IT was not a huge homecoming for a whole regiment, but that made it all the more personal.
Families of just 21 men gathered at RAF Honington on Wednesday to welcome the first of 232 men of 1 Royal Tank Regiment home from six months in Afghanistan.
A skirl of the regimental pipes blew across the darkening airfield and fathers, sons and boyfriends marched into view to applause and whoops of joy. They lined up opposite the marquee decorated with children’s welcome home posters, then military precision gave way to hugs.
The piecemeal return will stretch into November because of the regiment’s multitasking. It was part of our chemical, biological and radiological warfare unit with the RAF Regiment, but the defence review took them off that role and next year they will combine with 2 RTR to form the Royal Tank Regiment with Challenger tanks. Meanwhile they have filled in as everything from six-wheel drive Mastiff armoured vehicle crews to handling bomb sniffer dogs.
Second in command of 1 RTR Major Graeme Mackay said: “We’ve had soldiers employed in a myriad of tasks. They’ve made a significant contribution and can be proud of what they’ve done.”
The returning Nine Troop’s leader Capt Pete Eadon said they provided Mastiff crews for the Grenadier Guards in Nahr-e-Saraj.
“It’s the most kinetic area of Helmand,” he said. “Their job involved moving troops into combat, often under fire. The Mastiffs really proved their worth for power, manoeuvrability and protection. In fact the enemy was given orders not to attack us after a few months.”
But he added: “It’s harder for the people left behind because they don’t know what you’re doing. There are days when you’re out of harms way, but they don’t know.”
His mother Anne agreed: “You don’t know what’s going on out there. The really awful thing is you hear a soldier has been killed and when his name is given it’s a relief, but then you go through the emotion that there’s some poor mum grieving.”
Thinking of those at home can also be tough. Fiji-born Corp Semi Navuku was on his second trip to Helmand but when he left his son Kulivati was only five weeks old.
“The first time was easy for me ,” he said, standing with his partner Heather Wade. “But this time I had her and him and it was very very difficult. She sent me pictures on Facebook, which kept my morale up.”
Heather said: “It’s been a long hard six months.”
Lance Corp Tony Knowles’ wife Kim gave birth to Amber on Fathers Day, Sunday June 17, and he left the following day.
“I’ve been watching her grow up on Facebook,” he said. “It’s the thing I’ve been waiting for coming back through Cypress. I wanted to get home and see everybody.”
Kim had dressed Amber in a t-shirt which had a picture on the front of Tony with the baby as he last saw her and on the back had a picture of a tank and the words ‘Mini-Tankie’.
A homecoming parade through Bury St Edmunds is being planned for November 28, when all the regiment will be home. They are hoping to have a Mastiff for the parade.
Hopefully, if the Eadons decided to come and watch, the family will have a less eventful journey. Their car’s water pump died only 10 minutes from their hotel and only got to the homecoming thanks to a helpful RAC man. While they travelled on to the base, the RAC man fitted a new pump on the hotel forecourt then brought the keys to the base.
Anne said: “I was determined to be here. If he could get here all the way from Afghanistan, we could get here from Newcastle.”