Avril Randell: Norfolk farmer’s wife led battlefield tours to North Africa

For two decades, a Norfolk farmer's wife, Avril Randell, who has died aged 66, arranged tours of battlefields and war cemeteries in North Africa.

After struggling with Foreign Office red tape for years, she eventually overcame the final hurdle of Colonel Gaddafi's opposition and was given permission to visit Libya in November 1996.

She was to lead parties of former soldiers including Desert Rats, who had fought during the second world war in the 7th Armoured Division from June 1940 in the western desert campaign. She was the first woman from Britain to lead a tour group into this rarely-visited country from Egypt. Her father, William Walker, had fought with the 8th Army Royal Tank Regiment, which had sustained heavy losses. As many of the fallen were buried at Tobruk, she enabled so many veterans to return to visit graves bringing regimental flags and poppy wreaths and to see the campaign scenes again.

In a trip to mark the 60th anniversary of the Siege of Tobruk in 2001, which was accompanied by the then British Ambassador, she was given a message from the Queen to read during a sunset memorial service on the beach. 'Please convey . . . my very best wishes for a most memorable occasion. Elizabeth R.'

In the often difficult political climate and Gaddafi's mercurial attitude, she always persevered. And she even managed on more than one occasion to bring a bugler and serving member of Britain's Armed Forces into Libya.

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When TV broadcaster Michael Palin, who had heard of her trips, was unable to enter Libya, he asked to join her tour to film his series about the Sahara. But always modest, she stayed in the background as her 'old boys' took part in the filming. When his crew obstructed the veterans' view of a service at one cemetery, she firmly ordered them out of the way.

During one visit, a group of veterans decided to get off the tour coach to 'march' back into the desert where they fought. Most of the veterans were in their 80s and some struggled to walk with canes, but they all got onto their feet and marched in formation back along the road.

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She kept in touch with her veterans over many years and even brought the desert back to her Norfolk home by staging her annual El Alamein dinner on October 23.

She also helped to raise funds with a charity auction in 2007 for the �100,000 appeal for the Royal Anglian Afghanistan Memorial Fund. She has asked for donations in her memory to the regiment's benevolent fund.

She leaves two daughters, Louise and Clementine. She was buried at sea off Gibraltar, where she had enjoyed so many holidays with her late husband, Paddy, who died aged 65 in February last year.

A service of thanksgiving will be held at All Saints Church, Skeyton, on Monday at 3pm.

Michael Pollitt

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