CROWDS lined Plymouth’s streets and seafront as thousands joined in a huge celebration of the military.
An estimated 30,000 people flocked to the Hoe for the action-packed Armed Forces Day.
The eyes of the nation fell upon the city on Saturday as VIPs joined city people, service personnel and veterans for the festivities.
A parade and Drumhead Service formed the centrepiece of the celebrations, which culminated in a spellbinding Red Arrows display.
Other crowd-pleasers included a live performance by the chart-topping Military Wives Choir and the rare chance to have a snoop around military vehicles.
Hi-tech fighter jets, tanks and helicopters invaded the Hoe to give the public a taster of forces life.
Service personnel told The Herald they were humbled by the bumper turnout.
“Plymouth has always been good to us,” said Staff Sergeant Marc Robson, of Citadel-based 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery.
“We’ve always had a good reception here returning from deployment. But this is country-wide, and that’s the great thing. We’ve got a great reception and it’s good to know people are behind us.”
The day began with a field gun display from the Sea Cadet Corps and a drill by the Air Training Corps.
Gunshots rang out in the sunshine, followed by military music, thanks to the Royal Marine Volunteer Cadet Corps Band.
Orders were then barked at youngsters from Morice Town Primary School, whose Year 5 and 6 pupils battled each other in a special field gun competition.
Crowd numbers began to swell just as the booming noise of an RAF Typhoon filled the sky.
More heart-stopping air displays followed moving scenes that saw more than 1,000 veterans, service personnel and cadets step off on the Armed Force Day Parade.
For many, the chance to march in front of their families was an emotional experience.
Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer Mike Bray was watched by wife Katrina and children Matthew, aged seven, and Lauren, five.
“They find all the Armed Forces stuff brilliant so having so much to do here is wonderful,” said the 35-year-old from Plymstock.
“It’s very difficult to gauge the level of support we have from the community when we’re on operations, but to see an event like this and the way this amount of people turning out is fantastic.
“Having this in your home town, it’s absolutely fabulous.”
One serviceman who had more reason than most to celebrate was Rifleman Luke Du Laic – the oldest infantry soldier currently serving in Afghanistan.
The Territorial Army reservist, who turns 45 next week, described himself as a “grandad” compared to the teenagers he works alongside in Helmand Province. A sculptor and photographer by trade, he paid tribute to their courage while on a short rest and relaxation break in his home city.
Rfn Du Laic will be returning to Afghanistan later this week, where he is one of 13 members of the Territorial Army’s 6th Battalion The Rifles currently fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with their regular army counterparts.
He said: “It’s great to be back in England. The TA is kind of in between both worlds, so it’s good for us to be appreciated.
“We have many young men there [in Afghanistan] and I thought they could benefit from my help – and it turns out I made a wise decision. I’m their grandad, I’m their daddy. Some of them, they’re boys; they’re not yet men.”
But he added: “They pull some incredible things out the bag.
“It’s astonishing what they can do when they’re given guidance and [are] driven themselves.”
Some troops managed to send videos home from the frontline, which were played alongside ‘thank you’ messages from city schoolchildren and businesses on a big screen.
Great-great grandfather John Ewings, 68, from North Prospect, was among the well-wishers.
He said: “I’m proud of this country. It’s still the greatest nation in the world and we have an Armed Forces to be proud of. If I can, I’ll shake the hands of every single one of them.”
Others had travelled from further afield to join in the fun. Louise Mayhew brought her Army-mad children Harvey, six, and Jack, eight, along from Peterborough. Both were sporting fearsome-looking war paint as they excitedly explored military vehicles.
Louise said: “I’ve come along so they can see all the planes and tanks – and also so I can see the Military Wives.”
Other music on the day came from Madness tribute band One Step Behind, the Salamanca Band of the Rifles, and a selection of some of the city’s top young musical talent.
Military nurse Flight Lieutenant Sydney Masawi, of the Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service, added: “It’s a brilliant day. It’s great to know that the public are behind us.”
As well as wife Millie and son Francis, the 40-year-old’s cousin Xavier Mukombe had travelled from Oxford for the day.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “The helicopters, the cars, the planes. There’s so much to see.”
Corporal Phil Ford, manning the 6 Rifles stand, added: “It’s incredible how many people are here.”
PRIME MINISTER AND EARL OF WESSEX LEAD THE CELEBRATIONS
PRIME Minister David Cameron and the Earl of Wessex led the celebrations as Plymouth united to salute Armed Forces heroes.
