Abandoning ship in the Falklands

Former Petty Officer David Burr recounts the day he feared he may never see his family again

I joined in 1965 and did 13 years in the submarine service doing naughty stuff underwater, where most of the time we didn’t know what we were up to. I worked my way up, but to get my Chief’s buttons I had to work my way up through the fleet. So the first ship I got was the HMS Ardent – the second ship to be sunk down in the Falklands.

"I thought, 'I’m never going to see my wife or kids again.'"

It was bomb alley. It was on 21 May and we were in the middle of San Carlos Bay taking all the flak so we could get Task Force troops ashore, and then give the landing troops protection as they went ashore. There were so many ships down there with troops, but we were earmarked by the Argentinians to be written off and they had a pretty good go at it – leaving us having to abandon ship in the evening.

David Burr served as Petty Officer on HMS Ardent during the Falklands War

There were bombs hitting us all the time, from 0800 onwards. We had done so many exercises in training, that’s why we managed to last the majority of the day containing fires – but training doesn’t substitute for real experience. I can remember being in my action station at 0900 hours and all I could hear was missiles skimming along the outside of the hull. It was then that I thought, “I’m never going to see my wife or kids again.”

In the end, what took us out was our own helicopter coming in to refuel on the flight deck. Just as it was coming down, by chance a rocket hit the shearing of the Sea Cat, which fell onto our helicopter as it was refuelling. AVCAT (aviation fuel) really goes, and it went up like a ball of fire. In a way we were lucky because it could have been much worse, but when a helicopter crashes on the deck with AVCAT fuel, you haven’t a chance.

So we abandoned ship and jumped a 40-ft drop down onto HMS Yarmouth. They didn’t know what to do with us. We were the second ship sunk that day after the Sheffield, so they took us to the Canberra.

David shakes hands with the Captain of HMS Ardent on the flight deck of the ship in 1981

We lost 22 guys from HMS Ardent that day, and four of them were from my Division. One was fatally wounded as he moved from his part of the ship because he saw someone in distress – he got hurt trying to help a mate. If he’d stayed where he was, he might be here today, but he saw someone a few feet away, he tried to save them and got killed in the process.

We came back on the QE2 and it brought the first survivors – the wounded Royal Marines and any other injured troops who had been down there. On my return I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which I found out isn’t uncommon in people who have had to abandon ship.

I stayed in the Service for another three years, leaving the Royal Navy in 1985, and after that I served with the Merchant Navy on safety ships in the oil and gas fields.

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