It’s been a momentous week at the Army Training Regiment (ATR) Pirbright, as hundreds of military personnel on the camp have been preparing for the funeral of His Royal Highness, The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
“It really did drive home the enormity of what we were about to do”
Shortly after the announcement of Prince Philip’s death, units across the UK were mobilised and in less than 48 hours and in strict rotation, fleets of coaches were delivering service personnel from across all three Services to the Surrey facility.
Approximately 730 personnel were involved in the rehearsals from regiments and units who had a special relationship with His Royal Highness. These included the Grenadier Guards, The Queen’s Royal Hussars, The Highlanders, 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland.
They amalgamated at Brunswick Lines (the Joint Concentration Area) to perfect their foot and arm drills, and musical expertise, in order to deliver a ceremony that will be watched by millions around the globe and bring the military family together to pay tribute to His Royal Highness.
Warrant Officer Class One Anthony Gibson, Regimental Sergeant Major, 1st Battalion Scots Guards, is responsible for the preparation of the Tri-service delivery of the Ceremonial Funeral said, “When I got here and saw everyone arriving, it really did drive home the enormity of what we were about to do, but with the Officer Commanding of the School of Ceremonial, myself and six Colour Sergeant instructors working as a combined unit, with instructors from the Navy and the Marines, it really came together and it was clear to see on the second day how hard everyone had worked to achieve what we needed to”.
“It was only on the first dress rehearsal that I was able to stop being a drill instructor and appreciate the sombreness of the occasion, but nothing can prepare you for the grandeur of Windsor Castle, and I think it was that which made the final rehearsal come to fruition. The feedback was so positive, and it was humbling to think that everyone had put so much into it - that will stay with me for ever”.
“Having taken part in the Queen Mother’s funeral as a young Guardsman, never did I think that I would be delivering His Royal Highness’s Funeral, so marching onto that parade square on Saturday will be one of the crowning moments of my career. We can and we will deliver a spectacular Parade and we will send him off with the honour he deserves.”
“We know we can deliver a really good demonstration of our Drill”
Following many years as their Colonel in Chief, Prince Philip requested that The Rifles perform a very special role at his funeral ceremony. Major Tom Brown, 5 Battalion, The Rifles, is Captain of the Guards for the Rifles Guard of Honour.
“We’ve come together from 5 different battalions where some of our soldiers have never done Rifle Drill before. Now, after 4 days of rehearsing together we know we can deliver a really good demonstration of our Drill at Windsor Castle, at what will be a really prestigious event.”
Reflecting on the occasion and the job they have been selected to do, Major Brown said:
“We are actually doing this as part of a funeral for a man beloved by the Army. Also, we are the ceremonial lead in the cloister, where we will be met by and be presenting to a grieving family. So, we need to make sure we are producing the best output we can as soldiers of the British Army regardless of cap badge, showing Her Majesty and her family that we are paying our respects to the Queen’s Consul.”
Looking ahead to the ceremony at Windsor Castle on Saturday, Major Brown added:
“We have a duty to perform and we need to perform well for Prince Philip but more importantly we’ll be wrapping all that duty in a real sense of honour and a real sense of privilege.”
Despite a Ceremonial Funeral that has been severely scaled down, the week-long rehearsal period has provided an enormous challenge for Lieutenant Colonel Darren Fisher MBE, Commander of the Joint Concentration Area and Commanding Officer of 27 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps (27 RLC).
“The news of The Duke’s death broke at the end of a leave period, but those that were required by the Regiment to return were all back in by 7.30 the following morning, coming from all parts of the country.”
Our plan started for this in April 2020, but back then we didn’t understand where we’d be with the pandemic, so we’ve had to change the set-up of the camp accordingly. Before, we could hold over a thousand, now we’re down in numbers because of the restrictions and we have had to create bubbles”.
“Controlling so many people in a tight area, getting them fed, accommodated, off and on buses in and out of camp every day has all proved challenging but something we’ve achieved. I think the honour and pride my team took in understanding the magnitude of what they were doing was felt by all.”
“It makes your job feel worthwhile”
Looking after this volume of people was a military operation which fell to the dedicated staff of Landmarc, who provide support services to those training and staying here.
Sheena Skidmore, Training Area and Facilities Manager for Landmarc, said with the influx of personnel to Pirbright we had to react with speed.
“We had to deliver additional showers, toilets, hand washing stations and all within a very tight timeframe. Extra waste had to be addressed with the increase in numbers and additional maintenance was carried out as we had to ensure the whole place was safe for these people whilst here.”
Before joining Landmarc, Sheena served with the Royal Military Police, so understands the importance of providing this support mechanism.
“We’ve provided meals for 550 and have had to use a drill hall as an additional dining facility. The catering team have also prepared 450 packed lunches each day for those rehearsing. We needed to keep everyone fed, socially distanced and safe.”
“There are a lot of veterans working here, myself included. We are all immensely proud to have be a part of this event. Everyone has pulled together.”
Site Operative, Linda Allen, says this brings back memories.
“I was working here when preparations for the Queen Mother’s Funeral took place. It makes your job feel worthwhile. I was married to a former soldier, so it makes the job I’m doing feel even more special. It gives you Goosebumps, makes you feel proud to see all these people. I see it as doing my bit”
Next week, quiet will descend on ATB Pirbright and Brunswick Lines, following another great and historic moment in its long history and it will revert to its main purpose as a training facility, however, for those still working here, the echoes of ceremonial music and marching will remain with them for some time to come.