Queen attends memorial anniversary service

IAN CLARKE The Queen returned to Great Bircham, near Fakenham, to join about 500 people for a moving service to mark the 60th anniversary of the original ceremony led by King George VI.

IAN CLARKE

On July 14, 1946 the 20-year-old Princess Elizabeth joined her father in a Norfolk country churchyard as he unveiled Britain's first Cross of Sacrifice to remember servicemen who died in the second world war.

It pays tribute to 66 Allied and 11 German personnel who gave their lives in the local area and are buried there.

And today the Queen returned to the 14th century St Mary's Church at Great Bircham, near Fakenham, to join about 500 people for a moving service to mark the 60th anniversary of the original ceremony led by King George VI.

The royal guest laid a wreath of poppies at the foot of the Cross of Sacrifice and then met relatives of four of the servicemen who are buried in the war graves in front of the memorial near the east wall.

The Queen spoke to the families about their loved ones who died in the conflict and she told how she recalled staying at Sandringham during the war and hearing the air crews flying out and returning from bombing missions.

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Sue Rothwell, of Peterborough, only discovered last year that her uncle Sgt Richard Clarke is buried at Great Bircham.

With tears in her eyes, she spoke of the emotion of the day and the added poignancy of the Queen attending the 60th anniversary service.

“It means so much to us and the Queen told us how she recalled how fascinated she was that the Americans were flying out from here during the day and the British went out at night.”

Sgt Clarke was flying a Hamden bomber which crashed and burst into flames on a foggy night at nearby Syderstone after returning from successful raids over Cologne.

He and his three colleagues all died and for many years Mrs Rothwell and her family did not know where he was buried.

The Queen also met relatives of Royal Navy leading seaman Brian Briston, who lived at Bircham, who was torpedoed, RAF petty officer Herbert Ballantyne, whose niece used to work at the local school, and RAF flying officer Featherstone.

Today's service was the culmination of three days of commemorations in Great Bircham, which also included a Cross of Sacrifice and war graves exhibition in conjunction with the War Graves Commission.

Brian Hillman, who helped organise the exhibition, said: “It has been very emotional. While I do not have any relatives here, I have been researching for the last five years. I have met six or seven relatives and corresponded with six or seven others in Canada and New Zealand. It brings it home on an occasion like this what they sacrificed for us.”

Mr Hillman added: “It really means something that the Queen has taken the time to come here. She said it was nice that someone had taken the time to study the history and that 60 years on it was good that it still interested people, especially the younger generation.”

Earlier, the Queen - wearing a cornflour blue dress with matching coat and hat - was driven to the entrance gates and walked to the church for the 45-minute service, which was taken by the rector the Rev Andrew Butcher.

In his address, he paid tribute to all those who gave their lives in conflict and said the Cross of Sacrifice was a permanent reminder of what they had done

Before leaving the church the Queen looked at the exhibition of photos, memories and newspaper cuttings - including one from the EDP of July 15, 1946 - the day after her father unveiled the Cross of Sacrifice.

She then walked to the Cross of Sacrifice and was given the wreath by five-year-old Dina Aldrich, who was among about 25 pupils from the appropriately named King George VI School at Great Bircham.

The children - who have been learning about the war graves - were delighted that the Queen's outfit matched their school uniforms.

The one minute's silence was perfectly observed and a lone piper sounded the Last Post.

Peter Gunn has also worked exhaustively on preparations for the event and said: “It is very poignant for the Queen to be the only one of her family who was here on that day 60 years ago to be left.”

A cemetery qualified for a Cross of Sacrifice if there were more than 40 war graves in it.

Among today's guests was Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Squire, vice chairman of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.