Falklands 30 – The loss of HMS Sheffield

HMS Sheffield (D80)

HMS Sheffield (D80) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the sinking of the Belgrano and the Vulcan raid on Stanley airfield, there certainly seems to have been a feeling that the gloves were now off in the South Atlantic.

HMS Sheffield, the lead ship of the Type 42 class of Destroyers, was built at Vickers at Barrow, being launched in 1970 and commissioned in 1975. She was a Portsmouth based ship, as were the rest of the Type 42’s. The Sheffield had been away from home for quite some time, having been taking part in Exercise Spring Train on her way home from an Arabian Gulf Patrol when she was diverted down south.

When the Task Force entered the Exclusion Zone on 1 May, the three Type 42 Destroyers – Sheffield, Coventry and Glasgow – were ‘up front’ performing radar picket duty. Their Type 965 radar in particular gave good long-range coverage, and in that sense the Type 42’s were they eyes and ears of the task force, and the outer layer of the air defence ‘onion skin’ based around protecting the vital aircraft carriers. A very important task – which the modern Type 45’s are very much suited for – but a very lonely and dangerous job too.

It was known that the Argentines had purchased a number of French Exocet anti-ship missiles, which could be launched from Super Etendard aircraft flying from the Argentine mainland. Although the French had withdrawn their technical support as part of the EEC arms embargo, it was expected that the Argentines would at least attempt to use them. After the loss of the Belgrano, this suspicion was even more keenly felt.

HMS Sheffield was first spotted by an Argentine Navy Lockheed Neptune maritime patrol aircraft at 7.50am on 4 May. The Neptune tracked the Sheffield for the next two hours, obviously undetected. At 9.45am two Exocet-armed Super Etendard’s took off from Tierra del Fuego, refuelling from a KC-130 Hercules tanker on their way to the target. At 10.50am both aircraft ‘popped up’ from their low-level flight. After failing to sight the target initially, 25 miles later the Sheffield appeared on the Etendard’s radar screens.

Both Etendards launched their Exocet’s at 10am, at a range of 20 to 3 miles. The sea-skimming missiles raced towards the Sheffield. The Etendard’s had not been detected by the task force as had been expected – it was intended that anti-Exocet procedures would begin once the Etendard’s radar signature was detected. The missiles, however, were spotted by the other Type 42 Glasgow. Sheffield, however, appeared to be silent and inactive. She had been using her satellite communications, which rendered her Typ3 965 radar inoperable for a short time. Sheffield was silent, until the anonymous message was heard ‘ Sheffield is hit’.

One of the Exocets was eventually picked up by the Sheffield, but far too late to do much about it. Five seconds later, the missile struck Sheffield amidships, tearing a gash in her hull feet above the water line. Evidence suggests that the missiles warhead did not explode, but the ships fire main was fractured. The combination of this and the burning of un-spent missile fuel caused a fire to spread through parts of the ship. Eventually the fire was so hot that the ships paint bubbled and blistered, and the heat on the deck could be felt through boots. The Sheffield was effectively dead in the water.

Sheffield was taken in tow by HMS Yarmouth, but sank days later after water flooded through the gash in her side. She was the first Royal Navy ship to be sunk in action since the Second World War. Twenty of her crew were killed, most of whom were in the Galley at the time of the missile strike. As a Portsmouth based ship all of them were either from Portsmouth or had Portsmouth connections. Looking back, it is difficult not to form an opinion that the loss of the Sheffield – the first havy loss of the conflict – delivered a serious reality check to officials and public, many of whom might have been under the illusion that the Falklands might be an easy war.

As a result of the strike on the Sheffield, the Task Force changed it’s missile defence procedures. As soon as the Etendard’s radar signature was picked up, the codeword ‘handbrake’ would start the wholesale launching of chaff decoys, thousands of tiny metal strips that were intended to divert any missiles away from ships. The Argentines launched other Exocet strikes, but the only other ship to be sunk by one was the merchant vessel Atlantic Conveyor, later in the war.

The official MOD report into the sinking – as is cutomary whenever a ship is damaged or lost – found that the ships fire-fighting equipment, training and procedures were poor, and criticised certain anonymous members of the crew, who are difficult to positively identify and the report is heavily redacted. When the Sheffield’s Captain, Sam Salt, landed on the flagship HMS Hermes, he was received in a cold manner, and all but left on his own according to eyewitnesses. This coldness would suggest that their was a feeling at the time that the Sheffield was caught with her pants down. It’s probably difficult for those of us who have not commanded a Destroyer in war to form any kind of opinion on this, except perhaps that in the ‘fog of war’ unfortunate events do sadly happen.


Filed under Falklands War, Navy

18 responses to “Falklands 30 – The loss of HMS Sheffield

  1. I recall the sense of disbelief I felt at the news; how could this have happened. I was shocked. Sam Salt may well have been ostracised by Sandy Woodward and others, but he went on to more senior rank and positions. And Atlantic Conveyor was a huge blow. I thought then and still believe, that Argentina had accurate intel. The loss of AC and the loss of life, also resulted in the loss of some 14 Harriers that day.

    • James Daly

      Having read his memoirs I get the feeling that Sandy Woodward wasn’t perhaps the warmest of personalities, so it’s hardly surprising that he was ostracised. I’ve always found it interesting that Woodward did not reach First Sea Lord, which you would expect from a war-winning task force commander, what with such appointments being political.

      Sheffield, Salt and his crew seem to have been well regarded prior to the war, having performed well in Springtrain. I tend to think that the fog of war means that the worst can happen to the best of units, if a quirk of fate deems it. Nobody can ever be 100% on top of their game all of the time, and it was just hard luck for Sheffield that the Exocet came in at a weak point for them.

      • There were several programmes about the loss of SHEFFIELD in 2001/2002. The 2001 (from the BBC) did put blame on an individual – however, it was not the Captain.

        Other points include things like the lack of Airborne Early Warning, the lack of a CIWS, the fact that Argentina had two Type 42s with the same radar, so that there pilots could practice lobe pecking, transmitting on SCOT and blinding her ESM (it used I band frequencies – which were used by the Exocet/Eterndard radars).

        Here’s a 1986 documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqV4YKMMkUk

    • x

      “accurate intel”? You would care to expand on that, please?

  2. There were no Harriers or Sea Harrier aboard ATLANTIC CONVOYER when she was hit.

  3. A tragic loss of a great ship, with some of her crew making the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. My dad was to have been the WEO on HMS Sheffield, however we moved from UK to New Zealand in 1980. The officer who replaced him was sadly lost during the attack. As a result I have always had a keen interest in the events of May 1982.
    The irony is that dad was a part of the team that worked with the French during the mid 70’s when the RN introduced Exocet. These were the same French engineers that supported the installation of Exocet onto the Super Etentard aircraft. Strange how the world works.

  4. Wasn’t the RN the first customer for Exocet?

  5. Max Psi

    Sam Salt was responsible for use of the satellite phone on his ship.
    He knew that this would have been in conflict with the radar.
    He also knew that being on picket meant the Sheffield had to protect the fleet.
    The satellite phone should not have been used at that time. Full stop.

    The responsibility for the sinking of the Sheffield was Sam Salt.

    Incidentally the one responsible for the War was John Nott.
    If he had not offered to withdraw the Endurance this would not have given the confidence to the Junta to invade.

    • GeraldMeager

      Captain Salt was transmitting on Scott is response to the taskforce commanders instructions. He was transmitting for the fleet not just for Sheffield If anybody is
      responsible it was the AWO for not being in his position in the ops room instead of drinking coffee in the wardroom.

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