They are as much an iconic image of London as black cabs, red busses, or indeed the landmarks they protect, but now the Royal Guard are being removed from their sentry boxes to stand behind iron bars in an “honourable retreat”, amidst fears of a lone wolf style terrorist attack.
And for the first time since the height of the IRA threat the guards are no longer allowed to be on sentry duty alone, but are instead being shadowed by armed officers from the Metropolitan Police, the Mail on Sunday has reported.
Ken Wharfe, Princess Diana’s former bodyguard, said: “These officers are always stagnant, so an attack on them is very easy. Although the Queen’s Guards are there to protect the Royals, the actual security is done by the Met Police. But the Palace has always resisted getting rid of the Guards as they are part of the tradition. The Palace would have been consulted on this.”
The relocation of the guards has come about in part thanks to the killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby on a London street by two Islamists last year, and in part thanks to the equally shocking murder of a Canadian sentry, who was on duty near the Canadian Parliament when he was shot by a lone gunman two months ago.
Consequently, The Royal Guards, immediately recognisable in their unique bearskin caps, have been moved behind the metal gates at both Clarence House, home to Prince Charles, and at St James’s Palace, the London home of Princess Anne and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, along with their sentry boxes. Their new positions render them all but invisible to the public.
One Guards insider told the Mail: “We’re fully in favour as if an attack on a sentry can happen in Canada it can happen here. By moving behind the railings we’ve got a chance to respond, most likely saving lives.
“The changes were introduced in response to the Canadian attack and because there’s been a sharp rise in people armed with mobile phones trying to wind up the sentries and make them lose their temper.”
At Windsor Palace to the west of the capital, the lone sentry on duty outside the western gate of the royal castle is now protected by three armed officers. At Horse Guards Parade too, a popular spot for tourists to take photos with the Guardsmen, the two sentries are still in the public sphere but are now flanked by four Metropolitan policemen armed with Heckler and Koch carbine rifled, pistols and Tasers.
By contrast, the sentries carry unloaded rifles as a rule. Although they do carry six rounds of ammunition in a pouch in case of a terrorist attack, loading the rifles would take time. Their only other form of protection is the bayonet on the rifles, and a ceremonial sword which they also carry.
A Metropolitan Police officer on duty there said: “Yes, we are a recent addition here. It’s us guarding the Guards. I think there’s a Latin phrase for that.”
Retired officer Major Iain Dalzel-Job of the Scots Guards told The Mail on Sunday: “I think this is a big shame. The reason people know we’re around is because they can see us. But I suppose the changes are necessary as there is a significant threat.”
Although there have been no successful terrorist attacks on British soil since the murder of Lee Rigby, intelligence sources are saying that there is an increased amount of “chatter” amongst Islamist sources regarding possible plots.
Last month, police foiled an attack planned for Remembrance Sunday, arresting four men in London and High Wycombe, less than twenty miles from Windsor Castle. And on Christmas Eve, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula published a magazine urging Muslims living in the West to carry out lone wolf style attacks on their own. The magazine included instructions for making bombs, and urged terrorists to use the recipe to destroy airliners and other high profile targets.
But by far the easiest mode of lone wolf style attack to carry out is the senseless slaughter of random victims on city streets, such as the murder of Lee Rigby. In October, 24 year old Nathan Cirillo met a similar fate when he was shot dead by Muslim convert Michael Zehaf-Bibeau at his post outside the National War Memorial in Ottowa. Zehaf-Bibeau then stormed the nearby Parliamentary building before being himself shot dead by armed guards.
Former Welsh guardsman and former Met police officer Terry O’Shea said: “Moving the Guardsmen back to a more secure area seems an honourable retreat given the danger posed by the terrorists. We have got to strike a balance between not compromising our traditions and protecting our soldiers.
“Unfortunately this is a sign of the times and how unpredictable the current situation is. We’ve seen horrific incidents across the world and in our capital city, so some action had to be taken to reduce the risk, even if it can never be eliminated.
“You could argue that there should be a defiant stand but how do you protect the soldiers on parade in a bright suit, shiny boots and a furry hat? Where do we draw the line? Do you allow these soldiers to be armed? I think that could cause a greater problem.
“The terrorists know that a Guardsman is a higher profile target than an ordinary soldier and they’re looking for publicity, something spectacular, so the Guards would suit their agenda.”