THE VIKINGS – the First Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment were given the freedom of Huntingdon on Monday.

THE VIKINGS - the First Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment were given the freedom of Huntingdon on Monday.

The battalion returned in April from its third six-month tour of Afghanistan, where five of their number have died.

The freedom of the town was conferred on them: "In perpetuity, the privilege, honour and distinction of marching through the streets, bayonets fixed, colours flying, drums beating and bands playing."

Led by their marching band, looking splendid in their red jackets and black fur hats, and with standard bearers carrying aloft their regimental colours, the soldiers from D Company, the Cambridgeshire company of the Royal Anglians, indeed paraded through the town.

Starting in Princes Street, they marched into the Market Square where they were inspected by the Mayor of Huntingdon, Councillor Chris Doyle and then presented with the honour after speeches by Cllr Doyle and town clerk, Karen Cameron.

Applauded at every stage by the crowd, which lined all four sides of the square, the procession then continued along the High Street for a civic reception at the Commemoration Hall.

In the procession were members of the Royal British Legion carrying their standards and civic dignitaries including the MP for Huntingdon, Jonathan Djanogly.

Conferring the honour upon all ranks of the regiment, Cllr Doyle said: "We are proud of our association with you and we appreciate the difficult and dangerous job that you do on our behalf. We support your efforts to support local government in Helmand Province and congratulate you on the progress you have made there.

"We appreciate the sacrifices you and your families have made and in particular those of the five colleagues who died and their bereaved families. Our wish is that you will always be honoured by the town of Huntingdon."

Ms Cameron said the men and women of the regiment had given meritorious service to their country and were held in high reknown. "We are proud of their achievements and their long and honourable record."

Cllr Doyle then formally presented a framed certificate conferring the freedom of the town to General Sir John McColl.

Accepting the honour on behalf of the regiment, General McColl said: "Thank you for the welcome home from operations. The mayor's kind words are much appreciated. Thank you for a very great honour, the freedom of Huntingdon is more than a very generous civic gesture, it is support for our soldiers who work in great danger and under unrelenting pressure. Recognition and support from home makes them feel that their efforts are worthwhile and very proud."

General McColl said the regiment's forerunners had been formed in 1702 and many campaigns had been fought in the last 300 years.

"Our links with you are at the core of our regiment. Particularly on coming home from Helmand. We have made progress in that troubled land, there has been hard fighting, we had trained members of the Afghan Army and police and developed programmes to support the local government. We have left Helmand a safer place. "This is the British infantry at its best, the finest force in the world. The five soldiers who died were wonderful young men who leave a gap in their families' lives. There are many others with serious injuries, who will need our help for years to come - your support is humbling."

The rehabilitation centres, Selly Oak in Birmingham and Headley Court in Surrey were remembered in the prayers that followed.