Now in its 7th year, Armed Forces Day is a chance for the nation to show their support for the UK’s armed forces, both past and present. The day is celebrated up and down the UK (and even overseas) with various events large and small. However, each year a major town or city is chosen to host the “National” Armed Forces Day event. This year it was the turn of Guildford in Surrey with a week of events leading to a major exhibition and show in Stoke Park.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports with a focus on the aviation activities. All photography by the author.
The past decade has been incredibly busy for the UK’s Armed Forces who have supported combat, humanitarian and other security operations around the world and in the UK. While debate still rages around the circumstances of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has certainly been a surge in support for the armed forces by the UK population during the time the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force have been deployed there. The work members of the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force do at home has never been more appreciated, particularly in light of their support of the London 2012 Olympic Games and relief efforts during times of flooding and other emergencies.
Armed Forces Day provides a focus for the public to show their support with many different towns, villages and organisations hosting their own events around the UK on or close to the main day. However, each year a National Event is held in a major town or city and in 2015 it was the turn of Guildford in Surrey.
For the host town, Armed Forces Day commences a week before the main event with the arrival of the Armed Forces Flag which is delivered by the combined abilities of the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force. Sadly, this year, Armed Forces Day took place against the backdrop of the terrorist attack in Tunisia which claimed the lives of many Britons. This led to a noticeable increase in security not in Guildford, but also on the surrounding roads leading into the town. While Guildford is a sizable place, the restrictions meant many of the town’s car parks were closed which meant most visitors had to use special commissioned Park and Ride car parks on the outskirts of the town. For those coming from the London direction this meant parking at the derelict Wisley Airfield just by Junction 10 of the M25. While all the buildings have gone from this former test site for Vickers Airliners, the taxyways and runway still exist (just!) which provided the ideal parking space.
The main Armed Forces Day events in the town started with a thanksgiving service at Guildford Cathedral at Stag Hill overlooking the main town. This was followed by the main parade featuring current members of the armed services alongside veterans, cadets and the supporting charities through the famous cobbled High Street to the main public event at Stoke Park. Flying overhead for their first appearance of Armed Forces Day were the Red Arrows trailing white smoke.
Stoke Park is a vast open parkland just outside the town centre and Armed Forces Day was the first time the park had been used in its entirety for one event. Usually, events like the Surrey County Show and GuilFest Music Festival only use a portion of the available space which is massive. Hlaf the park was given over to exhibitions from all three services featuring many different displays and pieces of equipment. While the Royal Air Force had its “plastic” Chinook as a centrepiece to its exhibition, the Army Air Corps had a AgustaWestland Apache AH1 alongside a Challenger II tank and other armoured vehicles. The Royal Navy had two variants of the AgustaWestland Merlin in the park with a Merlin HM2 from 824 NAS and one it’s “new” Merlin HC3 on display from 846 NAS.
The other side of the park was taken up by an enormous arena and concert stage where much of the entertainment for the crowds was centred. The event was opened by a party of VIPs including the Mayoress of Guildford, HRH Prince Andrew and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon before the arena events got underway. These included displays from the Royal Logistics Corps White Helmets Motorcycle Display Team, the Musical Ride of the Household Cavalry, the Queen’s Colour Squadron, Air Cadet Drills, the Band of the Royal Marines and the Royal Army Physical Training Corps display.
While Stoke Park is large, it is not an easy location to present aviation displays being completely surrounded by densely populated built-up areas plus the main A3 Dual-Carriageway to London. However, all three armed services did a really good job of showing off their aviation roles to the crowds.
Opening the afternoon’s displays was a rare public appearance by a pair of Panavia Tornado GR4s from No 31 Squadron based at RAF Marham. While it was just a single flypast, it was a loud and impressive way to kick things off.
The afternoon saw Parachute Displays from all three armed services. First to jump were the Royal Navy Raiders Parachute Display jumping from the Headcorn based Britten Norman Islander. Later, the RAF Falcons Parachute Team dropped in from a Royal Navy Sea King HC4 with the Parachute Regiment’s Red Devils Freefall Parachute Display Team the last to jump in, again from Headcorn’s Islander.
The Royal Navy provided perhaps the closest thing to a full flying display with a Search and Rescue demonstration by a 771 NAS Westland Sea King HU5 from RNAS Culdrose. This took place within the confines of the arena and was certainly impressive to see such a large helicopter operate close-up. Perhaps surprisingly little was made of the type impending retirement as SAR duties are passed to civilian operators.
Prize for the most spirited flypasts has to go Flt Lt Anthony Parkinson and Sqn Ldr Mark Discombe from the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Flying the Supermarine Spitfire II P7350 and Hawker Hurricane IIc LF363 the pair made three sweeping passes over Stoke Park which drews cheers from the crowds as they flew overhead.
The penultimate display in the arena was an Infantry role demonstration by Guildford’s local Army regiment, the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment. They were supported by two air assets from the Army Air Corps and the Royal Navy. Providing the top cover in the overhead was an AgustaWestland Apache AH1 from Wattisham while the troops advanced on the ground. The display was closed by a helicopter extraction which saw one of 846’s new Merlin HC3s fly in low over the trees to quickly extract the friendly forces.
The main arena displays were closed with a “Beating the retreat” ceremony which also saw the second flypast of the day by the Red Arrows, this time fast and low over Stoke Park on their way to a display in France.
Armed Forces Day has grown into a very special day and full credit must go to the people of Guildford for supporting it so well. The day of course could not happen without the participants from the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force who put in a great effort to show the UK Armed Forces at their best.