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 aboard.
Some 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.
All crackers... Ocean's crew get stuck in as they wait for officers to dish up Christmas dinner in the Gulf. Pictures: LPhot Ben Shread, HMS Ocean
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 aboard.
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, 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.
Last year – when the Fleet Air Arm still performed Search and Rescue duties until January 1 – 1,700 men and women in the Senior Service were on duty over the Christmas period.
Happy Fleet... A penguin stares at the camera while HMS Protector conducts her scientific work in Antarctica
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.
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, on duty
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.
HMS Daring is deployed to the Gulf providing air defence cover for Allied warships
“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.
“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 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.
Ocean's CO Capt Rob Pedre carves the meat for his ship's company to enjoy
Flagship HMS Ocean held her Christmas festivities a few days early. After a carol service led by chaplain the Rev Paul Anrew and mince pies the 700 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 an 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 prepping the ‘super roast’. There was a real family feel about the meal with the Captain Rob Pedre, carving the turkey and his officers acting soup servers and getting stuck-in to the washing up afterwards while singing Christmas tunes.
“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 who have little experience working in a galley.”
Secret Santa time aboard HMS Ocean
There’s a second, smaller Christmas meal on December 25 – although many of the ship’s company will be enjoying leave in Dubai before the helicopter carrier resumes her patrol.
“The atmosphere on board is actually very good – we’ve got Christmas decorations all around the mess and everyone is super excited at having Christmas in Dubai with five days’ rest finally,” said 21-year-old Able Seaman Alexia Dooley from Wickwar in Gloucestershire on HMS Ocean.
“It is going to be a strange Christmas in 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 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.
“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 will be marking the big day with Christmas carols followed by turkey baguettes,” said the 40-year-old from Lymm in Cheshire.
“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.
“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
“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, every one away get 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.
For the record deployed or on duty over the Christmas and New Year are:
- East of Suez: more than 1,000 personnel: Flagship helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, her Merlin helicopters of 820 NAS and Royal Marines of 42 Commando, protected by destroyer HMS Daring; minehunters, Middleton, Chiddingfold, Bangor and Penzance, plus their support ship RFA Lyme Bay; Bagger Sea Kings of 849 NAS and the Merlin helicopters of 814 NAS; providing stores and fuel: RFA Fort Victoria; and overseeing operations, the staff in the UK Maritime Component Command HQ in Bahrain.
- North Atlantic: RFA Wave Knight, supporting the struggle against drug-running in the Caribbean and providing assurance to British and Commonwealth islands in the region.
- South Atlantic: providing support and reassurance to British citizens: HMS Portland, HMS Enterprise standing in for Falklands guardship HMS Clyde (undergoing maintenance in South Africa) and tanker RFA Gold Rover – away for her very last Christmas after nearly 43 years of providing Royal Navy vessels with fuel
- Mediterranean: Gibraltar Squadron (Sabre and Scimitar) protecting the Rock and its waters; HMS Echo is on Operation Sophia trying to prevent people trafficking from North Africa, picking up refugees in distress when their inadequate boats sink
- Antarctica: surveying: HMS Protector
- In the UK: more than 1,000 personnel are on duty or at short notice to react: the Fleet Ready Escort HMS Somerset, which has just taken over from her sister Sutherland, stands ready to respond to events, as does its Merlin helicopter flight an RFA tanker as well as bomb disposal teams in Plymouth, Portsmouth and Faslane; in addition, RN medics are working shifts in NHS hospitals around the UK and staff at the Northwood Maritime Operations Centre co-ordinate the actions of all active units.
- Submarine Service: one of four strategic deterrent Vanguard-class boats, conducting a mission the Silent Service has performed around the clock for nearly half a century. A couple of hunter-killer submarines are also patrolling.