• Pauline George

Lest we forget

2019 commemorates the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944. I always remember this date as my Dad was born on 6 June 1922 and he served in the Navy during the war.

With that in mind I thought I’d share with you one of the best days of my life, which was 11 November 2019.

Me getting ready to lay the wreath at the Cenotaph

As an RAF veteran I’d always wanted to march in the Remembrance Day parade but never sure if it would be possible. I was working for London Underground as a Signal Operator and when an email hit my in box asking for ex-service personnel to march at the Cenotaph, in Whitehall, I jumped at the chance. I became a member of London Transport Old Comrades Association (LTOCA) who’d sent the email out giving me the chance to fulfil a dream.

"It was so emotional when it ended with the cannons and the playing of the last post, I was moved to tears."

It is such a privilege to be part of this marvellous occasion and at my first one I was in complete awe of the whole thing. I remember when the two minutes silence was started with the cannons, the entire area of London around the Cenotaph was totally silent. Even the birds didn’t make a sound. It was so emotional when it ended with the cannons and the playing of the last post, I was moved to tears. As I write this now I feel the prickling in my eyes.

In 2018 we celebrated 100 years of the RAF, 100 years since the end of WW1, 100 years since women were allowed to join the armed forces, which made the march even more poignant for me. Not only that, but it was on November 11 and I was going to lay the wreath on behalf of LTOCA. It couldn’t have been better if I’d planned it.

The day was sunny and dry with just a few clouds. In fact, every time I’ve marched the weather has been very kind. Apart from one year when it did rain but just a light shower and nothing to be worried about. Each Remembrance Day has been quite balmy which is not good for the guardsmen. (Yes, I do know there are guardswomen, but I’m using the generic term rather than getting in to a PC debate which is quite another subject entirely.) They line the road at the side of the Cenotaph and have to wear full regalia which includes the ubiquitous greatcoat. This greatcoat, as all serving personnel and veterans will attest to, is very heavy and designed to keep you warm. However, on a balmy day it can be hell to wear causing some of the guards to overheat and thus pass out. It amazes me how they don’t injure themselves on the swords they’re holding and thank goodness they don’t. I’ve seen a few go down in my time as a marcher and have every empathy for them.

To ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible we had a rehearsal a few days before the parade which is really valuable and helps quell any last-minute nerves and worries.

The night before the parade I spent time getting a good shine on my shoes using the tried and tested method of spit and polish or ‘bulling’ as it’s called in the services. As these shoes are only worn on parade and kept in a cloth bag between times, it doesn’t take long to get them up to standard.

"They looked really good and I was proud to wear them especially on this special Remembrance Day. I hope my Dad was watching me."

I’m allowed to wear my late Father’s medals on parade and I wear them on the right-hand side as they are not medals I was awarded for service to my country, which I would wear on the left. The medal I would like to wear as well is a commemorative one. Unfortunately, commemorative medals are not permitted, by the Royal British Legion, to be worn on parade. So, I wear it under my coat where it can’t be seen. It’s the medal my Dad was awarded in 1992 for being part of the Operation Pedestal, the convoy that helped liberate the Maltese who had been under siege by German and Italian forces. Malta was awarded the George Cross by George VI and became known as Malta the George Cross Island.

I had my Dad’s medals professionally cleaned and gilded so I wouldn’t get the ribbons dirty with my inept cleaning of them. They looked really good and I was proud to wear them especially on this special Remembrance Day. I hope my Dad was watching me.

On the day, my partner and her Mum accompanied me to LTOCA at 55 Broadway at St James’s Park where all the marchers and their guests meet for breakfast. After we’ve eaten we have a briefing before we march off with a tot of whiskey.

It takes a little while to get to the Cenotaph where we wait for the service to start. Our column faces the Cenotaph on the far left looking at it but when the camera pans over to all the marchers we’re on the right. The crowds are amazing and especially so in 2018 as it was such a special day. Some of them must get there so early to get the prime spot right by the Cenotaph.

"I thought about my Dad and how he braved relentless bombing while on board ship during Operation Pedestal."

In 2018 myself and the wreath bearer walked out to our position ready for when I’d lay the wreath. The previous year, 2017, I’d been wreath bearer so I knew a little of what to expect. It is daunting to be front and centre and to know the world is looking at you, but all of that pales in to insignificance once you’re out there and thinking about why you’re there. I thought about my Dad and how he braved relentless bombing while on board ship during Operation Pedestal. I thought of all the brave men and women who had fought, and are still fighting, for the freedom for us to be able to have this parade and pay our respects to them for what they’d sacrificed.

Once the service concluded it was time for me lead off the small group of wreath layers before the march-past commenced. I was being very careful not to put a step wrong or trip over. It was hard hearing the commands to lay the wreath as the band were playing and drowning out the words. We were very close to them but I wasn’t complaining, they were the RAF band! I laid the wreath without incident and made my way, with my colleague, back to our Old Comrades ready for the march past.

The whole experience was one I am very proud and honoured to have been a part of. I would do it again in a heartbeat, but I’ve had my turn and there are more ex service personnel joining London Transport who will have the honour to lay the wreath.

A little bit of history as to why London Transport lays their wreath at the Cenotaph.

Transport for London is the only civilian group to be awarded the honour of laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. This privilege is in recognition of the work London Transport workers provided during the first world war. The Old Comrades march in honour of our colleagues who died in the service of their country during the first and second world wars. This honour was granted by George VI.

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Pauline George