On 15 April 2013, in an emotional ceremony at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, the Government of Canada unveiled an enlarged image of a small piece of silvery metal not much bigger than one half centimetre by three centimetres – the Royal Canadian Air Force's Bomber Command Clasp.
While it is too late to demonstrate our recognition and pride for the large percentage of former Bomber Command aircrew, a small group of Bomber Command veterans were assembled for the unveiling of the new Clasp – an extraordinary grouping of proud aviators accounting for 305 Operations over enemy territory. The group includes Frank Savard, 425 Squadron, RCAF (5 Ops); Ron Moyes, 429 and 405 Squadrons, RCAF (30 Ops - Full Tour); Robert Bradley, 576 Squadron RAF, (30 Ops - Full Tour); Eric Plummer, 406 Squadron, RCAF (2 Ops); George Bova, DFC, 432 and 405 Squadrons, RCAF (60 Ops - Two Full Tours); Jack Maclean, 415 Squadron (32 Ops - Full Tour +); Cecil Corbett Stewart, 514 Squadron, RAF (30 Ops - Full Tour); Jack Bower-Binns, 578 Squadron, RAF (37 Ops - Full Tour + 7); Fraser Muir, 50 Squadron, RAF (35 Ops - Full Tour + 5), Al Smith, 415 Squadron RCAF (8 Ops); John Maitland, 70 Squadron, RAF (36 Ops - Full Tour + 6). Other dignitaries included Honourable Steven Blaney, Minister of Veterans Affairs and Minister for La Francophonie (right of Clasp Design on easel), and Honourable Peter MacKay, Minister of National Defence (to the left of the easel).
The “Clasp”, as tiny and seemingly insignificant as it looks, is a deeply powerful symbol of respect and gratitude to a fast disappearing group of Canadian men who undertook a complex task with appallingly mortal risk, with steadfast determination despite well-understood consequences and with profound strategic consequences for the war effort. Of all Allied military service units – Army, Navy or Air Force – the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command suffered the highest rate of death and injury. The aircrews knew it, yet they persisted in their profoundly unenviable task... to the death for many, and in the case of the surviving aircrew, without proper recognition for their service. Nearly 70 years after the end of the Second World War, the government of Canada, with the support of the Air Force Association of Canada and individuals like Member of Parliament Laurie Hawn, have paid tribute to those young Canadians of so long ago and have begun the process of healing long open wounds.
As Second World War dictator Joseph Stalin once said, “Quantity has a Quality all its own.” In no other Allied combat service of the war did this old adage apply quite like the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command. There were 125,000 aircrew members active in Bomber Command during the war. Of these thousands of young men, mostly volunteers, 55,573 were killed on operations, 8,403 were wounded in action and 9,838 became prisoners of war. The death rate was a breathtaking 44.5%. To put this into perspective, the United States Army Air Force's 8th Air Force – the Mighty Eighth – had 350,000 aircrew members of which 26,000 were killed in combat – a 7.45% death rate, which was a terrible price to pay, but one that pales in comparison to that of Bomber Command. An airman of the Command had a worse chance of surviving the fight than a British officer in the hideous and obscene trench fighting of the First World War. The chance of surviving a full tour of 30 ops with a Bomber Command squadron was down to 16%. Even before operations, men were killed in training before joining Bomber Command – some 5,327 men met their deaths in training accidents alone.
If you randomly picked 100 airmen from the ranks of Bomber Command, 55 would have died on operations or later of their wounds, 3 would have been injured on ops, 12 would have been taken prisoner, 2 would have been shot down but would have evaded capture and only 28 would have survived one tour of operation. A staggering 364,514 operational sorties were flown by aircrews of Bomber Command, dropping more than a million tons of bombs and, in the process of duty, losing 8,325 aircraft of all types. Of the 55,573 men who were killed in action, 18% (more than 10,000) were Canadian boys.
