A Centre for Bomber Command
By Dr. Richard Mayne
As an historian, it is rare that I write in the first person. However, after attending the ceremony for the opening of the International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC) in Lincolnshire, England, in April 2018, I can think of no better way to relate that experience, since it was indeed a moving and personal event.
I should also point out that I have a bias: My father was an air gunner in Bomber Command during the Second World War, so even before the ceremony started, it had special meaning for me. That said, my position as the RCAF’s chief historian has given me the privilege and honour to partake in many ceremonies of this nature, but there were a few aspects of my IBCC experience that, aside from my family linkage, made it one of the most remarkable that I have attended.
Before describing these experiences, however, it is first necessary to provide context.
The IBCC has defined itself as “a world-class facility to serve as a point for recognition, remembrance and reconciliation for Bomber Command. Providing the most comprehensive record of the Command in the world, the IBCC ensures that generations to come can learn of their vital role in protecting the freedom we enjoy today”.
The IBCC took more than eight years to be developed, and it was built at a cost of approximately 10 million British pounds. It consists of a memorial spire, gardens, and the Chadwick Centre, which helps interpret the history of Bomber Command. The monument itself, which stands at 31 metres high, is now the tallest war memorial in Great Britain and, in partnership with the University of Lincoln, the Centre boasts a digital archive of some 190,000 documents, photos and letters.
The opening ceremony was held in Lincoln in the United Kingdom on April 12, 2018, and attended by an estimated 4,000 people. It was designed to celebrate the opening of the IBCC with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, but it was also a commemoration of the almost one million individuals who served and supported Bomber Command. Equally important were the 300 veterans who attended the ceremonies.
It was unfortunate that poor weather prevented an extended flypast by the Royal Air Force; however, in some ways, the sullen skies seemed more appropriate. With the monument’s apex buried in the low lying clouds of a cold morning mist, the tributes given to the approximately 55,000 members of Bomber Command who died in the skies over Europe were extremely well done. And, in many ways, that was what the day was about: those who did not return from missions and whose names are now etched in the panels surrounding the monument, as well as the veterans who survived their time in Bomber Command. Canada’s veteran presence was embodied in Stuart Vallières, who, on his 33rd mission, was shot down and rescued by the French resistance. This reprieve was short-lived, as his injuries were so severe that the Resistance had no choice but to hand him over to the Germans so that they could provide the medical care that he required, which included the amputation of a portion of one of his legs.
While the ceremony was memorable in its own right, it was what happened next that reminded me of why I became an historian so many years ago. First, there was the moment after the ceremony when the now-commander of the RCAF, Lieutenant-General Al Meinzinger, presented a copy of a new book on a key Canadian member of Bomber Command to Mr. Vallières. Not long after this event, I was informed by one of the assisting RCAF officers that this inscribed gift meant so much to Mr. Vallières that he did not want it left out of his sight.
This was followed by Lieutenant-General Meinzinger, the attending RCAF officers, other guests and myself being treated to the opportunity to meet Mr. Vallières at the Petwood Hotel in a room that was steeped in history: it had once been the officers’ mess for 617 Squadron (the famous unit responsible for the Dambusters raid). It was almost a surreal experience as I watched this wonderful 95-year-old veteran relating his wartime stories to us. After his first account, I found myself looking around the table, and I saw every RCAF officer and civilian glued to every word.
The stories themselves were truly wonderful, and it occurred to me that I was witnessing the process of one generation connecting with another — what some might call the “stuff” of history. It was, therefore, a true pleasure not only to see this veteran again at Lieutenant-General Meinzinger’s change of command parade on May 4, 2018, but also to have the opportunity to hear the new commander share some of Mr. Vallières’ stories with the audience. In Lieutenant-General Meinzinger’s words, as he took command of the RCAF:
As it is our proud history that inspires us, gives us purpose, and guides us toward the future, I must mention that I recently returned from the opening of the International Bomber Command Memorial in Lincolnshire, England — the heartland of Bomber Command during World War Two.
I was reminded powerfully of the courageous contributions that RCAF personnel made during this chapter of the war, noting sadly that we lost some 10,000 RCAF personnel during this difficult campaign.
It was an honour to attend with one of our Canadian heroes: 95-year-old Stuart Vallières, who was shot down on his 33rd Halifax bomber mission in the summer of ’44.
