It doesn’t take a meaningful birthday to remind Peter Cherry of his service in the Falklands War four decades ago. The vivid memory of surviving an Argentinian missile attack on the unarmed SS Atlantic Conveyor, while comrades died alongside it, is there every day.
“It never goes away…it’s always with me,” says Peter, now 75 and living in Helston, who floated in freezing seas for hours strapped to a life raft before being finally rescued. “I don’t remember how long I was in there, but I couldn’t feel my feet, my arms, my hands; I was very cold.
The physical sequelae are obvious. Permanent damage to his lungs, nose and throat from inhaling toxic smoke from the burning ship and ingesting salt water means he is always coughing and frequently losing his voice. Psychologically, he says keeping in regular contact with other ex-servicemen through the Royal British Legion in Penryn and other organizations in the armed forces community has helped him through.
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“I think it’s very important. You always have a starting point…we understand what other people have been through. Talking to civilians can be very difficult. I talk to my family, but it’s good to have other people who really understand,” says Peter, who joined the Royal Navy at 16 and continued his military career after the Falklands. “We run various get-togethers and I will be there again in this 40th anniversary year to remember that time.”
In 1982 Peter was a petty officer in the Royal Naval Fleet Air Arm, based in Yeovilton, Somerset. With a day’s notice, she was assigned to the requisitioned merchant container ship SS Atlantic Conveyor to transport vital supplies to the Royal Navy Task Force in the Falklands. Hastily refitted in Devonport, the Liverpool-based ship left Plymouth on April 25, skippered by Captain Ian “Harry” North, with 33 Merchant Navy crew, alongside more than 100 Royal Servicemen Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
“You don’t hear much about the Atlantic Conveyor or the role of the merchant navy. People have lost their lives on this ship. She was one of the most important ships there and the only merchant ship sunk by enemy fire. It’s never mentioned at all,” says Peter, who was the main weapons expert.
On board the huge vessel was a cargo of six Wessex helicopters and five Chinooks. On Ascension they picked up eight Fleet Air Arm Sea Harriers and six RAF Harrier jump jets, along with all the weapons and bombs for storage and associated electrical equipment. This was in addition to essential food and medical supplies. There was a runway for take-offs and landings and a temporary morgue if needed.
Peter recalls: “The worst day for me is always May 25. We were just off the Falklands, waiting to go to San Carlos under escort, when we were attacked. We were an unarmed merchant ship and the missiles were aimed at us. We couldn’t do anything.
He was on deck in firing position when the two Argentine Exocet missiles struck and a ball of fire swept the ship. Captain and captain gave the order to abandon ship.
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“We had to go down from the bridge to where the lifeboats were. It took a long time because you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face with all the smoke,” says Peter. “The only way I think I succeeded was to put on my mask. You’re not supposed to use them in smoke, only for gas, but I did what I thought was right at the time. Maybe it saved my life.
Only the first officer and three others had reached the lifeboat station when he got there. “There should have been 15 of us to lift a boat that held 20, but together we managed to carry several over the side of the ship and into the water.”
Peter was one of the last to descend to the boats and in doing so some of the fuel on board exploded and he was thrown overboard. When he reached one of the life rafts he he had helped launch, he was refused entry as it was already full.
“At the time I was exhausted, emotional, tired, a man had just died in my arms, I had just witnessed someone jump on a life raft and break their neck . I clung to the edge of the raft and that’s where I stayed. I strapped in and floated for god knows how long. The sea was very very cold – you have two or three hours of survival time in a sea like that.
Eventually, Peter was pulled into the boat which was then miles from the Atlantic Conveyor. “I could see the burning ship on the horizon. I don’t know how long I was in there. He suggested that they activate the SARBE (search and rescue beacon). A Sea King helicopter located them and HMS Brilliant was dispatched to rescue the men.
As he boarded the Brilliant, hypothermic and covered in fuel, Peter heard a voice say, “I’ll take care of Master Cherry,” and was greeted by a young boy who had been one of his students. “He took very good care of me. I haven’t seen him since, but it was just lovely that he was on that boat to take care of me.
Twelve men, including Captain North, had perished – three on the ship and nine in the water. Peter and the other survivors were then transferred to the auxiliary support tanker British Tay and taken to the Ascension Islands. They were installed locally overnight and then a VC10 picked them up for transport to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
“My wife, Jean, was informed of my disappearance after the ship was hit, so she was extremely worried. The day before we arrived at Brize Norton, she was told I was alive and coming back and that she was there to meet me. Being reunited was amazing. I was just happy to be home,” says Peter, who has now been married for 58 years. “The experience hasn’t deterred me from doing my military service, I was doing the job I was trained to do and I didn’t want to quit.
But after five more years with the Fleet Air Arm, Peter had served his designated 22 years and found himself looking for a job. Having worked with aircraft all his life, he hoped to get something at Westland Helicopters, but the company was cutting back. Instead, he took a job in Cornwall with an insurance broker and moved in with Jean 35 years ago.
This career change did not last long, but Peter then spent a few years as a furniture department manager at Trago Mills in Falmouth. Eventually he was delighted to return to his favorite profession working with aircraft, including four years with the Sultan of Oman.
Later he joined the RAF as a Senior Civilian Electrical Officer. “I really enjoyed it. I was driving Harrier jet cars and training.
Peter is now retired, but he still describes his life as a “military” life and many of his friends are ex-military. As well as his membership in the Royal British Legion and the Penryn branch in particular, he also maintains links with other Falklands veterans through the Royal Naval Association, the South Atlantic Medal Association and the Buccaneer Association.
The Royal British Legion offers ongoing support
The Royal British Legion encourages the Falklands generation to stay connected with the armed forces community, as talking to others who understand and have shared experiences can help support mental wellbeing. The RBL supports many Falklands veterans and their families living with physical and psychological health issues as a result of their service during the war. We urge all Falklands veterans and their families who need help to contact the RBL on 0808 802 8080.
Veterans are invited to a Falklands commemoration
On the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War, the Royal British Legion invites communities to come together and remember the service and sacrifice of all who served, military and civilian.
The Royal British Legion will hold a commemorative event at the National Memorial Arboretum on June 14, to mark 40 years since the end of the conflict. The RBL encourages individuals and groups interested in attending the event at the National Memorial Arboretum on June 14 to register their interest through the RBL website. You can learn more about RBL Falklands 40.
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