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56 (R) Sqn Memorial

It was a bright October morning when the 56(R) Sqn XO, Sqn Ldr Rich Milburn, came into my office and asked if I fancied a trip to commemorate this year’s Armistice. I was shocked; it wasn’t exactly normal for the XO to come bearing such an enjoyable opportunity.

I cheerfully accepted the invitation; however, that cheer was short lived as in his next breath generously informed me that I was to organise the transport and accommodation for the Squadron representatives.

The plan was to take the Squadron Standard to Annoeullin, France; specifically to the grave of Captain Albert Ball, VC, DSO**, MC. He was a leading flying ace in World War I with 44 kills to his name. Ball died on 7 May 1917 in battle over Annoeullin whilst serving as flight commander on 56(F) Sqn. As Ball was a Nottingham native, the Squadron Standard is paraded annually at Nottingham Castle on the anniversary of Ball’s death and it had been long hoped to parade at his grave: Armistice Day 2013 provided the opportunity to achieve this goal. A party of four personnel, Sqn Ldr Milburn, Flt Lt Gary Settery (Standard Bearer), MACR Phil Townsend (Sqn WO) and myself as Standard Escort were selected to attend. Thanks must be given to AWC MT who managed to squeeze the six week preparation of European documentation into two days. The party departed RAF Waddington at 0715 on 10 November, making our way to the Eurotunnel. As we approached the terminal, the licence plate recognition identified that we were travelling in a service vehicle and we were offered an earlier train than we had booked; a quick coffee later, we were on board. As a first time user of ‘Le Shuttle’ I was impressed; we drove on, turned off the engine and 40 minutes later we were in France.

We set off in search of lunch, but being Sunday (and a holiday) we had to settle for a service station, which turned out to be a much better option than that offered in the UK. Brushing off our language skills we ordered ‘le cheeseburger et frites’ and it turns out that desserts in French service stations are excellent; I had only ever seen l’isle flottante on Masterchef before. Sqn Ldr Milburn ordered his first crème brulee of the visit,  unfortunately receiving sweetened scrambled eggs instead of the anticipated custard based dessert. Upon reaching our hotel we asked for the best local restaurant. It turned out it was the local Chinese – frogs legs stir fry  anyone?

The next morning the party travelled to the town hall of Annoeullin for a meeting with the Mayor and other local dignitaries. As well as discussing our participation in the Armistice parade, we also talked about the future of the field where Captain Ball crashed. Purchased by his father after the Great War, the local population has been maintaining the site ever since. It is envisaged by the local council that a permanent footpath and fence should be erected to preserve the site, and 56(R) Squadron will help facilitate the negotiations between the council and Ball family. After the meeting, the party moved to Annoeullin cemetery where we paraded next to Captain Ball’s grave. The XO took the salute as the local band played ‘God Save the Queen’, followed by a reading by local school children. After the parade we were invited for drinks at the community centre where we enjoyed the opportunity to meet more of the community. We could not have received a better welcome from the people of Annoeullin; as an occupied town during both World War I and II, they still hold our Armed Forces in high esteem.

After enjoying our host’s hospitality we headed home, stopping for lunch and wine at Calais. The XO had some more sweetened scrambled egg and we boarded ‘Le Shuttle’. The trip to Annoeullin allowed 56(R) Sqn to forge new links with a town steeped in the Squadron’s history. Work is now ongoing to make this a regular commitment, especially given the upcoming Squadron Centenary in 2016.

Sgt Danny Holmes

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