UK Memorial for 624 Squadron
On Saturday 24th September 2011, I was very honoured to represent 624 Squadron at the National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas, Staffordshire for the dedication service of the VERA ATKINS MEMORIAL SEAT (Vera was Squadron Leader - Womens Auxillary Air Force) in the Allied Special Forces Memorial Grove. This was a very fitting tribute to this remarkable lady and to the women agents that were lost, some of whom may have been dropped by 624 Squadron.
Whilst I was there (and regular visitors to the website will know), I discussed with Mike Colton a possible location and acceptable design for a memorial to 624 Squadron in the Memorial Grove. This was just two weeks after Martin Matthews of 4624 Squadron had talked about the idea.
The aim was to finish the project in order to hold a dedication service during May 2012. Unfortunately, due to Operational Duties of 4624 Squadron, the planning of all this took a little longer.
This was a photograph showing the plot then reserved for the 624 Memorial.
Mike and I had a photo taken holding the poplar at the rear of the memorial plot
29th September 2012 Fund Raising Update
Fund Raising is now closed and Squadron Leader Mark Dover, Warrant Officer John Mazzotta and myself are pleased to say
Brian Berrigan, Emma Frost, the Leith Family, Victor Scott, Susan Hayes, John Bell, Bill MacEwan, John Russell, Frank Turner, Sherry Moller, Frances Berrigan Taplin and C flight 4624 Squadron members and Thales UK Ltd the target was reached and passed
And just 371 days later
A small selection of photographs from the ceremony by Susan Hayes
How the weekend went
Well, a weekend to top all weekends we have held.
Finally, after 68 years, the UNSUNG HEROES of 624 (Special Duties) Squadron R.A.F 1943-1944 are now recognised and remembered in the United Kingdom.
A very hectic weekend (especially for Warrant Officer John Mazzotta and I ), but a very emotional and memorable one for all concerned.
The weekend started for many on Friday with arrivals at The Three Queens Hotel in Burton-on-Trent. Many of the regular veterans, Stanley (and a pleasure to see Simon again), Walter & Stuart, Jim and Peg, Derek & Jean, Joe & Jenny, Sally-Anne, Peter & Rob Austin, George and David, John & Ann Mazzotta, Mark Dover, and Tony Reynolds amongst others and a great big welcome was made to the Berrigan family, many who had travelled all the way from Australia.
After a long journey endured by many and once settled in their rooms,drinks and catch-up chat were the main activities of the evening, along with a wonderful buffet. As usual, some of the veterans talked of their experiences late into the night and all were very excited about the events for the following day, it was well after midnight before the last headed for their beds after arrangements had been made for a convoy of cars to travel to the NMA in the morning.
On Saturday, the morning started with a superb breakfast to help everyone through the day. At 10.30 a convoy of vehicles made its way for the journey from the Three Queens Hotel to the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas.
On arrival at the NMA, members of the party separated to look around the wonderful visitor centre, or endulge in refreshments, or just wander around the magnificent, yet very moving, grounds. They were also joined by the many who could not make the Friday evening and everyone was so pleased to welcome former 4624 Flt. Lt. Gary Vickers.
Around noon, the NMA laid on buggy transport for those who found the walk to the Allied Special Forces Memorial Grove a tad too long, and everyone gathered round awaiting the ceremony to begin, whilst Mike McKenna provided some soft music on the bagpipes, as the Honour Guard from 4624 Squadron took their place at each side of the plaque along with Standard Bearers Richard Simpson ( Allied Special Forces Association) and Tom Phillips (Tamworth Royal Air Force Association).
Soon after 12.30, Mike Colton (Secretary of Allied Special Forces Association), opened the proceedings with a welcome speech and outlined the motivation and reasoning of the Memorial Grove, then introduced Warrant Officer John Mazzotta (4624 Squadron) to carry forward the proceedings.
