Tears flow as Royal Navy sailors on HMS Defender are reunited with their families in time for Christmas

EMOTIONAL sailors returning home after eight months at sea broke down in tears as they were reunited with their families in time for Christmas.

By Tom Cotterill
Thursday, 9th December 2021, 4:32 pm
Updated Thursday, 9th December 2021, 4:52 pm
Pictured:Jenni Smith embraces with Evelyn 7 in front of HMS Defender
Picture: Habibur Rahman
Pictured:Jenni Smith embraces with Evelyn 7 in front of HMS Defender Picture: Habibur Rahman

The jubilant men and women of HMS Defender raced down the gangway to embrace their loved ones during the ship’s homecoming at Portsmouth Naval Base.

The £1bn destroyer was the first of three ships – and hundreds of sailors – to return to the city after venturing to the Far East and back.

It was a moment that Lieutenant Kelly Jenkins-Hill had been dreaming of for months, having spent almost a year away from her husband Daniel and young daughter, Sophia, three.

Lieutenant Kelly Jenkins-Hill reunites with husband Daniel Hill, left, daughter Sophia, three, and brother Simon Jenkins, right, at HMS Defender's homecoming, Photo: Habibur Rahman

She had been at sea with Diamond for an extra month before it joined HMS Queen Elizabeth on its seven-month odyssey to the Orient.

Kelly, of Gosport, said: ‘I was away for Sophia’s birthday in August so it has been really emotional. I got to call in and sing happy birthday but it is hard when you miss those milestones in their little lives.

‘There were five mums on board and we would have a little mother’s meeting every now and then to support each other. But as a mum, you do feel a little bit more guilty going away.’

For Daniel – who is also an officer in the Royal Navy – it was a chance to finally be a family again, having himself been deployed last year on HMS Kent.

Pictured: Sharisia Clarke pictured wiping the tears away from the eyes of her son, Jamane, six. Picture: Habibur Rahman

He said: ‘I’m elated. It’s a nice end to the year. We can celebrate Christmas as a family. It’s the best Christmas present you could ask for, especially for Sophia.’

He added: ‘I’m actually 37 on Sunday, so this is a birthday and Christmas present wrapped into one for me.’

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Hundreds of people crammed into the naval base to watch the return of Diamond in the largest spectacle of its kind at the base since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pictured:Excited crowds of families as HMS Defender arrives Picture: Habibur Rahman

Among the eager crowds was little Nathan Hitchman of Chandlers Ford. The nine-year-old, accompanied by brother Julian, six, and mum Samantha was waiting for his dad, Warrant Officer Robert Hitchman to come home.

Nathan said: ‘This means so much to us. It’s been difficult. We haven’t been able to see him much – the only times we could see him was on video call.

‘I’m really excited to show daddy all my birthday presents because he was away for it.’

Samantha, 36, added: ‘We have been counting down the sleeps, even all our neighbours have been looking forward to it.

Pictured:Couple embracing in front of HMS Defender Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘We’re all so immensely proud of everyone on the ship. They have done so well. Robert has actually been selected for promotion to officer so he will be going off in February for that. It’s a massive achievement.’

During Defender’s mission, the ship passed through three oceans and 13 seas.

The destroyer was also involved in a stand-off with the Russian navy after it sailed close to Crimea in June.

The Kremlin claimed warning shots were fired by Russian vessels at the ship as it passed through the contested part of the Black Sea – something Whitehall denied, claiming only a routine ‘gunnery exercise’ took place

Dramatic eyewitness accounts revealed that Defender was buzzed by Russian military jets and the sound of naval gunfire could be heard as it sailed from Odessa in Ukraine to Georgia.

Commander Vince Owen, Defender’s captain, praised his crew for the ‘calm professionalism’ they displayed during the encounter.

Pictured:Sharisia Clarke with her son Jamane, 6 Picture: Habibur Rahman

He added: ‘This is the very best crew I have ever worked with. I couldn’t be more proud of every single one of them. They’re professional, dedicated and just give everything to the ship, the Royal Navy and the country.’

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Pictured:Crew on HMS Defender cheer as they come alongside in Portsmouth Picture: Habibur Rahman
Pictured: Horsepool family waiting for thier loved ones coming off HMS Defender Picture: Habibur Rahman
Pictured:Excited crowds of families as HMS Defender arrives Picture: Habibur Rahman
Pictured:Excited crowds of families as HMS Defender arrives Picture: Habibur Rahman