Three South African regiments had a special relationship with the late Queen Mother - She was their Colonel-in-Chief since 1947. Contact was maintained with the Queen Mother through the years and representatives of these regiments attended Her birthday tribute in London in July 2000. In Her funeral order, it was Her wish that the three South African regiments be involved in Her funeral proceedings when She passed away.
The Queen Mother passed away on Saturday, 30 March 2002. Most members of the three South African regiments were informed of this on Sunday, 31 March. Monday was a public holiday and on Tuesday evening, 2 April, the three regiments' representatives, consisting of one major, one warrant officer, one NCO and one private, flew over to the United Kingdom on British Airways, arriving at Heathrow Airport at approximately 09h00 on the following day. On arrival they were met by two members of the Devon and Dorset Regiment - our host for the duration of our stay. They were taken to the London Transit Centre at the Royal Air Force Base Uxbridge. During the rest of the day, they met up with the rest of the Commonwealth detachments, namely the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps, the Black Watch of Canada, the Toronto Scottish Regiment, the Canadian Forces Medical Services, and the Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps (each consisting of four members). Their first briefing was held in the early afternoon, and they were welcomed by Major Stephen Bennett, the co-ordinator. At the briefing, the representatives were informed of the next day's activities.
They left RAF Uxbridge in the early morning of Thursday, 4 April, to be transported to Wellington Barracks for their early morning funeral procession rehearsal, which commenced at 04h20. It was a cold morning, and the reason for rehearsing at such an early hour was not to disrupt the London traffic. The representatives marched from Wellington Barracks to the Queen's Chapel and to Westminster Hall where the coffin would lie-in-state. Rehearsal went quite well but a final practice was held at RAF Uxbridge in the afternoon. Time between rehearsals was spent sleeping and cleaning uniforms for the Funeral Procession the next day.
The Funeral Procession: 5 April 2002
Once again, the participating Commonwealth representatives were transported by bus from the RAF base to Wellington Barracks. The procession stepped off at 13h35 from Wellington Barracks, led by the Royal Air Force Band followed by the South African Commonwealth contingent in order of seniority - Witwatersrand Rifles, followed by Transvaal Scottish and then Cape Town Highlanders. The other detachments followed. The procession halted at St James's Palace to await the arrival of the horse carriage bearing the Queen Mother's coffin. At 14h30 they proceeded with a slow march to Westminster Hall and continued at normal march back to Wellington Barracks. The streets were lined with spectators and camera-crew throughout the entire procession. Some people stood for hours waiting for the bands and soldiers and coffin to pass by.
Training for the funeral
Saturday, 6 April 2002, was spent at leisure and Major Bennet gave a short briefing regarding the training for the funeral. The regimental detachments had an opportunity to see one of the oldest traditions and ceremonies in London - the handing over of keys at the Castle.
Funeral rehearsal started early in the morning on 7 April. The Lining Party, which comprised NCOs and privates, assembled at Wellington Barracks at 04h00 and the rehearsal commenced at 04h20. It ended at about 06h45, when the Lining Party was transported back to the barracks. It was a very cold morning, especially for the South Africans who were unaccustomed to such a climate. The remainder of the day was spent visiting museums such as the Imperial War Museum, which was found to be very educational and enlightening.
Activities began a bit later on the following day, when breakfast was at 06h30 and they left for Wellington Barracks at 07h30. The dress-code was suits and the party was fortunate to obtain a pass to enter Westminster Hall at a different door and thus miss the queue formed by the public. They were then able to pay their last respects to the Queen Mother, who lay-in-state. It meant so much to all who were there. Early in the afternoon, the officers and warrant officers were briefed regarding the ushering in the Westminster Abbey on the following day and a low-profile rehearsal of the Lining Party was completed. Then the party returned to RAF Uxbridge to prepare for the following day.
The funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, 9 April 2002
On the morning of 9 April the detachments were transported to Westminster Abbey after getting dressed in their No 1 Ceremonial Dress without swords at Wellington Barracks. The ushers went into the Abbey while the Lining Party was in position by 10h35, standing in line outside the Great West Door through which the congregation invited to the service entered. The ushers were placed inside the Abbey and assisted the guests to their allocated seats and handed out the programmes. It was a great and moving experience to take part in the activities at the Abbey. The church service began at 11h30 and ended at 12h15, when the Dean and Chapter of Westminster left, followed by the congregation in order of seniority.
After the funeral, the members of the Commonwealth regimental detachments returned to the Wellington Barracks. They were invited to the office of Major General C R Watt CBE (General Officer Commanding London District and Major General Commanding the Household Division). There he presented each regiment with a framed photographic print of the late Queen Mother in gratitude for their contribution.
Return to South Africa
On the next day, 10 April, the four-member group of Cape Town Highlanders, Transvaal Scottish and Witwatersrand Rifles boarded the aeroplane to return home. It took them a few days to really absorb all that had happened in the period 3 - 9 April 2002 - a sombre but proud experience for all; the opportunity to participate in another chapter which has now closed; and, most of all, a memory to last forever.
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