Wootton Bassett prepares for its final salute to Britain's war dead

RAF base's closure signals end of town's acts of remembrance

The repatriation flag will be lowered for the last time in Wootton Bassett tonight. As the sun sets, the church bell will toll to mark the end of an era for a town that has become synonymous with the death of British servicemen and women.

For 80-year-old former sergeant major Percy Miles, the man who inadvertently started a phenomenon when he paused to honour the coffins of two young men, it will be a difficult moment.

"It is very hard to see," he said yesterday. "But what has got to be, has got to be." From tomorrow, repatriations will be moved from RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. The route to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford will no longer pass through Wootton Bassett. Instead the crowds and television cameras will turn up in Carterton. "It is an adopted way of life and now it has moved on," said Paul Chilvers, manager of the newsagent across from a now famous war memorial. "There is a quietness about the town. It is subdued."

It was in April 2007 that a technical fault on an RAF plane bringing two soldiers home from Iraq meant that it arrived late, coinciding with the church bell ringers' Monday night gathering.

As the hearses passed through, they decided it would be inappropriate to practise and simply tolled the bell. Then Mayor Percy Miles and fellow members of the Royal British Legion stood in silent salute. The impulsive act touched a nerve. Within a short while, hundreds descended from across the country to mark repatriations. In the Conservative Club, pensioners conceded they felt guilty the end of such a tragic event would be a loss. "It is going to leave a void in our lives. Maybe it will hit home when another soldier is killed that we have not got them coming through here," added former WRAF air traffic controller Elaine Cobb.

The town has had a reprieve from the disastrous economic impact of the closure of RAF Lyneham. Plans were announced last month to replace it with a tri-service military training facility. But others admitted to relief that the sight of families' grief would no longer be on their doorstep.

Roger Haydock, who has tolled the bell for most of the repatriations, said: "Personally it is a relief because it has felt quite a responsibility at times. Unlike most of the population, you don't miss a single repatriation and the people of Wootton Bassett are much more aware of every one. That can be depressing."

One pensioner, who refused to give his name, said: "It was full of coach loads who turned up from around the country, people who stood there with a beer in their hands."

The Reverend Canon Thomas Woodhouse insisted tonight's ceremony would be "understated and low key". After 167 repatriations, the flag will be lowered, and placed in St Bartholomew & All Saints church, before being handed over to Oxfordshire – along with the responsibility of honouring the nation's war dead.

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