Brize Norton Royal Air Force Base, United Kingdom – They heard the noise first. Then a dark shape broke through the clouds that hung over RAF Brize Norton.
The C-17 cargo aircraft slowly came into view over the Oxfordshire airbase. After landing and taxiing past flags flying at half-mast, Flight 22073 came to a halt at 12.10 yesterday afternoon.
Three chaplains from the navy, air force and army walked towards the plane – a small poignant welcome party, dwarfed by the shadow of the hulking black craft. A hundred yards away, relatives waited.
The tailgate of the plane inched down. As the giant engines slowed and the noise of cars on the nearby M40 drifted over the Oxfordshire base, fellow servicemen entered the cavernous hold. A military band played Handel’s death march.
The coffins, each draped in the Union Flag, appeared tiny next to the C-17, normally used to carry tanks and armoured personnel carriers to theatres of war. The bodies wouldn’t have taken up much space in the hold, a place where young men being ferried home might share a joke, be boisterous and talk about the good times ahead.
But this was a different type of homecoming. The bodies of the first 10 British servicemen to die in the Iraq war were coming home.
Groups of six servicemen from HMS Collingwood in Portsmouth emerged from the gloom of the aircraft hold with a coffin on their shoulders and began a slow march to a waiting hearse. As each coffin was brought out, the three chaplains said quiet prayers. A band from the Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade, based at Stonehouse Plymouth, began to play Handel as the first body – that of Royal Navy mechanic Ian Seymour – was brought out. All of the British dead brought home yesterday had died as a result of accidents.
The first eight coffins to be carried from the aircraft were those containing the bodies of the British servicemen who died when a US helicopter they were aboard crashed south of the Kuwait border.
The final two contained the bodies of Flight Lieutenant Dave Williams and Flight Lieutenant Kevin Main of the Royal Air Force. They died when their GR4 Tornado aircraft was engaged near the Kuwaiti border by an American Patriot missile battery.
The families of the dead, each of whom was allowed to bring five members to see their sons come home, rose slowly to their feet, leaning on each other for support, as the coffins were placed in black hearses. The aircraft taxied along the two-mile long runway and disappeared over the horizon before reappearing behind a nearby hanger and gliding to a halt just 50 yards in front of the mourners.
There was a moment of stillness broken only by bird song, then the rear door of the terminal building opened and the Royal Marine band marched out in silence. It was followed by 70 coffin bearers, the three chaplains and, finally, 10 hearses.
Inside the coffins were: Captain Philip Guy; Warrant Officer Mark Stratford; Major Jason Ward; Marine Sholto Hedenskog; Sergeant John Cecil; Lance Bombardier Llywelyn Evans; Sergeant Les Hehir; Operator Mechanic Ian Seymour; Flt-Lt Kevin Main; and Flt-Lt Dave William.
Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, and Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, also attended the ceremony along with several senior military and defence officials.
Among the senior military officials attending were the Commandant General of the Royal Marines, Major General Tony Milton; the Commander-in-Chief, Land Command General Sir Timothy Granville-Chapman; the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet Admiral Jonathon Band; and Air Marshal Sir John Day. They stood among the families of the servicemen in full dress uniform as each coffin was slowly brought from the rear of the aircraft to a waiting hearse before being driven to a temporary mortuary at the airbase.
After the final coffin was brought from the aircraft and placed in a hearse, the Royal Marines band stopped playing and marched slowly and solemnly away.
The military and defence officials and families of the dead servicemen then began to file back into the main passenger terminal as the three chaplains who had led the prayers walked back to join them. The RAF flag above the passenger terminal had been flying at half-mast for the duration of the ceremony, which was bathed in hazy sunshine.
After the bodies of their sons had gone, the families filed back inside the terminal building and the C-17 sat on the deserted runway. No one knows where it will be sent next, but the likelihood is that it will return to the Gulf.
Soon, the plane will take off again and disappear into the sky. Outside RAF Brize Norton, the traffic will roar by.