By Lord Ashcroft, KCMG.
Today I will attend a public engagement that will fill me with pride and joy. I will join the Duke of Gloucester and World War II bomber pilot Marshal of The Royal Air Force Sir Michael Beetham and others for the foundation stone laying ceremony at the site of a new monument to a special group of individuals.
Work will officially begin this morning on the Bomber Command Memorial. Furthermore, the project will be completed in just 12 months, several years earlier than was feared after a lack of funding meant work on the memorial might well be delayed for four years.
It was accurately reported in the national media a fortnight ago that substantial donations from John Caudwell, a fellow entrepreneur, and myself have enabled the timetable for the project to be brought forward significantly. I made a £1 million commitment almost two years ago that I would not allow work on the memorial to founder, and I am delighted to stand by that commitment now so that work on the memorial can start immediately.
I have donated such a substantial amount of money because I want to help right a wrong. Rarely, if ever, can any group of servicemen have been more deserving of a memorial to their courage and self-sacrifice than Bomber Command.
The new monument in Green Park, central London, will be a fitting tribute to men who helped to shape the world we live in but whose bravery, until now, has not been properly recognised.
Bomber Command consisted of some 125,000 volunteers from Britain, the Commonwealth and Allied countries who had to endure some of the most terrifying combat conditions of the Second World War. Indeed, Bomber Command was the only British fighting force that took the war directly to Germany, destroying vital infrastructure and supply lines – but at a very heavy price.
The average age of the aircrew was just 22 and the youngest were only 18. Three out of every five airmen became casualties and the more detailed statistics tell their own story: 55,573 men were killed, 8,403 were wounded and 9,838 were captured and held as Prisoners of War.
The losses of Bomber Command were greater than those of any other service – accounting for 10 per cent of all British fatalities – yet, perversely, its members have been the only Second World War servicemen not to have been publicly honoured by their country.
During the war, no less than 19 Victoria Crosses were awarded to men of Bomber Command and the recipients of the world-famous gallantry award included Wing Commander Guy Gibson, of 617 Squadron and ‘Dambusters’ fame.
But to illustrate the incredible courage of the aircrew from Bomber Command, I will refer to a single act of bravery by a far less well-known airman: Sergeant Norman Jackson. During the night of 26 April 1944, Jackson, a flight engineer, was returning from a bombing raid over Germany when his Lancaster aircraft was attacked by an enemy fighter plane.
When a fire broke out on the starboard wing, Jackson did not hesitate to act even though the Lancaster was flying at 200 mph and at 20,000 feet, and he had been wounded when the aircraft was hit.
After clipping on his parachute and tucking a hand-held fire extinguisher into his life-jacket, he climbed out of the cockpit and back along the fuselage. However, before his precarious mission had hardly begun, his parachute pack opened and the canopy and rigging lines spilled into the cockpit.
By the time he had managed to clamber 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. When he was last seen by his fellow aircrew, he was hurtling towards the ground with his parachute ablaze and only partly open.
Jackson eventually landed heavily, breaking his ankle. By now severely burnt and with his hands useless, he was paraded through a German town after being taken Prisoner of War. Jackson’s VC was announced the following year and, after the hostilities ended, he received his award from George VI.
This wonderful man eventually died in March 1994, aged 74. A decade later, I bought his VC at auction and his gallantry and service medals are now on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum.
It is because of the bravery of Norman Jackson and others like him that I felt so strongly that we could not wait any longer for a Bomber Command Memorial to be built. The surviving aircrew are now in their 80s and 90s and as Prince William noted last year: “It is vital, therefore, that this memorial be erected now, while they are still alive and able to appreciate our nation’s gratitude to them, and to their fallen comrades.”
I am grateful to all those who have donated towards the £6.7 million cost of the memorial. The Bomber Command Association and its supporters could not have done more to raise the profile of the fund-raising campaign.
Just over a week ago, I wrote an article for a national newspaper (The Sun) in which they described me in a single word as “philanthropist” (rather than as an international businessman or former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party).
It’s certainly true that I have given several millions of pounds to good causes and that I will continue to donate to charities if and when the right project presents itself.
It was while living and working in the US during the 1980s that I came across one of the more appealing traits of American life: the tendency of wealthy individuals to see it as part of their civic duty to support charities.
There are always worthwhile causes and campaigns that governments ignore and so, after making some money as an entrepreneur, I became an enthusiastic convert to the practice of giving money to worthy and innovative causes. As a result, my particular interests of fighting crime, education and charities linked to bravery have all benefitted from this ‘conversion’.
I would never reveal the extent of my personal wealth. However, I am not a great believer in inherited wealth and so I decided some time ago that, after my death, I will leave more than 80 per cent of my assets to a charitable foundation in my name. My family will be the trustees and I hope they will enjoy distributing substantial amounts of money to worthy causes.
As a champion of bravery, I have written three books on gallantry and built up the world’s largest collection of VCs. However, few actions or charitable donations have given me as much pleasures as my recent contribution towards the Bomber Command Memorial.
Among the various statistics that relate to the aircrews, one particular fact upset me greatly: half of the casualties from Bomber Command have no known grave. Now, at last, a fitting memorial to those aircrews – who deserve their place in history among the bravest of the brave – is being erected and the bravery of RAF Bomber Command will finally be recognised publicly.