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.
The grave of Neil Goodall, cook on Sheffield, who died in the Argentine attack. Lavender Hill Cemetery, Enfield.
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.