Backstage at the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial

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Such a wonderful day last thursday in London’s Green Park. Following a short road trip in a Black Cab with with Reggie Hay from the taxi charity and two WWII veterans – brothers Eric and Jack Davis – I attended the unveiling of the long-awaited Bomber Command Memorial by the Queen. As there wasn’t room for everyone in the memorial area itself, the majority of guests had a sort of back stage pass to the ‘Salute’ area, just behind it. This area was somewhat more informal, but there was nonetheless a sense that this was a profound occasion. Here, several thousand Bomber Command veterans, their widows and  families watched the events on a giant screen, hosted by Carol Vorderman, patron of the Bomber Command Memorial Fund. As the grand-daughter of a Bomber Command veteran, it was a real privilege to be there.

This didn’t seem the time or place to debate the moral complexities of the WWII bombing campaigns, but to remember the people who lost their lives and appreciate those who’ve lived to tell the tale. Among the many great people I met was Dennis Thompson, born 1925, a Lancaster rear gunner. He was part of Operation Manna in 1945, when Bomber Command aircraft dropped 6,500 tonnes of food and clothing to the Dutch people on a mercy mission. This, he told me, was the most gratifying and humane experience of his life. I also met two sisters whose father had been a pilot. Sadly he died last year. One was wearing his RAF peaked hat, the other his Victoria Cross. It was clear that this memorial meant so much to all the veterans and their families.

The crowd sought shade from the scorching sun under various improvised protective devices – handkerchiefs, the RAF News, umbrellas – as a Lancaster Bomber dropped a cloud of poppies over London. Their exact number was a  matter of some debate. Some said it was 55,573 – one for every young man who died in Bomber Command. Ms. Vorderman said there were a million. She’s rather good in the maths department, so I’ll go with her. Whatever the number, it was an extraordinary sight. A friend of mine found some of the poppies on Primrose Hill, 3 miles away, so their message of peace and reconciliation was carried far and wide.

Everyone was incredibly well looked after by the RAF, who supplied a steady stream of much needed bottles of water to the veterans. We all had a brew of special Royal Air Force Tea made by the marvellous Rare Tea Company (definitely one of the nicest cups of tea I’ve ever had), and snacked on special wartime buns prepared by Fergus Henderson and Gail’s Bakery. Much to the  delight of Eric and Jack, Prince Charles and Camilla stopped by later and shook hands with as many veterans as they could. Black Cabs ferried veterans all over London all day for free. Altogether, it was an incredibly moving and uplifting day. Reggie said it was the best day of his life.

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