Ex Close Relations – 54(R) Sqn takes life in stride
Ex Close Relations – 54 (R) Sqn takes life in stride as it joins in a Belgian ritual witch burning, marks the departure of a Squadron Commander and undertakes a 450 mile cycle charity ride.
It’s fair to say that my time holding with 54 (R) Sqn as a wanna-be pilot has brought its share of a few interesting moments and some unusual ‘give it to the Acting-Pilot Officer’ jobs sold to me by the Squadron Chief of Staff. Seriously-he wouldn’t sign my departure paperwork for my next post at High Wycombe until I finished this article.
I can honestly say it’s been an eventful time on the 54(R). We’ve seen 70 ISR, Sentry and Sentinel students complete courses, the Squadron said farewell to outgoing OC 54(R), Wg Cdr Anne-Marie Houghton, the RAF’s first female navigator and now officially the December 2012 cover of Good Housekeeping. Not to be overshadowed, Flight Sergeants Jason Dark and Jeff Morris undertook a 460 mile Three Peaks Challenge charity cycle ride across Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis, raising over £1500 for the Headway Lincolnshire. WO Paul Ferguson ably assisting throughout.
The big event for 13 of us, however, was the Ex CLOSE RELATIONS Staff Ride to Belgium and France in May. Kitted out with the finest RAF white vans and filmed at every turn by our able-bodied Graphics Officer, Mr Woods, we set out to visit WWI locations at Ypres, The Somme and Verdun. The Ride focused on locations of strategic importance and events involving Coalition Forces. Each participant had a research area to prepare and joined in discussions of lessons learnt and relevance to future conflict. As the holding officer, I got the privilege of keeping the journey diary and it went something like this:
Day 1 0555: Waddington MT. All personnel present, except one. After a quick morning wake up call to Graham, all 13 set off for Folkstone. One of vans clearly had seen better days. Several hours and a train journey later, we arrived at Essex Farm Cemetery, where SAC Fishwick delivered the Flanders Field Poem, setting the scene for the week to come. Arriving at Ypres, we encounter a small problem. Our arrival coincided with the Ypres’ International tri-annual Festival of Cats and Witch Trials and all roads were blocked. After some deliberation, we agreed that Flt Lt Purkiss would deliver his stand ahead of schedule at Hill 60 where he discussed the importance of Ypres to British personnel during WWI. On return, the festival seemed to have calmed down somewhat, only to be re-ignited with a bonfire to burn the convicted witch and a Jester began tossing cats from the Cathedral roof! Despite this, we were now able to check into our hotel, metres from flying animals and smoking witches. We wisely decide to ‘eat-in’.
Day 2 The second day started at Hill 62 & Sanctuary Wood where Sqn Ldr Brammer discussed the development of Air Power throughout the last century. An informative visit to the Hooge Crater and trenches followed. After a quick trip to EuroSpar for an improvised cold lunch, with the team bemoaning slipping standards, we visited Tyne Cot Cemetery. Surrounded by an ocean of headstones, everyone was moved by the sheer loss of life echoing throughout the cemetery. SAC Scott delivered his stand regarding repatriation and the similarities/differences between today and WWI. Following on, we visited the Paschendale Trench Museum which was a fitting and very thought-provoking summary to our visit to the Ypres region. We headed back to the hotel, now clear of cats and quick-changed into No. 2 Uniform, heading to the Menin Gate. There, at the gate to the City, Flt Lt Moore delivered his stand and we were invited by City Elders to participate in the ceremony for the last post. This moving ceremony has been performed every evening since Jul 2nd 1928 and it was abundantly clear that everyone was proud to take part. The night was completed with a meal in a local restaurant followed by a few sociable drinks and discussion the day’s events.
