Page last updated at 18:06 GMT, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Wootton Bassett sheds tears for soldiers

By Paul Deal
BBC News, Wootton Bassett

The hearses carrying the coffins of six dead soldiers
Many people lined the streets of Wootton Bassett for the repatriation

A grey mist hung over the market town of Wootton Bassett and seemed to match the mood of the people who lined the High Street.

Some of the 114 veterans who make up the town's branch of the Royal British Legion could have been excused if they had stayed at home by the fire on such a miserable November day.

But they had a duty to perform - to salute the latest victims of the conflict in Afghanistan on their final journey.

Ken Scott, who is "93 going on 94", is the oldest member of the branch and a former president. He was also once mayor of the Wiltshire town.

Mr Scott fought with the 8th Army in the Western Desert before seeing action in Germany, France and Holland.

Earlier in the day he had watched from his window as the Globemaster bringing the six soldiers home had flown low over the town to land at nearby RAF Lyneham.

There are mums who've lost their sons and children whose daddies will never be able to take them to a football match again.
Ken Scott

"Isn't it sad?" he said as it dropped out of view. "All those bodies. Some of them were so young."

Five of the men were killed seven days ago when an Afghan policeman who they trusted and were helping to train turned his weapon on them before escaping.

They were Guardsman Jimmy Major, Warrant Officer Darren Chant, Sgt Matthew Telford, Cpl Steven Boote and Cpl Nicholas Webster-Smith.

The sixth victim was Sjt Phillip Scott, who died in an explosion in Sangin, Helmand, on Thursday.

Wearing his army cap and a coat to keep out the cold, Mr Scott made the short journey from his house on his mobility scooter to join several thousand people who had gathered to pay their respects.

Ken Scott
Ken Scott went to see the six soldiers be repatriated

Every day Mr Scott goes to the war memorial to tend the flowers that are left by townspeople and visitors.

He has carefully collected the cards left with floral tributes by the families and friends of the service people and put them in an album.

When the conflict ends he says the Royal British Legion will present the album to the town museum.

Bravery acknowledged

"These soldiers are our children. When they come through we have to stand and pay our respects. It's all we can do.

"There are mums who've lost their sons and children whose daddies will never be able to take them to a football match again.

"I think these days are a good thing. The media needs to show the rest of the country that the fallen are being shown respect."

Standing beside the war memorial, Ann Bevis, treasurer of the branch, said it was the 98th repatriation since the people of Wootton Bassett had started to honour the returning heroes in April 2007.

From left: Ken Fuller and Ray Collins
Ken Fuller and Ray Collins were among those who formed an honour guard

She said: "They have to come this way and there is no way that we will let them pass without acknowledging their bravery."

More than 40 members of the Royal British Legion Riders Branch had ridden from all over the country.

Ken Fuller, who's 78 and still on two wheels, said: "We're not just here to honour these six men. My mind goes back to the friends I served with in my day."

Ray Collins, another biker, said: "I think there's a sense of shock about the circumstances in which the five men lost their lives at the hands of someone they were protecting."

Then a single bell began to toll and the gentle buzz of conversation was replaced by the odd cough and the sound of a toddler. Another bell chimed to mark the hour and the cortege appeared.

Soldier support

Men raised their hats. Soldiers saluted. People wiped away tears. Relatives and friends of those who had died threw flowers on to the hearses.

A private service for families was earlier held at RAF Lyneham

Then, with a polite ripple of applause, the cortege moved on and the crowds started to disperse.

Things started to return to normal in Wootton Bassett. Until the next time.

The present mayor of Wootton Bassett, Cllr Steve Bucknell, tries - "work permitting" - to be present at the repatriation days.

He said: "We've been careful throughout this process not to get involved in the politics of the war. These repatriations are simply about the soldiers and their families and the support we give to the armed forces.

"I've had letters and e-mails from serving soldiers who've seen these events on television in Afghanistan and they say it is a help."

People outside Wootton Bassett have been supporting a call for the town to have a royal prefix to recognise its role in honouring the fallen.

Cllr Bucknell said: "We're not doing it for plaudits or a pat on the back. We've very reluctantly found ourselves in the spotlight. Townspeople don't feel comfortable about all the attention."

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