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One in eight sailors and marines keep up the Royal Navy’s global presence at Christmas

23 December 2016
Twice as many sailors, Royal Marines, and Fleet Air Arm personnel are on duty this festive season than last – more than 3,700 men and women in all at home and abroad.

A total of 18 warships, submarines, auxiliaries, Fleet Air Arm squadrons and Royal Marines units are deployed, on call, or on duty as 2016 draws to a close.

They are operating from the sands of the Gulf and the struggle against Daesh to the edge of the frozen continent, the sandy beaches and palm trees of the Caribbean to the depths of the Atlantic, the shores of the Aegean and central Mediterranean, the windswept Falklands and equally unforgiving Western Approaches.

Last year 1,700 men and women in the Senior Service were on duty over the Christmas period. This year – thanks in part to the deployment of a capital ship (HMS Ocean) and her Royal Marines and helicopter air group to the Gulf, where the carrier leads the US Task Group 50 – that figure has more than doubled.

There is also one of four strategic nuclear deterrent Vanguard-class submarines on patrol, conducting a mission the Silent Service has performed around the clock for nearly half a century, plus a couple of hunter-killer submarines.

It means one in every eight of the 29,400 men and women in the Senior Service’s trained strength is either away from home on patrol or on duty.

I understand the commitment you are making, the sense of duty you are showing and just as importantly the impact this has on your loved ones back home. So you are in my thoughts throughout this period.

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones

They all end the year with a big ‘thank-you’ from the country’s most senior sailor, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones, who said from the many Christmases he spent away from home earlier in his career, he knew what those deployed were going through.

“I understand the commitment you are making, the sense of duty you are showing and just as importantly the impact this has on your loved ones back home. So you are in my thoughts throughout this period,” he said.

“If 2016 was a busy year for the Royal Navy, 2017 promises to be busier still, not least as we commission a 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier. This will provide a huge opportunity to demonstrate the role the Royal Navy plays to protect the UK’s security and prosperity, and to support our growing global ambition.”

Ships away over Christmas stocked up with many of the things they needed to celebrate before leaving the UK – crackers, cards, presents, decorations, frozen turkeys – while the British Forces Post Office has delivered parcels and post to the four corners of the globe to bring some welcome cheer on the big day.

Flagship HMS Ocean held her Christmas festivities a few days early. After a carol service led by chaplain the Rev Paul Andrew, the 700-strong crew were then served Christmas dinner by the ship’s officers.

Feeding a ship’s company this size is no mean feat. It took four sittings spanning four hours and two dining halls to feed everyone. Chief Petty Officer Russ Vardy was in charge of the day’s event and the team of chefs and stewards who spent 24 hours preparing the ‘super roast’.

“The lads and lasses in the galley realise how important the day is for the morale of the ship’s company and respond with their best efforts over what is a long day for everyone,” said Russ.

“The one added complication we have to any other day is the need to steer around our officers, many of whom have little experience working in a galley.”

There was a real family feel about the meal with the ship’s Commanding Officer, Captain Rob Pedre, carving the turkey while his officers acted as soup servers and got stuck in to the washing-up afterwards while singing Christmas tunes.

“The atmosphere on board is very good – we’ve got Christmas decorations all around the mess and everyone is super excited at having Christmas in Dubai,” said 21-year-old Able Seaman Alexia Dooley from Wickwar in Gloucestershire on HMS Ocean.

“It is going to be a strange Christmas in a hot country and I’ll miss my family loads, but I’ll make sure I celebrate with them when I get home in the spring.”

Also aboard the flagship is Air Engineer Technician Abigail Sondack from Enfield, who looks after the support equipment used by the Merlin helicopters of 820 Naval Air Squadron. She’s spending her first festive period away from home since joining the Royal Navy.

“We have just decorated the workshop with paper chains and mini Christmas trees,” said the 20-year-old.

“Christmas music is on a constant loop in the girls’ mess and everyone is excited for Christmas. However people are missing loved ones and this is only going to get harder as December 25 approaches.”

Commander Nick Stone is responsible for choreographing supplies for all Royal Navy ships, units and squadrons in the Middle East.

He and fellow staff at the Royal Navy’s headquarters in Bahrain will be marking the big day with Christmas carols followed by turkey baguettes.

“I’m disappointed that I will miss the one time of the year when I get to see all the wider family, but on the bright side, I will be home for the summer,” said the 40-year-old from Lymm in Cheshire.

“We will do our best to make sure the day is as fun as possible.”

Half a world away, Lieutenant Guy Dimmock will be opening the present his wife Jacqui gave him before he joined Antarctic survey ship HMS Protector.

“I am obviously sad to be away from my family, but I will be surrounded by the 80 other members of the ship's company who will also be away from home so I am sure we will celebrate in our own unique way,” said the 36-year-old.

“I think it will be a Christmas of good moral and joviality. We are all away from our families and we have to enjoy the time despite that and make the most of the spending Christmas in a different and unique part of the world.”

Christmas Day is typically a relaxed affair – although watch routines are, of course, maintained as normal – with the age-old tradition of officers serving ratings their dinner maintained (and in some cases the most junior or youngest member of the ship’s company is permitted to be captain for the day).

Apart from submariners on a nuclear deterrent patrol, everyone away gets an extra 30 minutes to call home over Christmas – on top of the 30 minutes a week they receive every week as part of the welfare package for all units while deployed.

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