Thousand pay respect to Afghanistan casualties

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The Independent Online

Thousands of people lined the streets today to pay their respects to eight British soldiers killed during the Army's bloodiest 24 hours in Afghanistan.

As the bodies were flown home, the families of the fallen men, three of whom were teenagers, were at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire to see the coffins, draped in Union flags, carried from a C17 aircraft.

A private ceremony was held at the chapel of rest before a cortege of eight hearses left the base.

A church bell tolled as the cortege drove slowly through the nearby town of Wootton Bassett, with a crowd of thousands standing in tribute.

Many people threw flowers on the hearses as they drove by. Veterans saluted and some in the crowd clapped and even cheered.

Tearful family members, who were also standing in the crowd, comforted each other.

Among the servicemen being repatriated were five soldiers from 2nd Battalion The Rifles who died near Sangin in Helmand province on Friday in two "daisy-chain" explosions.

And The Earl of Wessex, the battalion's Royal Colonel, attended the chapel to pay his respects.

Corporal Jonathan Horne, 28, and Riflemen William Aldridge, James Backhouse and Joseph Murphy, all 18, were rescuing comrades from an earlier blast when a second device detonated.

Rifleman Murphy was carrying Rifleman Daniel Simpson, 20 - who was injured by the first makeshift bomb - when both were killed in the following explosion.

Rifleman Aldridge, from Bromyard, Herefordshire, was attempting to reach casualties from the first blast, despite being wounded himself.

His aunt, Alison Aldridge, was in the crowd today, carrying eight roses in tribute to the men.

Ms Aldridge, 40, from Bristol, said: "It is extremely sad that his life was taken so swiftly, but I take comfort from the fact that he had two very fulfilling years rather than a lifetime of regrets.

"As a boy he was loving and adventurous. He had a loving, caring mother and he got his strength of character from her. He was a family boy and that's what the army is all about.

"His ambition was the SAS - and he would have got there too. He was mentally prepared. He had affection for people and that's what drives ambition.

"It's lovely that so many people are here - young and old. It's amazing how so many young people here understand and respect what's going on."

Also on the flight home was Corporal Lee Scott, 26, of 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, who died in an explosion on Friday, just north of Nad-e-Ali, during Operation Panther's Claw.

And making up the eight were two men killed in separate incidents on Thursday.

Private John Brackpool, 27, of Prince of Wales' Company, of 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was shot at Char-e-Anjir near Lashkar Gah while on sentry duty.

Rifleman Daniel Hume, 22, of 4th Battalion The Rifles was killed in an explosion while on a foot patrol, again near Nad-e-Ali.

Some 60 friends of Rifleman Hume had travelled to Wootton from Maidstone and Slough.

Among them was his ex-girlfriend Bianca Bond, 21, from Hampshire, now living in Dubai, who said the continuing war made her "very angry".

Ms Bond said: "I just can't believe he's gone. I'm very proud of the people who have come here and so proud of him.

"I'm going to miss him. I keep expecting him to call or sign in to Facebook. I hope it all stops soon - they should get Gordon Brown to go out there and fight himself. They are not doing anything about it."

Another of his school friends, Natasha Straw, 20, from Maidenhead, said he had never said he lacked equipment and "wouldn't have it any other way".

The procession was the largest to pass through the market town since it became an official repatriation station in 2007.

Veterans and serving soldiers stood alongside shopkeepers, pub landlords, restaurant owners and children.

Mayor of Wootton Bassett Steve Bucknell said: "Every repatriation is a very sad event, whether it is one person or eight.

"What makes it so much sadder is when you see the friends and family of the fallen and it brings it home that these are real people with real lives - someone's son, grandson, brother and father. They are going to leave a hole in many lives.

"The people of Wootton Bassett are fantastic. They never fail to amaze me with their ability to always do the right thing."

The return of the eight bodies comes amid renewed controversy over the resources and manpower committed to Afghanistan.

A total of 15 soldiers were killed in 10 days, bringing the number of UK military fatalities in the country since 2001 to 184 - surpassing the 179 who died in Iraq.

The Prime Minister has insisted it is right to press on with efforts to stop al Qaida using Afghanistan as a base for worldwide terror.