Friday, May 4, 2012

Argentina strikes back -- The Sheffield hit 30 years ago

HMS Sheffield hit, May 4, 1982

Any illusions that the war would be entirely one-sided for the British were shattered on May 4 when word came that the HMS Sheffield had been hit by an Exocet missile. While the ship remained afloat, it had to be abandoned ad a fire raged out of control and it would eventually sink under tow. Twenty crew were killed and another two dozen wounded.

The loss came as the Sheffield was on radar picket duty west of the British task force. Radar picket duty is a necessary, but very dangerous, duty, as the US Navy discovered during the closing months of World War II when dozens of escorts were damaged and destroyed by Kamizake attacks.

Fortunately for the British , the Argentinians didn't have dozens  of Exocets. Indeed, they had just five of the air-launched versions and just five Super Etendard attack planes to carry them. This was another negative consequence of the Argentinian decision to rush the start of the war. Had they waited until September they would have had a total of at least 10 Exocets and 14 planes to carry them.

In  a very well-planned and executed mission the Argentinian Navy aviators in two Super Etendard, supported by a Neptune recon plane, were able to fire two missiles and escape without being engaged. One missile apparently failed to find a target but the second w=one hit the Sheffeild, which wasn't prepared properly for defending against a missile attack. It's shipboard radars and air defenses never spotted the threat and the only warning it got was from voice shouts after Mark 1 eyeballs spotted the incoming missile just seconds before it hit. 

It seems evident that the missile did not explode, but rocket fuel and other combustibles combined to fuel a fire that burned out the ship.

It's interesting to go back and read the accounts from the time of the incident. I have the Osprey special editions on the Falklands War (Men-At-Arms No. 133-135) and the Sunday Times of London's "War in the Falklands -- The Full Story," all published in 1982 shortly after the close of the war. While not bad, considering how quickly they were done, they do make a number of claims that turned out to not be true -- and suffer from minimal input form the Argentinian side.

The Harpoon4 supplement South Atlantic War 2nd Ed., which is my main source, was published in 2002 and had the advantage of much better information and much more information from the Argentinian side. One difference, for example, is the supposed role of the Argentinian submarine sin the incident.  At the time, the British ships reported "torpedo wakes" near the stricken Sheffield. The Osprey book asserts that "It seems probable that both of the Argentine Type 209 submarines were in the vicinity. Some reason exists to believe that one of them may have been hit, and perhaps sunk, by a Stingray torpedo released from a Sea King helicopter.

We now know that there were in fact no Argentinian subs present that day and, in fact, only one of the Type 209 submarines was even operational. A nice illustration of the news truism that the first reports are always wrong.

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