Tuesday, May 4, 2010
HMS Sheffield Day
Just two days after the sinking of the cruiser Belgrano, any thoughts that the war would be a one-sided affair came to an abrupt end on May 4, 1982 when the HMS Sheffield was hit by an Exocet missile fire by an Argentine Super Etendard.
While it took a few days for the ship to actually sink, it was immediately clear that the HMS Sheffield was essentially destroyed as far as taking any further part in the war. In the event the abandoned ship foundered in heavy seas while under tow. While not as bloody as the Belgrano incident, as only 20 British sailors lost their lives, the Sheffield loss was perhaps even more shocking.
While the Belgrano case was of a World War II era vessel being sunk by essentially World War II era technology (an unguided torpedo) the HMS Sheffield was a first-line modern warship. And the Exocet missile was likewise an expensive first-line weapon.
One wonders how different the war might have been if the Argentines had the full complement of Super Etenard (12) and Exocet missiles (10) they had ordered from France, instead of the 5 and 5 they actually had on hand. As it was, between them, those five missiles were able to sink two British ships while suffering no losses. In comparison it cost the Argentines more than three dozen attack aircraft to sink three more British ships (although the score would have been higher had more Argentine bombs exploded). At a ratio of 12 to 1 the Argentines simply ran out of aircraft before the British ran out of ships.
On the other hand, with 10 Exocets instead of 5 the British could easily have lost a couple of more ships, with a reasonable chance that one of those ships might have been an aircraft carrier. It's possible that losing a carrier would have forced the British to withdraw the task force. At the very least it would have reduced the already scanty level of British air cover substantially and made the situation much riskier for the invasion force. Harriers were responsible for shooting down about 22 or 23 Argentine attack aircraft. Ship defenses only downed about 15, so removing the Harriers from the defensive scheme might have changed the balance of power.
Fortunately for the British, the Argentines had only taken deliver on five missiles and five panes and the embargo prevented them from getting any more. This was another example of how the junta's hasty decision to move up the invasion date cost them.