Day 3 An early start and we were on our way to Newfoundland Memorial Park. Flt Lt Harris has had a quick strop over the inability of our 13 to follow simple directions. After a visit to the museum, we explored the site, with Cpl Tregunno delivering a stand discussing how the RAF sustained operations during the War, noting how this wasn’t so different to the modern day. Flt Lt Downs delivered a fitting stand on the media’s role during operations over the shouting of a very energetic Scottish tour guide in driving rain. The largest British war monument, Thiepval Memorial Park, was the next on our itinerary. SAC Mitchley presented his stand in the foreground of the vast monument. He focussed on the Command and Control aspect of leadership, picking out key figures to demonstrate his points. His effort was all the more impressive as it was delivered in the under spray of the Monument pressure-washing team and gale-force winds. Rounding out a very full day, we visited the Canadian Memorial, Vimy Ridge. This magnificent and striking visual monument was considered so unique that it was protected throughout German occupation during WWII on Hitler’s own orders and is a must visit for all Staff Ride’s. The group walked through the original trenches in the midst of a hail storm, giving us our first real taste of what life on the Front might have been like. Worn out, we made our way to Arras, where we spent the evening meeting locals.
Day 4 Checking out of the hotel on a hail-free morning, we headed for the South African Memorial at Delville Wood. This haunting site includes the only tree remaining following the fighting. Flt Lt Bloomer delivered the presentation and discussed the maintenance of morale to fighting forces, drawing comparisons between WWI and modern day and highlighting some very big contrasts. His explanation of the improvements to morale delivered by something as simple as a hot meal drew more than one comment from the team, by now on Day 3 of cold-lunch Euro-Spar rations.
From here, we headed to the epic La Boiselle Lochnagar Crater, with Sgt Higgin explaining developing technologies and the rather interesting history of the crater. We then took a quick (hot) lunch at Albert and began to make our way to Vauquois, Verdun. Vauquois village today is only evidenced by several craters on top of the steep hill on which the village stood before it was destroyed. It was hard to comprehend that the battle here brought total destruction to an entire village. Similarly, the poorer of our white vans found it a convenient time for a tyre to blow out. After exploring the still extant German trenches and tunnels along the hilltop, I gave a short overview of the Battle Of Verdun before the Flt Lts supervised the SACs replacing the tyre. We departed for our French chalet hotel for the night – where the comic highlight of the trip awaited.
Upon selecting a restaurant in Verdun, several members of the group were drawn to the local ‘specials’ menu, choosing Andouillette. Eventually, after the taste and smell had began to subside, it was discovered that the sausage they had eaten was actually pig colon!! A few local beers helped wash away the horrific taste, though memory of their reaction will remain.
Day 5 The day started at the Verdun Memorial. Whilst I prepared for yet my second stand, assessing air superiority at the Battle of Verdun, the group had a short look around the site Museum. We then moved on to the nearby Douaumont Ossuary. The Ossuary was huge. Underneath the monument are thousands of bones collected as a tribute from unnamed soldiers who had died during the Battle of Verdun. We had the opportunity to climb to the roof of the building and view the graveyard and surrounding country from a very different prospective.
During the afternoon, we visited the Montfaucon American Monument, discussing the American contribution to WW1. Standing some 200+ feet in the air, the more able-bodied were able to climb to the top for another magnificent view. Finally, we visited the Meuse Argonne Cemetery where thousands of American soldiers are buried, including nine Medal of Honour winners. SAC Fishwick presented his stand on the training of UK and American forces during WW1 and a member of the party, Flt Lt Harris paid his respects to his Great Great Uncle who was killed less than one month before the end of WW1. Being the first member of his family to visit the grave made for a very emotional and worthwhile moment.
Day 6 The final day of ride found our group making a detour to a small cemetery in the Somme area so that SAC Mitchley might pay respects to his great-grandfather, buried there. Finding the grave of an ancestor of a fellow Sqn member was an emotional experience for our team and a fitting end to our week together. My own thoughts are that whilst a Staff Ride is a great tool for developing personnel and learning about the history of the RAF, it also promotes working relationships between squadron members.
Throughout the Staff Ride, Mr Woods woke up on time, filmed the stands and captured footage whilst exploring the locations. He will be producing a documentary in conjunction with the University of Lincoln.
Editor’s Note: I did sign Callum’s posting paperwork after he completed his diary, and thank him on behalf of RAF Waddington, where he worked both for the ISTAR OCU and in the Stn Welfare Facility. He moves on to RAF High Wycombe where he continues to await pilot training.