HMS Sheffield was a Type 42 guided missile destroyer. An Exocet missile destroyed HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War – the first major British casualty of the Falklands War conflict.
HMS Sheffield was launched in June 1971 and was commissioned for service in February 1975. Type 42 destroyers were designed to provide a naval fleet with defences against an attack from the air. Each Type 42 destroyer was fitted with Sea Dart surface-to-air missile systems. Each ship also carried on board an anti-submarine helicopter.
As the Task Force fleet approached the Falklands, the Sheffield and other ships like her provided protection for the larger ships such as the ‘Hermes’ and ‘Invincible’. If these ships had been successfully attacked, the Task Force would have been severely weakened and there would have been the possibility that the whole venture might have been called off. HMS Sheffield took it in turns to be on the outer perimeter of the Task Force and was, therefore, the first line of defence. She was also, therefore, the first in line for attack when she was on this so-called picket duty.
On May 4th, 1982, HMS Sheffield relieved her sister ship, HMS Coventry, from defence watch. The first anyone knew that something had happened to the Sheffield was when the Coventry received the message “Sheffield is hit”. HMS Arrow and HMS Yarmouth were ordered to investigate. It was only when Sheffield’s Lynx helicopter unexpectedly landed on the deck of HMS Hermes that any specific information was gathered. The Lynx carried HMS Sheffield’s Operations Officer and Air Operations Officer. They confirmed that a missile had hit HMS Sheffield.
HMS Sheffield was fitted with the Type 965 radar system. This was an old system that was due to be upgraded to the Type 1022 system. As with so many ships in the Royal Navy, HMS Sheffield had been designed with the Cold War very much in mind. The 965 radar was capable of picking up aeroplanes flying at reasonable heights – and missiles launched from a reasonable height. Neither happened with HMS Sheffield.
The Exocet missile that hit HMS Sheffield had been fired from a French-built Super Étendard. The pilot, Captain Augusto Bedacarratz, had launched his Exocet when only six miles from the Sheffield – to all intents, this represented point blank range. The ‘rule book’ stated that an Exocet would be launched at a ship from 45 miles away and from a reasonable height. In this sense a 965 radar would pick it up. This Exocet was launched and flew just above sea level and was not picked up by radar until it was too late to react. The Sea Dart missile system was also generally not overly good at picking up sea skimming missiles. The crew had just 5 seconds warning that a missile was incoming.
The Exocet caused great damage to the Sheffield. It hit 8 feet above the water line and tore a gash in the Sheffield that measured 4 feet by 10 feet. The missile’s burning rocket motor set fire to the Sheffield and sufficiently damaged the ship’s electricity generating systems to prevent anti-fire mechanisms from working effectively. The Sheffield’s water main had also been ruptured. The combination of lack of electricity and water meant that there was no way that the fires could be contained. A process of evacuation was initiated with the burns casualties being taken off first. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, there was little chance of the ship sinking so the crew who were not injured simply had to wait their turn on deck to be evacuated.
A decision was taken to tow the Sheffield away from the Task Force, as there was a fear that the proximity of so many ships that were assisting the Sheffield might be too tempting a target for the Argentine Air Force. As the Sheffield was being towed by HMS Yarmouth, the weather got worse and water started to pour into the ruptured hull of HMS Sheffield. A decision was taken to scuttle the ship and this was duly carried out, though it is probable that the rough seas would have done this.
Twenty men had been killed in the attack – an attack that gave the Task Force due warning that it was a vulnerable entity.
‘HMS Sheffield’ is now a recognised war grave.