8 Sqn FD
A small group of 12 members from across the air and ground elements of 8 Squadron were blessed with a sunny summer’s day on 23rd July to travel to the capital city for a Force Development trip with a difference.
The expedition revolved around two themes: RAF history and UK government. A two-pronged, twoday attack was therefore planned … day one would take in the Battle of Britain Heritage Walk on the Thames Embankment, while day two would involve a coveted guided tour of the Houses of Parliament. A meeting with a very well-respected defence commentator had also been pencilled in to the visit …
Finding the overnight accommodation proved to be easy enough, despite having an 8 Squadron navigator driving the wagon and despite the intimidating roads of the London suburbs on one of the hottest days of the year so far (all without the benefit of air conditioning). After a quick change, it was straight out into the humid heat to begin the Battle of Britain Heritage Walk. The walk begins at St Clement Danes – the Central Church of the Royal Air Force. If, like me, you were unaware of this little gem, a visit to the building is most definitely recommended. The Church is home to a great deal of RAF history and historical artefacts. Chief amongst these are the RAF Books of Remembrance which are inscribed with the names of those men and women who have died on active service with the Royal Air Force. The Books’ pages are turned every day. Also hung on display from the upper church walls are historical Queen’s Colours and RAF Standards that have either been replaced, or the Units disbanded. One of the most remarkable facets of this church is the marble floor which is inset with the brass badges of over 800 RAF commands, groups, stations, squadrons and other formations. I couldn’t leave without taking photographs of RAF Waddington units.
After some light refreshments on the irresistibly named Tattershall Castle Barge, the next stops on the Heritage Walk were the Royal Air Force Memorial and the Battle of Britain Memorial. The buzzing atmosphere around the second monument really confirmed to me that the there is still a strong sense of respect and gratitude being held by the wider public towards the RAF – a feeling that is incisively captured in Churchill’s words, here carved into the marble monument: “Never in the field of human conflict …”. You know the rest, I’m sure.
The trail culminates at Westminster Abbey, which is a pay-to-enter landmark. I had an ace up my sleeve, though. How many people know that there is a Royal Air Force Chapel in Westminster Abbey? Located right at the very eastern end of the Abbey the Chapel is free to access for all members of the RAF upon display of their ID card to one of the ‘red-cloaks’. Sidestepping the huge queues, we were gifted with wrist tags to quickly gain entry to the Abbey for as long as we wished. Paying our respects to the unnamed warrior on the way, we spent some time chatting with an attendant at the RAF Chapel – and were invited behind the rope to walk on the carpet and more closely admire the exquisite stained glass windows depicting artistic interpretations of the badges of RAF Squadrons involved in the Battle of Britain. With the walk complete, the next stage of the visit was to meet with the defence commentator, named Mr Howard Wheeldon. Mr Wheeldon has influence with, amongst others, the Chief of the Air Staff, Chief of the Defence Staff and the Defence Secretary. After a quick confirmatory phone call we were directed by Mr Wheeldon to a public establishment to meet for the epilogue act of day one. Many topics were discussed, not least Sentry, Waddington ISTAR and where we were going to dine! I can heartily recommend The Abbey: inexpensive and within a stone’s throw of the real Abbey.
An early start on day two saw the team passing through the metal detectors of the security checkpoint at the entrance to the Palace of Westminster. We were hosted by the assistants to Karl McCartney – the MP for Lincoln – who had set up the visit. The Palace is an extraordinary building. Everywhere you look is swathed in symbology from around the Union. Inset into the floor tiles of the octagonal Central Lobby are numerous inter-woven emblems representing each ofthe four nations. Similar themes carry through the insets and INSIGHTMAGAZINE 31 frescoes to the walls, the paintings and the embossed ceilings. Seemingly everywhere you look there are reminders of the rich, diverse history of the United Kingdom and the authority vested in the representatives seated in the Houses of Parliament.
The House of Commons was in recess, which meant the Commons Chamber was instantly accessible. We passed through the “rubble arch” which was demolished by a bomb in WWII but reconstructed with the damaged stonework (under Churchill’s instructions as a reminder of the evils of war). It was interesting to witness how the Commons’ debating and voting system works. No computers here, just form an orderly queue in the lobby of “Ayes” on one side of the main chamber, or the lobby of “Nays” on the other, and provide your name to the clerk at the turnstile to register your ballot. The main debating chamber itself is also steeped in symbology – some of it hidden from view. For instance, the dispatch boxes are said to contain books or holy scripture from different religions. This is to signify the holy oath when speaking at the box. Another example is the red lines on the floor in front of the benches on each side of the Chamber. MPs cannot cross these into the centre when debating. The lines are symbolically two swords’ length apart to signify that debates in the chamber should not descend into common brawls.
Only a brief time was spent in the public gallery of the Chamber of Lords due to the Lords being in session. This Chamber is similarly adorned with stately symbols. A brief tour was also given in Portcullis House, the new building housing committee rooms and a cafeteria. I was surprised at the amount of working meetings taking place in the cafeteria seating areas …
Overall it was a fascinating and educational visit that gave real insights not only into the history of the RAF, but also into the workings of the democratic corridors of power in Westminster. It was then back to the transport to make our way back to Waddington. In the humid heat of July. Without the benefit of air conditioning …