Carterton upholds proud tradition set by Wootton Bassett


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The Independent Online

As the giant hulk of the C-17 aircraft appeared on the horizon, its tail lights shining against a dark grey sky the sports pavillion at Carterton fell silent to mark Sergeant Barry Weston's final journey home.

Yesterday the father-of-three kinown for his sharp sense of humour and ability to make light of the toughest situations had the tragic honour of being 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, their worries proved unfounded yesterday as 2,000 people lined the route of the cortege as far as the eye could see. Without the traditional tolling church bell, the crowd fell utterly silent as Sergeant 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 synoymous for honouring the fallen, many questioned whether Carterton, which now falls on the route to the John Radclilffe 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 Sergeant Weston. On a site which controversially skirted the outside of the town, Oxfordshire County Council has built a small memorial garden where the Wootton Bassett flag flew at half mast yesterday.

Many of those who turned up from other parts of Oxfordshire pointed out that they had long lined the route up to the John Radcliffe less publicly that Wiltshire. Graham Whelan, a former 3 Para Sergeant and local Carterton man, who has stood at the "final turn" into the Oxford hospital for many repatriations said: "We have been parading in Oxford as long as they have been parading in Wootton Bassett."

A new £2.8 million repatriation centre has been built for the families at RAF Brize Norton and it has renovated a side exit, naming it Britannia Gate to mark the passing of the fallen. Locals are currently trying to raise £18,000 for a bell and there are plans to plant trees and poppies.

But not to bring the cortege 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".

"There has been a lot of mud slinging," said Mr Whelan. "It has over-shadowed the main point that this is the repatriation of a lad. I hope we can honour him properly."

Nearby Debbie Semmens. the wife of a RAF Chief Technician added: "We are proud to do this. Every time you see someone come back you think it could be your husband. "But I do think it should be going through the centre of town. Who gives a damn about the market. I don't think it should be here. It won't be the same as Wootton Bassett. They haven't even got a bell. Why not?"

Yesterday Carterton's deputy major Adrian Coomber, himself a serving RAF Sergeant, said he hoped it would evolve into a fitting ceremony. "We have provided the opportunity and it is up to the public to do whatever they want," he said, adding: "The Ministry of Defence and the county council devised the route. Given the constraints and challenges we have found the best compromise we could have hoped for."

Yesterday, for a few minutes, the rows were forgotten as they 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. "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, one of an army of tea ladies who had given up their time to serve 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."