HMS Sheffield (D80)

HMS Sheffield was a Type 42 guided missile destroyer and the second Royal Navy ship to be named after the city of Sheffield in Yorkshire. Commissioned on 16 February 1975 the Sheffield was part of the Task Force 317 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 while under tow on 10 May 1982.

HMS Sheffield
United Kingdom
Name: HMS Sheffield
Operator: Royal Navy
Ordered: 14 November 1968[1][2]
Builder: Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd
Laid down: 15 January 1970
Launched: 10 June 1971
Sponsored by: Queen Elizabeth II
Commissioned: 16 February 1975[1]
Identification: Pennant number: D80
  • Deo Adjuvante Labor Proficit
  • (Latin: "With God's help our labour is successful")
Nickname(s): Shiny Sheff
Fate: Damaged by Argentinean attack on May 4th 1982 during Falklands War put under tow near South Georgia by HMS Yarmouth , Sunk, 10 May 1982
General characteristics
Class and type: Type 42 destroyer
Displacement: 4,820 tonnes
Length: 125 m (410 ft)
Beam: 14.3 m (47 ft)
Draught: 5.8 m (19 ft)
Propulsion: 4 Rolls-Royce (2 Olympus TM3B and 2 Tyne) producing 36 MW COGOG (combined gas or gas) arrangement
Speed: 30 knots (56 km/h)
Complement: 21 officers and 249 ratings[3]
Aircraft carried: Lynx HAS1


The first of the Type 42 class, Sheffield, was initially fitted with the odd-looking "Mickey Mouse" ears on her funnel tops which were in fact exhaust deflectors - "Loxton bends" - for the Rolls Royce Olympus TM1A gas turbines, to guide the high-temperature exhaust efflux sidewards and minimise damage to overhead aerials. As this provided a prominent target for then-new infrared homing missiles, only Sheffield and the next two in the class the Argentinian Hércules and Santísima Trinidad had these 'ears'.

The Sheffield was the only one of her class to be not fitted with STWS II triple anti-submarine torpedo tubes.[3]


Ordered in 1968 Sheffield was laid down on 15 January 1970 and built by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering at Barrow-in-Furness.

An explosion during construction killed two dockyard workers[4] and damaged a section of hull which was replaced with a section from an identical ship, Hércules, being built for the Argentine Navy.[5]

The Sheffield was launched on 10 June 1971 by Queen Elizabeth II[6][5] and was estimated to have cost £23,200,000 to build.[7]

As the first of her class of Royal Navy destroyers, Sheffield spent her first years trialling the 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.[8]

Following a refit in the early 1980s there were found to be significant design issues with the ship's Type 909 radar (which was responsible for control and targeting of the Sea Dart missiles).[3]

Service history

In June 1981 she participated in Exercise Roebuck, following which she fired five Sea dart missiles.

Following participation in Exercise Ocean Safari she sailed in November 1981 to undertake patrols in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.

She was undertaking self-maintenance at Mombasa when on 26 January 1982 Captain James Salt took over command. Both Salt (whose most recent service had been in submarines) and his second in command (who had been an anti-submarine helicopter observer) had little or no relevant experience in surface ships and little experience in air defence.[3][9]

In March 1982 the ship transited north through the Suez Canal to participate in Exercise Spring Train, which was held in the Atlantic Ocean.[3]

Departs for the Falklands

In response to the Argentinean invasion of the Falklands Islands the Sheffield was ordered on 2 April 1982 to join the task force being assembled to retake the islands.[3]

Ammunition and supplies was taken on board while pictures were removed and loose fitting stowed. While all of her carpets below Deck 1 were taken up, they were left in place on Deck 1 and above (which subsequently caught fire following her being hit. To avoid her being mistaken for the Argentinean Hércules and Santísima Trinidad a vertical black marking were painted on the funnel and down to the side to her waterline to aid recognition.[3]

Departing for the South Atlantic she reached Ascension Island on 10 April, sailing from there on 14 April accompanied by HMS Arrow, HMS Brilliant, HMS Coventry, HMS Glasgow to be later joined by RFA Appleleaf. They joined other members of the Task Force 317 and commenced operations in the Total Exclusion Zone around the Falklands on 1 May 1982.[3]

It was British policy that 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 the ship being caught defenceless again. The codeword used to start this procedure was 'handbrake', which had to be broadcast once the signal of the Super E Agave radar of the Super Étendard was picked up.[10]

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. Following the sinking of the General Belgrano Captain Salt ordered that Sheffield change course every 90 seconds to counter any potential Argentine submarine threat.[11]


Argentinean attack

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.[12]

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.[13][14]

