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How I survived Exocet attack
8:56am Thursday 3rd May 2012 in Features
HMS Sheffield, which was hit by an Argentinian Exocet missile during the Falklands War on May 4, 1982
Thirty years ago tomorrow HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Argentinian Exocet missile during the Falklands War. SIMON RITCHIE talks to one of the survivors.
May 4, 1982, is a day that will live with John Miller forever. He should have been celebrating his 20th birthday, but instead the Royal Navy weapons engineer was battling to stop his ship from sinking.
An Exocet missile fired from an Argentinian fighter plane had penetrated deep into HMS Sheffield’s control room. Twenty crewmen died and a further 27 were injured. It was the first British warship to be lost since the Second World War.
HMS Sheffield, a Type 42 destroyer, had been on a six-month training exercise in the Gulf of Arabia and the crew were looking forward to returning to their families in the UK. Then they got the message which would change everything.
“It was 20 minutes to 12 on April 1 when the captain, Captain Sam Salt, made the Tannoy to say that the Argentinians had invaded the Falkland Islands and that we were preparing to form a task force to go to war,” said John, of Acomb, York.
“Everyone got their maps out and we all thought ‘why had the Argentians invaded Scotland?’”
At first, being April Fool’s Day, the crew thought it must have been a joke, but they quickly realised that it wasn’t As the ship had just completed a training exercise it was deemed the most “war ready” of the British ships.
“We were due to sail into Gibraltar and turn right, but instead we went to Gilbraltar and turned left for the Ascension Islands and the Falklands,” said John, who is now fire station manager with the Defence Fire And Rescue Service at RAF Linton-On-Ouse.
“Everybody that I knew believed that we were going to sail over the horizon with our big fleet and the Argentinians would wave the white flag. No one believed it was real, until the General Belgrano was sunk and that raised the stakes.”
HMS Sheffield was a picket ship, one of three, alongside HMS Coventry and HMS Glasgow.
They were in front of the main fleet inside the exclusion zone.
“We were the first line of defence. We had to protect our aircraft carriers and in the end we did our job. If they had fired on one of our aircraft carriers we would have been really, really struggling.”
The day the Sheffield was hit, John had just come off his watch.
“It was my 20th birthday. I just had something to eat and a couple of cans of beer, then I went to get some sleep.
“Then there was a thud, enough to shake the whole ship. We all knew something had happened. We were not sure whether we had been hit by a missile or a torpedo,” said John. “The ship was filling up with smoke and one of the doors was locked so I couldn’t get to my action station at first.
“When I did get in there it was pandemonium. I was then commandeered by the chief engineering officer to try to get the smoke out of the ship.”
Fighting the fire was nigh on impossible.
The Exocet had ruptured a ring main so all the water kept spilling out and there was no pressure.
One of the pumps and a generator were not working either.
The call went out to other ships, and helicopters brought portable pumps, but they could not get the water from the sea because the distance was too far.
“We couldn’t put the fire out. All we could do was close the steel bulkheads down and contain it.
“My boots were actually melting because the superstructure was getting that hot.”
After about four to five hours trying to tackle the fire, John heard from one of his friends that the captain was abandoning ship.
“I went into the mess deck to my locker and I was so sure that we would be coming back that I only took a Mars bar and a clean pair of socks.
“I left my wallet, my ID card and all my worldly goods.”
Quite a few people jumped from the Sheffield to the Arrow, others just jumped into the water and were picked up.
John refused to leave Sheffield at first. “I sat down in protest on the flight deck.
“It was my first ship and I loved that ship. I just did not want to leave, but unbeknown to me there was a fire raging in the front of the ship”.
After jumping across to HMS Arrow John “stropped off like a petulant child” and went to sit on the ship’s hangar. In doing so he missed the roll call.
“For four or five hours no one knew that I had transferred to Arrow, and the knock-on effect was that the local vicar went my mother’s house to tell her I was dead!”
Despite losing their ship, the British Blitz spirit was still strong among the crew.
“As we sailed away on Arrow all the Sheffield crew started singing Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life from the Monty Python film, the Life Of Brian!”
After the Falklands conflict Sunderland-born John, who joined the Navy straight from school at the age of 16, served on HMS York for many years.
John, who played rugby for both York RI and York Rugby Union Club, married Adele in 1985 and the couple have three children, Jade, Jessica and Joshua.
Jade is one of few children to have been actually christened in the ship’s bell of HMS York.
John left the Royal Navy after 11-and-a-half years’ service, reaching the rank of Petty Officer.
In 1990 he joined the Defence Fire And Rescue Service at RAF Linton-On-Ouse as a firefighter and in 2010 became fire station manager, where one of his tasks is to co-ordinate a works experience programme with schools across North Yorkshire. As Britain marks the 30th anniversary of the Falkands War, John now wonders whether the conflict which claimed the lives of 255 British servicemen and women was really necessary.
“I believed in the cause at the time, but I wasn’t fully aware of all the politics which were going on in the country.
“In hindsight I think we could have negotiated a peace. I think the war was to help a certain lady stay in power.”