W.O. Mazzotta thanked Mike for the welcome and introduced Peter Austin (son of Squadron Leader John B Austin). Peter thanked all those who had made the day possible and spoke of his fathers' love for the squadron, and reminisced of the times he had driven him to the reunions at Brize Norton and also the sadness that his father passed away earlier this year and would have been immensely proud that 624 Squadron was finally being recognised, Peter asked that as veterans, relatives and friends, to all join hands together as one big family and remember the past, treasure the present and go forth in the future to bring the skills and bravery of these men to the wider public.
W.O Mazzotta thanked Peter and introduced Sally-Anne Barrett (Daughter of Wing Commander Clive S.G. Stanbury) to say a few words. Sally-Anne spoke of a Memorial to the nations of the Korean War in the centre of Seoul which depicts all the flags of the nations who fought. The words on it are ' To Thank is to Remember and to Remember is to Thank', she then followed that with 'today we are here to Remember and to Thank The Boys of 624 (who were boys), Ground Staff, Aircrew, the R.A.F. and Allied Air Forces. All who had one mission in mind, To Liberate Europe. So today, WE REMEMBER, and particularly to the veterans WE THANK YOU.
At this point, W.O Mazzotta invited veteran Stanley David to unveil the plaque.
"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them".
Adrian Harper then sounded the Last Post
a minutes silence was honoured
Adrian Harper then sounded Reveille
Mike McKenna then piped Flowers of the Forest during which, W.O. Mazzotta invited Wing Commander Rob Williams Officer Commanding 4624 Squadron, to lay a wreath at the Plaque.
W.O Mazzotta then read a message from Group Captain Bob Dixon (former O.C. of 4624 Squadron) who was so instrumental in many of the events held in honour of 624 Squadron at R.A.F. Brize Norton. He then went on to introduce Ann Mazzotta of 4624 Squadron Association who read out a poem which Jim Leith had found.
Following this, there was a surprise for everyone with a superb flypast and several flyovers by two spitfires from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
The ceremony then closed and people enjoyed a chat, reminiscing, I then conducted a few interviews with various people for the commemorative DVD, and very slowly, people made their way back to the visitors centre and finally back to the Three Queens Hotel, or onward with their journey home.
A truly memorable event - and finally, after 68 years, recognition in the UK for the previously unrecognised, Unsung Heroes of 624 Squadron.
In the evening, the bar at the Three Queens Hotel was virtually taken over by the group as everyone discussed the day and the proud but modest veterans talked of their time at Blida & Brindisi.
This was followed by a superb 3 course meal during which Squadron Leader Mark Dover gave a small speech of thanks to all concerned with the event, Jenny Wilson told the story of her dad writing a poem and then got Joe to read it.
Mark then invited Sally-Anne to say a few words and then finished by thanking all the staff at the Three Queens Hotel for being such wonderful hosts. Brian Berrigan also gave a small speech on behalf of the Australian contingent.
I also thanked the Allied Special Forces Memorial Grove and passed round sponsorship forms for the 'Operation Grids' which is a very important project to enable a pathway through the Grove to be constructed with heavy duty recycled plastic grids filled with earth and grass seeds in order that a firm pathway will be made to make it easier for manual and electric wheelchairs, prams and physically challenged people to tour the memorials on a firm base. In all, £275 was raised on the evening. And just before ending the meal, a very emotional Stanley said a few words.
After the meal, the bar again became the '624 Squadron Mess' for all to chat, and once again, the veterans kept drinking and reminiscing into the late hours as people drifted off to their rooms for a well earned sleep to prepare for their journeys home on Sunday.
Sunday morning was quite a hectic morning as everyone packed their suitcases, fuelled up with a well earned breakfast, and with great sadness yet full of joy for such a wonderful event, farewells until we meet again were the order of the day as everyone departed north, south, east and west on their journey home.
Yes, once again, everyone looks forward to the next time.
This time with many special thanks to the management and staff at the Three Queens Hotel, Burton-on-Trent, The Allied Special Forces Association, the National Memorial Arboretum, the BBMF, RAFA Tamworth Branch, Adrian Harper and Mike McKenna for helping to make this such a memorable weekend, yet another for the memory books.
Photographs of the Vera Atkins dedication ceremony can now be seen under the other stories menu