Both pilots loaded the coordinates into their weapons systems, returned to low level, and after last minute checks, each launched an AM39 Exocet missile at 11:04 while 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.[13][14]

On the Sheffield

At approximately 10:00 on 4 May, Sheffield was at defence watches, second degree readiness, the southernmost of three Type 42 destroyers (one of the others being HMS Glasgow and Coventry) operating as a forward ASW picket 18 to 30 miles (29 to 48 km) to the west of the main task force which was operating, south-east of the Falklands. The weather was fair and the sea calm with a 2-metre swell. HMS Invincible which was with the main task force was responsible for Anti-Air Warfare Coordination (AAWC). Sheffield had relieved her sister ship Coventry as the latter was having technical trouble with her type 965 radar.[15]

Prior to the attack the Sheffield's radar operators had been experiencing difficulty distinguishing Mirage and Super Etendard aircraft, and the destroyer may have lacked effective IFF or radar jamming.[16] Despite having been supplied with intelligence briefings had identified that an Exocet was possible by Super Etendards which had been refuelled in flight the Sheffield had assessed the Exocet threat as overrated for the previous two days, and assessed another as a false alarm.

At the time of the attack the Captain was off duty in his cabin after having previously visited the operations room, while the Sheffield's anti-air warfare officer (AAWO) was in the wardroom chatting to the stewards and his assistant was in the toilet.[3]

As the Type 965 could not detect aircraft flying low the two incoming enemy aircraft were not detected when they flying at 98 feet (30 m),[17] Instead they were first detected at a distance of 40 nautical miles (74 km) by the UAA1 (a radar warning receiver which detects the radar emissions of approaching aircraft, ships and missiles) which was then confirmed by the 965M long range aircraft warning radar of Glasgow when the aircraft popped up to 120 feet (37 m) above sea-level for a radar check at 45 nautical miles (83 km).[18] The Glasgow immediately went to action stations, and communicated the warning codeword 'Handbrake' by UHF and HF to all task force ships. The radar contacts were also seen in Invincible, which directed Sea Harriers on combat patrol to investigate, but they detected nothing. The AAWC on Invincible declared the radar contacts as false and left the Air Warning at yellow, instead of raising it to red.[3]

In response to the Glasgow's warning an order to stand to had been issued to the crews of the 4.5 inch gun, Sea Dart and 20 mm guns. 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.[15] Ten seconds later the aircraft were detected on the forward type 909 radar but not on the aft 909 radar which had a clear view of the aircraft and missiles.[3] The Sheffield's UAA1 sensor was blocked by an unauthorized transmission by the ship on the satellite communications systems (SCOT). No detection was reported via data link from Glasgow. Seven seconds later the first Exocet missile was fired, in response to which the Glasgow fired it's chaff. The suspected aircraft was not being detected as the officers of the Sheffield had expected, and it was not until smoke was sighted from the bridge was it confirmed that sea-skimming missiles were in the air. 'Mesmerised' [9] by the sight the bridge officers did not call the captain to the bridge, made no call to action stations, turn the ship towards the incoming missiles to reduce the ship's profile, made any effort to prepare the 4.5 inch gun and Sea Dart missiles or order chaff to be fired.[10] The AAWO was however called to the Operations Room by the principal warfare officer but arrived just before the first missile hit.

Critically, Sheffield did not have an ECM jammer fitted[19]

The first Exocet hit Sheffield amidships, approximately 8 feet (2.4 m) above the waterline on deck 2, tearing a gash in the hull.[15] "It penetrated as far as the ship’s galley, where eight cooks are thought to have been killed instantly. Fire erupted within seconds and the ship filled with smoke."[20] The other missile splashed into the sea a half mile off her port beam.[21]

The second missile missed and bounced harmlessly into the sea as it's launching aircraft flew over the Sheffield.

Sheffield and Coventry were chatting over UHF. Communications ceased until an unidentified message was heard flatly stating, "Sheffield is hit."[15]

The initial Ministry of Defence (MOD) Board of Inquiry on the sinking of Sheffield concluded that, based upon available evidence, the warhead did not detonate.[22] However, some of the crew and members of the task force believed that the missile's 165 kilograms (364 lb) warhead had detonated.[15] 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.[23]

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, which meant there was a lack of water pressure; of the ship's four fire pumps one was defective, the one that was running stopped and couldn't be restarted, another was damaged by the shock and couldn't be started, while the fourth was initially knocked out of action by the impact but soon failed after being restarted.[22] These equipment failures all allowed the fire to quickly gain ground.[24]


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,[15] confirming the strike.

