Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Thousands line streets to mark return of brigade that lost 64 in Helmand

In biggest parade since start of Afghan conflict, Winchester pays tribute to 11 Light Brigade after costly six-month tour

By Caroline Davies,

Soldiers of 11 Light Brigade march through Winchester after returning from a six-month tour of Helmand province, Afghanistan. Photograph: Reuters

They fought with "immense courage", lost 64 of their comrades and witnessed yet more seriously injured.

Now they were home. And the city of Winchester turned out in its thousands to pay tribute to the men and women of 11 Light Brigade at a homecoming parade today, the biggest of its kind since the start of the Afghan conflict.

Amid flag-waving, cheers and some tears, 650 troops from the brigade's 12 regiments marched six abreast through the city's streets to mark the end of a six-month tour of Helmand which exacted a heavy toll.

This was no celebration, despite the applause. As the marching bands played, and two RAF Tornado jets performed a flypast, the thoughts of the watching crowd were with those who were not there.

"Each soldier that passed, I thought about those who had been killed and were unable to be here," said Rita Herbert, 78, a retired clerical officer who travelled from Southampton to pay her respects.

In a tribute to all of the 5,100 troops from the Aldershot-based brigade who saw action in central Helmand, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, told those assembled before Winchester's Guildhall they were heroes.

"Through all the adversity you have fought on with immense courage, displaying the highest level of dedication, loyalty and professionalism as you have gone about bringing stability and security to this troubled region," she said.

"You are all heroes and I salute you all for a job very well done."

She added: "Although we are all here to celebrate your return the price has been extremely high. And I join you in mourning those 64 soldiers who are not here and who made the ultimate sacrifice during these past months.

"My heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to their families as they continue to come to terms with their agonising loss."

There had been "a devastating number of serious casualties," as well, she said. Six of those on parade bore testament to that, with two of them in wheelchairs and the others on crutches having lost limbs.

She was humbled and proud to be standing in front of them all.

"You are an immense credit to your regiments, the brigade and to this country and you have proved once again that the British army is the best in the world".

As they stood in the blazing sun, the occasion proved too much for three of the soldiers as they collapsed in the heat.

The brigade was set up for a single tour of duty in Helmand from October to April and today's parade was its final act before disbanding.

It was, according to the mayor of Winchester, Richard Izard, "an important and unique event, especially as the 300th soldier to die comes from just up the road in Petersfield".

Among those the duchess met, during a private reception, were the families of two soldiers who died, and whose families were presented with the Elizabeth Cross, given to the bereaved.

But the abiding sense was not one of loss, rather one of success, for a job well done.

The brigade saw heavy fighting and took part in Operation Moshtarak, a major offensive against the Taliban. "Helmand is the most violent part of Afghanistan," said Brigadier James Cowan, Commander of 11 Light Brigade.

"Three of the four most violent districts in all of Afghanistan are in British Helmand. So it is a challenging area but one that I think we brought a measure of peace to."

Lance Sergeant Darren Shaw, whose daughter was two weeks old when he left for Afghanistan, said the parade would bring closure to the Afghan tour "then we can get ready and move on to what our next tasks are".

Those gathered six deep to watch them were there out of pride and respect. For Luke Ottley, 25, a car valet from Winchester, the youth of many of those on parade was most poignant. "I came here out of respect, because I don't think they get enough respect," he said. "So many of them are younger than me, and to think what they have been through.

"I think they should have had all the schools here. They're showing the football in some of the schools, I've heard. But this is much more important. Young people don't even know what Poppy Day is all about."

The soldiers themselves were overwhelmed by the support.

"I was a bit concerned that some people would not turn out because of the football, but Winchester is doing us proud," said Sergeant Craig Newton, 33, of the Coldstream Guards. "The football comes around every four years, but a day like today is a once in a lifetime opportunity."

A private service of thanksgiving and remembrance in Winchester Cathedral took place after the parade.

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