This summer has been a wonderful opportunity to spend time with our military affiliates. This started with 29 Squadron, when I visited Coningsby with my consort Maurice, and fellow Pavior Rob Kremis and his wife Pat. My main task was to present the award for Airman of the Year to Sergeant Polly McKinlay, who is an engineer. This is an annual award that is voted on by all the Squadron and represents a fine achievement. I was also pleased to be able to hand over an award to the Squadron itself.
Duty over, we enjoyed a tour of the Battle of Britain flight and then, the moment we had all been waiting for, the opportunity to fly a Typhoon on their simulator. Despite the fact that it’s ‘just a simulator’, the pressure was on! Take-off may have been more than a little wobbly, but confidence grows quickly, despite the trial of keeping the speed and height correct. Thanks for his able assistance go to Squadron Leader Ayds Rycroft, our mentor and guide for the day. Whilst the simulator was fun, hearing of other countries’ antics in testing the Squadron’s resolve by straying into our air-space was a sobering conversation, but understanding the planned and clear response was reassuring. The evening was wonderfully rounded-off by attending the officers’ annual Summer Ball with its 1920s theme, with ice sculptures, various bars and food stations with food from around the world. Then we danced the night away and played casino games (much to the delight of Maurice!).
In early September, we headed in the opposite direction down to Dover to witness the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment ‘Beating Retreat’ at Dover Castle. Despite the wet and windy weather, we managed to catch a sunny part of the evening, and could sit in the grounds of the Castle to enjoy the music and marching in a delightful setting. Beating Retreat originated in the 16th century, and was used to call the troops back to the castle, so Dover Castle was a very appropriate setting. The ceremony was followed by an informal supper, where we had the opportunity to chat with a number of soldiers, including one of a number of Gurkhas who form part of the Regiment. There is still a strong relationship with Gurkhas, which is clearly much valued on both sides. Again, having listened to the problems around lack of resources, those concerns were emphasized by being spoken of in Parliament soon after. The numbers-game of counting reservists as if full-time troops is a convenient sleight of hand, but one that may not serve us well in the longer term.
Later that month, we headed to Docklands with Paul McCracken and his wife Ellen, where HMS Argyll was part of a defence exhibition. Even getting into the grounds around the Excel Centre was a challenge in itself, as the security levels were very high. However, having run the gamut of security, it was a pleasure to join Argyll and its new Captain, Cdr Andrew Ainsley, along with his crew. We experienced first-hand the operations necessary to have the ship turned in the dock by two tugs, and then towed through the docks prior to sailing back into the Thames at high tide. One of the bridge crossing-points was a significant challenge, as the space between the sides of the ship and quayside was minimal, with what looked like less than a metre to spare on either side. It was very quiet on board, as we all held our breath. Accidents can and do happen…
The journey passed very quickly, as each department of the frigate took us round their domain and explained who the people were, their role on the ship, and how the various functions came together. It’s an extraordinary and well-oiled machine, from those tasked with feeding over 200 people three times a day, those watching the computer screens down in bowels of the ship and observing activities around the world, and those tasked with ensuring that the ship’s engines and all other functions on board are working fully 24 hours every day. It’s a relentless range of activities, with seemingly little time to relax. The ship itself is clearly built 100 per cent for efficiency and warfare. This, again, provided an object lesson in how their operations around the world are a key part of our defence at the broadest scale, even when assisting in disaster zones.