With the main fire fighting systems out of action due to the loss of the fire main the crew were reduced to fighting the fire using portable electrically powered pumps and buckets. The control of firefighting lacked cohesion and was uncoordinated with no emergency HQ being established, while crew members were unclear as to where Command was located. Once HMS Arrow and Yarmouth arrived they assisted in fighting the fire (but with little effect) from the outside by stationing themselves to port and starboard respectively.[3]

The fire on the Sheffield was fought for almost four hours before Captain Salt made the 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 that were assisting the firefighting, and that the combat capability of the destroyer was irredeemably lost.

As Sheffield's crew were departing on HMS Arrow, Sub-lieutenant Carrington-Wood led the crew in singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.[25][26] Most of the Sheffield's crew climbed over onto HMS Arrow a few transferred by Gemini RHIB to HMS Yarmouth, while some were taken by helicopter to HMS Hermes.[3]

Over the six days from 4 May 1982, as the ship drifted 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.[10] 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, causing a list to starboard and which eventually caused the Sheffield to roll over and sink on the edge of the Total Exclusion Zone in 1,000 fathoms of water at 53°04′S 56°56′W on 10 May 1982, the first Royal Navy vessel sunk in action since World War II.[24]

Loss of life

Of the 281 crew members, 20 (mainly on duty in the galley area and in the computer room) died as a result of the attack with another 26 of the crew injured, mostly from burns, smoke inhalation or shock. Only one body was recovered.[22] The wreck is a war grave and designated as a protected place[27] under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. The survivors were taken to Ascension Island on the tanker "British Esk".

The following crew members were honoured Lt Cmdr J S Woodhead (post DSC) PO MEM(M) D R Briggs (post DSM) and PO Medical Asst G A Meager (QGM).

Board of inquiry

In response to the loss of the ship a Ministry of Defence (MOD) Board of Inquiry was convened on HMS Nelson on 7 June 1982. They reported their findings on the 28 June 1982. The board's report severely criticized the ship's fire-fighting equipment, training and procedures identifying that the critical factors leading to loss of Sheffield were:[28]

  1. Failure to respond to HMS Glasgow's detection and communication of two approaching Super Etendards by immediately going to action stations, activating the Sea Dart and launching chaff decoys;[29]
  2. Lack of ECM jamming capability;
  3. Lack of a point defence system;
  4. Inadequate operator training, in particular simulated realistic low-level target acquisition.
  5. Slow response of the available Type 909 Sea Dart tracking radar and its operator limited the possible response.
  6. The spread of the fire was not adequately controlled due to the presence of ignitable material coverings, lack of adequate curtains and sealing to restrict smoke and fires. As well there was a shortage of breathing apparatus while the forward escape manholes were found to be too small for men wearing breathing apparatus.

Captain Salt's handling of the ship following the impact of the missile and his later decision to abandon the ship were not faulted. The board however found that the principal warfare officer and the anti-air warfare officer (AAWO) were guilty of negligence. Admiral John Fieldhouse, the commander in chief of the navy decided not to court martial them, undertake any other disciplinary action or any form of formal administrative proceedings.

It was not until 2006 following an extensive campaign by ex-RN personnel, that a heavily censored summary of the board’s findings that concealed all of the board’s key conclusions and criticisms, including the findings of negligence was released by the Ministry of Defence under UK Freedom of Information laws.[22]

In 2017, a complete copy of the report was issued, revealing information that according to the Guardian had been "suppressed" from the summary of the board’s findings in the 2006 release. The Guardian explained the missing information by the British Government's attempts to sell Type 42 destroyers at the same time. In the "uncensored" report, multiple issues that left the ship unprepared for the attack were identified, including findings of negligence by two officers who according to the Guardian "escaped courts martial and did not face disciplinary action, apparently in order to avoid undermining the euphoria that gripped much of the UK at the end of the war". Among other findings, the "uncensored" report showed that the ship was not sufficiently prepared to ward off an attack, during the attack, the anti-air warfare officer was not in the operations room, while his assistant had gone to the restroom. The anti-air warfare officer did not expect the Sheffield to be in the range of attack.[9]


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.[30] The confusion is related to the US and British Navies abandoning aluminium after several fires in the 1970s involving USS Belknap and HMS Amazon and other ships that had aluminium superstructures.[30][lower-alpha 1] 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.[31][32][33]

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.


December 19731975Captain Robin John Pashley Heath
19751976Captain Michael Prest
19761978Captain John Forster "Sandy" Woodward [34]
19781979Captain Christopher Argles
19791982Captain Peter J. Erskine..
26 January 19821982Captain James Frederick Thomas George 'Sam' Salt[3]


  1. USS Belknap was the lead ship of her class of guided missile cruisers in the United States Navy. HMS Amazon was the first Type 21 frigate of the Royal Navy.


