As the giant hulk of the C-17 aircraft appeared on the horizon, its tail lights shining against a dark grey sky, the sports pavilion at Carterton fell silent to mark Sergeant Barry Weston's final journey home.
Yesterday the father-of-three known for his sharp sense of humour and ability to make light of the toughest situations became the first serviceman to be repatriated through the Oxfordshire town instead of passing through Wootton Bassett.
The 40-year-old, of 42 Commando Royal Marines, was killed by a roadside bomb while leading his men near the village of Sukmanda in southern Nahr-e Saraj district, Helmand, last Tuesday. If his family had feared that his repatriation would not be marked with the same solemn dignity shown by the people of Wootton Bassett, their worries proved unfounded yesterday as 2,000 people lined the route of the cortège as far as the eye could see.
No bell tolled, but the crowd fell utterly silent as Sgt Weston's wife, Joanne, arrived at the newly built memorial garden, looking pale and fragile. With their youngest daughter, Rose, squirming in her arms, she carefully placed roses on his hearse before pausing to glance in at the Union Flag covered coffin. As it began to draw away, she fought back tears.
With the closure of RAF Lyneham, repatriations were moved to the Oxford base of RAF Brize Norton from last week. After four years of public and private grief at Wootton Bassett, a town that became synonymous with honouring the fallen, many questioned whether Carterton, which lies on the route to the John Radcliffe Hospital, would provide as fitting a memorial.
But yesterday the small town was determined to show it could take on the mantle. Hundreds of volunteers came out to assist with parking, serve teas and guide visitors. Many of its 16,000 population are former military and they turned up in their hundreds to honour Sgt Weston.
On the outskirts of the town, Oxfordshire County Council has built a small memorial garden where the Wootton Bassett flag flew at half mast yesterday. A new £2.8m repatriation centre has been built for the families at RAF Brize Norton and a renovated side exit has been named Britannia Gate in honour of the fallen.
But the decision not to bring the cortège out of the main entrance or through the centre of Carterton on market day led to angry accusations that the dead were being smuggled out a "back door".
Debbie Semmens, the wife of an RAF chief technician, said: "Every time you see someone come back you think it could be your husband... [The cortège] should be going through the centre of town. Who gives a damn about the market?"
Carterton's deputy mayor, Adrian Coomber, himself a serving RAF sergeant, said: "We have provided the opportunity and it is up to the public to do whatever they want.".
Yesterday, for a few minutes, the rows were forgotten as people came together to honour a man described by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ewen Murchison, as a dedicated lynchpin in his unit. "His passion for the men in his charge was obvious and he looked after their interests and welfare with a dogged determination; he was like a father figure to them and they looked on him with the utmost respect," he said.
"One of life's real characters, he will be remembered for his dry, sharp sense of humour and canny ability to make light of the direst of situations."
Gill Crapper, who had helped serve tea to the family and guests, said: "We are quite prepared to take on the repatriations. We don't want to be compared to Wootton Bassett. We want to show what Carterton can do."Reuse content