Page last updated at 17:50 GMT, Tuesday, 14 July 2009 18:50 UK

Thousands honour repatriated men


Crowds lined the streets all the way from Wootton Bassett to Oxford to pay their respects

Thousands of people lined the streets of Wootton Bassett as the bodies of eight British soldiers killed in Afghanistan were driven through.

The bodies of the soldiers, who were killed in a single 24-hour period, passed through the town in Wiltshire, which is near RAF Lyneham.

On Monday troops in Helmand province held their own memorial to the men.

The head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt said the men had not died in vain.

People applauded and some threw flowers on to the hearses as they drove past.

The funeral cortege
People threw flowers on to the hearses as they drove past

The families of the soldiers were at the RAF base to see the coffins after they landed, draped in Union flags, carried from a C17 aircraft.

A private ceremony at the chapel of rest was held at the base, before the hearses left to drive through the town.

Sir Richard said the men's families should take comfort from the fact they had lost their lives carrying out an essential mission.

"It's really important, not just for this region or Afghanistan, but it's really important for the overall security of the West and the United Kingdom. And we must get this right, we will get it right."

The Earl of Wessex also attended the repatriation ceremony.

A spokesman for Buckingham Palace said Prince Edward, who is the Royal Colonel of the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles, wanted to pay his respects when the bodies arrived back at RAF Lyneham.

Robert Hall
Robert Hall, BBC News, in Wootton Bassett

At the sound of the church bell, the street fell silent.

The pavements were packed six deep around me; now, as the shops emptied, every available space was occupied.

Schoolchildren in uniform, the standard bearers of the local British Legion, the crews from the town's fire station, all gazing south down the main street as the sun flashed off the windscreens of the hearses.

No bands, no bugles - just silence; then, as the cortege paused beside the war memorial, a stirring in the crowd. Some family members pushing forward to throw flowers onto the hearses; others, overcome by grief, holding tightly to each other.

Moments later, a ripple of applause spreading across the town square, surrounding the war memorial bearing the names of others lost in past conflicts.

Beside a police car at the head of the cortege, one of the escorting officers stood at the salute; as the applause faded, a middle-aged man laid one last single white rose, and the convoy moved on.

Behind me, the shops re-opened their doors; Wootton Bassett had done its duty once more.

Meanwhile, ministers once again insisted the armed forces were properly equipped, despite opposition claims.

Rescuing comrades

Five of those who died in Helmand on Friday were members of the County Down-based 2nd Battalion The Rifles.

Corporal Jonathan Horne and Riflemen William Aldridge, James Backhouse and Joseph Murphy were rescuing comrades from an explosion when they were killed in a second blast.

At the time, Rifleman Murphy was carrying Rifleman Daniel Simpson who had been injured by the first bomb.

The body of Cpl Lee Scott, of 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, who died in a separate explosion on the same day, was also returned to the UK on Tuesday.

Making up the eight are two men killed on Thursday: Private John Brackpool, of Prince of Wales' Company, 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, and Rifleman Daniel Hume, of 4th Battalion The Rifles.

Sophie Blunden, 20, a psychology student from Croydon, was the girlfriend of Rifleman Simpson.

She said: "The last message I received from him was him telling me I wasn't only his girlfriend I was his best friend, his rock, his soul mate and the love of his life."

He said that when he looked at her all he saw was "happiness and a bright future with me".

"That was all true for me too. He was my everything, my soulmate and soulmates should never part.

"He called me his little angel. And now he has to be my angel. And he made my world shine."

Clockwise from top left: Jonathan Horne, William Aldridge, James Backhouse, Daniel Simpson, Daniel Hume, John Brackpool, Lee Scott and Joseph Murphy

Andy Horne said his brother Cpl Horne had been proud to lead his fellow soldiers.

"He said he was their dad, and they were his children, because they were so young.

"They were his pride, and he had to look after them, just like his family, how he looked after us back at home. They were his family while he was out there."

The people of Wootton Bassett have turned out repeatedly to pay tribute to the UK's fallen.

The mayor, Steve Bucknall, told the BBC they were proud to express the feelings of the entire nation.

"I get e-mails, letters, from all over the country from people thanking us," he said.

"But also saying that if they could be there they would be there, and therefore, please, can we represent them whilst we're standing there," he added.

'Extreme emergency'

The government faced stinging criticism on Monday over claims that troops in Afghanistan were being hampered by a severe equipment shortage.

The Conservatives say the lack of helicopters is a "scandal" and presents an "extreme emergency" to those serving there.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg agreed, claiming British strategy in Afghanistan was "over-ambitious in aim and under-resourced in practice".

Andy Horne: "There's definite pride, everyone is proud of him"

But Gordon Brown insisted Britain did have the resources "to do the job" and helicopter numbers had increased 60% since 2006.

An offensive designed to increase security ahead of Afghan elections next month has seen a big increase in UK casualties, with 15 servicemen killed in the first 10 days of the month.

It means 184 service personnel have now died in Afghanistan since 2001, more than the 179 who were killed during the war in Iraq.

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