Heroes of the Skies

A sense of pride and justice over war memorial that rights 67-year wrong
Mail on Sunday article by Lord Ashcroft on 24 June 2012

This Thursday, June 28, has been a precious date in my diary for a long time: it is the day when a 67-year wrong will finally be righted.

As the Queen unveils the new Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, Central London, I will feel an enormous sense of both pride and justice.

I am proud because my substantial donation to the appeal fund, along with generous contributions from many others, has enabled the memorial to be built while some Bomber Command veterans are still alive.

My feeling of justice will result from the bravery of tens of thousands of men who sacrificed their lives during the Second World War finally being recognised with a permanent monument in the heart of the capital.

Although my late father, Eric Ashcroft, served as a captain in the Army (he was wounded during the D-Day landings), I have long felt a special affection for our airmen who risked, and so often gave, their lives during the 1939-45 war.

The average age of the crews was just 22 and the youngest were only 18. Three out of every five airmen became casualties, with 55,573 men killed, 8,403 wounded and 9,838 captured as prisoners of war.

The losses of Bomber Command were greater than those of any other service – accounting for ten per cent of all British fatalities – yet, perversely, its members are the only Second World War servicemen not to have been publicly honoured by their country.

Over the past 26 years, I have built up the world’s largest collection of Victoria Crosses (VCs), Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for gallantry.

My collection of more than 170 VCs includes three – from a total of 19 – that were awarded to members of Bomber Command for wartime courage.

One of these was presented to Sergeant Norman Jackson and his bravery typifies their immense gallantry.

On the night of April 26/27, 1944, Jackson had been due to go on leave after completing his scheduled tour of 30 operations, but he volunteered for one more sortie ‘for luck’ before celebrating the birth of his baby son.

This meant he was the flight engineer on a Lancaster aircraft that was returning from a bombing raid in Germany when it was attacked by an enemy fighter aircraft.

When a fire broke out on the starboard wing, Jackson did not hesitate to act, even though he had been wounded. The Lancaster was flying at 200mph and at 20,000ft, yet he tackled the blaze in a most extraordinary fashion.

Jackson clipped on his parachute and tucked a hand-held fire extinguisher into his life-jacket, before clambering out of the cockpit and back along the fuselage. His precarious mission had hardly begun when his parachute pack opened and the canopy spilled into the cockpit.

By the time Jackson had managed to crawl further along the fuselage in the bitter cold, the fire had spread and he slipped, losing his fire extinguisher into the night.

His face, hands and clothing were now badly burnt and, to make matters worse, he was then dragged through the flames and over the edge of the wing.

Jackson was last seen by his fellow aircrew hurtling towards the ground with his parachute ablaze and only partly open. He landed heavily, breaking his ankle. Severely burnt, he was taken prisoner of war and paraded through a German town.

The citation for his VC, received from George VI, concluded: ‘By his ready willingness to face these dangers he set an example of self-sacrifice which will ever be remembered.’

It is because of the bravery of Jackson and others like him that I felt we could not wait any longer for a Bomber Command Memorial. The surviving aircrew are now in their late 80s and 90s: time is not on their side.

I therefore decided to donate £1 million to the £6.7 memorial appeal. Furthermore, I can reveal today that I have decided to donate all of my author’s royalties from my forthcoming book, Heroes Of The Skies, to the RAF Benevolent Fund, the charity that will maintain the Bomber Command Memorial.

But why has there been such a long wait for the memorial to be built? One reason has been the controversy over the targeting of German cities and the many civilian deaths during the raids.

My response to this is simple: the Allied bombing of German cities was in retaliation for the decision by Hitler to blitz Rotterdam on May 14, 1940.

Moreover, members of Bomber Command were simply carrying out orders from above and the consequences of the bombing should not detract from their relentless bravery.

As I learnt more about its history, I was saddened to discover that half its members who died in the war have no known grave.

I suspect there will be a tear in my eye on Thursday when the Queen unveils the memorial, a monument that will recognise their courage for ever more.

Read this story in the Mail on Sunday.