As far as unbelievable experiences go, this one was right up there! I had to pinch myself many times a few months earlier when Wing Commander Tom Neil had asked if both me & my wife would join him and his family as his guests at the Westminster Abbey Battle of Britain Service, as a thank you for my help over the past couple of years.
The week before the service it looked unlikely poor Tom would be able to attend as he was struck down with a very nasty chest infection. Aged 97 and following some recent ill-health I still don’t quite know how he managed to recover in time, and hold up so well on the day! Just an example of Tom’s character and toughness. Incredible!
The day started bright and early, my father kindly offered to chauffeur us to London, so we arrived at Tom’s house to head off in convoy – departing just after 7am. After a smooth journey we arrived at the Abbey’s Great West Door Entrance and were dropped off outside the spectacular front, with the crowds gathering and queuing to get in. The weather was cloudy, mild but blue skies gradually breaking through.
Once Tom was out of his car and suitably dressed with medals attached, we made him comfortable in his wheelchair. I then had the most enormous honour & privilege of wheeling Tom inside the Abbey and up to his allocated front-row seat. A very special, personal and money can’t buy moment that will live with me forever. Pushing Tom through the Abbey, walking slowly up past all the guests & dignitaries, over Churchill’s plaque and around the ‘Grave of the Unknown Warrior’, a place of such incredible history – what a few, very surreal minutes!
Finding our seats were at the very front, just behind Tom we tried our best to take in the moment and the beauty of the Abbey. We then greeted Tom’s family as they steadily arrived, before finding we were sat pretty much next to the Prime Minister, Teresa May and Jeremy Corbin, much to my wife’s disbelief!
The service itself I found incredibly moving, and had to fight hard on more than one occasion to hold back the tears. Having met the 3 other Battle of Britain veterans on various occasions who were also able to attend the service (Wg Cdr Paul Farnes DFM, Sqn Ldr Geoffrey Wellum DFC and Wg Cdr Tim Elkington), and in particular getting to know Tom made it all feel very personal.
After the arrival of HRH Prince Charles & the Duchess of Cornwall to a standing chorus of the National Anthem, the veterans were slowly paraded to the front behind the Battle of Britain Roll of Honour to the slow march of Walton’s ‘Spitfire Prelude’. My first wobble – as seeing the remaining ‘Few’, so short in numbers and looking rather frail got to me, especially to the music! Managing to hold it together with just watery eyes and a lump in the throat, the service continued with various readings and hymns – and then what I can only describe as a quite phenomenal performance by the Abbey choir. The acoustics of the Abbey made the sounds something to behold, angelic and just stunning.
More Hymns and readings followed before a moving rendition of the ‘Last Post’ by a sole bugle player. Exit proceedings then began with the Royal attendees leading the way. The 4 Battle of Britain veterans then formated in their wheelchairs before heading down the Abbey to the Battle of Britain theme tune. As they reached the mid-point of the Abbey, rapturous applause greeted them by all in the Abbey – a lovely moment. We followed out shortly after – another surreal feeling walking back down, arm in arm with my wife past all the guests looking on either side, and thinking of all the famous and historical occasions the Abbey has hosted.
Directed over to The Church House on our exit, where the veterans were having a private meet & greet with the Royals, we met Tom’s family for a quick drink before heading back outside to watch the flypast provided by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Spitfire MK PRXIX (PS915) & Hurricane MK IIc (PZ865) provided two flypasts over the Abbey, with the Veterans and Royals watching on from the balcony at Church House with a well earned glass of wine.
After the Abbey occasion had concluded, we then headed over to the RAF Club at Piccadilly where Tom and his family had arranged a private room for us to all have a meal together. After a quick walk around exploring the RAF Club and some swift refreshment in The Running Horse Tavern, we made our way to the Churchill Bar. A lovely dinner and drinks rounded off a quite wonderful and memorable day with Tom, his lovely family and his other guests.
A true privilege for us to be part of such a special and emotional day, and can only thank Tom and particularly his son Terence for helping to organise the whole occasion.