Air Attack! HMS Sheffield Hit and Later Sinks – Part 1

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On 4 May 1982 during the Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina, two Super Étendards, French manufactured fighter bombers in use by the Argentinian Navy, were vectored toward a British warship. At twenty-five kilometers, their radars locked onto a ship they identified as a British Type 42 guided-missile destroyer. In this case, HMS Sheffield.

A French Aéronavale Dassault Super Étendard from Flottille 17F in flight during exercise “French Quarter ’88” on 1 April 1988.

Each plane fired one sea skimming Excoet missile at the ship with the Excoet, like the planes, also designed and built by the French. Although in a combat zone, and aware of the threat posed by Argentinian Super Étendards armed with Excoet missiles, HMS Sheffield did not seem to be as sensitive to danger as she might have been. The ship was not at “Action Stations, State One,” that is “battle stations,” known as “General Quarters” in the US Navy. Instead, the ship was in Defense Watch Station 2. Radar on the ship did not pick up the two Super Étendards because the planes were flying just fifty feet over the ocean.

After successful missile launch, the planes turned away and streaked for home. The Excoet missiles truly are sea skimmers since they fly about three feet above the surface and are very hard to spot. Radar gave the British no warning of the missiles. They were spotted the old fashioned way, through binoculars by a sailor on lookout duty who gave the alert. Five seconds later one of the missiles struck the Sheffield. The other missile splashed into the sea.

Fortunately, the warhead of the missile did not explode. Unfortunately, the impact both knocked out the primary fire-fighting main and ignited fires which could not be controlled. The ship was abandoned although it did not sink until under tow in rough seas a few days later.

HMS Sheffield aflame on 4 May 1982 after being hit with a French made Exocet sea skimming missile fired from a French made Super Étendard fighter bomber used by the Argentinian Air Force. After several days of fire-fighting the ship was abandoned and sank.

In one of the curiosities of the war, only one other navy operated the Type 42 guided-missile destroyer and that was the Argentinian Navy, which had purchased two of them from the British. The Royal Navy painted a long black stripe down the side of their Type 42’s to ensure correct identification by their own forces.

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia and Navy Photos.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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