THE airman who took one of the most famous photographs from the Falklands War has described seeing the missile that destroyed his home and killed 20 of his crewmates.
Forty years ago yesterday Alastair Clark, from Malmesbury, was on the bridge of HMS Sheffield talking to the officer of the watch about the possibility of a submarine attack on the aircraft carriers Hermes and Invincible when they both saw the Exocet homing in on them.
As a memorial commemorating those who were killed in the attack was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, he detailed what happened.
His draft to the ship was his first operational job after finishing his aviator training and the time was spent on NATO exercises and on deployment to the Gulf. In April 1982 after a stop-off in Gibraltar and a few days from home, the orders changed and they sailed south to join the task force.
On May 4 the ship was patrolling the exclusion zone and protecting the carriers to the east of the Falklands.
Alastair said: “My friend Peter Walpole was the Officer of the Watch on duty (effectively driving the ship on behalf of the Captain). He called me up to the bridge to say that we’d just received new tasking. The weather was actually flat calm and the weather was good.
“Peter and I were chatting and we agreed it was a perfect day for a submarine attack – there were concerns about the Argentinian submarines and the damage they could do to our aircraft carriers if they could get close.
“We both saw at the same time, a fast moving, very low flying object. Initially we thought it was an enemy aircraft, but it was too fast and too low. We knew straight away it was an Exocet missile. It’s described as a ‘sea-skimming’ missile and flies at an altitude of 1-2m about sea level at nearly the speed of sound (over 700 miles per hour), so it’s moving very fast and there is very little time to react.
“We literally had time to shout “take cover” and we dived under the chart table for protection. I could see that the missile was going to hit the ship – it’s a radar-homing missile, so it aims for the centre of the radar echo, but I could see that the bearing was moving slightly to the right, so I remember thinking – it’s not going to hit me.
“There was an enormous noise as it approached and hit, like a low flying fighter jet, but louder, then the ship physically rocked as it hit and then it exploded. The initial Board of Inquiry concluded that it hadn’t exploded, but in 2015, an MOD re-assessment of the attack concluded that it had – those of us there, knew that it had exploded.
“I went out of the bridge on the port side and jumped down to the deck below and went around to the starboard side. I could see smoke and flames coming out of a hole in the ship’s side, low down to the water. There was no-one else around at all. Then a small hatch opened on the fo’c’sle and a lot of smoke came out and then a stream of the ship’s crew.
“I got them to help me rig fire-fighting hoses to start fighting the fire, but there was no water supply. We later found that the missile had hit and destroyed the fire-fighting main. We started using buckets on lines to douse the ship’s side with water (known as boundary cooling), but it was a fruitless task. I was then called to the flight deck.
“They wanted the helicopter to take the most seriously injured to HMS Hermes who had the best medical facilities and bring more fire-fighting equipment over to the ship. We took off with several badly burnt casualties and our Operations Officer so that he could brief the Admiral in charge of the task force. We flew back and forward for about two hours evacuating casualties and trying to bring what equipment we could to help those onboard, but there was little that could be done.”
As the Lynx circled the ship following that first take off Alastair, started taking pictures. “It seemed surreal that the ship, which had literally been my home for the last six or seven months had been attacked and it looked bad, with no real way of fighting the fire which was ripping through the ship.
“The training just kicked in and we started evacuating casualties and bringing equipment over to the ship without really thinking about it. Each time we came back to the ship, which could be seen for miles with the huge plume of black smoke overhead it looked worse and we realised that the fire had taken control and the ship couldn’t be saved.
“I’d felt pretty helpless when the fire fighting main wouldn’t work on board the ship in the initial stages, but in the helicopter, I felt I was doing my job and was doing the best I could to help save as many people as we could.”
“We were running low on fuel and when we landed on HMS HERMES to refuel, they said there were plenty of other helicopters on scene, so we were told to shut down and await further orders. After approximately four hours of trying to fight the fire and save the ship, Captain Sam Salt ordered his crew to abandon ship.
“He was concerned that the fire would get to the Sea Dart magazine where the missiles were stored and that they could explode and cause further casualties. Most jumped to HMS Arrow and HMS Yarmouth who came alongside. The Captain and the remaining team on board were evacuated by helicopter to Hermes, where we spent the next few hours trying to compile lists of those confirmed dead and those injured.
“Out of a crew of approximately 280, we had 20 killed and 26 seriously injured – burns, smoke inhalation and shock mainly. Only one body was recovered and he was buried at sea that evening from Hermes.”
“We were thousands of miles away from home and there was no way for individuals to message or call families or friends to say they were ok, so it was announced on the BBC 9 o’clock news that HMS Sheffield was attacked and hit. Our families got the devastating news fairly quickly but then had no way of knowing who had survived or was injured. I’d spoken to ITN reporter Michael Nicholson on board Hermes. He said that he could pass messages on when he submitted his report, so my wife Ros got a message from ITN about 5am on May before she heard from the Royal Navy source later that morning.
It was obviously a huge shock and you get to know fellow crew members really well over the deployment, so to lose 20 of them in a moment was devastating. I remember being pretty jumpy for the next few weeks with any sudden loud noises. Lots of the crew were in high demand with other ships in the task force, but the captain decided that either we all stay and get posted to different ships to help out or that we all go home as we’d already been away for nearly seven months, so the decision was made to send us home.
“We were all transferred to a BP tanker, British Esk which had been south to refuel our ships. The normal crew of this ship was 10 and we had approximately 300 on board, so sleeping was difficult – we all had to lie on the floor at the same time and were literally shoulder to shoulder in our allocated floor space. Food was also in very short supply as they were catering for huge numbers compared to their normal crew.
“We arrived in Ascension Island on May 27, over three weeks since the ship had been attacked. In a football stadium, they’d set up a mini naval stores to reissue us with some kit. I was very glad to get some new clothes as I’d been wearing my flying clothing for over three weeks. All I had in the world was what I’d been wearing at the time of the attack, everything else was lost in my cabin – all the letters from my wife and family, all my clothes, all my possessions. The only trouble was I’m 6’ 3” and all the trousers were way too short!
“We were flown back to RAF Brize Norton in two VC10 aircraft. The first one was met by press and dignitaries as well as the families, I was glad to be on the second flight and by the time we arrived, it was just our families, everyone else had gone home.
“Ros came to meet me. She’d bought me some new civvies – shoes, trousers and a shirt and I changed out of my uniform and we drove to Malmesbury where my family lived, for a big family reunion. My wife is my best friend and I’ve always been able to talk to her about everything. We had some leave and went on holiday and that helped me recover and cope with the loss of my friends before I was posted to my next appointment. It made my wife and I closer than ever and it’s made us appreciate every day to the fullest.”