HMS Sheffield survivor: ‘Even now I still think I should have been killed’

BADLY DAMAGED The charred remains of HMS Sheffield after the attack. Inset, Chris Purcell
BADLY DAMAGED The charred remains of HMS Sheffield after the attack. Inset, Chris Purcell
Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson. Pictute: LPhot Ioan Roberts

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FOR Chris Purcell, May 4, 1982 is a day that will always be etched in his memory.

The Able Seaman was on watch in HMS Sheffield when an Argentinian Exocet missile blasted the warship, killing 20 of his friends and colleagues.

Chris Purcell

Chris Purcell

Just minutes earlier, he had been making a cup of tea in the ship’s galley close to where the missile struck with such devastating effect.

‘If I had stayed down there another five to eight minutes I would be dead,’ said the 52-year-old Falklands veteran, of Adames Road, Fratton.

Mr Purcell had just returned to his watch when he saw a flash on the horizon.

He said: ‘I remember going up to the starboard bridge wing and the helicopter pilot was there. About 2pm, we glanced to the starboard side and I just remember seeing this fireball coming towards us. It seemed like it was coming in slow-motion but of course it wasn’t.

‘The pilot immediately shouted “Exocet” and over the main tannoy it was broadcast “take cover, brace, brace, brace”. I took cover beside a 20mm ammunition ready use locker when the missile hit.

‘It was not an explosion. It was a thud and as I looked back to where the missile had impacted there was a fireball and thick black smoke.’

He added: ‘You couldn’t see for the smoke. It smelt like rubber and all different, nasty smells. We knew the missile had hit midships but we didn’t know what it had taken out.

‘Thinking back, it took out the galley straight away. Everyone in the galley was killed.’

Sailors spent five hours trying to fight the blaze before the ship was abandoned.

Mr Purcell said: ‘You could see the paint bubbling and peeling and the deck was getting hot. We had rubber steaming boots on and the heat was coming through the soles of our feet.’

The attack on Sheffield was the first major blow to British forces in the Falklands War.

The tragedy had a huge impact locally. Of the 20 men who lost their lives, 16 were from the south east Hampshire area – four from the village of Stubbington alone.

For years, Mr Purcell struggled to come to terms with the incident and has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

He said: ‘Even now, I still think sometimes that I should have been killed. I’ve spoken to relatives who lost people – mothers and wives – and they all say “the lads wouldn’t want you to live like that” but it’s hard. It’s very difficult, but the more I talk about it that’s good therapy because I bottled it up for so many years.’

Mr Purcell will be among hundreds of war veterans at a remembrance service at Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral on Sunday at 11.15am.