New Year on the Afghan frontline

Clockwise from left - Sgt Jody Mardling, Sgt Natasha Robinson, Sgt Stephen Gordon-Candy, Staff Sgt Tony Gibson, and Lt Rosie Brooks in the 21 Engineers' HQ Squadron's Santa's Grotto. Credit: Cpl Jamie Peters/ Crown Copyright.
Clockwise from left - Sgt Jody Mardling, Sgt Natasha Robinson, Sgt Stephen Gordon-Candy, Staff Sgt Tony Gibson, and Lt Rosie Brooks in the 21 Engineers' HQ Squadron's Santa's Grotto. Credit: Cpl Jamie Peters/ Crown Copyright.
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Ripon’s 21 Engineers have reached the half-way point of their current tour in Afghanistan, in the run up to Christmas.

The Regiment is in Helmand province as part of the “Black Rats”, the Army’s 4th Mechanised Brigade.

For most of the 21 Engineers’ 525 servicemen and women across the province the half-way point of the six month tour has come in the last few weeks, and it is an important mental marker.

“There are no celebrations, but you know when the half-way point has come,” said WO2 Steve Robinson, Sergeant Major in the Regiment’s HQ Squadron.

“It’s important psychologically, because the second half of the tour always goes faster,” he added.

But practically the half-way point is just another day, like Christmas Day, the squadron’s officer commanding, Major Stuart McGhee added.

“The work here is so fast, and there’s no let up. The days are long and the weeks are fast, I say,” he said. The unit arrived in August and took over from 26 Engineers, moving into Camp Bastion 10 years after another unit of Royal Engineers - the 28 Engineers - set the camp up.

The camp has ballooned from a spartan desert base to massive site which, together with the neighbouring American Camp Leatherneck and Afghan Camp Shorabak is home to 30,000 people inside a 67km perimeter fence - and is as big as Harrogate.

Although the first of 21 Engineers’ Sappers did not arrive until August 2012, training started in January 2012 and planning even earlier. But in the time that has passed since their last tour the job in hand has changed dramatically.

“Sat here two years ago, when the target for ending combat operations in 2014 was set, we didn’t see how it could happen. Coming back now we can see it’s come on in leaps and bounds,” WO2 Robinson said.

With British troops aiming to leave in two years time, much of the Sappers’ jobs are now focused on the “draw down” - handing bases over to Afghan forces or closing them down completely and bringing resources back to Camp Bastion, and then the UK.

Christmas

Christmas celebrations began for the Sappers of the Regiment’s HQ Squadron on Friday, December 21, at the Squadron’s Christmas party.

The spinning room, usually used for physical training, was transformed into Santa’s grotto and Sergeant Stephen Gordon-Candy became Santa for the evening.

On Christmas Eve, Camp Bastion was set to celebrate with a carol service, as well as a charity sleigh event, midnight mass and band performances, which were to carry on throughout Christmas Day.

And Christmas Day was set to start with a cup of tea in bed, delivered by bosses Major McGhee and WO2 Robinson.

Major McGhee said: “Back in Ripon, we’d do this the last day before we all go off on leave for Christmas. We’d wake the guys up with a cup of tea, before going off on a fancy dress run together and then serving them a three course lunch, and then heading off to our respective messes for the afternoon. We’re trying to recreate that a bit here on Christmas Day.”

“We’ll wake the guys up with a cup of tea at six o’clock, then do a bit of sport together and have some lunch.

“In the afternoon we’ve got a bit of a competition lined up, for a bit of fun, and then by early afternoon it’ll be morning in the UK so we’re trying to keep things low key so the guys can phone home if they want to,” he added.

Christmas Dinner is the centrepiece of any celebration, and in Camp Bastion it needed...

- 850kgs of brussel sprouts

- 180,000 mince pies

- 350kgs of Christmas pudding

- Nearly 13,000kgs of turkey

- 672 Christmas cakes

- 408 jars of cranberry sauce

- 14,400 party hats

Pictured clockwise from left - Sgt Jody Mardling, Sgt Natasha Robinson, Sgt Stephen Gordon-Candy, Staff Sgt Tony Gibson, and Lt Rosie Brooks in the 21 Engineers’ HQ Squadron’s Santa’s Grotto. Credit: Cpl Jamie Peters/ Crown Copyright.