Thousands lined the streets of Plymouth on Saturday (July 21) as members of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery celebrated the 50th anniversary of the formation of Commando Gunners by exercising the Regiment's Freedom of the City.
Scores of serving Gunners from 29 Commando - many of whom served in Afghanistan last year during the successful 3 Commando Brigade HERRICK 14 mission - marched along Royal Parade in the heart of Plymouth in full ceremonial uniform and with bayonets fixed, led by The Royal Artillery Band. 105mm Light Guns and vehicles used in the recent Afghanistan mission were also paraded through the City.
29 (two-nine) Commando Regiment Royal Artillery are spearhead troops who wear the coveted green beret. They are highly-trained world leading specialists in amphibious, mountain, Arctic, desert and jungle warfare and serve in support of Plymouth’s 3 Commando Brigade with whom they served in Afghanistan last year during Op HERRICK 14.
The majority of the parade on Saturday was made up of hundreds of 29 Commando veterans - many of whom are members of the Commando Gunner Association - who wore their green berets with pride as local people, loved ones and holidaymakers alike erupted into applause as they marched along the streets of Plymouth, where many of them had called home for as long as twenty years of their lives.
Veterans in their late 20's marched shoulder-to-shoulder with pensioners who were among the first Royal Artillery Gunners to wear the green beret half a Century ago; their medals, hard won in the military campaigns of today and yesterday.
The Salute was taken by General Sir David Richards, Chief of the Defence Staff; a former member of the Regiment and Commando Gunner himself.
Some of the veterans had literally travelled around the World to be in Plymouth, leaving their homes in Australia to take part in the commemorations. The majority had taken long journeys from across Britain to have the chance to be recruited with the lifelong friends they had made when they were young men.
62-year-old Keith Southwick from Arbroath in Scotland was one of them. He became a Commando Gunner more than 40 years ago at just 18 and was a member of 29 Commando between 1967 and 1979; “It was heart-wrenching to come down and be recognised after all these years and for the people of the town to give you support like that. It was absolutely brilliant,” he said.
Keith's mate Bill Bailey from Plymouth was in the Regiment for nearly twenty years and left in 1984. Like many, he was meeting his friends again for the first time in decades: “It's a bit sad when you look back when we were all young men... It was without a doubt the best part of my life,” he said. “If you wanted to soldier, you came to a Regiment like this. We went all over the World, the Far East the Middle East, it was brilliant. They were the days.”
50 unique challenges
The parade commemorated the 50th anniversary of the formation of Commando Gunners. ‘Commando Gunner 50’ is a significant milestone in the Regiment's history and saw the Army Commandos, who are based at the famous and historic Royal Citadel on Plymouth Hoe, set themselves the arduous task of completing 50 unique challenges to mark the anniversary including a 50-mile speed march across Dartmoor and a 50km kayak marathon.
The day began with a service of Thanksgiving at St Andrews Minster where there was standing room only as the several hundred strong congregation joined together to recite the Commando Prayer and remember the friends and loved ones they had lost whilst serving with the Regiment.
Many veterans and serving Gunners brought their families with them to Plymouth to commemorate the anniversary. Toni Gillan from Plymouth was one of hundreds of people there to cheer on their fathers, sons, husbands and brothers.
Toni's Dad had been a member of the Regiment during the Falklands conflict and she was moved by the sight of him on parade in her home town: “It's been his whole life, and ours, for such a long time and to be involved in this really meant a lot to him. To watch him was lovely,” she said. “I'm glad there was a good turn out because it's important to the guys.”
Commando 50 was also the theme of this year’s highly successful Music of the Night musical extravaganza, which saw its final ever performance on Friday 20 July, 20 years after it was first staged by 29 Commando. Over those two decades in excess of £600,000 has been raised for Armed Forces charities, with donations from this year's event still being counted.
Following the day of celebration on Saturday, a service of Remembrance was held on Sunday morning at the 29 Commando memorial outside the The Royal Citadel. Veterans and serving members of the Regiment laid a wreath and bowed their heads as the names of their friends who were killed in action during the last 50 years were read aloud, officially bringing the commemorations to an end.