At the end of a long, hot, draining day, there was a tray of cold beer for the Canadian veterans of Bomber Command, and they fell on it like – well, like men who'd been waiting in the sun a long time without a beer. But then they'd been waiting much longer, for something much more important.
It had not been a particularly happy wait, either, and many of the 42 veterans arriving at Canada House in London's Trafalgar Square muttered that it had come too late. Too many of their comrades were no longer around to celebrate what felt like a much-delayed vindication.
The vindication was this: Earlier in the day, the Queen had unveiled a memorial to the 125,000 men and women of the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command, almost half of whom didn't survive their late-night raids over Germany and occupied Europe during the Second World War. Some 50,000 of those fliers were Canadian, and 10,000 of them were lost; many more came from New Zealand and Australia, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
For decades, they lived without a memorial to their efforts, and you can still hear grinding of teeth over the fact that Winston Churchill failed to mention Bomber Command in his victory speech. Simply, the Allies were too embarrassed by the trail of flattened and charred German cities, and the number of dead civilians, to acknowledge the contribution of the men who'd flown and navigated the planes – and dropped their bombs when they were told to. As British veteran Harry Irons, rear gunner, told the BBC this week, "It was a kick in the teeth, the way we was completely forgotten."
There was a similar mood at Canada House, as the 42 veterans and their carers settled down for lunch (and those well-deserved beers). "It was a wonderful ceremony, beautiful," said Jack Watts, 91, a squadron leader who flew more than 100 missions and was shot down twice. "It's just sad as hell that it came this late, and there are so few of us now to see it."
He was 19 when he enlisted (the average age of the "bomber boys" was 22), and not much older than that when he had to ditch in the mine-filled North Atlantic and wait 12 hours for a minesweeper to pull him out of his rescue raft. The second time he was shot down, he landed in the slightly warmer Mediterranean.
Mr. Watts was cheered by the large crowd that gathered to watch the Bomber Command memorial being unveiled in Green Park: "I don't think at home we would have had the same reaction," he said. "I'm not sure people at home are so warm to remembering."
This seems to contradict the current government's attempts to valorize military efforts, especially those of the "greatest generation." Indeed, Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney was on hand to announce a new medal for Canadian Bomber Command vets, but Mr. Watts, listening to the minister's speech, just shrugged: "How many people are left to wear it? It's kind of … well, it's just too political."
You think of other veterans coming back from war to the cold shoulder of public opinion – soldiers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam. But the servicemen of the Second World War were meant to be lionized, blameless – weren't they?
"I've been accused of being a murderer, of killing innocent women and children," said Ed Carter-Edwards, 89. Like many of his colleagues, he mentions The Valour and the Horror, the 1992 CBC-NFB documentary, which cast doubt on some of Bomber Command's practices, particularly at the end of the war, involving civilian populations. Mr. Carter-Edwards clearly feels he was mauled twice: once when he was shot down over Occupied France, beaten by the Gestapo and taken to Buchenwald concentration camp, and a second time, much later, at home. (In a truly bizarre twist, he and 167 other imprisoned airmen were busted out of Buchenwald by the Luftwaffe, only a few days before they were scheduled to hang.) On his chest sits a row of medals, and he raises the last one: the French Légion d'honneur. "This one is revered in France, but in Canada it doesn't mean anything."
The next day, just three days before Canada Day, the veterans will go back to look at the new memorial, which features a bronze sculpture of seven airmen, each nine feet tall. The roof is Canadian, made from melted bits of a Halifax bomber shot down in 1944. The inscription on the outside honours all the dead of the skies, airman and civilian alike. And Mr. Carter-Edwards may well be thinking about how often, as a 21-year-old wireless air gunner, he would wake up in his barracks to find another empty bed.