After the war, Bomber Command aircrew were eligible to be awarded the 1939–1945 Star, for a minimum of active service on operations. To compare, it was issued to Army and Navy combatants after six months of active service, and only after two months in the Air Force… a testament to the perceived risks inherent in aerial battle. This is the same Campaign Medal eligible to combat cooks, intelligence officers, truck drivers and headquarters staff. If an aircrew member of Bomber Command was able to survive two more months (60 days) of combat operations over Europe, he would be eligible for the Air Crew Europe Star. This Campaign medal/star, however, was not awarded to any aviator after D-Day. Given the horrendous survival rate of men in Bomber Command, a low percentage made it to eligibility status for the Air Crew Europe Star. Also, the highest percentage of surviving members of Bomber Command came from the group of airmen entering the war around the time of D-Day and afterwards. These men could not receive the Air Crew Europe Star even if they survived a year on operations.
Given the astronomical death rate and yet success of the Bomber Command operational record – from ops over Berlin to the submarine pens at Lorient to the dams of the Ruhr, aircrews pressed on and achieved remarkable successes in a technically imprecise science, facing and accepting death by horrid means as the price they were asked to pay. In the end, they were grouped with all other combatants for honours and “gongs”. While this would have remained all they asked for, certain other groups of deserving aviators and other warriors were singled out for additional honour – in the form of a “bar” or “clasp” to be attached to either their 39–45 Star or their Volunteer Service Medal. Such bars of honour were most deserved for the groups involved. There is a Battle of Britain Clasp presented to fighter pilots of that most famous of aerial battles, and which was awarded to all eligible as early as 1945 – immediately after the war. There is a clasp for those Canadians (Ground, Sea and Air) who were at Dieppe and for those Canadians who survived the Battle of Hong Kong, one of the first engagements with the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.
While there is no doubt that the men to whom these honours were awarded were deserving of such recognition (and even more), it has been a source of heartbreak and wounded pride that the survivors and casualties of Bomber Command were overlooked for a much-deserved special recognition. The aerial battles in the night skies over France and Germany were epic, and like the Battle of the Atlantic, they raged continuously from 1939 to 1945. Rightly so, the 36,000 Commonwealth sailors who were killed in action and the survivors of the Battle of the Atlantic were accorded something even higher than a clasp – their very own Campaign medal – the Atlantic Star. In fact any airman on Coastal Command operations in the Atlantic for more than 60 days was eligible for the prestigious Atlantic Star.
So why have the surviving members of Bomber Command been passed over for almost 70 years? The sad truth is that these brave young men were simply political pawns in an enduring and sometimes nasty discourse on the efficacy and even moral rectitude of the campaign itself. I won't get into this un-winnable discussion about civilian casualties, the expedition of the war, the effect on German morale and weapons manufacture in Nazi-held territory and the politics of hindsight. What I will say is simply that these men have always deserved a special form of recognition for their fortitude and honour in the face of the very worst of possible outcomes – almost certain death. Canada, the RCAF and the RAF recruited these volunteers, selected those who would become Bomber Command airmen, trained them and then sent them on the most dangerous operations of the war. Aircrews understood these risks completely, for they watched their friends meet fiery deaths daily. Still, they went forward into the aerial breech. They fought hard, did their jobs, took the fight to the enemy's house when no one else was and they died at astounding rates. And then they were ignored.
It has to hurt to see all your deserving comrades in arms from other campaigns be received with open arms, with the respect they are due, with honour and recognition, and yourself to be largely pushed aside for political reasons. The Canadians of Bomber Command who came back from the war have long been wishing for a small token of respect, something that they could wear with pride, something that would speak to their extremely difficult hardships… to their 55,573 fallen comrades in particular.
Now, thanks to the leadership of the Air Force Association of Canada, Veterans Affairs and DND, who have lobbied long and hard to have a unique decoration for these very special and very deserving men, the Royal Canadian Air Force announced the creation of the RCAF's new Bomber Command Clasp, designed to be attached to the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal ribbon. Parallel to the announcement of this new honour, the Royal Air Force is moving forward with their own Bomber Command Clasp or Bar, to be affixed to the 1939–45 Star. Thanks to the the hard work of the AFAC and others, Canada was out in the lead on this honour and came up with a design for their own clasp first – a beautifully simple silver bar with the embossed silhouette of a four engined bomber, similar in layout to the Halifax or Lancaster. While the RAF and other Commonwealth air forces will affix their RAF-style clasp to the ribbon of the 1939–45 Star, Canada will affix their more elegant design to the ribbon of the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal. The reason for this is two-fold. Primarily, it is because Canada cannot affix a clasp of its own design to a medal issued by the King of England, but also because there are veterans of Bomber Command who missed qualifying for the 1939–45 Star because the war ended before their eligibility.
