Even by Wootton Bassett standards, yesterday's repatriation was a solemn affair. As the bells marked the arrival of the cortege carrying Marine Sam Alexander MC and Lt Ollie Augustin, silence descended.
The standards were dipped and their fellow Royal Marines saluted smartly alongside soldiers of every cap badge, old and young. As their families laid red and white roses on the hearses, the only person among the hundreds to break the silence was a tiny boy, a fitting reminder that Marine Alexander leaves behind a son Leo, not yet a year old.
After a brief burst of applause the coffins disappeared, marking the end of another repatriation for the families of the fallen.
Yesterday, the families spoke almost in unison of the two young men, who were killed together by an improvised explosive device "on a nondescript patch of rock and dust" in Helmand. They were said to be fearless, funny, irrepressible, heroic, inspirational and a testament to the marine attributes of courage, selflessness, loyalty and cheerfulness in the face of adversity.
Marine Alexander's friends had gathered en masse, promising that in a fortnight's time they would celebrate his birthday in his memory. The 28-year-old, decorated for gallantry on his last tour, had been hoping to make it home for his son Leo's first birthday next month. Several days after his death, his father, The Independent's Stuart Alexander, wrote a moving tribute to his son which prompted an extraordinary response from readers – some of whom were parents with sons or daughters serving in Afghanistan.
"He was brave, funny and loyal, a legend. We had to come and say goodbye, to be there for his family," his childhood friend Tom Morton said yesterday. "He was a great guy, the life and soul, always there for you as a mate," added Andrew Chelley.
Nearby, Lt Augustin's uncle Adam struggled to control his emotions as he described his 23-year-old nephew: "He was absolutely fearless in everything he did. Nothing fazed him. His parents [Sean and Jane] and his sister Sarah are devastated like Sam's parents. We just want to send our best wishes to them as well as the two other families of the injured. Hopefully they will make a full recovery."
The Marines from Juliet Company, 42 Commando, had been part of Operation Omid Haft to clear insurgents from the Loy Mandeh Kalay area of Nad-e Ali on Friday. They were searching a compound in a remote village when Marine Alexander and Lt Augustin were killed by an improvised explosive device.
Yesterday it emerged that one of the wounded was L/Cpl James Chalmers, the son of Church of Scotland Chief Clerk Reverend John Chalmers. The 23-year-old reservist suffered head, body and leg injuries.
In 2009, Marine Alexander was awarded the Military Cross for charging the enemy with a pistol to provide cover and save the life of a wounded corporal, "despite being completely exposed to heavy and accurate enemy fire".