‘Is everything quiet in the headquarters?’: HUGO VICKERS reveals how one innocuous question sparked all the Queen’s men to race back from across the globe to prepare for the funeral we’ll never forget
At 12:20 that Thursday, the Grenadier Guards Brigade Major received a telephone message that sent a shudder of terror through him.
The garrison sergeant major asked the deceptively simple question, “Is everything quiet at headquarters?”
“I knew right away there was only one reason why he would ask that question,” Lieutenant Colonel JNEB Shaw said. “And that began the most intense eleven days of my life.”
The words from the cell phone, while not an official code, were enough to signal the imminent death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II later that afternoon. What follows are the astonishing stories of high guards who were at the center of preparations a year ago for our beloved monarch’s funeral: an event of state for which no planning could ever truly prepare them. Their voices are rarely heard outside the parade ground, and these anecdotes – reverent, urgent, often funny – are uniquely revealing.
As he put the phone down, Lieutenant Colonel Shaw reached into the bottom right drawer of his desk and pulled out a folder that had been waiting for years. It was called ‘Brigade Major’s Operation London Bridge’.
Gloomy Task: King Charles follows the Queen’s coffin as it is carried by Grenadier Guards
King Charles salutes the coffin of his mother Queen Elizabeth as he attends the Committal Service for Queen Elizabeth at St George’s Chapel, Windsor
His first step was to convene a contingency planning meeting at HQ in the London precinct, with the immediate priority being the recall of essential troops.
Among them were The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, half of which were still on summer leave, who had to be present to fire the Death Gun Salute in Hyde Park within six hours of the death of the monarch.
Members of the Queen’s Company’s Bearer Party, Grenadier Guards, who were deployed in Iraq’s Operation Shader, were also ordered to return immediately.
Brigadier General James Stopford of the Irish Guards was at his daughter Izzie’s wedding in Corfu, where his phone had been buzzing for several hours with warnings of an impending announcement.
As he gave his speech at the reception, his phone vibrated in his pocket again. The text message read: “You are ordered to return immediately to the UK to carry out your duties for Her Majesty’s funeral as a member of the Honorable Corps of Gentlemen At Arms.”
The brigadier invited the guests to raise a glass to the bride and groom and another to the late Queen and His Majesty.
The Household Cavalry’s State Trumpeters had landed in Canada just 24 hours earlier. They were required to return for a reverse flight across the Atlantic.
Queen Elizabeth’s coffin in the ceremonial procession following her state funeral last year
The logistical problems were large and small, all of which threatened the smooth running of the operation. Garrison Sergeant Major AJ Stokes of the Coldstream Guards worked at his desk until 2:00 AM, supervising preparations, and walked past Buckingham Palace in the wee hours, where crowds gathered. “Respectful and somber, there seemed to be a mix of emotions, sadness and appreciation all rolled into one,” he said.
When he arrived at his flat, his fiancé Sue was waiting for him, with a meal and a cup of tea: she had followed his progress on his iPhone. She made sure he had a bottle, sandwiches and clean clothes ready for the next day and also reminded him that his nurse and driver, Lance Corporal Flint, was a single parent and his children needed babysitting after school . She volunteered for these duties.
The sergeant major was responsible for training the Carrier Party on their return, noting to his dismay that some had let their hair grow below the line of their berets. “I insisted they all get a haircut and carry a comb in their pockets for the next few days, taking every opportunity to groom themselves quickly.”
Household Cavalry Lieutenant Colonel Mark Berry, whose role was to supervise the Secretary of State at Westminster Hall, had been in office for only a month. His first task, known as the Silver Stick, was to recall officers from countries such as Bangladesh, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and America. One was on honeymoon.
The Regimental Sergeant Major, Warrant Officer Class 1 D. Snoxell was tasked with clearing the Household Cavalry gymnasium at Knightsbridge so contractors could build a mock-up of the catafalquea, a platform for holding the coffin, for rehearsals .
Over the weekend of September 10 and 11, the saddlers and tailors in the regiment’s Full Dress storage area worked hard trying on uniforms, wash boots and polish marks.
The Army School of Ceremonial sent its Drill Team to train the men in marching and maneuvering in armor and thigh boots with pikes and swords.
The coffin arrived in procession with the King, Princess Royal, Duke of York and Earl of Wessex, soon to become Duke of Edinburgh
“Teaching drills to officers is never easy,” noted Lieutenant Colonel RRD Griffin, “but teaching mounted officers dismount drills takes a whole new level.”
Not only did the steep steps on the north side of Westminster Hall prove challenging for those unaccustomed to wellies, it also took longer than expected to get four officers into position at the same time – as only three Household Cavalrymen could fit into the lift in full uniform to fit. .
As the Queen died at Balmoral, ‘Operation Unicorn’ was also launched in Scotland to coordinate ten days of parades and the Lying-at-Rest.
For Brigadier General Jamie Fraser, adjutant of the Grenadier Guards, there was an additional complication: the Royal Company of Archers had just spent eight weeks rehearsing for the Edinburgh Tattoo – and the garrison sergeant major had lost his voice.
On Sunday 11, at 4:30 a.m., the Guard of Honor dismounted for rehearsals and marched in musical silence to the Buccleuch Memorial in town to avoid waking local residents. “We marched down the Royal Mile and found police obstructions blocking our path,” recalled Captain Fraser. ‘Then we found out that we couldn’t get into position in West Parliament Square because there were four BBC lorries parked in front of the cathedral. The Carrier Party’s hearse couldn’t get to the right place, so neither they nor the Archers’ Processional Escort could rehearse exactly what would be expected of them the next day.’
The archers were commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Alistair Irwin, who was hampered by a problem of his own: he had to carry his sword in his left hand and also use that hand when removing and replacing his headdress to lead the Three Cheers. His Majesty King Charles III.
Sadly, he had lost three fingers on his left hand in a gardening accident earlier that year. A specially crafted padded glove enabled him to perform his duties.
While the crowd lined up ten deep along the Royal Mile that day, the Archers lined up at the Cathedral’s West Door. The coffin arrived in procession with the King, Princess Royal, Duke of York and Earl of Wessex, soon to become Duke of Edinburgh.
A strong wind blew as the Guard of Honor gave the royal salute. He plucked the bonnet off the right hand of the Escort, then that of the front left soldier. The guards watched as it rolled under the wheel of the hearse and was crushed.