04/15/2013 11:07 EDT | Updated 06/15/2013 05:12 EDT

New medal distinction to honour Canadian veterans of Bomber Command

OTTAWA - Canadians who braved the perilous night skies over Europe during the Bomber Command campaign in the Second World War are getting a special distinction to mark their service, almost 70 years after the conflict ended.

Veterans Affairs and National Defence say Bomber Command vets will be able to apply for a unique commemorative bar to be worn on the ribbon of the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal. It is similar to the bars awarded in the 1990s to veterans of the Dieppe Raid and the defence of Hong Kong.

All Canadian veterans who hold the medal and who served a minimum of one day with Bomber Command, regardless of rank or role, are eligible.

Although many different campaigns were recognized by special medals after the war, Bomber Command vets were denied one.

The bombing campaign over Europe was a hazardous assignment. About 10,000 of the 55,000 Canadians who took part were killed.

It is also a controversial campaign because of the numbers of civilians killed during years of attacks on German cities.

The ranks of surviving Bomber Command vets are dwindling fast. The youngest are now in their late 80s. Next-of-kin can also apply for the bar, but the government says applications from surviving vets will get priority.

"With this bar, our government is honouring those Canadians who fought for peace, freedom and democracy through their service in Bomber Command, and in particular the approximately 10,000 who made the ultimate sacrifice," Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said in a news release.

The Air Force Association welcomed the new bar.

"We see this as a significant and memorable step in the recognition of these unsung heroes," said retired colonel Terry Chester, national president of the association.

Vets and supporters have worked for years to win recognition for the bombing campaign. After the war, an Air Crew Europe Star was awarded to everyone who flew over Europe, but the bombing campaign, one of most prolonged and deadly of all the wartime campaigns was not singled out.

Sir Arthur Harris, who led Bomber Command for most of the war, was bitter in his memoirs about the lack of recognition.

In 2008, the Senate passed a unanimous motion calling for a special medal for Bomber Command.

The effort, however, ran smack into the government's "five-year" policy, which precludes striking medals for events more than five years in the past.

"This five-year rule guarantees that proposals are judged by the standards of the time and against contemporary events and also ensures that decisions taken many years ago are not second-guessed," says a document prepared for a government briefing note in 2010.

The document also points out that apart from the volunteer service medal, all the other Second World War medals and decorations for the Commonwealth were British.

However, the creation of the Dieppe and Hong Kong bars offered a precedent, which was finally followed for Bomber Command.

Liberal Sen. Colin Kenny said the new decoration is welcome.

"The recognition is long overdue."

He said he feels Bomber Command was denied a medal after the war because of early political correctness; a feeling that bombing cities, even during a total war, was wrong. Although politicians ordered and accepted the bombing, the flyers paid the price, he said.

"It would be nice to think that you can have a war where civilians aren't injured or killed," he said.

He said Bomber Command crews took incredible risks. A bomber crew needed to complete 25 operations, or missions, before being allowed to move to training or other non-combat roles. The average crew didn't make it past 15 trips.

"Their odds ranged from poor to bad."