HMS Sheffield was the second Royal Navy ship to be named after the city of Sheffield in Yorkshire. She was a Type 42 guided missile destroyer laid down by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering at Barrow-in-Furness on 15 January 1970. She was launched by Queen Elizabeth II on 10 June 1971 and commissioned on 16 February 1975.
An explosion during construction killed two dockyard workers and damaged a section of hull which was replaced with a section from an identical ship, Hércules, being built for the Argentine Navy. As the first of a new class of Royal Navy destroyers, Sheffield spent its first years trialing its new systems and the Sea Dart missile system, particularly as the intended Sea Dart trials ship, HMS Bristol, suffered serious fires and problems with its steam systems restricting its use in the late 1970s. It was not until 1980 that Sheffield became effective, with Sea Dart and partial installation of electronic warfare Abbey Hill systems. The ship was part of the task force sent to the Falkland Islands during the Falklands war. She was struck by an Exocet air-launched anti-ship missile from a Super Etendard aircraft belonging to the Argentine Navy on 4 May 1982 and foundered on 10 May 1982.
Sheffield was first detected by an Argentine Naval Aviation Lockheed SP-2H Neptune (2-P-112) patrol aircraft at 07:50 on 4 May 1982. The Neptune kept the British ships under surveillance, verifying Sheffield's position again at 08:14 and 08:43. Two Argentine Navy Super Étendards, both armed with AM39 Exocets, took off from Río Grande naval air base at 09:45 and met with an Argentine Air Force KC-130H Hercules tanker at 10:00 hours. The two aircraft were 3-A-202, piloted by mission commander Capitán de Fragata (Commander) Augusto Bedacarratz, and 3-A-203, piloted by Teniente (Lieutenant) Armando Mayora.
At 10:35, the Neptune climbed to 1,170 metres (3,840 ft) and detected a large and two medium-sized contacts at the coordinates 52°33′55″S 57°40′55″W. A few minutes later, the Neptune contacted the Super Étendards with this information. Flying at very low altitude at approximately 10:50, both Super Étendards climbed to 160 metres (520 ft) to verify these contacts, but failed to locate them and returned to low altitude. 25 miles (40 km) later they climbed again and, after a few seconds of scanning, the targets appeared on their radar screens.
Both pilots loaded the coordinates in their weapons systems, returned to low level, and after last minute checks, launched their AM39 Exocet missiles at 11:04 from 20 to 30 miles (32 to 48 km) away from their targets. The Super Étendards did not need to refuel again from the KC-130, which had been waiting, and landed at Río Grande at 12:04. Supporting the mission were an Argentine Air Force Learjet 35 as a decoy and two IAI Daggers as the KC-130 escorts
At approximately 10:00 on 4 May, Sheffield was at defence watches, second degree readiness, one of three Type 42 destroyers operating as a forward ASW picket for the task force, south-east of the Falklands. On some task force ships (including Sheffield) the threat from the type 209 submarine was seen as higher priority than the threat from the air. Sheffield's radar operators had difficulty distinguishing Mirage and Super Etendard aircraft, and the destroyer may have lacked effective IFF or radar jamming. HMS Glasgow, operating at high readiness, detected two Super Etendard 'Agave' (Exocet-capable) targets on 965M main surveillance radar, 40 nautical miles (74 km) out and immediately communicated the warning codeword 'Handbrake' by UHF and HF to all task force ships. Sheffield had assessed the Exocet threat overrated for the previous two days, and assessed another as a false alarm (as did HMS Invincible). Sheffield apparently did not hear the incoming aircraft and missiles, detect them on its electronic support measures (ESM) sets, or see a radar contact on its screens swept by its own radar. No detections were reported via data link from Glasgow. Sheffield failed to go to action stations, launch chaff, prepare the 4.5" gun and Sea Dart missiles, or indeed take any action or even inform the captain Sheffield had relieved her sister ship Coventry as the latter was having technical trouble with her type 965 radar. Sheffield and Coventry were chatting over UHF. Communications ceased until an unidentified message was heard flatly stating, "Sheffield is hit."
Sheffield picked up the incoming missiles on her type 965 radar (an interim fitting until the Type 1022 set was available); the operations officer informed the missile director, who queried the contacts in the ADAWS 4 fire control system. Critically, the Sheffield did not have an ECM jammer fitted and lacked other critical ECM equipment, and failed to go to action stations or a heightened state of readiness, or to do anything to prepare weapons or the decoy system. The launch aircraft had not been detected as the British had expected, and it was not until smoke was sighted that the target was confirmed as sea skimming missiles. Five seconds later, an Exocet hit Sheffield amidships, approximately 8 feet (2.4 m) above the waterline on deck 2, tearing a gash in the hull. The other missile splashed into the sea a half mile off her port beam.
