One week of intensive weapons drill practice instructed by Cpl’s Lurkins and Rivers. Followed by Parade through Gloucester from Cathedral to Guild hall, reception after and then Dining in Night at the Officer’s Mess on Brize Norton – the 501 Sqn ACT for 2019 in preparation for the Sqns 90th Anniversary.
Monday morning and on with the No2 Blues. All congregated in building 2014 classroom and ready for what for many would be there first ever weapons drill. Off to the armoury, now I have to remember my ‘NSP’s’, safety on, ‘What’s next? Help given, it’s onto the coach and off to the airfield to base hanger to start our intensive preparation.
Everyone’s excited and apprehensive. There are different levels of experience amongst us but we’ll all get there. The days are set up in a routine of Collect weapons, Drill for 2 hrs, break, drill for 2 hrs, lunch, drill for 2 hrs, finish for the day.
The HQ staff had arranged for some evening activities to keep us occupied so it was back on with the A flight vs B flight battle. Monday was quiz night. 7 rounds of the OC’s quizmaster specials unfortunately, it ended in an emphatic win for A flight but there were other opportunities to get even or better.
Tuesday saw day 2 of attempting to perfect marching around smartly and in time. It started to click with most of us and pride started to replace apprehension, although by the end of the day feet were starting to suffer from the time being spent on them, in our unfrequently worn No2 shoes.
Sport was the next after drill activity. Unihoc followed by bucketball. Split down into teams from respective flights, the battle lines were drawn, and battle commenced. Fun was had and the competitive nature of some of the troops was perhaps shown a little too much, but in the end, it was B flight who reigned victorious.
Wednesday was day 3 of drill and there were a few new troops as there were some who had been in 501 when it had been a Force Protection previously that came to join us. By the afternoon, they were joining us in the lines and picking up all the commands and moves needed to complete our parade. We marched with weapons for the length of time we’d be doing at the weekend and for the first time it felt like a really long time.
Tonight, there was a Games night that included darts, boules, pool, black jack and dominoes as well as a flexibility challenge which consisted of bending down to pick up a cereal packet with your teeth. All the participants managed this so some of the height of the packet was removed and the next round started. Andy Bartlett, Mark Frost and Jake Gregory all gave it a good effort and nearly damaged themselves in the process but bowed out. This left just 2 competitors vying for the win. Lisa Mclaughlin and Jon Mace both passed at this point and then then next round too, it went on and on until the cereal packet had become just a scrap of cardboard the size of a postage stamp. Down they bent, practically doing the splits and looking pained and strained but ultimately, they could not be parted so a draw was called, excitement and cheers were punctuated with shock at their efforts. Congratulations at how well they’d done were called out and then the last game of the night was bingo which was eventually won by Ben Rollins. The night went to B flight, but the winner was absolutely the sqn as the banter and morale was so obvious to be seen.
Thursday came and the last of the sqn members who would be in the parade arrived and were put through their paces with an intensive lesson on the weapons drill. There was a morning of practise and then a run through after lunch before full rehearsal including the HQ staff doing their piece. We were getting the hang of this now and starting to look the part. One more day’s practice left before the day.
Softball was the sport of choice after work tonight and again the competitive streak came to the fore of the usual suspects, Lisa, Will, Andy and myself all shouting and pushing the teams on to better results, everyone enjoying the innings where B flight went into the second innings 16 – 5 ahead. B flight took this out to 30 by the end of their batting and therefore A flight needed 26 to win. They fought hard and used tactics as well as a few other means to edge ever closer. I took it upon myself to be head cheerer for the B’s. I may have gotten a little carried away and over zealous on the shouting encouragement. As the scores became closer and closer, my frustration and worry boiled over and some thought I may explode at any moment. Not my finest hour but entertaining for most. Eventually the B’s did win by a short margin and euphoric enthusiasm and relief was exalted by the whole of B flight.
Friday came around and everyone was in their smart No1’s, buddying up to check each other were dressed smart and looking the part. Our first stop of the day was over to the airfield to form up in front of the C-17, SV and Snow Plough for our Official Sqn photograph. Really good fun and a proud moment as this would be the picture hung on the wall in the Sqn HQ Corridor for all to see.
