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Supporting the largest British evacuation since the Second World War

John McMullan
About the author : John McMullan

Contract Director at Colchester Garrison

Published on : 6/17/22
  • On 12 August 2021, the UK Armed Forces were deployed to evacuate British civilians and eligible Afghans from Afghanistan in response to the Taliban offensive. This Armed Forces Week, we speak to John McMullan, Contract Director at Colchester Garrison, who tells us how the Sodexo team supported the initial deployment of Operation PITTING.

    Sodexo’s Government division provides services at military bases across the UK, in Cyprus and the Falkland Islands. 

    I'm proud to be the Contract Director of the 500+ strong Sodexo team who support Colchester Garrison, which includes the 480-acre Merville Barracks. This houses 4000 military personnel and civilians who represent the 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team. 

    When the news began to break about a possible Taliban take over in Afghanistan, we knew a critical national military operation we had been preparing for was about to take place.

    Sodexo colleagues would need to conduct essential delivery and planning stages with the utmost confidentiality. 

    More than 750 personnel from the Brigade were involved in Operation PITTING, and Sodexo's entire team at the barracks played a crucial role in working behind the scenes to support the initial deployment. In the first days of the operation, it was thought we would have around two months to prepare for the recovery of the troops. However, Kabul fell to the Taliban within a matter of days, and the two-month timescale vanished before our eyes.   

    We had only a few days to devise and execute a detailed operational plan to welcome the troops back to their home base. Of course, all arrangements had to be flexible as the plan constantly shifted, further complicated by Afghanistan's designation as a 'Red' country by the UK Government's travel restrictions for countries with high instances of COVID19. However, our understanding of military operations and the needs of this very complex operation enabled us to respond to changes with minimal notice.

    Along with the wider team at Colchester Garrison, including our client and the military, Sodexo teams responded with many initiatives across both Soft and Hard FM services. These included assisting a group of 25 military chefs in preparing and delivering three nutritious meals - breakfast, lunch, and a two-course dinner daily for all returning personnel. We helped provide almost 18,000 meals in total over the phased five-day period. 

    This was in addition to supporting temporary field kitchens, which served a nutritious five-day menu using quality ingredients, all freshly cooked; and producing 1,000 packed meal bags, so food was waiting for every returning soldier the moment they arrived.

    To safeguard the mental wellbeing of the troops after such an intense and emotionally charged operation, it was agreed with the Brigade Commander that soldiers would ‘decompress’ in groups rather than individual isolation. This meant clearing and preparing six decompression areas so we could house up to 200 soldiers in ‘bubbles’. 

    Other initiatives carried out included:

    • Transporting personnel to and from the airport, ensuring security and privacy from national media 
    • Sourcing and setting up 800 beds with duvets and pillows
    • Plumbing in temporary shower and toilet facilities
    • Setting up an ordering service so snacks and drinks could be purchased outside of mealtimes 

    Our involvement ensured that the safety and mental wellbeing needs of our military personnel returning from Afghanistan were put at the forefront of all our support.  

    This approach even won wide praise from the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who wrote to the  Commander of Joint Operations acknowledging the great work of the whole force at Colchester.  

    Boris Johnson, Prime Minister:

    “This Operation already stands out as one of the most spectacular conducted in the post-War era; a view reflected across parliament and widely recognised by the public. Months of meticulous contingency planning and an intense period of tireless effort in August delivered the largest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent times.”

    Colchester Garrison at the  Awards

    And our support during Operation PITTING did not go unnoticed.  I am incredibly proud that the Colchester team won Team of the Year at the 2022 Public Sector Catering Awards, in recognition of our support of the deployment and return of military personnel from Afghanistan.  A fantastic accolade. 

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