Exercise Luxembourg Wings Remembrance Weekend 2014
On a glorious October morning, 15 personnel from Dept h Support Squadron (DSS) departed RAF Coningsby to attend a ceremonial and engagement event at the Royal Air Force Associations (RAFA Luxembourg Branch) Commemoration weekend 2014.
The RAFA has over 400 regional branches and over 700,000 members, with Luxembourg being one of 35 European centres. Amongst its activities, the RAFA allows serving parents to ease the pain of separation from their children through a storybook scheme, as well as assisting veterans, helping homeless ex-military personnel rebuild their lives and preserving the graves of the fallen around the world.
The journey itself did not get off to a great start. Questions were soon asked regarding our present position and current navigational offset when the Shard could be seen looming in the distance through the windows of the minibus. Apparently, Sat-Nav programming was far too difficult for a certain Aircraft Technician who didn’t realise that vehicles cannot board the Euro Star at St Pancras Station! After this small cultural detour, we eventually made the Euro Tunnel with minutes to spare and continued on with our journey. Our first destination was the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.
Ypres, located in the province of West Flanders, occupied a strategic position during World War 1 because it stood in the path of Germany’s planned sweep across Belgium and into France from the North. Control of Ypres would mean control of the surrounding countryside and the major roads which converged upon the town. The numerous battles which took place in and around Ypres sadly cost many thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers their lives. The Menin Gate was unveiled on 24th July 1927 as a war memorial dedicated to the British and Commonwealth servicemen who lost their lives in the Ypres Salient of World War 1 and whose graves are still unknown. Almost 55,000 names are forever engraved into the stone of the memorial creating a powerful impression which compelled us to stand back in silence and reflect on just how many gave their lives during this bleak period of our history and the shear magnitude of the human sacrifice.
Our final destination for Day One was Mons, Belgium, where we were to be accommodated for the night. After breakfast the following morning, we left for Kirchberg, Luxembourg. Without any further navigational complications, we arrived on time and raring to go. After checking into the hotel it was time to find our rooms and prepare our No1 uniforms for the evening’s proceedings. We had been invited to a reception hosted by Her Majesty’s Ambassador, The Honourable Alice Walpole, at the British Embassy Residence, which was where our first duty was to commence. Our small group formed a welcoming party, smartly lining the steps of the Residence and greeting the distinguished guests as they arrived. The guest list included: His Excellency, Air Marshall, Sir Peter Walker – Vice President of RAFA Luxembourg; Brigadier Christopher Rose – NATO Support Agency; Captain Nigel Amphlett RN – Defence Attaché to Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg, and a whole host of other Senior Officers and RAFA representatives.
After all the guests had arrived and the formalities were complete we were invited into the reception to participate in hosting duties and to mingle amongst the guests. Mrs Yvonne White, Deputy Head of Mission, British Embassy, gave a welcome and thanked the distinguished guests, and specifically our support party, for their attendance and contribution to the RAFA Memorial Weekend. OC DSS, Sqn Ldr Carl Lawson, gratefully accepted the thanks before taking to the microphone in reply. After a great evening, and with the canapés starting to dry up, we all returned back to the hotel where the gathering continued and preparations for the next morning were finalised.
The next day was a beautiful Saturday morning and we met early in the Hotel Lobby, all immaculately dressed in our No1 uniform as we waited for the coach to take us to the first of Day 2’s memorial events. The stunning backdrop of the first location left us all in awe; we were on the bank of the River Moselle which forms part of Luxembourg’s border with Germany. The thick mist rising off the river shrouded a steep German hillside just 100 metres behind us, highlighting just how close we were to the German border and, therefore, how difficult it must have been to live in Luxembourg during the war years.
The location of our first event was a small cemetery outside the town of Mertert. Nestled amongst the headstones, a couple were made of white Portland Stone which marked the final resting place of 2 RAF pilots. On the evening of 2nd September 1944, Flying Officer Brian Robert Dwyer and Flight Lieutenant David Domett Hall of No.107 Squadron were on a reconnaissance mission when they came across a German train. Flying at low altitude, their De Havilland Mosquito FB VI was hit by German anti-aircraft gunfire and subsequently crashed near the town killing both of the young pilots. The locals quickly retrieved their bodies and buried them clandestinely in a private grave to protect the bodies from the German soldiers. It was not until after the war that their remains were buried in the military graves that remain at the Mertert cemetery today. Since then, the graves have meticulously been maintained by members of the local community.
Our party formed a Guard of Honour alongside members of the Luxembourg Army and a civilian marching band whilst a commemoration service was conducted in memory of the 2 airmen. The proceedings were assisted by Cpl Philip Bandy and SAC Luke James who were honoured to take up positions as members of the Standard Party and SACs Ashley Bradshaw and Katey Rowe formed part of the Wreath Laying delegation. In drawing the service to a close Sqn Ldr Lawson led the congregation by reading the RAF Prayer. SAC Liam Atkinson summarised the proceedings by remarking ‘it is humbling to see that money isn’t your legacy’.
The second service of the morning was conveniently just a short walk from the previous location in a small woodland park which, in early autumn, provided a quaint and heart-warming backdrop for the next Commemoration Service. We formed up around The ‘Monument En Hommage Aux Bienfaiteurs’ for a service in honour and memory of the Luxembourg fallen and particularly their steadfast resistance movement of World War 2. The RAFA Branch conducted a similar service there to the one previously carried out in the town cemetery. Once again, we formed a Guard of Honour and assisted with the proceedings. The distinguished guests laid wreaths in honour to the countries and towns that had fallen after which Officer Commanding TMF, Flt Lt Andy Power led the Prayer of Remembrance before the bugler sounded the Last Post. During this service, the locals walking dogs around the park and children playing football in the distance were a reminder of the freedom now enjoyed thanks to those who gave their lives to liberate Luxembourg.
After the second ceremony had concluded, we marched off to the beat of the Band to the town hall. Here we were welcomed during a reception hosted by the Bürger Meister in the Commune of Mertert. Thanks were offered to all who organised and took part in the Service and Sqn Ldr Lawson presented a RAF Coningsby Crest to the Commune of Mertert on behalf of the Stn Cdr in appreciation of their kind hospitality. After the presentations and speeches had finished, the stories of those that had lost their lives were recounted and friendships were further cemented.
The next few hours seemed to pass in only a few minutes before the main event in the evening – The RAFA Luxemburg Branch, Wings Gala Dinner and Ball hosted by His Excellency Air Marshall Peter Walker. The evening began in a traditional manner with customary toasts and speeches. We were served an exceptional meal during which Cpl Stu Atkinson and SACs Katey Rowe, Liam Atkinson and Luke James ‘worked’ the room selling tickets in advance of the raffle. Before the formalities faded and the Ball got into full swing, it was announced that the raffle had managed to raise over 4,500 Euros for the RAFA Branch. The sterling efforts of our ticket selling entrepreneurs broke all previous records for this event. It transpires that DSS has some pretty sharp dancers but none came close to the Sqn Warrant Officer with his superb and nimble ‘Dad’ dancing during the after-dinner dance.
Everyone left Luxembourg feeling humbled to have been part of such an amazing Remembrance weekend. Our thanks go out to everyone involved, especially the RAFA Luxembourg Branch, for organising and allowing us the privilege of being involved in the Commemoration Weekend.