The flagship, HMS Hermes, dispatched the escorts Arrow and Yarmouth to investigate, and a helicopter was launched. Confusion reigned until Sheffield's Lynx helicopter unexpectedly landed aboard Hermes carrying the air operations officer and operations officer, confirming the strike.
Such was the lack of warning that there was no time to engage in defensive manoeuvres, leading to a change in British policy whereby any Royal Navy vessel that suspected it might be under missile attack would turn toward the threat, accelerate to maximum speed and fire chaff to prevent a ship being caught defenceless again. The codeword used to start this procedure was 'handbrake', which had to be broadcast once the signal of the Agave radar of the Super Étendard was picked up.
The initial Ministry of Defence (MOD) Board of Inquiry on the sinking of the Sheffield concluded that, based upon available evidence, the warhead did not detonate. However, some of the crew and members of the task force believed that the missile's 165 kilograms (364 lb) warhead had detonated. This was supported by a MOD re-assessment of the loss of Sheffield, which reported in summer 2015. In a paper delivered to the RINA Warship Conference in Bath in June 2015, it was concluded that the Exocet warhead did indeed detonate inside Sheffield, with the results supported by analysis using modern damage analysis tools not available in 1982 and evidence from weapon hits and trials conducted since the end of the Falklands campaign.
Regardless, the impact of the missile and the burning rocket motor set Sheffield ablaze. Some accounts suggest that the initial impact of the missile immediately crippled the ship's onboard electricity generating systems, but this only affected certain parts of the ship, which caused ventilation problems. The missile strike also fractured the water main, preventing the anti-fire mechanisms from operating effectively, and thereby dooming the ship to be consumed by the raging fire. The Royal Navy Court of Inquiry suggested the critical factors leading to loss of Sheffield were:
- Failure to respond to HMS Glasgow's detection and communication of two approaching Super Etendards by immediately going to action stations and launching chaff decoys;
- Lack of ECM jamming capability;
- Lack of a point defense system;
- Inadequate operator training, in particular simulated realistic low-level target acquisition.
Slow response of the available 909 Sea Dart tracking radar and its operator limited the possible response. The spread of the fire was not adequately controlled due to the presence of ignitable material coverings and lack of adequate curtains and sealing to restrict smoke and fires. Captain Salt's handing of the ship during the four hours over which the fires were fought were not faulted, nor was his decision to abandon ship due to the risk of fires igniting the Sea Dart magazine, the exposed position to air attack of HMS Arrow and Yarmouth assisting the firefighting, and fact that the combat capability of the destroyer was irredeemably lost.
As Sheffield's crew were waiting to be rescued, Sub-lieutenant Carrington-Wood led the crew in singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Over the six days from 4 May 1982, five inspections were made to see if any equipment was worth salvaging. Orders were issued to shore up the hole in Sheffield's starboard side and tow the ship to South Georgia. Before these orders were effected, however, the burnt-out hulk had already been taken in tow by the Rothesay-class frigate Yarmouth. The high seas that the ship was towed through caused slow flooding through the hole in the ship's side, which eventually sank her. The ship sank at 53°04′S 56°56′W on 10 May 1982, the first Royal Navy vessel sunk in action since World War II. Twenty of her crew (mainly on duty in the galley area and in the computer room) died as a result of the attack. The wreck is a war grave and designated as a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.
The sinking of Sheffield is sometimes blamed on a superstructure made wholly or partially from aluminium, the melting point and ignition temperature of which are significantly lower than those of steel. However, this is incorrect as Sheffield's superstructure was made entirely of steel. The confusion is related to the US and British Navies abandoning aluminium after several fires in the 1970s involving ships that had aluminium superstructures. The sinking of the Type 21 frigates Antelope and Ardent, both of which had aluminium superstructures, probably also had an effect on this belief, though these cases are again incorrect and the presence of aluminium had nothing to do with their loss.
The fires on Sheffield and other ships damaged by fire caused a later shift by the Royal Navy from the nylon and synthetic fabrics then worn by British sailors. The synthetics had a tendency to melt on to the skin, causing more severe burns than if the crew had been wearing non-synthetic clothing.
The official report into the sinking of Sheffield, disclosed in 2006 under UK Freedom of Information laws after an extensive campaign by ex-RN personnel, severely criticised the ship's fire-fighting equipment, training and procedures and certain members of the crew.1973–75: Captain Robin Heath RN
1975–76: Captain Michael Prest RN
1976–78: Captain John Woodward RN
1978–79: Captain Christopher Argles RN
1979–82: Captain Peter Erskine RN
1982: Captain James Salt RN