Heroes welcome for Royal Anglians in Norwich

Victoria LeggettUnion flags waving in the air, applause resonating through the cathedral grounds and cheers for the brave men who recently returned from risking their lives in Afghanistan.Victoria Leggett

Union flags waving in the air, applause resonating through the cathedral grounds and cheers for the brave men who recently returned from risking their lives in Afghanistan.

About 100 men from A (Norfolk) Company of the 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment were greeted by families, friends, veteran servicemen and people simply wanting to show their support for 'our boys' during yesterday's homecoming parade.

And, as he spoke of the progress made and heartache suffered by his men during their six-month tour, the commanding officer described the scene in Norwich as 'absolutely wonderful'.

The soldiers, nicknamed the Vikings, had 400 troops in the notorious Helmand province, many recruited from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, and were working alongside the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police to improve security for people living in Musa Qal'eh.

At an official reception following the parade, Lt Col James Woodham said the company had made real progress during their tour, making areas safe for Afghans to go about their lives and proving to them that it was better to support the Afghan government than the Taliban.

He said the deaths of five soldiers killed in action during the tour had 'rocked' the company. 'When you go, you know there are risks involved and when an incident occurs which leads to casualties, or worse, it rocks people and the battalion to the core.

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'But ultimately it doesn't shake us from our resolve to do our job,' he said.

The five men kiled in Afghanistan were LCpl Scott Hardy, Pte James Grigg, Capt Martin Driver, Pte Robert Hayes and LCpl Adam Drane.

Pte Alex Taylor, of Dereham, was on his first tour of duty fighting alongside fellow Norfolk soldiers including 21-year-old Pte Craig Manthorpe, of Great Yarmouth, 20-year-old Pte Andrew Olby, of Holt, and 20-year-old Pte Mark Sweatman of Old Catton, Norwich.

The 23-year-old said the experience of losing men had been 'hideous' and added: 'It hits everyone but you have got to grin and bear it. That is why we do these parades - to remember them.'

As the soldiers marched around Cathedral Close to the sound of Rule Britannia yesterday they were cheered and applauded by crowds.

Geraldine Mayes, of Blofield, was taking plenty of photos of her son LCpl Matt Mayes, who was among the parading troops.

The mother stood alongside the soldier's partner Sarah Scott, eight-month-old son Chace, sisters Nickita Mayes, nine, and Christina Wiseman, 26, as well as many other family members.

She said the 28-year-old soldier had been one of the last to arrive home after being delayed by the volcanic ash in April.

'He won't talk about what it was like out there. It was very difficult. Hopefully he won't be going back too soon.'

Following an inspection of the troops, proud father Paul Allen cried 'Three cheers for the Royal Anglians - hip hip, hooray' - with the 500-strong crowd all joining in to show their respect for the regiment.

As the soldiers carried on into a service, the 45-year-old, of Barnham, near Thetford, revealed why he was so determined to show his support.

The father-of-two said: 'My son Mark is in A (Norfolk) Company but he's not here today. He was injured back in January by an improvised explosive device (IED). He lost both his legs.'

Pte Allen, 19, was injured while on fighting patrol in the Musa Qal'eh area of Helmand Province.

The tour of Afghanistan had been the first for all four, who could be redeployed along with the rest of A (Norfolk) Company in the summer of 2012.

Yesterday's event was the final homecoming parade for the soldiers who have already marched through other parts of the region including Cambridge and Southend.

In Barking on Tuesday, the troops were met by protesters carrying placards.