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Royal Navy Falklands veteran Nick Martin commemorated his lost colleagues this week with a ‘traditional’ supper of a bowl of tinned peach slices with some cold, evaporated milk.

This simple dish was all he could eat after surviving two Exocet missile strikes on the Atlantic Conveyor supply ship on 25 May, 1982 – a day that changed his life forever.

And savouring the dessert immediately transports him back to that fateful moment and sparks memories of colleagues who failed to make it home. The ship, ultimately, sank while under tow on 28 May.

Nick, now 66, from Plymouth, was on board as a leading stores accountant. He suffered a head injury, a broken jaw, lost teeth and a badly burned throat and mouth when a fireball raged through the vessel, spreading acrid black smoke. He was lucky to survive and is acutely aware that 12 others were not so fortunate.

The unarmed ship was just off the Falklands, waiting to be escorted into San Carlos, when the missiles struck, and the order was given to abandon ship.

Nick explained: “My life was saved by a guy called Davie Hawkins. He was a steward on the Conveyor, and he came and took me out of the compartment I was stuck in and helped me escape. But he never made it home.

"The last time I saw him he was helping me over the side of the ship; he could have gone himself, but I think he went back in to look for more people who needed help.

“It’s that sacrifice and the idea that, regardless of what happened to any of us, we needed to make sure the Falklands were back in the right hands for the right reasons. I remain intensely proud to have been part of the Taskforce that went to help others.”

Veteran Nick Martin holds tins
Veteran Nick Martin holds tins

In the field hospital where he was taken after being rescued, medics hit upon the peaches and milk solution because he was unable to chew and those were foods that could slide down his throat easily.

He now regards this poignant ceremonial dish as a marker of his ongoing recovery from the psychological legacy of his Falklands deployment – PTSD and a brain injury – with our support.

The then 26-year-old Nick recalled how he learned of his South Atlantic deployment – receiving a notice at home at 2.30 in the morning.

He said: “I still have the chit the Military Police delivered. I read it quickly and it just said I needed to be at HMS Drake, in Plymouth, at 8am. I said to my then wife, Jackie: ‘That’s hours away yet, I’m going back to bed’.

“Just before I left home, Jackie said: ‘It says here you’re to take steaming kit [basic equipment] for onward transmission to Portsmouth’. It was lucky she read that because I hadn’t realised. So, it wasn’t until just before I left home, at about 7.30am, that I knew I wasn’t going in just to do an extra day’s duty.”

He admits he hadn’t paid much attention to the news and was largely unaware of what was happening in the South Atlantic.

He added: “I told her I thought they’d probably put some guys onto ships, and I was being sent down to cover for them and that I’d probably be back by the weekend.”

In fact, he did not return home until June – and his life had been changed irrevocably in the interim. But he has never forgotten the humanitarian spirit he encountered in the field hospital at Ajax Bay.

“During the time I spent in the field hospital everybody tried to be so positive with us. There were people who’d lost limbs, who’d had limbs amputated or shot off, but they never lost their sense of humour.

"It was the crew of either the Coventry or Sheffield, one of the ships that was sunk, who spontaneously began singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. That’s what always sticks with me.”

Veteran Nick Martin reads a Falklands book
Veteran Nick Martin reads a Falklands book

Transferred back to the UK, Nick, who has damage to his mid- and short-term memory and sequencing skills, spent a couple of weeks at the Stonehouse Royal Naval hospital in Plymouth – but he insists: “It was nothing more than physiotherapy. There was no mental health support at all. No advice.”

For 35 years he was unaware that he was anything more than “a grumpy, miserable old git” and had never had any therapy. He readily admits he had spent more than three decades sabotaging anything good in his life: “I wouldn’t allow myself to enjoy anything.”

Discovering how we could help him on his journey of recovery, gave him fresh hope, with a diagnosis and the chance to take positive action. He joined the choir and got involved in the Invictus Games.

He continued: “That was an incredible pair of stepping-stones for me. It changed the way I looked at things. I used to keep thinking ‘those lads who never made it back never had a chance to do any of this, so why should I? Why should I have a nice life?

“It was a bit of a lightbulb moment: I thought ‘hang on a minute, what I should be doing is living the best possible life I can, filling it with activities, because that’s what they would have wanted me to do’. But it took nearly 35 years to get sorted. I’m not bitter, but part of me wishes I’d known earlier what I was capable of.”

Nick believes it's important to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the conflict for the sake of those who died.

He said: “Regardless of whether they were British or Argentinian it was an awful loss of life for, realistically, nothing.

“One of the big things is that it’s sometimes nice to be recognised for something you did all that time ago – not necessarily to have medals put on your chest, but just for somebody to say ‘well done, you did a good job’.

“I’m not one for reunions, so I’ve not planned anything at all for this year, although it’s one of the big anniversaries. I’ll probably have my bowl of peaches and evaporated milk – which I’ve been doing for 15 years now – and that’ll be it ...”