In 2015, a rust-weathered steel spire was erected on the skyline above the City of Lincoln. It is 102 feet, more than 31 metres, high – by no coincidence equivalent to the wingspan of a Second World War Lancaster bomber. The spire is the dramatic centrepiece of The International Bomber Command Centre, which commemorates the Royal Air Force’s WW2 Bomber Command and includes permanent exhibitions and gardens. Reaching to the sky, the IBCC spire is a modern landmark, a pointer, just as the city’s ancient cathedral was a comforting marker for bomber crews setting out on, or returning from, hazardous missions over Nazi occupied Europe 80 or so years ago. For some flyers, the Cathedral would have been a last image of the United Kingdom and home.
Lincolnshire is an appropriate place for a bomber memorial. There were 27 bomber bases in Lincolnshire, almost a third of all World War Two Bomber Command airfields – hence it became known as ‘the Bomber County’. According to the IBCC, the amount of concrete used in their construction would have covered an area larger than the modern city of Manchester. Somebody works these things out, but the point is that Bomber Command was enormous. More than a million people served in or supported it during World War Two. They came from all over the world – from 60 different nations says the IBCC. These included – in addition to Commonwealth countries such as Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, Rhodesia and South Africa – the USA, Czechoslovakia, France, Norway, Poland, Peru – and even German refugees from Nazi tyranny. The work of these men and women is still controversial, seen by some as an inconvenient part of the Allied victory in 1945. I have a Royal Air Force diary from 1942 and this unambiguously states that:
RAF Bomber Command “represents the striking force of British air power and is the RAF’s chief weapon of offence. Its task is to carry the war deep into the enemy’s territory, both by day and by night, to strike constantly and heavily at the vital parts of his war machine, to disorganise his lines of communication and transport, and to destroy his factories and munition centres.”
Some, including the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, believed that bombing would sap enemy morale and the will to resist. This view was challenged at the time, on moral as well as efficacious grounds. Aerial bombardment is still one of the most contentious aspects of warfare. During World War Two, high precision targeting was the stuff of science fiction. Despite claims that primary targets were economic and military in nature, the reality was that, mostly, neither side could avoid bombing civilians and both sides engaged in indiscriminate area, or blanket, bombing. About 60,595 British citizens were killed during air raids on the UK in the Second World War, including 8,300 killed by Vergeltungswaffen, ‘reprisal weapons’, the pilotless V1 doodlebugs and V2 rockets launched from 1944. The British, having initially had qualms about attacking what some saw as private property, embarked on a strategic bombing campaign that included the deliberate saturation bombing of German cities. The Americans joined the fight from mid-1942; RAF Bomber Command flew by night, while the USAAF operated by day. Anything between 305,000 and 600,000 people, including POWs and slave labourers, died in Germany from Allied bombing between 1939 and 1945. It is estimated that perhaps 45,000 alone perished in the raids on Hamburg in July 1943 and up to 25,000 in Dresden in February 1945, when the concentration of incendiaries and high explosives on both occasions was so great that it caused firestorms – similar to the effects of an atomic bomb. This was truly shocking. Countless fires joined up, the air became superheated and human beings were blown about, helpless like autumn leaves, sucked into flames by winds exceeding 150 miles an hour. Others, taking shelter underground suffocated by carbon monoxide. Many were simply cremated. Royal Air Force and US Army Air Force (USAAF) crew were dubbed Terrorflieger, ‘terror flyers’, by the Germans. Shot down aircrew parachuting to earth could be lynched by angry civilians, unless German military intervention saved their lives.
That is part of the other side of the story. Of the 125,000 aircrew who served in Bomber Command, 72% were killed, seriously injured or captured. More than 44% – 55,573 men – perished whilst on duty, the highest death rate of any Allied unit. The average age to die was 23 years old.
Encircling the Memorial Spire are 271 panels of weathered steel. These record the names of almost 58,000 men and women of Bomber Command from more than 45 nations who died believing they were doing something to rid the world of tyranny. The International Bomber Command Centre is the only place in the world where all these losses are commemorated, cut into the steel Walls of Names.
The IBCC is a brave memorial to bravery and service. Firstly, by simply existing, the International Bomber Command Centre unashamedly, and perhaps belatedly, recognises those who served; secondly, it remembers them, by creating an accessible digital archive, by telling their stories and by recording the dead on the Walls of Names. But, last, and not least, those behind the IBCC also have a vision of reconciliation. Recognition; Remembrance; Reconciliation.
The International Bomber Command Centre’s website seems to be at pains to point out that Bomber Command did not only bomb. It delivered the world’s first airborne humanitarian mission, Operation Manna, delivering over 7,000 tons of food in 1945 to help alleviate the Hongerwinter in the Netherlands. Aircraft of Bomber Command were also a vital part of Operation Exodus, repatriating over 70,000 POWs from camps all over Europe. Nevertheless, the fact is that the Allied bombing campaign progressively overwhelmed the Germans, severely dislocating industrial production, troop movements, destroying supplies and establishing air superiority ahead of D-Day.
