Troops are honoured in historic Freedom march

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HISTORY was made today as 150 soldiers marched through the streets of Havant.

Hundreds of people lined the streets to cheer on the servicemen and women as they marched through the town centre with drums beating, colours flying and bayonets fixed.

It was the first time in history that the Freedom of the Havant borough has been given to any of the armed forces.

The troops from 10 Battery 47th Regiment Royal Artillery, who recently returned from Afghanistan and are based at Thorney Island, marched from the Royal British Legion club in Brockhampton Lane to Havant Park for the Freedom Ceremony and the presentation of medals.

The lawns of Havant Park were transformed as the troops lined up to receive their Operational Service Medals for having deployed for six months in Helmand Province.

People waved their Union Jacks and clapped with pride and respect as the troops marched around the green.

Many travelled hundreds of miles to watch the occasion, which fittingly was held on national Armed Forces Day.

Mollie Williams, 20, drove for five hours from Lancashire to see her brother Luke Williams, 25, collect his medal from the Mayor of Havant, Gerald Shimbart.

She said: ‘My brother has been in Afghanistan for six months.

‘I came to watch him collect his medals. It makes me very proud.’

The soldiers, dignitaries and crowds were addressed by Major General Chris Wilson, Honorary Colonel of 47th Regiment Royal Artillery,

He said: ‘I suspect that most people here today will have little idea what you have been doing in Afghanistan, let alone the conditions that you have had to endure.

‘Many will have little idea why you were there.

‘Some might not even approve the armed forces being in Afghanistan at all.

‘But I can safely say that almost everybody here, and in the country at large, is full of admiration for you as individuals, for your dedication, commitment and service to your country.’

He thanked the people of Havant for their ‘generosity’.

Major General Wilson added: ‘It’s an honour and a privilege to have been invited. It keeps us in touch with the community from which we are formed and to which we will return.

‘Having spent a year in Afghanistan myself, I can say with a considerable degree of authority, that a six month tour of duty in Helmand Province is certainly no walk in the park.

‘It is hard, dangerous, demanding, and very stressful work, carried out in some of the most hostile and austere conditions on Earth.

‘In the case of 10 Battery, operating a range of unmanned aerial systems, it was technically challenging and highly complex work, carried out in one of the worst winters seen in Helmand since the army first deployed there in 2006.

‘I suspect, if you were like me, it was also an immensely rewarding experience which has given you a lifetime of memories, numerous lifetime friendships and copious amounts of shaggy dog stories to tell your grandchildren.

‘The enduring reminder of that service is the medals you have received today.’

Dignitaries said it was a day that would never be forgotten.

Ken Smith, president of the Royal British Legion in Havant, said: ‘They are there day after day, facing danger and this is a way of showing our appreciation.

‘It’s a historic day.’

Tony Briggs, leader of Havant Borough Council, said: ‘It’s a very solemn ceremony with the population of Havant honouring our very brave soldiers.

‘It’s a very proud day for us in Havant, as I’m sure it is for the men and women receiving their campaign medals.’

Sandy Hopkins, chief executive of Havant and East Hampshire councils, added: ‘It’s great to see Havant being put on the map.

‘It’s fantastic to see so many people out celebrating our armed forces today.’

Mayor Gerald Shimbart said: ‘It was a wonderful occasion.

‘We need to show our gratitude to the troops when they come back and this is one way of doing it.

‘It was very moving indeed – speaking to them and hearing their stories and where they have come from.’

The ancient honour of being granted the freedom of the borough is steeped in military history and harks back to Roman times when legionaries were prevented from entering cities, for fear of military coups.

To gain such a privilege meant that that regiment had to win the right and the trust of the people.