Christmas Day at Camp Bastion

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Media captionThe Band of the Royal Artillery and the Medical Choir provide entertainment at Camp Bastion

In time-honoured fashion, the soldiers at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan woke early on Christmas Day with senior officers in Christmas regalia serving them tea or 'Gunfire'.

If the dress code was rather extravagant, the brew was decidedly tame. The traditional tot of rum was substituted by something less potent. This is after all is an Islamic country and alcohol for British soldiers is strictly banned.

This is the last Christmas for British troops in Afghanistan before combat operations cease at the end of next year, and it had a decidedly festive feel.

Task Force Helmand is now under the command of the 7th Armoured Brigade, also known as the Desert Rats. Fittingly, their mascot - a huge metal installation of a rat that occupies a prominent spot in a parade ground opposite the canteen - was adorned with tinsel and all the other trappings of Christmas.

A Chinook helicopter, rather than a sleigh, signalled the arrival of Santa Claus as the sun began to take the chill out of the wintry Afghan air, just in time to fire a huge field gun signalling the start of a fancy dress charity race.

Image caption Troops enjoying Christmas lunch at Camp Bastion

It was just one of a number of events planned to make Christmas on tour feel like home.

But Santa's personal weapon dangling at his side was a stark reminder that this remains hostile territory.

A total of 447 British servicemen and women have lost their lives in Afghanistan and the ninth soldier to fall this year died this week.

Regimental Sergeant Major William Biggar of the Royal Engineers, spoke to me as his troops unwrapped mounds of Christmas presents and said the sacrifice made by their comrades was not going unnoticed.

"Even though we are thinking about Christmas, it's a really hard time for all our friends and family - especially the families of those who have lost loved ones this year," he said.

Festive feel

There were carols and concerts with the music provided by the Band of the Royal Artillery and Bastion's own hospital choir, followed by a pantomime at the end of the day.

Christmas away from home is especially hard for the younger troops, admits Staff Sergeant Catherine Howes from Leeds, but the distractions and the festive feel on the base help ease the sense of homesickness.

Image caption Troops receive presents from Santa Claus and his adapted sleigh

"A lot of the young lads are away from home, away from mums and dads and things like that. It's hard to keep their morale high as well as your own at the same time," she said.

And even for couples serving in Afghanistan together, marriage is not a guarantee they will spend Christmas with each other.

Rebecca Pogson-Hughes-Emmanuel and her husband Rhys are both Army captains and he said: "I'll be with my unit, she'll be with hers."

His wife, one of the most senior female engineers on base, chips in: "It's a difficult time but we have a job to do and the guys have to have their heads in the right place."

For many, the highlight of the day has been a full Christmas dinner prepared by 52 chefs who worked hard through the night.

More than 1,700 kg of turkey breast and more than 500 kg of sprouts were heaped on to outstretched plates, enough to feed an army - literally.

And as the troops celebrated the day at Camp Bastion, the Task Force Commander Brigadier James Woodham visited the four remaining patrol bases - at the peak of fighting there were more than 130 of them.

The purpose of his mission to ensure they had a good Christmas meal too but also to give thanks as operations prepare to wind down.

"The soldiers should be very proud of the work they are doing," he said. "When I speak to my Afghan counterparts with whom we are working, they are really thankful for the work and determination and the investment our soldiers have put in over the years."

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