Wandering around the IBCC, there is in fact an overarching sense of peace. There are no roaring aero engines, no guns, no explosions, no bangs – no screams. The views over Lincoln are superb. The visitor centre is fascinating and named for Roy Chadwick, the designer of the most successful heavy bomber of the Second World War, the Avro Lancaster. Of course, other bombers were available, notably the Halifax and Short Stirling, but the ‘Lanc’ became the mainstay of Bomber Command. 7,377 were produced, 3,932 – more than 53% – were lost in combat. There are two airworthy Lancasters left in the world, one in Canada and one operated by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
And now it’s time I mentioned Edward.
Several years ago, we were staying in Stamford. It’s a charming old town, like something from a movie set. Not really thinking, I mused aloud, “Mum’s step-brother, Edward, is buried here somewhere.” So then, of course, we had to find him. The story of Edward I was told was that he was a dashing RAF bomber pilot, killed returning from a raid. I heard that he was charming and that both he and his younger brother, Paddy, were close to my mother. For some reason, I had an image in my head of a bomber, probably a four-engine Lancaster, badly damaged by anti-aircraft or night fighter fire, limping back across the grey North Sea at night on one engine and coming to grief on landing. The story was only partly right.
Stamford’s library not only told us which cemetery Edward was in, but also provided a reference for his grave. We set off, via a florist’s, reached the cemetery and didn’t know where to start. A helpful groundsman showed us a plan of the burial plots, but the references made little sense to us. We walked up and down row after row of memorials, looking for the distinctive Commonwealth War Grave headstone. Nothing. We had almost given up and were discussing which other grave was deserving of flowers. Nearby was one dedicated to someone with a similar name to our own, so that seemed a likely candidate. Then we saw it: not a CWGC headstone, but a relatively ornate, private, one.
In Unfading Memory of
EDWARD J T CLARKE
Dearly loved husband of
Killed in Action 1st May 1940
Aged 22 years
Until the day-break, and the shadows
I hadn’t realised he was married. Was that some kind of family secret, or had I just forgotten? I was also confused by the date: before the great bombing campaigns of 1943 onward; before the Battle of Britain; before even the German invasion of the Low Countries and France. What had Edward been doing? The only place I could think of where Britain was actually engaged in any fighting at that time was Norway. Did we even have aircraft that could get that far in 1940?
After we got home, I began searching. On a message board, I came across Edward’s nephew, Michael, Paddy’s son, who I had met years previously, and got in touch. He filled in some gaps and referred me to the astonishing Yorkshire Aircraft website, a personal project that aims to record every air accident in Yorkshire – and beyond. Michael told me was that Constance had been pregnant when Edward was killed; he was trying to track down their son, his cousin.
What happened to Edward was this. He was flying with 115 Squadron out of RAF Marham, Norfolk – a little over 50 miles to the east of Stamford. The squadron was equipped with the Vickers Wellington, a twin-engine light bomber famous for its geodetic airframe designed by Barnes Wallis – later to find fame as the inventor of the bouncing-bomb.
On the evening of 30 April 1940, Edward, flying as second pilot, took off from Marham with the rest of his crew – pilot F/O Augustus Gibbes from Sydney, Australia, air gunner P/O John Marshman from Derby, observer Sgt Lionel Petersen from Carlisle, wireless operator LAC Gerald Stone from the Isle of Wight and rear gunner AC1 Thomas Moir from Edinburgh. Their mission was to bomb Stavanger airfield. In all, 50 aircraft set off to attack three German occupied airfields that night, in Norway and Denmark. Edward and his friends in Wellington R3154 seem to have found and bombed their target, but for some reason lost electrical power on the way home, which cut out their navigational equipment and wireless. They flew back with another 115 Squadron Wellington, which successfully headed for base as the English coast approached. Flying blind in darkness and poor visibility, Wellington R3154 drifted north. They were hopelessly lost. Thinking they were over the flat East Anglian countryside, at around 0315 hours on 1 May, they crashed into the hills of the North Yorkshire Moors in Rosedale, a little to the north of Lastingham. The belly was ripped from the aircraft on impact. Edward and Pilot Officer Marshman were thrown out; both died. The rest of the crew’s injuries were relatively slight and they soon returned to operations. However, only one, Thomas Moir, survived the war.
Edward Joseph Taylor Clarke was born in Darlington, Co Durham, on 7 April 1918. He and Constance Bird of Easton on the Hill married in June 1939. Their son, also named Edward Joseph Taylor Clarke, was born on 31 December 1940. I believe he married, became a father and grandfather, and died in Peterborough in 2018. I cannot help wondering what happened to Constance. 115 Squadron RAF still exists. Its motto is ‘Despite the Elements’. As of 2022, it is a training squadron based at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire. Marham is still an operational RAF base. Stavanger airfield was used by the Luftwaffe for the remainder of the war, afterwards by the Royal Norwegian Air Force and then became a heliport serving the oil industry. It has subsequently been redeveloped.