Friday, July 6, 2012

Edgar meets the Queen

Behind the Barr in Britain

Welcome to the next edition of the EAEEAE (Edgar and Annie’s Excellent Epic Adventure to England). Last week we attended a number of Bomber Command ceremonies and events.

Tuesday morning (26th June) we caught a bus to the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede in Surrey for a wreath-laying ceremony. The memorial at Runnymede commemorates by name the 20,389 airmen and women who were lost during World War II in operations from bases in the United Kingdom and North West Europe, and who have no known grave.

That afternoon we were to attend an afternoon tea reception at Australia House in London… but alas, our bus broke down on our return journey from Runnymede and we spent three hours by the side of the road. Sadly no-one appeared to notice that a coach containing forty seven veterans and their carers had failed to return to London, so we missed out on our cucumber sandwiches that day.

On the eve of the Bomber Command Memorial dedication Edgar and I were invited to a reception at London’s historic Guildhall (circa 1400s), where the Lord Mayor on behalf of the City of London welcomed the Bomber Command veterans.

The day of the Bomber Command Memorial dedication and unveiling brought weather straight from Darwin (a very hot and muggy 28 degrees). Edgar and I caught a London cab to Green Park where we managed to safely negotiate the security checks into the Memorial Area to where Edgar was being seated. Before I left for the Salute Area (where I would be sitting) I suggested to Edgar to “Have fun and shake hands with the Queen for me.”

The emotionally moving ceremony included the last flying Lancaster in England. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) Lancaster flew overhead with Ron Clark on board and opened its bomb bay doors to shower the crowd of seven thousand plus people at Green Park with red paper poppies. The ceremony concluded with the Queen and other royals walking along the front row of the Memorial Area and shaking hands with some of the Bomber Command Veterans.

As I watched the big screen in the Salute Area I suddenly saw the screen filled with none other than Barham’s own Squadron Leader Edgar Pickles DFC and Bar as he shook hands with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke of York, the Earl and Countess of Wessex, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and the Duke of Kent were also in attendance.

The memorial itself is a magnificent design by Liam O'Connor and built in Portland stone, it features a bronze nine foot-high sculpture of a seven-member bomber command aircrew.

The following day (Friday), we left London for the 550 Squadron Reunion at North Killingholme with Monash University’s Associate Professor John Arnold (President of 550 Squadron Association in Australia) and Doctor Damien Williams (who is completing a paper on the veterans of Bomber Command). The English countryside was looking very lush and green as we passed a number of very impressive wheat and canola crops along the way.

Edgar thoroughly enjoyed catching up with his old flying mates and their families and was particularly moved by the effort the 550 Squadron Association had made to welcome him back to North Killingholme. President of the Association and Edgar’s Deputy Flight Commander in 1945/46, Jack Harris made a special presentation of a book and photographs to Edgar during his speech at the 550 Squadron reunion dinner.

The following day we marched a distance suitable for decrepit ninety year olds, to the 550 Squadron Memorial Stone, while the village residents joined us for the service in the rain. Wreaths were laid for departed mates and the BBMF Lancaster arrived precisely on time and made three nostalgic passes over the memorial.

On Sunday we had an early start with Gary Brooks (son of Edgar’s Mid Upper Gunner, the late Len Brooks), driving us down to the RAF Waddington International Air Show near Lincoln. We spent the day as guests of Air Show Director, Paul Sall and his lovely wife Kay.

There were innumerable spectacular displays of flying from various air forces from around the world. The Republic of Korea Air Force’s aerobatic team the Black Eagles put on an incredible routine with their distinctive T-50 “Golden Eagle” supersonic light-trainer jets. The famous and equally impressive RAF aerobatics team, the Red Arrows in their Hawk T1A trainer jets, followed the Black Eagles.

During the course of the day Edgar as a former member of 100 Squadron was introduced to current member and Hawk fighter jet pilot, Squadron Leader Bruce Farquhar. Before long Edgar had persuaded Bruce to allow him into the cockpit of his Hawk fighter jet… although Bruce remained unconvinced about allowing Edgar to take it up for a circuit.

However, Bruce did invite us to visit the current home of 100 Squadron at Leeming in North Yorkshire, so Edgar remains ever optimistic that he will once again get airborne in a military aircraft.

On Monday we were given a personal tour of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight planes by Squadron Leader and former Vulcan Bomber pilot David Thomas and his good friend and Vulcan Bomber navigator, Squadron Leader Andy Marson. A highlight of the day was getting Edgar (for the first time since 1946), into the pilot’s seat of England’s last remaining flying Lancaster Bomber.

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