08 November 2011

Bomber Boys, memorials and medals

Sunday's Independent ran an article about  Ron Leverington, 91, one of the dwindling band of RAF Bomber Command veterans still alive.

Leverington joined the RAF at the age of 23 to join the ranks of Britain's serving as an air gunner. In 1944 his Halifax bomber was shot down, and he spent six weeks hiding in a cave near Lyons with members of the French Resistance. Finally, he was captured by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp on what is thought to have been the last train to leave Paris before its liberation.

"Seven of us were sent out from Pocklington, Yorkshire, on 28 June 1944, and three were killed instantly when our plane was shot down," he said. "The Gestapo put us in a cattle truck with 90 to 100 other people and we were on that train for five days and five nights. Before even arriving at the camp, a young lad, about 12 years old, tried to look out of the barbed 6in window in the truck. Soldiers pointed [a] rifle at him and shot his fingers off. I saw lots of things at Buchenwald; they were awful.

His story will be aired in a documentary on Channel 5 on 10 November.

Like my father who served in Bomber Command from 1942 until the Japanese surrender, Mr Leverington is lucky to be alive. Nearly 56,000 of the 120,000 men who served as air crew in Bomber Command during WWII were killed. This death rate must surely be the highest among any arm of the British Services.

And yet there is no memorial to these men. Whether you like what they did or not (Personally I have mixed feelings about the way Bomber Harris conducted his campaign. I do not believe it came close to achieving its aims until Germany was on its knees anyway. On the other hand it did direct a huge amount of resources away from other parts of the German war effort and this might well have made a difference at crucial points in the War).

Considerations of strategy aside I consider the failure to commemorate these brave men to be an utter disgrace. Better late than never though a memorial will be erected in Green Park next year. About time too!

One other issue that was raised was the "fact" that no medals were ever issued for Bomber crews. Last year more than 100 MPs signed Austin Mitchell's Early Day Motion last year requesting that Bomber Command crew members be awarded a military medal, even if the award were posthumous. The Tory MP Nicholas Soames, Churchill's grandson, said it was a "great anxiety" that the crews were not properly recognised at the end of the war.

Now here I take issue. Ten medals and campaign stars  were issued for service in WWII. The award of the medals was subject to meeting certain criteria. Aircrew eligibility tended to be rather lower than for other services. Of the seven "campaign" medals one was exclusively for aircrew, the Aircrew Europe Medal. This was awarded to aircrew who had met the criteria to be awarded the first the War Medal and then the 1939-45 Star. Once aircrew met the criteria for these medals aircrew had to serve a further two months in an operational unit flying at least one operation over enemy territory.

The Aircrew Europe Medal covered activity from the start of WWII until the eve of D-Day and was issued to acknowledge the fact that Bomber crews were the only members of the British armed forces consistently taking the war directly to Germany prior to D-Day. Service from D-Day onwards was recognised by the award of the France and Germany Star. This medal was awarded to all services.

Aircrew Europe and Africa Stars

Aircrew service wlsewhere was recgonised by other campaign medals.My Father joined the RAF in October 1941. After training he joined an operational squadron based in Lincolnshire (He was then transfered to 109 Squadron, part of the Pathfinder Force). After 28 days of service he became became eligible for the war medal and after two months of operational service he became eligible for the 1939-45 star, After being one of the fortunate few to live long enough to undertake a further two months of operational service he became eligible for the Aircrew Europe Star. 

Burma and Italy Stars

In 1943 he was transferred to Africa, serving there briefly  (becoming eleigible for the Africa Star) and then to Italy (becoming eligible for the Italy Star). In 1944 he served briefly in Iraq (having stood down from operational duties) before moving again to India and finally to Burma. His war ended in August 1945. For his service in Burma and East India he became eligible for the Burma Star. He also received the Defence Medal. This was a medal issued to peronnel in serving non-operational areas and civilians in the Police, Fire Service, Home Guard etc. It was issued as a matter of course to military personnel eligible for a campaign medal.

1939-45 Star, War Medal, Defence Medal

No medal or clasp was issued for a specific battle except for pilots who fought in the  Battle of Britain Pilots. These pilots received a clasp on their 1939-45 star.

My father was lucky to have lived long enough to have become eligible for the medals he has. I am sure that most of the people he trained were either killed wounded or taken prisoner. Many simply did not live long enough to be awarded the Aircrew Europe or the France&Germany Star.

There is no need to strike another medal for Bomber crews. Perhaps the best way forward would be to award the Aircrew Europe or France & Germany Star to all surviving bomber crew members and to the next of kin of those who died during the war or since. Alternatively, a Bomber command clasp could be issued for the 1939-45 Star.

I know it is far too late but at least it would be a very belated mark of recognition to those brave men.

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