Standing on Colchester’s High Street surrounded by local townsfolk, the anticipation of what is to come is palpable.
I’ve jostled for one of the sought after prime positions amid thousands of people who want to welcome home their local lads and lasses from a six-month tour of Afghanistan. The sound of cheers and applause hits me like a gigantic wave and envelopes me with a huge sense of pride.
Hundreds of soldiers marching to the beat of a drum through a British town centre marks the final moment of often very tough and dangerous tours. It also marks the climax of months of hard work behind the scenes to pull together what can be a logistical nightmare.
Homecoming parades are seen by Armed Forces personnel, as well as the local population, as the ultimate way to honour the troops who have returned home from theatre. And the importance of these parades is evident in the amount of work that is put into ensuring that everything runs according to plan on the day.
The preparations for a homecoming parade can monopolise a lot of hours of a lot of people’s time.
I’m watching 16 Air Assault Brigade’s homecoming parade. They returned from Afghanistan to their base, Merville Barracks, in April 2011, but the planning for this parade began before they had even set off for Helmand.
Station Staff Officer at the barracks, Major David Casey, was the mastermind behind today’s scenes of pomp and pride.
Organising around 700 Service personnel to be in the same place at the same time is no mean feat. And to ensure the safety of all involved, including some 10,000 members of the general public, is partly why it’s essential to start planning the event so far in advance.
Major Casey explained:
We agree the dates with the brigade and post a general warning order out to the units - that’s normally about six months prior to the event itself. Because of the forward planning, the date will be agreed even before they go away. As we get closer to the date, there’s a band practice to make sure that everybody’s happy.
There are other things we need to deal with as well, such as liaising with the council, dealing with Special Branch and with the police. Part of dealing with the council involves road closures, obtaining barriers and even toilets.
We deal with everything that is required to ensure that it all goes smoothly. We also organise getting the troops from their headquarters into the town and back again; a reception has to be planned and we have to make sure there is some sustenance for the troops as well.
As is the case with planning most events, the relationship between the brigade and the local authorities is paramount to the success of the parade. Major Casey strives to ensure strong bonds exist between him, Colchester Council and the county police force:
Our relationship with Essex Police and Colchester Borough Council is exceptional,” he said. “We have a great rapport with them, they’re very supportive to us. In the town, we have Superintendent Alison Newcomb who is the main chief of police there and she’s 101 per cent in support of us.
Our dealings with the council involve Amanda Chichi who is the detailed planner; she co-ordinates the road closures that are required and also the reception for the troops directly after the parade.
Today’s parade is doubly important as the troops are not only being welcomed home from an operational tour, they are also exercising their freedom of the town which was awarded to them in 2009. A freedom parade differs from a homecoming parade in that it features musical bands and the personnel march with fixed bayonets.
The night before, the final preparations were in full swing. Major Casey explained:
The Police Search Advisory Teams will start at 2300hrs, clearing the streets, making sure drains are clear and cars are moved, and the final search is at 0600hrs the next day after which Essex Police take control of the streets and make sure that everything’s ready for the parade.
When the big day finally arrives, it’s all systems go. For the Colchester parade which started at 1100hrs, troops are moved from the barracks into the town at 0915hrs to get into position for 1015hrs. They start forming up at 1030hrs for the parade at 1100hrs. And it seems all the hard work and preparations have been worth it:
When you’re on tour you don’t realise the amount of support you’ve got back home,” said Lance Bombardier Steven Strudwick, 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery.
It’s not until you do things such as marching through the town that you realise that people are behind you and it makes your job easier when you’re in the Army to know that you’ve actually got that support.
Lance Corporal Joanna Brownlow, from 16 Medical Regiment, concurred:
It’s very overwhelming. I keep saying that, but it really is very overwhelming. Sometimes you feel like you’re about to come to tears, but there are smiles all around and everyone’s praising you and you just have a great time walking up and having the public behind you.
Major Casey added:
The guys are extremely, extremely proud of doing this, there is no doubt about that. We have this great affiliation with Colchester and the people of Colchester love the troops and the troops love Colchester.
There’s nothing better for them, with their bayonets fixed, marching heads up high with thousands of people cheering them on. There can’t be anything better for them when they know that they are appreciated for everything that they’ve done.
After the marching and cheers have dissipated, the troops head back to their everyday lives, safe in the knowledge that the pride of their local town is always with them, spurring them on.
And Major Casey knows that he has done his job just right and the months of planning have paid off.
This article is taken from the July 2011 edition of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.