Squadron Leader John Peters Gives Inspirational Talk At Bede's
On Monday 15 January, almost 27 years after the event, Squadron Leader John Peters visited Bede’s to talk to pupils (as part of the Bede’s Diploma Programme) and parents about his experiences of being a prisoner of the Gulf War.
John Peters came to the world’s attention in January 1991, when his bruised and battered face flashed onto television screens around the world. On the first day of the Gulf War, a British Tornado bomber crewed by John Peters and John Nichol was shot down over Iraqi territory and the two men were captured. After several days of mental and physical torture, they were forcibly shown on Iraqi television, and were kept as prisoners of war for seven weeks.
John began his talk at Bede’s by showing footage from the war-torn Kuwait City in 1990, followed by a still from the video of himself that was shared around the world during his capture. John is one of only six former prisoners of war living in the UK, and he points to this image as the reason he became a household name and is seen as an inspirational figure.
“Other people have incredible stories – including the 50 friends who were in my squadron – and yet they don’t get asked to tell their stories,” he said. “So, why me? It’s because of that picture, because I was on television.”
John described the conflict as the “first live televised war”, which, he explained, opened it up to a generation of people, the majority of whom (in contrast to the World Wars in the first half of the century) experienced the war vicariously through television. As a result, when John returned home after his ordeal he encountered mass media attention.
“Whenever I entered a pub, it would go dead quiet and I would receive a standing ovation,” John said. “This went on for two years after my return. People would always say to me, ‘you’re so brave’, but it’s very different being behind the pictures.”
When the footage was filmed, John and his navigator had already been in the interrogation centre for five days. During this time, John had had been beaten, burned and tied with handcuffs with a bag on his head, all the while being allowed no sleep. He was then taken down a corridor, had a gun pointed to his head, placed in front of a camera, and told to speak. “The last thing you want to do in that situation is go on television,” John said. “I felt like a traitor, like I was weak – this would likely be the last time my family would see me alive, and I didn’t want them to remember me in this way.”
When he went to war, John lived with his wife (they are celebrating their 32-year anniversary this year), and their two-year-old son and 6-week-old daughter. “Going to war is like going to New York on 10 September , knowing that the September 11 attacks are coming,” he explained.
“What isn’t portrayed in action films is the mundane administration leading up to the war – pulling the kit out of the war cupboards, sorting out insurance, painting the equipment desert pink.”
War, John explained, also meant an increased budget, and they had 30% more power at their disposal than before. When John led the squadron into the war zone, he did so at the front end of the largest flight offensive in history, in a £25 million aircraft.
It wouldn’t be long until the squadron found themselves in the middle of a conflict, with John’s 30 tonne aircraft travelling at 700 knots and being shot at from all directions. Following fires on the right-hand engine and at the back of the aircraft (“I just remember seeing bright orange”) the plane failed, and John and his navigator ejected. “There is a quarter second delay after you press the button, and it feels like a lifetime,” John said.
“After we landed, there was a hush. We were exposed in the desert. Experts say that in this situation, you should ‘evade the enemy’, but how could we?” he joked. “We were out in the open, next to brightly coloured kit and a burning plane.
“We ended up lying there for 45 minutes startled by a movement, only to discover that it was a twig,” he continued. “We crawled in the desert for an hour, until we found ourselves surrounded by 25 soldiers. There was nothing we could do; capture was inevitable.”
At this point in the talk, John stepped further back in time to a memory of himself and his navigator in a pub before the war began. They talked about what they would do if they were ever captured – would they shoot themselves first, or allow the enemy to take them as prisoners? “Now,” John said, “we had to ask ourselves this question for real. And we decided to stay alive – there is always hope, and why would we do [the captors’] job for them?
“That was the best damned decision I ever made.”
After the first five days in the interrogation centre, John was taken to a freezing cold room where he was beaten with baseball bats for 45 minutes at a time between questioning. According to protocol, John could only tell his captors his name, rank, number and date of birth – any other questions had to be answered with “I cannot answer that, sir.” Then the beatings, burning, threats began again, all the while with the sound of other people’s torture and bombs being heard through the walls.
In the seven weeks John was in captivity, he lost two and a half stone in weight through lack of food. His determination to survive was truly astounding. “It was like being in a swimming pool with your head underwater,” John explained. “You want to get to the surface to take a breath – it was pure animal instinct.”
Finally, after seven weeks in captivity, the bombing suddenly stopped. “There was a knock on the door, and someone said ‘the war is over’.”
After getting on a coach (which had to fight its way through the world’s press), John and his fellow prisoners got to the Baghdad Novatel, where members of the Red Cross were waiting for them. When asked what they would like to eat, the prisoners unanimously had one food in mind: chocolate. “Unfortunately, the Red Cross didn’t have any with them, so someone went to all 120 rooms in the hotel and took the chocolates off of the pillows to give to us,” John explained.
When he got back to the UK, John was bombarded with media and public attention, and being asked questions constantly. He also received many letters – up to 1000 per week – and he responded to all of them. One letter in particular had a profound effect on John, and his emotion showed as he read it aloud to the audience. It was from a woman – now in her mid-seventies – who had been sexually and physically abused as a child. Within her letter, she said that she recognises the places that John described when talking about his experiences, and found strength and hope in the fact that he was able to survive through his pain and find freedom.
As a poignant pause fell on the audience, John concluded his talk with a message of hope. “We are all built to survive,” he said. “What I learned from my experience is that I am not a ‘damaged’ human being. I am not scared of death – pain and humiliation, yes – but not of dying.
“I don’t view the world as a dangerous place. I don’t hate the Iraqis, and I’m not haunted by what happened. When you hate the enemy, you’ve lost.”
John was flying aircraft just six weeks after his return to the UK, and stayed with the RAF for ten years.
Here is what some of our attending Lower Sixth pupils said about the talk:
"The talk was an amazing experience, from which I have learnt a lot about accepting failure no matter how great the responsibility is or how horrible it might seem to give up. Being yourself, but especially finding and embracing yourself and personal interests you have, is very important. Accepting the "brutal truth" is part of life and being able to cope with no matter what lies ahead is a key skill, which Mr Peters has highlighted in his powerful talk about being a war prisoner." Finja Gehrels
"I really enjoyed the talk and the biggest thing that I personally took from it was, to always be myself no matter in what circumstances." Gabriel Neumann
“This talk was truly moving; it was incredible to hear someone who had been through so much horror speak to us with such a positive and motivating attitude to life - and I can certainly say for myself that listening has genuinely taught me lessons which I am genuinely grateful to have had.” Matthew Grant
"I appreciated how he treated us like adults and gave us the truth, not sugar coating it, and I know that I will take his messages on board." Firdest Karaca