Every year the Air Cadet Organisation sends on RAFVR(T) Officer to join the RAF Contingent who participate in the Annual Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, held on the Saturday before Remembrance Sunday, in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen, members of the Royal Family and Senior Politicians, including the Prime Minister.
This year I was lucky enough to be chosen for the honour of representing the ACO and RAFVR(T). I arrived at RAF Uxbridge on the Wednesday as I had to undergo specific training for this role. 0830 Thursday morning saw me in a squad with around 60 members of the RAF, RAF Auxiliaries and RAF VR, from Squadron Leader to LAC, doing drill on the parade Square at Uxbridge, where generations of airmen had received their training, including T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia fame. This was the first time I had been in a squad doing drill for around 20 years, and it soon came flooding back.
We then marched down to the Gym to practise marching down stairs, something which sounds easy but wasn’t! The Festival sees the service contingents form up in the arena by marching down the access stairs to the beat of the Military band, and the main aims are to be in step when you get to the bottom of the stairs and not fall over, both eventualities being highly embarrassing, especially as the event is televised nationally!
The Drill Instructors, from the Queens Colour Squadron of the RAF Regiment, where on hand to give encouragement and inter trade banter, especially with the Police was constant. Practise continued in the afternoon, after an inspection of our No1 Dress Uniform and Shoes by the Ceremonial Flight Sergeant from the QCS. We also were introduced to Levy Drill, which is sliding the feet into the halt and turns rather than the tradition stamping, as the floor of the Hall wouldn’t take this kind of abuse!
On the Friday the training continued, and in the afternoon we embossed for the Dress Rehearsal at the Albert Hall. At the Albert Hall we watched the various rehearsals, including artists like Catherine Jenkins. It was then our turn to practise marching down the stairs, and myself and an Officer from London UAS where to go together, just after the Royal Auxiliary Air Forces contingent. However we were to be dispatched from the top of the stairs by Garrison Sergeant Major (GSM) Mott, one of the most senior of Senior NCOs in the British Army, and not a man to be trifled with! Our practise didn’t go well as one of us was out of step with the other, and the pressure was now on!
We returned to Uxbridge and the Saturday were up early and on the coach by 07.30 with all of our No1 uniforms and highly polished shoes. On arrival at the Albert Hall I met some of our cadets who where helping out at the Ceremony and the dress rehearsal began. Unfortunately for the Fg Off leading the Axillaries we were dress in No 2 uniform, which irritated the GSM no end and he made his views perfectly clear as to his displeasure to the under pressure Fg Off! However our descent of the stairs went well, and the practise went well. It was extremely moving to see both the War Widows and the Chelsea Pensioners taking part, both groups having the rest of the participants standing to attention as they marched across the floor. In addition the father and twin brother of Cpl Rigby of The Rifles, who was killed in Iraq on their birthday gave the opening address and carried the Torch of Remembrance
After lunch it was into No1s ready for the matinee performance. The amount of medals worn by the RAF and Axillaries was extremely impressive and spoke volumes of their service in the trouble spots of the world, especially for those who grew in the Cold War to whom most servicemen has at most a Northern Ireland and Long Service medals.
As we mustered at the foyer we were in company with the Army contingents, including the Guards in their bearskins, and L/Cpl Michelle Norris who was the first female to win the Military Cross, in Iraq in 2006, at the age of 18.
The music swelled and we were dispatched down the stairs, however I was going to fast but fortunately the Pilot Officer was able to make up the distance and we hit the floor together and in step. After the performance we got some dinner, had a drink and got our kit prepared for the evening performance.
This was the big one, with the Queen, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles and Camilla in attendance. Waiting outside was somewhat nerve-wracking; especially as if it went wrong I would be on national television. Once again the GSM dispatched us and this time I wasn’t too fast and was in step, and the camera recorded out descent down the stairs and onto the parade. It was a feeling of relief and pride to have got it right. The rest of the service followed with the silence and the fall of the poppies and then three thunderous cheers for the Queen. Fortunately two of the cadets, Cpl Nicklen and Cdt Beveridge were also on the parade and able to fully participate in this event.
This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and very enjoyable, as well as being incredibly moving and poignant, and I was proud to be a small part in this national occasion.
Hopefully the photo, which shows the OC and the UAS Officer about to be dispatched down the stairs by the GSM, will be replaced by one of better quality soon!