Queen Elizabeth II unveiled a $9.5-million memorial to the 125,000 members who served in the Royal Air Force’s bomber command during the Second World War, including thousands of Canadians.

At least 6,000 veterans and their families attended the event Thursday at London’s Green Park and watched as a Lancaster bomber dropped thousands of poppies in a flypast.

Veterans from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other countries who served alongside the British also attended the ceremony.

More than 55,000 members of the command lost their lives during the war bombing targets over Nazi Germany – almost a 50 per cent casualty rate that included the loss of 10,000 Canadian lives.

Recognizing their efforts after the war has been a long time coming, partly because of controversy surrounding the bombing of German civilian targets.

About 600,000 German civilians died during the 1939-45 campaign.

“It wasn’t until about eight or 10 years ago that even this country recognized them,” Ted Barris told CTV News Channel Thursday.

That recognition came in the form of a huge stone at the Bomber Command Museum of Canada near Calgary, said Barris, the author of “Breaking the Silence: Veterans’ Untold Stories from The Great War to Afghanistan.”

Barris said these airmen weren’t ignored but rather “left out of the picture” despite suffering the highest per capita loss of life in the military during the war.

Bomber crews lacked fighter plane cover and flew at night in lighter-armed aircraft than their American counterparts.

Commonwealth airmen used Lancaster and Halifax bombers deep inside German territory, helping destroy much of Nazi Germany’s war industry.

“The navigators were extraordinary,” Barris said.

Most of the crews consisted of young men in their late teens or early twenties.

“This is why this monument and the connection to Canada is so vital because most of the 125,000 men in bomber command and another 100,000 in fighter and coastal command, were trained in Canada,” he said.

The air training effort was Canada’s largest wartime expenditure at around $1.75 billion, something wartime British prime minister Winston Churchill credited as decisive in defeating the Nazis.

As for the controversy surrounding bomber command, Barris said as people learn about the story, they begin to understand why it was necessary at the time to crush the Nazis.

“This was all-out war. This wasn’t like sort of a skirmish, this was the survival of society versus dictatorship and it’s extraordinary what these young (people did),” he said.

“These were all young guys who thought themselves invincible and they went out there and did the impossible and that’s why this monument is so important,” Barris said.

Those attending Thursday’s ceremony nodded at the accounts of their missions as their medals glinted in the brilliant sunshine.

The Queen paused to speak with many of the men and their families, offering a smile and white-gloved hand.

Dudley Hannaford, 88, who came from Sydney for the service, described the ceremony as “absolutely wonderful.”

“It makes me think of release and victory,” he said. “I only played a very small part in that, but it is something to be very thankful for.”

The German city of Dresden - where 25,000 civilians died in bombing raids - initially objected to the memorial.

But the objections were eased by the placing of an inscription commemorating all the lives lost in the bombings.

Heike Grossmann, spokeswoman for the mayor of Dresden, stressed the close relations between Britain and Germany now.

The memorial was designed by Liam O'Connor and built in Portland stone, featuring a three-metre high bronze sculpture of seven aircrew members.

Sculptor Philip Jackson said his work portrayed the men after they had returned from a mission and dumped all their heavy equipment on the ground.

The memorial also has a roof made of aluminum that came from a Handley Page Halifax III bomber shot down over Belgium in May 1944.

With files from The Associated Press