How we met: John Peters and John Nichol

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Pilot John Peters and navigator John Nichol were shot down over Iraq at the start of the Gulf war in January 1991. The two RAF flight lieutenants were held prisoner for 47 days and their battered faces flashed across the world's television screens. John Peters, 32, joined the RAF in 1980 as a university cadet. Married with two children, he currently flies Tornadoes in Bruggen, Germany. John Nichol, 30, joined the RAF in 1981. He has served in the South Atlantic, Norway, Denmark and Kenya. He is now based at RAF Leeming. They have recounted their ordeal in a book, Tornado Down.

JOHN NICHOL: When I met John on my first sortie as a trainee navigator at RAF Finingley, it was all incredibly exciting. He was completely different from the rest of the instructors, a lot of whom seemed to be a million years old. John Peters was young and incredibly good looking. On that first sortie he was trying to familiarise us with what it feels like to fly at 3,000ft doing speeds of 200-300mph. I was totally overwhelmed and kept saying: 'I can't do this. I'll never be able to do this. How can you work so fast?' Now I'm used to flying at 6,000ft doing speeds of 700mph and I understand why he just kept looking at me with a sort of merry giggle on his face.

After my first sortie, we met in the bar and started talking. Over the next few months I got to know John and his wife Helen very well. I enjoyed being with both of them. They've always been great ones for parties. I remember Helen and some of her friends making a beeline for me at a party, holding me down and ripping off most of my clothes. I couldn't have imagined then that in a few years' time, in the recovery period after the Gulf war, when we had a lot of help from the RAF psychiatrists, that there would be times when I resented John for having Helen and his kids, Guy and baby Toni.

After Finingley I went off to Germany six months ahead of John to fly Tornadoes. When he eventually turned up at RAF Laarbruch I was much more experienced on fast jets and he was the new boy. This time he was under my wing. By then we were good friends.

On 8 August 1990, a few days after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, I was at the St Mawgan airshow, in Cornwall. There was a message over the Tannoy ordering the captain of the Victor tanker aircraft to report to station operations immediately. Within minutes, one of the Victor crew shouted, 'We're on 30 minutes notice to go. We're going to the Gulf.' Twenty minutes later, my crew, the XV Squadron Tornado, was called. People at the air show kept coming up to wish us luck. It was like suddenly being plunged into a Hollywood blockbuster about war. Next morning we were back in Laarbruch.

When the flying teams were announced John and I were pleased we'd be working together. A pilot and navigator have to trust each other - your life is in someone else's hands. If I was going to put my life in anyone's hands, I'd have chosen John, but if you were to ask me if he's my best friend, I'd have to answer, no.

After we were taken prisoner and they were kicking the shit out of us, yes, of course I was worried about my mate. We were separated and I kept wondering if he was getting as badly beaten as I was, but, in the end, in a situation like that it's yourself you worry about most. We knew we would both follow the same strategy - take the punishment until we couldn't take any more and then tell the truth.

When the prison was bombed I heard John shouting 'I bet you're not a fat bastard anymore,' so I knew we were both OK. Later on, when we were lined up in the prison courtyard with the British and American PoWs, I managed to manoeuvre myself behind John and put my hand on his shoulder. It was confirmation that we were still here, we were still alive. He was released with the first batch of PoWs and I was angry. I thought, the war's over, why's the bastard out, while 25 of us are still here? I had visions of being there for years.

John was there waiting for me at the entrance to the hospital, when I finally arrived in Cyprus. He looked squeaky clean, but skeletal. We hugged each other. It was absolutely fantastic to see him. Hospital staff wanted us to have some medical checks but I was adamant that all I wanted was a telephone so I could contact my family. As soon as I heard my brother's voice I broke down in tears. They were nothing to the floods when I eventually spoke to my mother. John came into the room and despite the fact that we hadn't spoken for so long, I was utterly unable to speak to him then. He bent down, gave me a quick hug and went out again. I remember him saying as he went through the door, 'Don't worry, everyone has reacted like that.'

JOHN PETERS: He doesn't much like me remembering this, but I was the pilot on John's first flight. It was in August 1987. We met when I was piloting a new batch of navigator trainees on a 'get acquainted' flight, chugging over Lincolnshire in a Dominic. John was absolutely gob- smacked. He couldn't stop talking. 'How do you do it? How can you cope when everything has to be done so fast? God. That was fantastic]'

It was a short, straightforward flight which I'd done dozens of times, so I found John's enthusiasm quite amusing. Afterwards we met in the bar. When John Nichol goes into a bar, immediately there's a party.

Within two years of meeting, our roles were reversed. At Finingley I'd been fighting to get a second chance at flying fast jets, so when my posting to the XV Tornado Strike/Attack Squadron based at RAF Laarbruch came through, I was ecstatic. Now it was my turn to be the new boy, under John Nichol's wing. There he was - full of energy and difficult to suppress. I'm quite envious of that side of his personality.

Whenever Helen and I gave parties, if John was there they would always be more fun. It's impossible to be bored in his company, although for all his exuberance and loud personality, underneath he's a very private person.

As the Gulf war loomed I was teamed up with John. You put your complete trust in your partner. You know instinctively how he works. As pilot and navigator John and I could predict what each of us was going to do, without having to speak. Those silences were crucial. If they were a couple of seconds too long, we knew something could be wrong.

On 2 December, 1990, we finally got our marching orders to Bahrain. There we were installed in a twin bedded room at the Sheraton.

My time with Helen was always concertinaed in to short, sharp bursts. Now I was working, living and sleeping in the same room as John. It felt like being married - but much, much worse] It was difficult for both of us.

But if you're going to be shot down in the desert with someone, I can think of no better person than John Nichol. He has all the qualities you need. He's decisive and tough. As I was injured, he took control when we were staggering through the desert before we were captured.

In prison - throughout the beatings and separation, I kept thinking about him and wondering if he was going through what I was going through. Somehow it gave me strength, although when it comes to the crunch, all your energy is taken up in worrying about yourself. We hadn't seen or heard of each other until the prison took a direct hit, on 23 February. I shouted down the corridor: 'I bet you're not a fat bastard now.' When it was all over, the British PoWs were rounded up in the prison courtyard. Somehow, John manoeuvred himself behind me, and put his hand on my shoulder. We looked at each other. We hadn't given in.

I was released and flown to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and taken to hospital. It seemed wrong for me to be out without John and I couldn't relax until I knew he was free. He arrived with the second batch of released PoWs. He'd lost two-and-a-half stone. We never really talked about our experience until we sat down and wrote the book much later. It helped both of us to come to terms with what happened and exorcise the fantasies. We did fly together again - in front of busloads of the world's press. The pressure and hype were incredibly nerve-wracking.

I returned to Germany and John stayed in the UK. Neither of us is very good on the phone, but when we see each other we just pick up where we left off. What happened to us was a serious part of our lives which, for all the good things we've experienced since, is something we'd much rather not have gone through. But life goes on. When John and Helen get together they still gang up and bully me. You could say I've two wives.-

(Photograph omitted)