need for

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recognition is shared by the Government. The dedication and sacrifice of those who were part of Bomber Command is absolutely unquestioned. This debate is about how best to recognise that contribution and how to move the situation forward. The Prime Minister said in October last year:

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“I have always believed that the 55,000 brave men of Bomber Command who lost their lives in the service of their country deserved the fullest recognition of their courage and sacrifice”.

I hope that your Lordships will agree that a national memorial to those who perished is a fitting tribute and one that we can all support.

House adjourned at 5.01 pm.

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