David Atkinson survived when HMS Sheffield became the first British warship lost in combat since the Second World War. On Sunday David and his shipmates went to a memorial service at Sheffield Cathedral
Image: DAILY MIRROR)
It was an emotional reunion seen by millions after it was captured on the Daily Mirror’s front page. Royal Navy leading radio operator David Atkinson had caught sight of his wife Joy and young son David after returning from the Falklands War.
A total of 20 of David’s crewmates didn’t make it when HMS Sheffield became the first British warship lost in combat since the Second World War, while 26 sailors were injured.
“I bawled my eyes out when I saw Joy,” said David 40 years on. “And it was the same for her.
“There had been a lot of confusion back home, it took about three days before everybody was told yes or no – we’d been spread across so many ships when we were evacuated it was difficult to get a headcount.
“The day after I got home, one of our neighbours posted the paper through our door and my wife screamed when she saw it.”
Today marks four decades since the 4,100-ton destroyer was hit by an Argentine missile. On Sunday David and his shipmates went to a memorial service at Sheffield Cathedral.
David said: “It was a very emotional event. I heard all the names of my friends who were killed in action read. They rang a bell for each of them. I knew some of them very well, so it was very hard to hear their names. This time of year and then Remembrance is also a very sad reminder of the loss of life, but I am very proud of my service to the country.
“What happened in the Falklands is not something I regret – it is something that needed to be done to free the islanders. I’m very proud to have taken part in it.”
David, now a 65-year-old grandfather living in Gosport, near Portsmouth Hants, joined the Navy at 16 and was just 25 when he returned from The Falklands to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. Joy was 23.
The veteran, raised in Hartlepool, Teesside, had completed a six-month tour with HMS Sheffield and was four days from home when the Type 42 guided missile destroyer was diverted into battle.
“The crew had heard about scrap merchants landing on one of these British islands and we didn’t take much notice,” he said. “We got to Gibraltar for the big exercise that was going to take place before we got home and in the comms department you were seeing messages flying around talking about it. Then one came out of the blue. I had to take it to the first lieutenant, saying, ‘You’d better read this urgently sir, they’re turning us south instead of home’. It was a big shock to everybody.”
David was off watch and in the mess on May 4, 1982 when the French-made Exocet missile penetrated the control room, causing the ship to catch fire.
“We had received a message from somebody in Chile saying because we’d sunk the Belgrano [the Argentine cruiser torpedoed by a submarine] a couple of days beforehand the Argentinians were looking for a reply,” he said. “Everybody assumed that was going to be one of the aircraft carriers. We were told to be at immediate notice when we went off watch. Because we’d had rough weather it sounded like another big wave hitting the ship, you didn’t really hear the explosion.
“Then we heard the ship getting quieter and quieter as the machinery closed down. As we started streaming out of our mess, running through smoke filled corridors, we realised something was happening.” David spent five hours firefighting or boundary cooling, with the remaining crew battling in vain to save the ship. David was evacuated on to HMS Arrow which had pulled up portside.
Sheffield sank on May 10. David knew many of the sailors who died. Most were on duty in the ship’s galley.
“The chefs worked in the next com-partment to where my office was, we used to have friendly running battles between the compartments,” he said. “I had dealings with a couple of engineers too. I think of them often.”
He flew home three weeks later and went on to serve a full 22-year term in the Navy, reaching the rank of chief petty officer. “I’m proud of serving on HMS Sheffield,” he said. “I’m not frightened to admit I ended up doing a PTSD course in 1990, which sorted my head out a bit. It took six years to show itself properly, though when I got back Joy said I’d changed a lot.”
On seeing his old pals this week he said: “We have that bond because only we know what we went through.”
David and Joy’s son, David, is now 46 and works in construction. David senior said: “David is very proud – because of that photo on the Daily’s Mirror front page, he is part of what is an important record of history.”