And the Poppies Fell in Soho - The Unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial

Even though there were glitches at the unveiling ceremony of the Bomber Command Memorial, it was no less moving. After sixty years of campaigning for this remembrance of fallen comrades, this bit of human frailty made it quietly, comically, magnificent.

A personal view by Professor Michael Clarke, Director General, RUSI

26/06/12: No question about it. The flypast was early at the dedication of the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park today. And when the Lancaster flew over to drop the poppies, it missed.

Some of the serving officers around me smiled ruefully, but I bet the veterans who had arrived from all corners of Britain and the Commonwealth to be there today didn't. They would have understood. In these days of ultra-precision bombing and pinpoint operations they would have known, better than anyone, that Lancasters were never part of this particular military revolution.  

So it was all a technical timing glitch. The flypast of 5 Tornado GR4s was several minutes early over the ceremony and took the assembled royalty, and the rest of us, by surprise while we were still singing 'Praise my Soul, the King of Heaven'. At least we all looked up at the right time.

Then the Lancaster arrived correspondingly early; as the Honorary Chaplain of Bomber Command was intoning prayers for us to respond; 'Lord, Graciously Hear Us'. Whether by luck, or a canny sense of theatre on the part of the Venerable Brian Lucas, he held the gap between one prayer and the next and the Lanc roared its way into the response. By God it graciously heard our prayers. We all looked up again and mouthed our thanks as it thundered above the monument in salute

The Lancaster dutifully released its poppies, and missed. The dense red cloud hung beneath the open bomb doors for a few seconds, caught in the humid air of a stifling day, then began to drift lazily away from the ceremony. Not a single poppy fell among the crowds in front of the memorial. I tracked the path of the cloud from where I could see.  It maintained its shape as it went over Piccadilly, it began to break up a bit over Leicester Square. Then it dispersed and began to fall. And it fell squarely into Soho. I was praying on the outside, but laughing on the inside.

Yes, how the Bomber Boys of the 1940s would have understood. Bloody wind drift as usual. And even more; this Memorial is not about the politics of bombing, or the glorification of it. It's about the 125,000 aircrew who did it, night after night, in the teeth of what turned out to be almost 60% losses. At an average age of 22, they did it in the full knowledge of their chances of survival and with total conviction that it was the right thing to do in the circumstances of a total war.

So if the top brass were embarrassed that this flypast went a little wrong, I know the veterans wouldn't give a hoot because it was in honour of a memorial they have waited more than sixty years for. And those 22 year-olds who died in the campaign, and all those who survived it but are now no longer with us, would, I am certain, have absolutely loved the idea that the poppy which represented them made straight for Soho.

It was a moving memorial ceremony because it was all about the people involved. This bit of human frailty made it quietly, comically, magnificent.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Professor Michael Clarke

Distinguished Fellow

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