Royal Navy tracking Santa on the radar

A dockyard mobile crane unloads the cargo of cement from the coaster at Flathouse Quay, Portsmouth

THIS WEEK IN 1988: Out of time in search for arms and drugs

As you tuck in to your turkey and trimmings tomorrow, spare a thought for the sailors spending Christmas Day on duty many thousands of miles away from home.

Around 2,000 men and women will be apart from their families this Christmas, whether they are in HMS Gloucester in the South Atlantic, on anti-piracy patrol off Somalia or helping to protect shipping and vast oil terminals in the Arabian Gulf - an environment which seems a million miles away from the cold Christmas conditions back here.

Lieutenant Commander Tim Parker is away on HMS Cornwall and will miss the first Christmas with his three-month-old son Oliver.

The 37-year-old weapons engineering officer, who lives with fiance Sue in Marine Barracks, Eastney, sent a message back to his family through The News.

He said: 'I wish I was home, I send all my love to you both and I can't wait to see you at the end of the deployment.'

Perhaps the most alien environment to spend Christmas is on the Al Basrah Oil Terminal - a leviathan 1.2km-long hulk of steel sitting out to sea close to Iranian waters.

The 1970s terminal is key to Iraq's oil supplies, which amount for 90 per cent of the country's economy.

The air is thick with fumes and the humidity makes it an uncomfortable and precarious place to work - not least because accommodation is a series of container units placed on the flat sections of the terminal.

At one end of the platform, a team of Iraqi contractors work to ensure the fuel is passed into the vast tankers that overshadow the structure.

At certain times of day they dangle a line over the edge of the rusting gantries to catch giant fish 15 metres below, which fetch huge prices at Basra market.

At the other end of the terminal, Portsmouth-based sailors take the Iraqi navy through gun firings and mock attacks from the sea, which sharpen their skills so Iraq can take full control of defending the platform from attack - this has happened in the past, as the bullet holes from the 1980s Iran-Iraq war testify.

The man in charge of British efforts on the terminal is Commander Simon Howell, 47, who swapped the greenery of HMS Excellent on Whale Island for the heat of the Gulf.

The father-of-two said: 'I would like to think that we've helped the Iraqis with their training to the extent that they realise how important this oil platform is to the future of their country.

'There are tankers coming here from all over the world, collecting millions of barrels of oil, and the Iraqis are very close to having all the skills they need to ensure that process runs well.'

Lieutenant Commander Sarah Oakley, 37, from Alverstoke, said: 'We have learned a lot ourselves out here, particularly with the intense heat.

We have adapted to the Iraqi way of working, which means you work earlier in the day and don't try and work through when it's 50 degrees.'

Inside an Iraqi naval base at Umm Qasr, on the southern coast, around 80 sailors and Royal Marines will be at work tomorrow helping Iraqi sailors run patrol boats to protect the oil platforms.

Captain Gary Sutton, from Waterlooville, is in charge of British and American personnel in the base.

He said: 'In Umm Qasr there is constant development with the infrastructure being improved to include things like a new ship hall for repairs.

'We have had a presence here since 2003 and it's really about the Iraqis standing up and playing a part in the region - they have come a long way in a very short space of time.'

Lieutenant Jeremy Ussher, 32, from Hill Head, said: 'We meet with the Iraqis and work out what they want to learn, and then get on with it.'

Just along the coast, HMS Cumberland will be working on Christmas Day with French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle, honouring the recent agreement between the UK and France.

Captain Steve Dainton said: 'The Royal Naval tradition is for officers to serve Christmas dinner. We will also be putting on a carol concert and I have no doubt Santa will make an appearance on the big day - we've been tracking his sleigh on radar.