The vital role played by a Gloucestershire airfield in one of the biggest airborne operations of the Second World War was remembered this weekend - 75 years on.
RAF Down Ampney played a leading role in transporting troops for Operation Market Garden, which saw 10,000 British airborne troops dropped behind enemy lines near Arnhem with the task of capturing its vital bridge over the River Rhine.
The ceremony took place to mark the 75th anniversary of the operation at All Saints Church, Down Ampney, adjacent to the disused RAF airfield.
The event was organised by the Rev Canon John Swanton the vicar of All Saints Church, Down Ampney. The Bishop of Gloucester, Rachel Treweek, took part in the ceremony along with Air Vice-Marshal John Ellis, the Chaplain-in-Chief of the RAF.
A number of wreaths were laid in the church by guests including the Dutch ambassador to the UK.
Among those present were veterans, including former glider pilot veterans and Chelsea pensioners.
One of them was Lillian West, 96, who was an RAF nurse based at Down Ampney. Known as ‘Flying Nightingales’ they flew across with medical supplies and petrol over and would return loaded with the wounded. “There were hundreds of them” she recalled. “It was our job to look after the wounded soldiers coming back. We were allowed to have a parachute on the way out but not on the way back - that was for the wounded. We had to stay with them even if we ditched in the sea. It feels marvellous to be here today - it was emotional too.”
Local air cadets also attended and joined the marchpast at the end of the service. One of them was Cadet Flight Sergeant Carys Larwood of Tetbury. The 18-year-old who is a member of No 1245 (Cirencester) Squadron said: “I think it was really amazing to be there today. The atmosphere, especially with the veterans in the church, it really amplified the significance of the event. For such a small village - there's such a feeling of respect and remembrance. It's a great thing to be part of - especially for the younger cadets for them to know and to learn about. We shouldn't forget about these things. I encouraged other cadets to talk to the veterans and to hear their stories because we don't how long we'll be able to do that.”
A specially commissioned piece of music, written by TV and film composer Debbie Wiseman and played by the Cirencester Band, received its debut during the march past at the end of the service.
The conductor of the band, Ian Hartnell said: “We were honoured to be invited to take part and we've been rehearsing the new march for two or three months now which went very well and I hope it added something to the service today.”
Immortalised by Richard Attenborough’s film A Bridge Too Far, Operation Market Garden involved the dropping of allied airborne troops up to 60 miles behind enemy lines to capture bridges in the Netherlands during September 1944. Ground troops were delayed by fierce enemy opposition and did not reach the besieged British airborne troops at Arnhem before they were overrun.
Only 2,000, of the 10,000 British airborne troops airlifted made it back. The remainder were injured, captured or killed.
When flying a resupply mission from RAF Down Ampney to Arnhem on 19 September 1944, Flight Lieutenant David Lord’s DC-3 Dakota aircraft was hit by ground fire.
Because of damage to the aircraft, the air despatchers were unable to immediately drop all the supplies so Lord, with his aircraft on fire, circled around to ensure that all the supplies were dropped to the desperate troops below. The aircraft then crashed killing seven of the eight crew on board. Flight Lieutenant David Lord was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the UK’s highest military award for gallantry.
Also present at the service were current members of No 47 Air Despatch Squadron, Royal Logistics Corps. Based at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, they provide crucial support for airborne troops. In recognition of their Operation Market Garden heritage, the air despatchers' badge shows an image of an RAF Dakota - the type which flew the airborne troops from Down Ampney and other airfields to the Netherlands.
Brize Norton is also the home to the successor to the Dakota - the Airbus Atlas A400M. This giant RAF transport aircraft supports UK and NATO operations around the world and recently carried out the UK’s biggest parachute drop from a single aircraft when one of them dropped 23 tonnes of cargo over Salisbury Plain.