UNION Flags fluttered along packed pavements in Winsford as the community came together to welcome home 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment.

1 Mercian have returned after a 6 1/2 month tour of Afghanistan during which they were conducting operations and helping to support local Afghan forces.

Schools throughout Winsford allowed children to finish early as hundreds lined Dene Drive, the Drumber, Dingle Lane and High Street to welcome home more than 150 troops.

Along the way a hush fell over gathered crowds on green spaces around Wyvern House to watch Winsford town mayor, clr Mike Kennedy, present soldiers with campaign medals on The Drumber.

Winford is one of 11 towns the regiment is visiting across Greater Manchester, Cheshire and the Wirral to mark their return.

Around 400 soldiers from 1 Mercian served during its recent six month tour which saw personnel supporting and mentoring the Afghan National Security Forces as they took on greater responsibility for Nad ‘Ali in Helmand Province.

Company commander, Major Ed Gaffney, led the parade.

He said: “We are very grateful for the supprt that we receive from Cheshire and all over the country. It’s very important that we can come and show our gratitude on parades like this.

“We were recently presented new colours by the Prince of Wales and it’s nice to get around and show those colours off.

“In Afghanistan we have been working to support the national security forces while they conducted their operations. It was very much us taking a back seat and acting in a support role to assist them.”

The company returned on April 26, and soldiers are now settling back into life at their home barracks in Catterick, North Yorkshire.

Maj Gaffney added: “I’ve got a young family, so I miss them a lot while away.

“The younger lads miss going out with their mates; the normal things you do day to day; the things you take for granted and the pace of life.

“Afghanistan can be a dangerous place. There were a few incidents during the tour including dealing with small arms fire.

“Day to day, some guys might be on patrol, some on fatigue duty and some on rest. Then there are occasions we will take 90 soldiers on patrol for operations.”

Northwich soldier, Sergeant Major Karl Beesley, 37, has been in the military for 20 years, since travelling to Warrington to sign up as an 18-year-old in 1993.

His career has encompassed tours in Northern Ireland and Iraq as well as Afghanistan.

“Although each tour is different, it’s still essentially counter terrorism.

“You miss your family and friends while away and the little things – being able to go down to the shops or for a pint.

“It can be mentally and physically tiring, and you have to be alert and ready to react at all times.

“We have a welfare tent where we get the British Forces Broadcasting Service and we get the sport so we can keep up with football, and the team I support, Liverpool.

“The lads, when they get here and see the support they’ve got - especially when you see the children with the flags and all the people showing their appreciation - it means a great deal.

“For a lot of the younger lads toady, they won’t have taken part in parades before, and I know they’ll be very proud and appreciative of the support Winsford is showing us.

“We have a lot of ex servicemen around here and we always get a really good turnout.”

Winsford resident Lisa Unwin was one of many parents who brought their children along to the parade.

One-year-old Oliver watched on from his pushchair while Patrick, 10, was let out of school at St Joseph’s Primary early to watch the march.

Lisa said: “We might not get the opportunity to see a march like this again, so I thought it was really important to come out today.

“Especially for the children, it helps give them an understanding of what’s going on, and show their respect and thanks.”

Chris Abbot from the Swanlow area of Winsford also watched the parade with her children.

She added: “We got a text from High Street School saying the children were able to finish early.

“They were really excited to come out. It gives them a good understanding about what the soldiers are doing to protect the country.”

Cheshire West and Chester councillor, Lynda Jones, watched the parade.

She said: “It’s absolutely fantastic; really great to see so many people coming out and showing their support.”

Meanwhile, ex-serviceman Alan Ravenscroft watched on emotionally as the troops paraded through his hometown.

The 78-year-old was part of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers serving as part of the Commonwealth forces sent to the Korean War.

He said: “The support they get here in Winsford and across the country is really great.

“There wasn’t as much support as there is now when I got back from fighting in Korea. The country was still up to the eyeballs in dealing with the Second World War.

“It’s brilliant to see this today; it’s great to see them back.”

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