Unlike the RAF Bomber Command clasp, the RCAF clasp is offered to RCAF Bomber Command ground crew as well – a powerful recognition of the key role played by riggers, engine mechanics, armourers, and other technicians who worked tirelessly to keep aircraft operational during the entire campaign and, though not facing death in the same way, endured terrible stresses and personal losses.
Vintage Wings of Canada, its volunteers, staff and pilots, extend our gratitude to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of National Defence, Members of Parliament and the Royal Canadian Air Force for their most beautiful tribute. In particular though, we wish to thank the executive of the Air Force Association of Canada for their fortitude and constant pressure to make this a reality. Lastly we wish to thank with love and respect and honour all those young men so long ago who did what was asked of them, in the face of such terrible possibilities. You have waited far too long, but that tiny piece of metal, that powerful reminder of your devotion – a simple thing that is your unequivocal right – can now be affixed to that green, red and violet ribbon.
Dave O'Malley, Vintage Wings of Canada
George Bova, DFC, 432 and 405 Squadrons, RCAF (60 Ops - Two Full Tours) was a wireless operator and air gunner. George was born in Ottawa, on 4 June 1921, son of Salvatore Bova and Salvatora (Liberti) Bova. He enlisted in the RCAF on 30 June 1942 and received aircrew instruction at various training schools in Canada. He graduated from 2 BG School on 28 June 1943. After arriving overseas he served with 432 Leaside Squadron (6 Group) based in East Moor Yorkshire, England, from which Bova and crew flew Halifax aircraft for Bomber Command. Later, Bova and crew flew Lancasters with 405 Squadron (8 Group). Warrant Officer Bova beat heavy odds against returning safely to base and completed 49 risky and danger-filled sorties as a Wireless/Air Gunner over enemy territory to heavily defended targets such as Essen, Nuremburg, Kiel, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Cologne and Dusseldorf. On the night of 26/27 March 1944, fourteen 432 Squadron crews were tasked with Ops to Essen. Bova's aircraft sustained flak damage to the starboard aileron but the pilot was able to make a return to East Moor and land safely. He survived a raid over Nuremberg, Germany where 96 planes had been lost and 545 air crew killed. By 20 December 1944, when Bova was recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), he had flown 49 sorties and 154 hours. His citation referred to his skill and bravery and coolness under fire during extremely personal danger situations.
The pride and determination, and a high degree of elegance can be found on the face of 406 Squadron veteran Eric Plummer, in attendance at the Bomber Command Clasp unveiling.
Though pride was the emotion of the day, there was still a profound sadness for the men who died on ops or who have passed away in the nearly 70 years since the cessation of Bomber Command ops as witnessed by the face of Robert Bradley of 576 Squadron.
Warrant Officer (Retired) Ron Moyes, Veteran of No. 405 (Pathfinders) Squadron, RCAF, was an air gunner aboard heavy bombers, completing a 30 op tour, including missions over the city of Rotterdam, Holland during Operation Manna. The bottom gold pin on his lapel, a winged “O”, is the pin given to men who completed a full tour of Operations.
Minister Steven Blaney (right) and Minister Peter MacKay (left) unveil the Bomber Command Honour with Colonel (Retired) Terry Chester, National President of the Air Force Association of Canada (centre right) and Lieutenant-General (Retired) William Carr, former Commander of the Air Command (centre left).
As Minister Peter Mackay shows them the design of the clasp up close, the pride can be read on the faces of men who have learned to keep their emotions to themselves. Well done Minister. Well done DND. Well done DVA. And thank you AFAC... from the bottom of Canada's heart.
We will never know the true terror, strain and loss of those long nights over hostile territory, but at least now, they and above all, their families, will know how much they are appreciated.