Held by the Germans for four months as a POW, Stuart described to a small group of us how he managed to break the nose of an aggressive guard who spat on Stuart while he was lying on a hospital gurney post-surgery.
Ladies and gentlemen, if that is not a courageous fighting spirit, then I don’t know what is!
Stuart, it is great to have you here this morning with your son Dave (the namesake of one of your amazing Canadian crew members).
Watching such knowledge pass from generation to generation was remarkable, and spoke to the value of history to institutions such as the RCAF. It was also an important tribute to our veterans and, perhaps, this was the most memorable part of the IBCC experience.
As one British newspaper reported, the youngest veteran at the ceremony was 92 while the oldest was 100. It is a discouraging thought, and raises the unfortunate fact that we are reaching a point where soon there will be no more Bomber Command veterans to hear from firsthand. Luckily, however, there is now a new Centre that will keep the memories of these brave fliers alive.
Dr. Mayne is the RCAF Chief Historian
Aluminum from Canadian Halifax bomber shared with IBCC
From Karl Kjarsgaard, with files from RAF News
The Bomber Command Museum of Canada (BCMC) is the caretaker of some of the most precious historic aircraft aluminum in Canada, the melted-down remains (in the form of ingots) of RCAF Halifax LW682 of 426 “Thunderbird” Squadron. This aircraft metal was saved after the missing-in-action crew was found entombed inside the Halifax in a bog in Belgium, and recovered in 1997. Now, we have been able to share our Halifax aluminum treasure with the International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC). In January we delivered 140 kilograms of aluminum to the IBCC to be incorporated into their memorial garden on behalf of the RCAF. This precious metal has already been used in the roof of the Bomber Command Memorial in London, England, and for other special projects.
The aluminum took its final form as the reverse of Memorial Panel 271, which, along with other panels in the memorial, bears the names of those who gave their lives in the service of Bomber Command. The bluish panel, located east of the memorial spire, bears the words “Because We Remember”. According to Royal Air Force News, Volunteer Dave Gilbert, head of the IBCC’s losses database, says that the task of recording the names of all those who died in the service of Bomber Command may never be complete. “There’s a panel, number 271, which is where additional names will go. It’s a special one; it stands alone and bears the inscription ‘Because We Remember’.”
About the International Bomber Command Centre
From the IBCC website
The International Bomber Command Centre project includes recording, preserving and relating the stories of all those involved with, or affected by, Bomber Command during the Second World War. Lincoln was chosen for the site as it provides a central point for all 27 bases that earned Lincolnshire the title of ‘Bomber County’. Lincoln’s Cathedral provided a landmark for crews both leaving and returning from missions and, for those who failed to return, the Cathedral was often their last image of home. The county housed more than a third of all the Bomber Command stations, making it the ideal home for this commemoration of the bravery of the men of Bomber Command.
The Spire commands stunning views across Lincoln, and is recognised as the UK’s tallest war memorial. The Spire, officially unveiled in October 2015, is 31.09 metres tall, the wingspan of the Avro Lancaster bomber, and it is five metres wide at the base, the width of a Lancaster wing.
The Walls of Names honour almost 58,000 men and women who lost their lives serving or supporting Bomber Command the Second World War. The Walls surround the Memorial Spire in a series of circles framing the view of the City and the Cathedral. There are 23 walls with 270 individual panels holding the names of nearly 58,000 men and women. Every life lost in Bomber Command was equal in sacrifice and, as a result, the walls do not recognise rank or medals awarded.
The Chadwick Centre uses technology and interactive displays to bring to life the experiences of those involved or affected by the fight to preserve the freedom we enjoy today. Interviews with veterans of both air and ground crew, and support staff from around the world, come together to create an Orchestra of Voices. There are accounts from survivors of the Allied bombing campaign, members of the Resistance Movement, and people affected by the influx of thousands of service personnel into their communities. The Centre is named in honour of Roy Chadwick, designer of the Lancaster bomber.
The Ribbon of Remembrance connects the Chadwick Centre to the Memorial Spire. The public is invited to dedicate an engraved paving stone to commemorate a relative, ancestor or friend. The Ribbon of Remembrance will provide a central and personal focal point for visitors to the Centre and ensure that those who served or supported the Command’s operations are remembered and honoured, whether lost during the war or since.
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