The splendid guys and gals of the Harrier Force
It was a crisp bright day when the members of the Harrier Force assembled on Horse Guards parade in London to take part in the annual remembrance parade on Sunday November 12th 2017.
This is the 2nd year that the Harrier Force has assembled to parade and to remember the fallen. It was all started by Craig Benton a resident of Germany since he left a Harrier squadron while based there 20 years ago, and went to work in the German economy. Craig thought it was about time that the Harrier was able to parade alongside other Royal Air Force elements. The Harrier was in service with the RAF and Royal Navy for over 40 years and during that time was one of the backbones of the defence of the British Isles. There have been hundreds of engineers, pilots, suppliers, air traffic controllers and myriad other trades who were involved in maintaining and flying the Harrier during its service life. Other RAF squadrons have been parading annually at the Cenotaph on the date set aside for Remembrance Sunday and Craig set about trying to find the men and women who served on any one of the Harrier squadrons which ceased service 7 years ago. The squadrons were: 1(F), 3(F), IV(AC), 20, 237 OCU, 800, 801. There were also other Harrier bases including Belize. This made us fairly unique, as we we are a group for an aircraft whereas most other RAF groups are single squadron based. Using social media it quickly became apparent that there was a great deal of interest in taking part in the parade.
A Typical Regalia layout
Craig knew and kept in touch with many of his former colleagues on IV(AC) squadron based at RAF Gutersloh in Germany, and by posting on Facebook managed to capture many other people from other Harrier squadrons. In conjunction with the Royal British Legion via The Harrier Force Association, we were accepted and were able to attend the parade and march past the Cenotaph. Then there was a flurry of activity on Facebook which saw the word being passed rapidly to anyone who worked or flew on Harrier squadrons including MoD personnel. It was decided that the dress for the day was to be berets, Blazers with squadron badge and medals, white or cream trousers and shoes. The response was amazing and the enthusiasm was exponential. Traffic built up on social media and ex-Harrier people world-wide were clamouring to be part of the parade. Eventually we received the tickets, after providing essential information including service details, medals awarded, war theatres attended and many other aspects. Luckily all were accepted and plans were laid to get to London for 13th November. Hotels were booked, relatives were contacted for possible accommodation and journeys were planned. When we all assembled on Horse Guards parade, there was 67 of us. A marvellous result. The night before there was a gathering in a pub nearby and this was where old friendships were renewed and new ones formed. The next morning Craig and helpers waited at Trafalgar Square to issue tickets to gain access to Horse Guards, along with photo i.d. The wives and families attending were looked after as well by John Eaton, being taken to a good vantage point. Then the Force moved down to Horse Guards where Craig mopped anyone who couldn’t get to Trafalgar Square in time to issue the final batch of tickets, even though there were some no-shows. Waiting on Horse Guards for about an hour enabled all the people to say hello to all who managed to get there for the day. It was an emotional experience, we were there to honour the years of Harrier service . We have lost people in wars ranging from the Falklands to Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bosnia. The Harrier was taken out of service by the government of the day in a straight competition with the Tornado which won the day and the Harrier Force was disbanded in December 2010, the aircraft being sold to the USA who were going to use them as spares donation assets. We have our doubts, but there doesn’t seem any sign that they are flying the 80 airframes we sold them. Luckily it seems that most of the guys and gals who were involved with the Harrier Force went on to further careers which were enhanced by their service on the Harrier.
Quote from Michael Mather:
‘Once again I was humbled to be in the presence of such fine personnel and family members from the Harrier Force. The camaraderie doesn’t diminish, in fact I think it grows stronger. I look forward to seeing you all at the next HEAR (Harrier Engineers Annual Reunion) or again next year in November.’
The Remembrance parade set off from Horse Guards and went into Whitehall and waited for 11 o’clock the time of the signing of the armistice on 11th November 1918 at 11.00 am. Small flasks were passed around to keep the cold out, and then the two minute silence signalled the laying of the wreaths at the Cenotaph. Then we were off! The march past the Cenotaph and down King Charles Street then down Horse Guards Parade was fantastic, the crowds applauding everyone who marched past, Turning into Horse Guards we approached the saluting dias where the salute was taken by HRH The Prince of Wales, it was eyes right, eyes front and onto the parade square where we were dismissed. It was agreed that we would meet in the Old Shades pub in Whitehall, where it was manic, absolutely rammed with humanity. We manged to get a drink, just, but our party went off elsewhere to find somewhere to eat. It was over for the first Harrier Force Remembrance Sunday Parade, and it was a huge success. It was a fantastic, emotional and energising experience.
The parade square layout
This year the same system of advertising the word on social media spread the net even wider. The same applications were made through the Harrier Force Association and the tickets were applied for. I think the final total on parade was 90 or thereabouts. There were some differences, based on the experiences learned in 2016. Chris Sprott liaised with the Union Jack Club near Waterloo Station and arranged for a dedicated room for us all to meet on the Saturday night to bond, and to pick up tickets. There was the usual banter and good-natured ribbing as the guys went up to collect their tickets from Craig, and put £10 into a pot to help pay for the hire of the room and bar staff. There were people from all over the place. Pat PV Voigt (ex IV (AC)) flew in from Hong Kong where he is a pilot with Cathay Pacific. Craig of course came from Germany and others came from all points west and east. The arrangements for the following morning were nearly the same except that Trafalgar Square was cordoned off, so Craig asked to meet the guys outside a Costa coffee shop, but this was too crowded so we changed this and waited outside Charing Cross Station instead. Then we all trooped off to Horse Guards to join the other 1500 or so other old sweats from the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force. This time we turned left and formed up further back in the parade than last year. The hour or so wait until 11.00 am ensued and then we were on the move past Downing Street, down Whitehall and then right into Great George Street then right into Horse Guards Parade. The salute this time was taken by The Earl of Wessex. Then as before, dismissed on Horse Guards, and to the pub, The Old Shades which again was absolutely packed and after a quick drink we left and went further afield. The whole day was as good, if not better than last year, and next year Remembrance Sunday is 11th of the 11th 2018, exactly 100 years since the armistice was signed. This will make it a bumper year as everyone will be wanting to take part on such an auspicious occasion, so we’re hoping we can top 100 for the 100th. Hopefully the BBC will actually show us on television, unlike last year and this. As a footnote, hotels are being booked fast and space is running out if accommodation is required. Be warned if you want to take part, get your hotel booked quickly. Oh and on a personal note, if you need a blazer badge, I can get any squadron badge; I’ve already supplied over 60 to parade participants. Contact me for details.
In conclusion, we must give a big thank you to Craig Benton and his helpers (Shannon!). Without him the Harrier Force parade would not have happened, although he’s probably created a bit of a beast for himself. There’s always help from the rest of us Craig. Of course it goes without saying to thank all those who turned up and took part. Without that support it would not have happened. If you are reading this and want to take part, and served on a Harrier squadron, all the details are on the Facebook page, click on: