This was one of the most popular posts on the blog in 2015. We visited the Memorial just before the lockdown and it’s still thought provoking, especially as you can view it from different angles and get another perspective.
Posted by Peter W. Naylor
Designing and building the 158 Squadron Memorial has been a life-changing experience. I never imagined when I started on it how profound it would be. I class myself as extremely fortunate to have had the privilege of creating the work. It was a wonderful chance to do something to honour my parents’ generation – the ones, I feel, ‘who gave so much and asked for so little’ – and in particular to the unbelievably brave young men of 158 Squadron and Bomber Command in general.
Obviously the sculpture depicts a WWII bomber crew – seven men – walking out towards their aircraft and back from it. The idea of doing them in silhouette seemed to fit perfectly as an analogy for what happened – they went out to meet the enemy and, with luck, they came back – but many of them didn’t. Nearly two-thirds of Bomber Command were killed.
Silhouettes intrinsically have no front or back; they face you from whichever side you view them and so, when initially seen, the crew is walking out towards the foe (they do literally face the North Sea, Germany); there is a sense of departure, but then when you walk round the memorial the crew now appears to be coming back, having returned safely.
The dual-front quality of the silhouette is also very important because it means that the engraved names, 158 Squadron’s roll of honour, have equal status regardless of which side of the panels they are on.
These names are etched randomly (as opposed to alphabetically) into both sides of the sculpture. As far as I know, that is unique; I don’t know what gave me the idea but I think it helps each name to be seen as an individual but within a greater context. The non-alphabetical placing of the names means that any visitor has to search the sculpture for a chosen name, thereby increasing the viewer-sculpture interaction. It is a deliberate ploy to slow visitors down, thereby enhancing the sense of pilgrimage.
The figures are larger than life to reinforce the heroic quality but not so big that they dwarf the observer. These men are not meant to be gods, but rather ordinary men doing an extraordinary job. They are human just like us but also they are the heroes that we too might have inside.
The overlapping of the figures means that it is seen as one united group, conveying ‘Strength in Unity’, the Squadron’s motto. This was not only how bomber crews operated but also, on a greater level, the nation. One of the most positive qualities of WWII was the sense of togetherness that was instilled into the nation.
On a practical level the sculpture is made of corten steel plate,15mm thick, 2.4m high and 4.2m wide. It is physically strong and masculine. It conveys solidity and permanence, almost immortality. It is intrinsically vandal-proof – both in terms of damage and theft. The low value of ferrous metals as opposed to bronze makes it almost worthless as scrap. This is extremely important in view of recent sculpture thefts, especially given the isolated nature of the Lissett site. Corten steel is used because it oxidises to a clean finish. The oxidised patina of the steel is evocative of many aspects of WWII military and is particularly appropriate.
The memorial is surrounded by meadow grass with a range of British wild flowers and a hedge of red and white rosa rugosa which both soften the setting and require minimal maintenance. This setting evokes a ‘times past’ aspect and harkens back to the meadows of the 1940s.
I think the 158 Squadron Memorial has various functions: it stands for the finest of human qualities, for courage and sacrifice; it is a tribute to those who served and died – for all the members of 158 Squadron who voluntarily served their country and particularly the young men who died doing so; it guides the viewer towards retrospection, loss, mourning, pride, gratitude – it is a memorial, a stirrer of memories both actual and imagined. I hope it also makes us, the living, seek to move on and somehow make the world better, to make the past loss meaningful.
In conclusion, as with all of Bomber Command, 158 Squadron had to wait too long for some kind of public recognition of the huge levels of sacrifice that they made in World War II. Few of the survivors remain. This memorial helps to put right this wrong.
Every year, at 11:00am on the first Sunday in September, there is a memorial service held at Lissett church for 158 Squadron. A handful of the remaining veterans attend accompanied by nearly two hundred others. It is a most moving event. If you’re not busy this September 5th then I can recommend going along. There may not be many more occasions to honour the men that helped to keep us all free.
© Peter Naylor