A stunning parade of servicemen and women, veterans and cadets snaked through the city to mark Armed Forces Day.
Each and every armed service was represented among the 1,200-plus who marched from the Citadel – home to 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery – on Saturday.
They ranged from teenage cadets to veterans using mobility scooters and guide dogs, as well-wishers lined the streets waving flags and offering their applause.
Mr Cameron, Lord Mayor of Plymouth Cllr Michael Wright and Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, were among the dignitaries present for the grand parade. HRH The Earl of Wessex was also there, representing the Queen and Royal family.
The march was followed by an emotional Drumhead Service and the signing of Plymouth’s Armed Forces Covenant.
The Earl had arrived in the city the previous evening for a reception hosted by the Seafarers UK charity.
Mr Cameron flew in by helicopter on Saturday morning, landing at Brickfields while members of Plymouth Athletics Club trained.
He shouted and waved to athlete Cathryn Taylor, from Woolwell, who was among the first to spot him.
Arriving on the Hoe, the PM shook hands with crowd members who were pressed up against security barriers battling for a better view.
He later sat beside the city’s Deputy Lord Mayor Cllr Chaz Singh, who is thought to have made history by becoming the first Sikh ever to lead prayer at a Drumhead Service.
Prince Edward spent around an hour in the ‘Veterans Village’ marquee, meeting forces heroes and charity volunteers.
Among them was Devonport-born Alfred Cross, a veteran of the Burma campaign, who had flown from his home in Australia to “meet old mates and remember others” – aged 86.
The Earl shared a joke with ‘evacuee’ James Dundar, aged seven, and asked four-year-old Katelyn Milburn, from Yelverton, if she had a good vantage point from her dad’s shoulders.
Security guards and armed police officers watched over every move made by the VIPs.
But Prince Edward looked relaxed as he shook countless hands on his way back to the Hoe, ready for HMS Argyll’s steam-past.
He stood beside a windswept Mr Cameron for the spectacle, which included a 21-gun salute.
Mr Cameron left the city shortly after the steam-past was over, greeting camera-wielding spectators with handshakes as he made his exit.
Speaking afterwards, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope said: “People across the country from all ages and backgrounds have a deep respect and appreciation for the Armed Forces, and Armed Forces Day is an excellent opportunity for us all to let our men and women realise how much they are appreciated.
“It is from our society that our Armed Forces are drawn and from our society that we draw our strength.”
Cllr Wright added that it was “a great honour” for Plymouth to host Armed Forces Day.
The Lord Mayor praised the “courage, professionalism and the sacrifices” of service personnel in Plymouth and beyond.
RED ARROWS WOWED THE CROWDS
THE fearless Red Arrows lit up greying skies to end Armed Forces Day in breathtaking style.
The RAF’s world-famous aerobatic display team dazzled the crowds with their gravity-defying show. The pilots trailed patriotic red, white and blue smoke as the day’s finale drew deafening applause.
For many, the air show was the highlight of the day.
The ear-splitting rumble of an RAF Typhoon kicked off the celebrations as one of the fighter jets performed an aerobatic display of its own. The machine was a bit too noisy for two-year-old Francis Masawi, from Plymstock, who covered his ears – much to the amusement of his dad, RAF nurse Flight Lieutenant Sydney Masawi.
The Second World War-era Spitfire, Sea Fury and Dakota planes also took to the skies for a Battle of Britain memorial flight.
Meanwhile, there were gasps from the promenade as a Royal Navy Lynx helicopter hurtled towards the ground – for show. And a Navy Sea King chopper demonstrated a sea rescue with the RNLI in the Sound.
PROUD GRANDPARENTS RELUCTANT TO GIVE UP SEAT FOR PM
PROUD grandparents Peter and Margaret Cox had a surprise run-in with a Royal when they refused to budge for the Prime Minister.
Prince Edward apologised to the 77-year-olds after they were ordered to give up a top spot on the Hoe.
The couple had arrived early to claim a bench with panoramic views of Plymouth Sound, ready to watch their grandson take part in HMS Argyll’s dramatic steam-past.
But, little did they know, the spot had been allocated to dignitaries including HRH Prince Edward, The Earl of Wessex, and PM David Cameron.
And they were less than amused at being asked to budge by police officers and security guards when the entourage arrived.
After reluctantly moving to a different bench nearby, the Prince approached the couple to apologise for getting in the way.
“The police asked us to shift and I said ‘I’m not going to’,” Mr Cox explained.
“He said, ‘David Cameron is going there’ and I said, ‘I don’t care about David Cameron’.I wanted to see HMS Argyll, and we were comfy. But we compromised and sat on the end bench eventually.”
