In perspective: the loss of HMS Sheffield

35 years on from the sinking of HMS Sheffield by an Exocet missile, the full and un-redacted Board of Inquiry (BOI) findings have been made public. A heavy-handed piece by Ian Cobain in the Guardian heaps blame on the ship’s operations team and implies results of the inquiry were subject to a sinister cover up .

Mr Cobain’s article is reasonably well researched but the bare facts need to be seen in their full context before making accusations. Unless you were aboard HMS Sheffield between 14.00 and 14.04 on 4th May 1982, you can never know precisely what happened or what it felt like to be on the spot. Despite the supposedly reliable evidence of the board of enquiry now available, we should exercise caution when passing quick judgments on the actions of men on the frontline 35 years ago. Theoretically, the statements of fact recorded during the BOI should be accurate, but years later some of its contents are still contested by those who were there. What is certain is that there were failures at many levels that led to the destruction of Sheffield. Who should be blamed and to whether blame should be apportioned at all is a complex matter.

Something wrong with our bloody ships

In 1982 the RN was primarily an anti-submarine navy, much of its institutional focus was on the threat posed by the Soviets and in particular their submarines. The RN did, however, still regularly deploy outside of the NATO areas, HMS Sheffield had just spent 6 months in the Persian Gulf when she was sent to the Falklands. The ASW focus had resulted in a navy that retained a broad spectrum of capability, but the heavy investment in its critical nuclear submarines had contributed to a surface fleet that was inadequately armed and equipped.

The Type 42 destroyer was designed as an air defence ship and built to a tight budget resulting in a slightly compromised platform. The main Sea Dart system was usually very effective against medium and high altitude targets but the fire control radars did not have the ability to successfully track low-level targets. Although the sea-skimming missile threat was well understood and the RN possessed their own ship-launched Exocets, the entire Royal Navy fleet of the time lacked effective Close In Weapons Systems (CIWS). (The only exception were the new Type 22 frigates armed with very effective Sea Wolf). This was a glaring institutional failure that is hard to explain, especially as the Soviets had many potent anti-ship missiles. Space and funding constraints would not allow the fitting of the Sea Wolf missile on the Type 42 and the only back-up weapons were 2 manually-aimed 20mm Oerlikon cannons, dating from WWII. The Sea Dart was not always reliable and it seems extraordinary that a cheap second line of defence consisting of several modern 20 or 30mm cannon mounts had not been fitted. The Sheffield also lacked basic electronic jammers that could confuse missile radars. The best option would have been the Phalanx CIWS that had been in development since 1973 and was proven in service with the US Navy by 1980. Phalanx is entirely automated and would almost certainly have saved the Sheffield. It was hurriedly purchased by the RN and subsequently fitted to many surface ships, it is still in service today.

The only other potential defence against Exocet was the chaff launcher which fired clouds of aluminium strips that create false radar echoes to lure the missile away from the ship. Chaff was successfully and liberally used by the task force later in the war but relied on alert reactions, perfect timing and ship handling to place the ship away from the chaff cloud as it floated downwind.

There also existed many shortcomings in warship design and equipment fit that were quickly exposed by the Exocet strike. The use of formica panels were a hazard that created lethal flying shrapnel shards when subject to blast. Some escape hatches were found to be too small for men dressed in breathing apparatus. The Rover portable fire pumps were unreliable and there was inadequate fire-fighting equipment held onboard most ships. There was insufficient attention to the dangers of smoke in the design of ventilation and provision of fire curtains. Standard issue nylon clothing was found to have melted in contact with fire, severely exacerbating burns. The ship contained PVC cable insulation and foam furnishings that gave off toxic fumes in a fire.

No single individual can be held accountable for these decisions which are typical of a long period in a peacetime mentality where painful lessons learned in past conflicts fade from consciousness and funding pressures result in corners being cut.


The BOI implied that despite the inadequacy of the ship’s equipment, Sheffield could have saved herself by being better prepared. It is clear the operations room was not functioning well when the missile was detected, 30 seconds before impact, but part of this was unfortunate timing.

The Captain was resting in his cabin at the time and “The anti-air warfare officer had left the ship’s operations room and was having a coffee in the wardroom while his assistant had left to visit the heads”. No one can be on duty 24/7 and everyone had to pace themselves and take breaks. Fatigue was a particular problem for commanders in the Falklands who could not fully relax for weeks on end. The timing of these absences was exceptionally unlucky but not an indicator of slackness. When hit, Sheffield was not at actions stations which requires the entire crew to be closed up, but in defence watches where half the crew are on watch while the other half rest.