Then it was over to base hangar for our full-Dress Rehearsal of the parade. It went exceptionally well, everyone was where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be, and it was spot on. Even the ‘Adults’ did well. Our reward for doing so well was to be stood down at lunch to get last minute kit finishing touches completed and to rest and relax following a full-on week.
07:30 on Saturday morning and the whole Sqn was ready for the big day. Dressed in gleaming No1s and excited about the day. Everyone was calm, and all went well with only the exception of a missing bayonet which wasn’t missing and someone’s inability to count causing an ‘on the bus, off the bus, on the bus again’ scenario. Soon we were in transit to Gloucester and an hour or so later we were arriving at the Cathedral. As we were given freedom to do our own thing but be at the ready, in place, on time butterflies started to creep into my belly. This was exciting, this was exactly the kind of thing I had signed up for. Showing ourselves off for the public to see in our finery and looking and performing to our very best and in front of Royalty. It doesn’t get much better than this for me.
As we congregated in front of the Cathedral and I look around, I could see sqn members chatting to family members who had travelled from far and wide to see their loved one be part of something important. I could see the smiles and sheer pride of everyone to be involved in this historic event for the sqn. It filled me with a sense of inclusion and almost overwhelming pride.
At 09:55 we were in our 2 flights, formed up, flanking the Sovereigns Colour to RAuxAF, ready for next instructions. We were brought to attention, went through our drill moves and were awaiting the turn of the hour to march through the centre of town, to exercise our Freedom of Gloucester as No501, County of Gloucester Sqn.
10:00 sharp we were given the order ‘By the left, quick march!’ and the 614 ATC band started and off we went. With each and every step, the pride welled up inside until I feared it may put me off but no, concentration was kept. The awareness of the good feeling coming back from those who came out onto the parade route to see us was palpable. They were cheering and clapping for us, for the forces. They were happy to see us, you could feel that this was felt by every member of the Sqn around you.
It wasn’t a long parade, but it was superb. No one put a foot wrong and we all looked so professional. NAILED IT!!! Before we knew it, it was done, we’d finished, and it was off for a coffee and a slice of cake in the Guild Hall and a meet and greet with HRH, the Duke of Gloucester. What a privilege.
My wife and my mum came as my family member guests and all 3 of us chatted about how exciting it had been, how good we’d all looked and they both got a chance to meet some of the other members as well as some of the HQ staff. It was an inclusive moment that we don’t often get. The whole morning had been a triumphant success as far as we were concerned. Nobody went away disappointed, we were all smiling extremely widely.
All too soon, it was time to bid farewell to guests and climb back on the bus to Brize where we then had the afternoon off to get ready for our Dining in Night. At 17:45 we were back in NO1s but this time in evening dress of white shirt and dickie bow. More banter and fun were had before we all walked over to the Officer’s mess for the evening’s festivities to commence.
Pre-dinner drinks and last-minute loo stops had, it was into the dining room. The band played, the guests arrived, the colour was escorted in and food and drink were had and enjoyed by all. There were toasts and speeches and games and songs. The merriment went on for a few hours before the unveiling of who had won the ‘Guess the length of the OC’s speech’ was announced. Ben Aston was correct with his 22mins 30secs as he was only 8secs out. The partying then moved into the bar and all ranks continued to enjoy themselves into the small hours.
A later start of 10:00 was awarded to us due to our hard work for the week. The consensus from all of us was that this has been an extraordinary week, going from zero to hero in weapon’s drill. The thanks for the 2-drill instructor Cpl’s was ringing out and the tales from previous night’s celebrations would go on. The overwhelming feelings coming from everybody was absolute pride in what we had done. The effort, the camaraderie, the banter and the feeling of inclusion was what was pouring out from all. To be a part of that is something I have only felt and witnessed since joining the RAF.
Thank you to all who were involved in anyway shape or form. I thoroughly look forward to 10yrs time when we reach the monumental age of 100.