I was asked for a copy of my address, so I'm printing it here. With huge thanks to my Mother, Rosemary, for sharing her memories over the years.
‘It was three miles wide, ten miles long, and took an hour to pass overhead. The ground shook. You felt it in your bones. In your breath.’ That was my mother watching the 1000 bomber raid fly overhead, the moon on their wings, bound for Cologne.
A young woman, in a London blown apart by the Blitz, she was thinking of the men in those planes. Crews of 8. Average age, 20. If you were 24, they called you “Grand-dad”. Four weeks was the life expectancy of a tail gunner.
How many of these young men were not coming home that night.
But she knew what was at stake in that war. She was one of the people to whom Winston Churchill was speaking with his famous speech, “we will fight them, we will NEVER surrender.” He was firing up the troops, asking America to come to England’s aid, but he was also talking to the people. Because Peace doesn’t come just from wishing.
He was talking to us. Freedom is not free. It requires vigilance and determination to stand up for the values we find important for ourselves and for our country. Peace, respect and tolerance, kindness and honour --These qualities are alive in our national conscience precisely because we hold them as precious.
We have just completed an election – it was a peaceful, safe, democratic exercise, the likes of which much of the world can only envy. We enjoy the right to be free, to be a democracy, to work together without tyranny. And we owe that great luxury to those who we gather to remember today, men and women who believed those were qualities precious enough to die for.
For that we must be ever grateful.
We stand to remember those who did not come back. Not from that bomber raid seared on my mother’s memory, not from all the other theatres of war, all around the world. For those who still, today, may not return to us. We gather to remember what happens when Peace is lost, to vow that never again should we descend into that madness of war, never again should the very sky be blotted out by bombers flying wing to wing...
We stand to thank those who are still serving, on the sharp end, defending these values. Those who go where we wouldn’t go, to do what we couldn’t do, to keep us safe. We honour those who stand between us and the abyss.
And we gather to honour, too, those who have returned. You can take a person out of a war, but sometimes that war is harder to take out of the person. Not all wounds are visible, not all scars heal. Not all bad memories fade. Fifty years later, my mother, standing outside on a moonlit night would sometimes shake her head and softly say, “Bombers’ moon.”
It is up to us to stand up every single day for those who have returned to ensure they have the support and help they may require to come back to us. For some, that return is terribly hard, and terribly slow. I am again mindful of Churchill’s words – success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.
We all need that courage, to stand up and ensure that our fortunate, our free society steps up for all our veterans. We need to remember, as we express our gratitude today, the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.