The BOI did find that the Principal Warfare Officer did not react as he should have and the AA Officer was absent from the ops room for too long. (You can read an explanation of his actions in a statement by the AAWO, Lt Cdr Batho, here) Sister ship, HMS Glasgow detected the aircraft and Exocets and reacted better.  In a further stroke of bad luck, at the exact moment of the attack, Sheffield was making a transmission on her SATCOM which blinded her UAA1, a masthead sensor which could detect electronic emissions from aircraft and missiles, further reducing potential warning time. As the Guardian reported with relish back in 2000, the Entendard aircraft were detected by radar operators on HMS Invincible, a full 19 minutes before the Exocet hit Sheffield. Plagued by a series of false contact reports in the preceding days, the senior officer on Invincible responsible for air defence of the whole task force classified the contact as “spurious” and no warnings were issued. It was not just a few men on Sheffield who were on a steep learning curve in the early part of the war.

The Guardian quotes the BOI as saying some of the crew were “bored and a little frustrated by inactivity”. This has been selectively quoted by the Guardian article – the BOI actually says in the preceding sentence “the atmosphere on board was tense but there was no evidence of complacency.” The easy victory at South Georgia and the simple sinking of the cruiser Belgrano had given rise to a perception back in the UK that the war would be “a walk-over”. This was not that case amongst the task force as is clear from the biography of Admiral Sandy Woodward. Sheffield’s CO, Captain Sam Salt was an experienced officer and a seasoned submariner. He was perhaps more concerned with the submarine threat over the air threat but this is was partly due to faulty intelligence assessments and confusion among some officers about whether the Argentine airforce was capable of air-air refuelling required to get within range. Virtually every personal account of the Falklands war notes the poor quality of intelligence about the Argentine intentions and order of battle that was provided to the task force from London.

The BOI reports that when the incoming missiles came into view, officers on the bridge were “mesmerised” by the sight and failed to broadcast a warning to the ship’s company. This is not consistent with accounts of survivors who say that Sub Lieutenant Clark who was on the bridge, saw the incoming Exocet and shouted “missile attack, hit the deck!” over the main broadcast.

In keeping with history

Conflicts throughout history are littered with examples of mistakes, particularly at the start of hostilities. The loss of HMS Sheffield was a horrible shock to the RN and was news around the world. But lessons were learned and procedures are changed rapidly. The painful experience gained probably saved others, it was no coincidence that later in the conflict HMS Glamorgan survived an Exocet hit. The ship was alert, detected the missile and made a pre-planned turn that prevented the missile from penetrating the hull and main missile magazine.


Admiral John Fieldhouse who commanded the Taskforce from Northwood and later became First Sea Lord, decided not to court-martial officers on Sheffield who were implicated by the board of enquiry. Fieldhouse was noted for his humanity and was one of the most outstanding officers the RN has had since WWII. There are those who would like to portray this as a “cover up” but people who may have made fatal mistakes in combat have to live with the consequences of their actions for the rest of their lives. There are men that are still suffering today from the effects of what they experienced onboard HMS Sheffield and many of the veterans are angry about the release of the BOI and the Guardian article which they call “misrepresentative” and an “insult to the heroes of that day”. The Guardian article also hardly mentions the many outstanding acts of courage by the ship’s company in trying to save their ship after she was hit, some of which are recorded in the BOI report.

Having won the war, it made more sense to focus on how things could be done better in future than hand out punishments for failure. Undoubtedly mistakes and errors made during the conflict were kept in-house. Some of those who suffered loss or injury may want to see specific individuals named and punished but as discussed, it was a collective failure. Airing the dirty washing in public may have achieved little, added to the suffering of the bereaved and detracted from what was an incredible achievement overall. Sister ship HMS Coventry was sunk later in the conflict despite being alert and ready. In every armed conflict mistakes are made, usually, it costs lives but this is the terrible nature of warfare. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but is it not a luxury anyone has in the moment. The RN did conduct extensive analysis what happened and the lessons from the Falklands led to drastic changes to warship design, training and concept of operations. Many of these lessons are still kept alive in the RN today, particularly by the globally-renowned Flag Officer Sea Training organisation.

Responsibility starts at the top

The Falklands War was ultimately a triumph for Mrs Thatcher, standing against tyranny and holding her nerve while others would have given in. However, it could be argued that it was the actions of her government that created the conditions for the war in the first place. John Nott’s 1981 Defence white paper planned to axe South Atlantic Patrol ship HMS Endurance, together with the Navy’s aircraft carriers and amphibious capability and was perceived as a green light by the Argentines. Numerous officers and diplomats had tried to warn the Foreign Office of exactly what could happen if British resolve to defend the Falklands was seen to be waning. The men who died on HMS Sheffield might perhaps still be with us if the Thatcher government had not planned those defence cuts.

The principal of armed deterrence remains every bit as relevant. Spending on a properly equipped navy now may ultimately save bloodshed and far greater loss in a future conflict. This principle was ultimately proven in the peaceful victory of the Cold War and politicians of today would do well to consider this.