Chris Ankerson’s husband Robert was one of seven RAF servicemen captured and held captive in Iraq during the First Gulf War. For six weeks Chris didn’t know whether Robert was alive or dead.
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Squadron Leader Robert Ankerson had been in the RAF for 18 years when Gulf War 1 started in 1990. Chris said: “We were living in Germany and on holiday at the time and I remember we heard on the local BFBS news that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait.”
Robert was initially told he would be staying in Germany to act as a liaison but shortly before Christmas he found out he would be going out to the Middle East after all. Chris recalled: “He came back to the UK in December for a training course and halfway through the course he got a call saying there had been a change of plan and he was on the next aircraft back to Germany. It was a very fraught few days. His parents came over for Christmas and we had to tell them that Robert was going out there which they were very distressed about. He left at the beginning of January.
“Our son Gareth was 12 at the time and he was at boarding school. It wasn’t like now when we all have mobile phones. Robert was allowed a telephone call a week and of course we could keep in touch with blueys as well but when war was declared on January 17, that was it – we didn’t hear anything after that.”
Gareth had gone back to school and Chris was at home alone when the doorbell rang at 7am on January 24, 1991. She said: “I knew as soon as I heard the ring at the door. I could tell by the squadron boss’s face. I said ‘Is he dead?’ and he just said ‘I don’t know’.
On March 5 another British POW, John Peters, was released along with some Americans and taken into Jordan. Chris said: “On March 6 I had another knock at the door and it was the station commander’s wife. John Peters didn’t know Robert but he was able to tell British Intelligence that he was alive because when the prison was bombed they had to shout out their names and he remembered hearing Bob Ankerson. The station commander’s wife had run round to our house to tell us.
Robert was one of seven RAF servicemen held captive in Baghdad during the conflict. He and his pilot Flt Lt Simon Burgess were captured following a night bombing raid, after the premature detonation of a thousand pound bomb meant they were forced to eject from the aircraft. Chris said: “It turned out that the POWs all thought we at least knew they were alive. They were all filmed while they were in captivity so they thought we had seen the footage but only a few of the videos were put on TV. I clearly remember Robert saying to me afterwards do you mean to say you didn’t know I was alive? I had been preparing myself for life as a single parent.”
A back injury sustained during the ejection meant Robert was unable to go back to full time operational flying. He was posted to RAF High Wycombe which is when Chris became a SSAFA volunteer. She said: “I heard someone saying that SSAFA needed caseworkers and I thought ‘I could do that’ so I went and did the course. I think my experiences really helped me as a caseworker. When we moved to Cambridgeshire I became Divisional Secretary and Training Organiser.”
Chris volunteered with SSAFA for 20 years before stepping back to assist her husband who has now taken over the running of the RAF ex POW Association.