Mr and Mrs Cox, from Plympton, were allowed to remain inside a cordoned-off high-security area for the steampast.
Their grandson, Petty Officer David Cox, was taking part ahead of joining HMS Argyll next month.
The 29-year-old, who is married to HMS Raleigh drill instructor Chantell, has recently been serving on fellow Type 23 frigate HMS Kent.
He was not the only family member involved in Armed Forces Day.
The pensioners’ son Ian Cox took part in the parade as a former paratrooper.
Meanwhile, eldest son Royston used to be in the RAF and Mr Cox himself once worked on Royal Navy ships at Devonport Dockyard.
As soon as the steampast was over, an apologetic Prince Edward made a beeline for the couple.
“You didn’t have to move,” he told them. “I’m sorry about that. For some strange reason they’ve decided that you were in the wrong place. It wasn’t your fault.”
The Earl chatted with Mr and Mrs Cox for several minutes, asking them about their grandson and noting the “fantastic” view and weather.
Mr Cox said afterwards: “I certainly didn’t expect Prince Edward to come and speak to us. I was a bit stunned but he was very nice.”
PRIME MINISTER INSISTS FUTURE OF DEVONPORT NAVAL BASE AND DOCKYARD IS SECURE
THE Prime Minister has insisted he will not make a U-turn on his pledge to protect Devonport Naval Base, writes political reporter, Keith Rossiter.
David Cameron, in Plymouth for Armed Forces Day, highlighted the city’s strategic value and pledged that Britain would continue to have “a very robust naval programme”.
And, with an estimated 30,000 spectators on the Hoe, the Prime Minister said Plymouth “rose to the occasion magnificently”.
Devonport Naval Base was spared from swingeing defence cuts after a Herald-led campaign in the run-up to the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. At the time it appeared that one of the three naval bases – Plymouth, Portsmouth and Rosyth – might be under threat.
During his last visit, in February, Mr Cameron assured The Herald that Plymouth would not be just a graveyard for nuclear submarines.
However, since then the coalition Government has been accused of making a number of policy U-turns, including a decision to buy jump jets for the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.
In an exclusive interview with The Herald Mr Cameron was asked: “Can you assure us that you are going to stick by your pledge to preserve Devonport Naval Base?”
He said emphatically: “Yes of course. Plymouth is a very important naval base. It’s important that we don’t have all our naval eggs in one basket.
“The Government has backed that with actual decisions, in terms of making sure that the submarine refit [at Devonport] is going on.”
Reflecting on Plymouth as a host to Armed Forces Day, he said: “It has been a really magnificent day. Plymouth has risen to the occasion magnificently, as you would expect. There is no better place to have Armed Forces Day than Plymouth, which has got this fantastic long military and naval history. The sense of enthusiasm amongst the crowd for coming out and saying thank-you and paying respect has been absolutely palpable.
“Plymouth owes a lot to the armed forces and the armed forces owe a lot to Plymouth. I think it has been a very good coming together.
“The point of having Armed Forces Day as well as Remembrance Day is, on Remembrance Day we remember the sacrifice of people who have given their lives for freedom and to keep us free. Armed Forces Day is a day of celebration and thank-you. And it’s also about the relationship between the civilian population and the military.”
Mr Cameron praised the Community Covenant, signed at in a ceremony earlier in the day by representatives of the military and civic organisations including the city council, the university and the NHS.
“I’m very keen on these covenants,” Mr Cameron said. “The Government has given them legal backing, we’ve written them into the law. I thought the list of organisations that were backing the Community Covenant here was really impressive.”
Mr Cameron defended the decision to revert to Labour’s plans to acquire the jump-jet version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter instead of a conventional version of the aircraft for the new generation of aircraft carriers.
“We’ve had to make some difficult decisions but if you think of Britain’s naval future, we’re going to have ultra-modern aircraft carriers.
“We’ve got the Type 45 destroyers; we’ve got our hunter-killer submarines; we’ve got the replacement and updating of our nuclear deterrent.
“This is a very robust naval programme, and one that is now fully funded, fully affordable, and we have dealt with all the massive spending black holes that we were left with in the past.”
Mr Cameron added: “Whatever changes our forces are going through, their ability to protect this country and deploy on a range of operations across the globe remains. This has been demonstrated by the successful operation in Libya last year, significant military involvement in Olympic security and our ongoing commitments to counter-piracy, with Plymouth-based personnel playing a major role.”
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