Defence Chiefs to axe Wootton Bassett Memorial Parades

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Defence Chiefs To Axe Wootton Bassett Memorial Parades

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THE world-famous parades ­organised by the people of Wootton Bassett to honour our war dead are to be axed by Ministry of Defence chiefs – sparking fury among grieving relatives, locals and soldiers.

Huge crowds line the Wiltshire town’s high street every time our fallen heroes are brought home from the front line.

And images of the poignant public outpouring of grief have been flashed to millions of TV viewers across the globe.

But the MoD believes the parades are a public relations disaster – because they spotlight the unpopular conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and underscore White-hall’s failure to organise an official tribute to the dead on their final journeys.

Now mandarins are drawing up plans for a new route that would avoid Wootton Bassett altogether – ­outraging the 11,000 residents of the town dubbed the most patriotic in Britain.

Since April 2007, the bodies of men and women killed in Afghanistan and Iraq have been flown to RAF Lyneham.

They are then driven the five miles to Wootton Bassett so locals and relatives of the victims can pay their respects and throw flowers on to the hearses.

One of the corteges carried Staff/Sgt Olaf Schmid, 30, from Hampshire, who last year won a posthumous George Cross after he died trying to defuse a Taliban bomb – and whose widow Christina, 34, won the hearts of the nation with her quiet courage in the wake of the tragedy.

After passing slowly through the main street, the hearses travel 50 miles to Oxford for post-mortems at the Armed Forces Department of Pathology.

But Lyneham will close in 2012 and MoD chiefs plan to switch flights to RAF Brize Norton, 19 miles from Oxford.

The hearses could then go straight to the city along a “discreet” route – probably the A40 – which would deny the dead their final tribute in Wootton Bassett.

Government officials have never ­organised any public ceremony to mark the return home of the fallen.

But when the first bodies were driven through Wootton Bassett in 2007, a handful of local Royal British Legion members stood on a street corner and bowed their heads as the cortege passed.

Their homage captured the ­imagination of other residents and soon thousands spontaneously lined the roadside.

But a senior MoD source said: “The route was a PR disaster as the people who sent our brave men and women to war did not provide the means for the public to honour them on their return.

“Once again the MoD and defence ministers have been shown to be out of touch with the public.

“Getting rid of the parades will be seen as a massive own goal to the families of the fallen and to the people of Wootton Bassett who have tirelessly worked to make the occasions what they are today – a fitting tribute to those who gave their lives and died with honour.”

The warning was echoed by Joyce Doherty, whose paratrooper son Jeff, 20, was killed by the Taliban in 2008.

Fighting back tears, Joyce said: “The day Jeff was brought home through Wootton Bassett lives in my memory. Seeing the people lining the streets was strangely comforting and that tribute is the least our war heroes deserve.

“If it were to stop it would be a huge shame – and I truly believe the British people would be deeply saddened.”

Ex-intelligence major Chris Driver-Williams said: “Our servicemen and women have seen unprecedented support in recent years from the public, not least because of those paying their respects to our fallen in Wootton Bassett.

“We should be mindful of that support, so if there is anything we can do to find a route which enables people to pay their respects, every effort should be made.” And Tony Philippson – whose son James died while trying to save a wounded comrade in Helmand in 2006 – said: “The British people would be outraged if there was no way to honour our war dead.

“The residents of Wootton Bassett ­really connected with the public – and long may the tributes continue.”

During each parade, the main street is closed to traffic, the church bells toll and massive crowds gather between the old town hall and the new council offices.

Residents – who modestly insist they are only doing their duty – have won the admiration of people all over the UK.

Last year a petition calling for the ­historic market town to be honoured ­attracted more than 20,000 signatures. And there have also been widespread demands for it to be renamed Royal Wootton Bassett.

In January, the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall laid a wreath at the local war memorial and used the occasion to thank residents, expressing their “heartfelt gratitude to the people of Wootton Bassett for their unstinting support of Britain’s armed forces”.

The couple then made a ­pilgrimage to the Cross Keys, a pub in the high street which welcomes grieving families from across the UK who go there to join the tributes to their loved ones.

The prince told onlookers: “This ­country owes these brave men and women a great debt of gratitude which is why it’s ­wonderful to see the people of Wootton Bassett honour that debt time after time. Your actions have come to symbolise our nation’s grief.”

Last month Prince Harry – who served as an Army officer in Afghanistan in 2007 – went to a church service in the town to mark Remembrance Day.

He had previously opened the local Royal British Legion’s Field of Remembrance to honour the 346 Brits killed so far during the nine-year war in Afghanistan.

An MOD official said last night: “We continue to be grateful for the support Wootton Bassett shows in paying tribute to those servicemen and women who have lost their lives on active service and who are repatriated to RAF Lyneham.

“Lyneham’s closure was announced in 2003 and future arrangements are currently being considered.”

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