Big job losses loom at Devonport naval base in latest MoD cu

Rob, a young sailor waiting for a bus outside the Devonport naval base in Plymouth, sums up the mood in one word: "gloomy". On Tuesday the Ministry of Defence is expected to announce a further 4,500 job cuts across the three armed services.

At bases and barracks, sailors, soldiers and RAF personnel are bracing themselves for the news that they are no longer required.

"These cuts have been hanging over us for months," says Rob, which is not his real name; he and his colleagues have been ordered not to talk about redundancies, so naturally he wishes to remain anonymous.

"It makes everyone feel unsettled. When you sign up, you think – that's it, your future is sorted. You'll work hard and be looked after. And then they start cutting jobs. A lot of people are feeling let down."

Under the strategic defence and security review, the navy must axe 5,000 jobs by 2015. The RAF is being reduced by the same figure and the army by 7,000.

At Devonport and other naval bases, the redundancy programme began last September when just over 1,000 navy personnel were made redundant. The first of them – those who volunteered – will go in March. The rest will stay in the service until September, at which point they will have to find new work and accommodation – and a new place in society.

Rob is among those who has until the autumn to get himself sorted. He thinks he will return home to the north of England and move back in with his family. "It feels like a bit of a failure, to be honest. You go away thinking you've become something important, then you're told you're surplus to requirements. I don't really know what I want to do next."

A major concern of the charities and organisations that work with those made redundant from the armed services is that young people like Rob, with relatively limited exposure to the world outside, may find it especially hard to cope.

The next round of redundancies is likely to be harder to take because most of those who wanted out would have volunteered in September. This time the worry is that those going want to stay. The bleak jobs market makes the idea of leaving even more unattractive.

Captain Paul Quinn, general secretary of the Royal Naval Association (RNA), said "early service leavers" often struggled to adapt to life off base. "They leave before they have had a chance to develop their life skills. They are used to food, accommodation and a rewarding military career being there. They are deliberately institutionalised for good reason – you can't have 300 individualists on a ship. Obviously Civvy Street is very different."

Quinn said leavers found they suddenly had to organise their own lives. They must find a place to live and learn, often for the first time, how to pay bills. Everyday skills like finding a doctor or dentist could be difficult. One former serviceman was evicted from his flat because he did not realise he had to pay rent – he thought it came directly from his pay packet.

The RNA is running a Shipmates Campaign to link service leavers to a network of former sailors so they have contact with others who have started a new life after leaving the military.

Caroline Nairn, a psychotherapist, counsellor and sailor's wife, believes it is much harder for servicemen and women to cope with redundancy.

"Working for the military gives you a real identity," she said. "Losing that identity, becoming what they refer to as a 'filthy civilian', is really hard. A job in the military is not only a source of income – it provides a challenge, gives a sense of achievement and can bring status and routine."

Nick Wadge, a regional president of the union Prospect who is based at Devonport, said there was a feeling of "demotivation and demoralisation" at the base among military and civilian workers. "People are feeling undervalued by their employers," he said.

Wadge points out that the loss of military jobs has an impact on civilian workers within the base and on the city and region. The base – still the biggest in western Europe, covering 260 hectares (650 acres) and four miles of waterfront – provides direct employment for 2,500 service personnel and civilians. Many thousands more indirectly depend on the base for their livelihood and it generates above 10% of Plymouth's income.

So the next swath of cuts is causing concern not just in Devonport but in the shops and pubs outside. In recent years, as the number of ships based here has steadily reduced, the area has suffered.

Phyllis Meatyard has worked at the pasty shop opposite St Levan's Gate for 45 years and can remember when the shop delivered Cornish pasties to 60 vessels. Last week there were orders from just six. "I feel so sorry for them," she said. "The base has changed such a lot. At one time we needed half a dozen people serving in the shop. Now we only have to have one."

Up the road at the Royal Navy Arms, landlord John Chapman said trade had fallen by a quarter over the last couple of years. The pub used to heave at lunchtimes but is often almost empty now. "I don't know how much longer a lot of the businesses here will be able to keep going," he said. "These are grim times for the navy and for the businesses that rely on the base."

One navy wife said she and other partners of sailors were on "tenterhooks" waiting to see who would be laid off.

"We've built our lives around the job," she said. "The kids are happy in school here. We're happy here. You're never settled as a sailor's wife, you never know what's round the corner. But until the last year it never occurred to me that redundancy was on the cards."

The whisper inside Devonport is that more senior service personnel could go this time around. One officer, again speaking on condition of anonymity, said that back in September, more junior people seemed to be in the line of fire.

"This time it's likely to be those who have been in the service for longer," he said. "I think people are resigned rather than angry now. We can't do anything about it. We just want it over so we can get on with doing what we do, providing a great service to the country."