Saturday, December 19, 2009
Lance Corporal Dave Carlton and Rifleman John Dugdale tend the pizza oven at Forward Operating Base Kajaki
The riflemen manning mountainside observation posts around the Kajaki hydroelectric dam in Helmand have grown so proud of their own home-made pizzas this winter that there is little doubt what dish will top their bill of fare on Christmas Day.
Yet, when 9 Platoon, C Company, 3 Rifles, deployed in October to Kajaki, the British Army’s most isolated Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Afghanistan, not one of them had had any catering experience or training. In less than three months they have not only come to terms with their remote location and the difficulties of food supply, but have perfected from scratch the art of pizza-making as enthusiastic participants in their commanding officer Lieutenant Will Melia’s “Kajaki Come Dine With Me” campaign.
Some 30km from their nearest friendly neighbours, their base is inaccessible except by helicopters, which drop off all the platoon’s food (largely boil-in-the-bag rations supplemented by fresh ingredients as available), along with their ammunition, fuel and mail.
“Stark reminders of what happens to land-based resupply columns in these parts are the rusting skeletons of Russian military vehicles littering the landscape,” Lieutenant Melia says.
When not on foot patrol, his platoon man observation posts along a mountain range south of the dam, scanning the area for insurgent activity. The most distant of these posts, Sparrowhawk West, can be accessed only on foot via a goat track that runs along the ridgeline and through the middle of an old Soviet minefield.
“Anything we want up here on the peaks we have to carry over the mountains ourselves. It means a daily trek to collect water and rations from the FOB,” says Lieutenant Melia, whose “Kajaki Come Dine With Me” programme, designed to offer nourishment and light entertainment to men who spend long hours standing sentry atop a windswept mountain range, has been successful beyond his dreams.
“Cooking at the apex of a mountain presents its own difficulties,” he says. “When we arrived in the dying days of an Afghan summer, we could cook on small gas stoves, but once winter set in, these tended to blow out at the slightest gust. So, from whatever materials we could scavenge — empty ammo tins, bits of corrugated iron, sandbags and large rocks — we built an all-weather, wood-fire oven up on Sparrowhawk West.” Now, each afternoon, once wood has been chopped, the fire lit and water brought to the boil — which takes an age — it’s around the oven that the blossoming gastronomes start thinking about the evening’s menu.
“The blokes’ response has been amazing. There’s such enthusiasm for our little cooking project that discussing recipes takes up most of our free time,” he says. Fresh ingredients are, if not quite a rarity, then certainly a luxury, so the cooking needs ingenuity. “Some of the efforts have been inspirational. Our Fijian contingent have worked wonders with fresh meat when we’ve had it, our Royal Artillery attachment have proved adept at breadmaking, and I’ve just been listening to two snipers in heated debate about the perfect Yorkshire pudding.”
However, it looks as if turkey will be out of the question this Christmas. “Although one of the lads did suggest we could make our own turkey out of Spam, pizzas are still our most likely meal on Christmas Day, complete with any fresh ingredients we can get our hands on in the run-up.”
One ammunition tin has been modified as a baking tray: “We have high hopes for roast potatoes and parsnips. Plus, Christmas parcels have started appearing from loved ones back home, so we’ve been able to stockpile cake.”
Whatever the meal, there won’t of course be any period when the whole platoon can eat together, since the men at FOB Kajaki will still have the usual sentry and patrol duties. Lieutenant Melia will hold a short service for as many of the men as possible, and then there will be carols around the fire. Then, in traditional army fashion for Christmas Day, he as their officer will serve the meal to the junior ranks.
It’s a different picture in the bigger bases of Camp Bastion and Lashkar Gah, where the troops don’t have to rely on ration packs. There, turkey with all the trimmings will be on the menu for Christmas Day. Some of the smaller bases enjoy more variety as soldiers can buy food locally.
“I know of one base where they’ve bought a couple of goats and a chicken and been fattening them for Christmas,” says Lieutenant-Colonel David Wakefield, head of media ops, Task Force Helmand. “Soldiers are soldiers. They will always find a way. It’s also good to put money into the local communities, and it helps to build relationships.”