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.
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.
Leading Diver Wesley McKibbin, 29, of Portsmouth-based HMS Chiddingfold, is one of eight specialist divers on board the ship out in the Gulf.
His job is to locate and clear enemy mines to help keep some of the world’s most important shipping lanes open for trade.
He said: ‘I’ve really enjoyed my time out here on deployment but at the same time I’m looking forward to getting home to see my friends and family, although it’s always interesting spending Christmas at sea.
‘It’s been a good deployment so far, we had a great time on adventurous training in Muscat where we did cliff diving and I got to dive with turtles.
‘The rest of the time we have been hard at work and I am one of eight specialist divers on board the ship with a challenging and varied job to do.’
Engineering Technician (Weapon Engineering) Charlie Saunders, 27, also of Chiddingfold, is part of the team that maintains the ship’s weapons and sensors.
He said: ‘I have found this deployment difficult but very rewarding. I’ve seen and done things I never thought I would do. This is my first job in the Royal Navy and I have learned a lot from my time on board. I’m looking forward to Christmas and feel very fortunate to be out here doing the job I love.’
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.’