The proverbial ‘against the odds’ can be applied to almost everything in the story of war 1939-45, so of course it was interesting to know, how exactly it referred to the story of Bomber Command. In the words of David Hopkins, Special Exhibition Manager, Bomber Command as a military force had “against the odds” risen from a poorly equipped group at the outbreak of war to a vast and respected organisation by 1945. From the start it was a pivotal agent in the British and the Allies’ war effort, but its story was not always smooth or glorious, as the exhibition well illustrates.
Several displays are dedicated to personal experiences of soldiers, some of whom had never returned from the duty. One of the stands exhibits the log book, goggles, papers and medals of Leonard Cheshire, including the Victoria Cross that Cheshire, as the Master Bomber, had received for his outstanding gallantry. Other displays cover technical issues, such as the construction and operation of the Lancaster bombers. The very last sections cover major operations, presenting their outcome through the archival photos and films. The general sense, though, is that however important was an operation, one can’t help looking at it through the prism of the number of casualties and the images of the ruins of historic cities. The well-known Dams Raid in 1943 resulted not only in the destruction of the water dams on the rivers Eder, Mohne and Sorpe, but also in the death or captivity of many soldiers. And the infamous raid of Dresden, which still stands out as a senseless operation with devastating effect, has somewhat overshadowed the glory of Bomber Command, and the Allied Forces in general.
During the Bank Holiday weekend, on Sunday 27 August, the visitors to the IWM North were given identity cards, which ‘ascribed’ to them the story of one of the pilots of the Bomber Command. I was identified as Geoffrey Pell Dawson, who was born in Manchester in 1923. An architecture student, he was in the forces between May 1942 and September 1946, serving as a Bomb Aimer and achieving the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
The last page of identity card contains some questions for reflections on the experience of the pilots, asking, in particular, how the exhibition had changed the way visitors feel about the events of the Second World War. The comments left in Reflections area give much hope to pacifists, as the majority of them are written (or even scribbled) by children as young as 7, expressing their resentment to war.
And on Monday, 28 August, the activities were celebrating cultural diversity presented in the Museum’s collections. Children of all ages and their parents were invited to build a wooden (!) plane, to hear about the animals who took part in the war, and even to play on the computer. I listened to a couple of really nice stories about animals, including the one about two cows who were the mascots of a Scottish division. I also know that children enjoyed assembling the aircraft (with the help of a volunteer Sean, who admitted that the parts of the plane were quite heavy). But then I looked into a Learning Studio East, where computer-based activities were taking place. And there I saw someone’s father being totally immersed in a computer game of some kind. So, family activities at the IWM North were quite literally attracting all generations.
One of Monday’s hot events was going to be the performance of African and Caribbean music, in the same vein of celebration of cultural diversity. The band in question turned out to be Britannia Rumba, a Manchester-based musical collective, performing what is usually called here ‘world music’, accompanied by a dance group of four girls in lovely green sarongs, tops and visors. The band was playing on the stage outdoors, it was a bit cold, and the wind was quite strong. Nevertheless, the Afro-Caribbean sounds have filled the surroundings completely, and children, parents and even some of the IWM workers were jiving gleefully. Soon after I packed my equipment and went to catch the bus home. I could long hear the drums and guitars, as I was walking away from Salford Quays.