  1. >Marriott (1985). Modern Combat Ships 3, Type 42. New York: Ian Allan. p. 26. ISBN 0-7110-1453-1.
  2. Hansard: HC Deb 23 October 1989 vol 158 cc357-8W 357W Archived 4 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  3. Brown, Paul (October 2019), "The Loss of HMS Sheffield", Ships Monthly: 40–43
  4. Commons debate – 4 May 1971
  5. A Rip in Time for Sheffield Navy News, April 2007
  6. "Commissioning Souvenir 1975: HMS Sheffield" (PDF). Royal Navy. 1975. Retrieved 13 November 2019.
  7. Hansard: HC Deb 23 October 1989 vol 158 cc357-8W 357W Archived 4 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine Question to the Secretary of State for Defence regarding warship costs, 23 October 1989.
    Marriott, Leo Modern Combat Ships 3, Type 42, pub Ian Allan, 1985, ISBN 0-7110-1453-1-page 15.
    Moore, John Jane's Fighting Ships, 1982–83, pub Jane's Publishing Co Ltd, 1982, ISBN 0-7106-0742-3-page 553.
  8. A. Preston. Sea Combat off the Falklands. Willow Collins (1982)London, p112,
  9. Cobain, Ian (15 October 2017). "Revealed: catalogue of failings that sank Falklands warship HMS Sheffield". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 October 2017.
  10. Woodward, Sandy; Robinson, Patrick (1992). One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander. Naval Institute Press. pp. 10, 11. ISBN 1 55750 651 5.
  11. BBC 4. The Reunion. HMS Sheffield.14.57-16.00. Last broadcast 9.00am 20/4/2012. Retrieved 20.45 GMT 16/10/2017
  12. Argentine Aircraft in the Falklands Archived 23 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  13. Argentine Account of the role of the Exocet during the War Archived 23 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  14. Argentine Air Force 4 May mission Archived 25 April 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  15. The Battle for the Falklands, Max Hastings & Simon Jenkins, Pan Grand Strategy, 1983
  16. A. Preston. Sea Combat off the Falklands. Willis Collin. (1982),
  17. Rivas, Santiago (2012). Wings of the Malvinas: The Argentine Air War Over the Falklands (reprin t ed.). Hikoki Publications. p. 244. ISBN 978-1902109220.
  18. Report of Board of Inquiry at HMS Nelson 7 June 1982 into loss of HMS Sheffield, May 1982, Released by CIC Fleet Northwood, Sept 1982
  19. Report of Board of Inquiry at HMS Nelson, 7 June 1982 into loss of Sheffield. Released by CIC Fleet, Northwood. UK, Sept 82
  20. Cobain, Ian (15 October 2017). "Revealed: catalogue of failings that sank Falklands warship HMS Sheffield". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 27 April 2019.
  21. Narrative of the attack Archived 12 December 2007 at the Wayback Machine, page 6
  22. Official MOD report into the sinking Archived 6 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  23. David Manley. "The Loss of HMS Sheffield – A Technical Re-assessment" RINA Warship Conference, Bath, June 2015
  24. Łukasz Golowanow. "Rakieta, która nie wybuchła – czyli o zatopieniu HMS Sheffield" [The Missile that Did Not Detonate: On the Sinking of HMS Sheffield] (in Polish). Retrieved 5 May 2012.
  25. Ritchie, Simon (3 May 2012), "How I survived Exocet attack", The Press, retrieved 14 November 2019
  26. "Icons of England, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"". Archived from the original on 17 July 2011.
  27. "Statutory Instrument 2008/0950". Office of Public Sector Information, 1 April 2008. Retrieved 19 July 2008.
  28. "Sunk Falklands ship safety 'poor'". BBC News. 2 November 2006. Retrieved 16 June 2015.
  29. Report of HMS Nelson Board of Inquiry into the loss of HMS Sheffield, 1982. Released CIC Fleet Northwood Sept 82
  30. "sci.military.naval FAQ, Part F – Surface Combatants Section F.7: Aluminum in warship construction". Archived from the original on 8 April 2014.
  31. Crum, Kyle A.; McMichael, Jerri; Novak, Miloslav. "Advances in Aluminum Relative to Ship Survivability" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 December 2014. Retrieved 16 June 2015.
  32. "Aluminum Hull Structure in Naval Applications" (PDF). AUSTAL. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 November 2011. Retrieved 16 June 2015.
  33. "Aluminum's Not to Blame For Warship Loss". New York Times. 3 July 1982. Retrieved 16 June 2015.
  34. Debrett's People of Today 1994
Preceded by
HMS Sheffield
Succeeded by

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