Disaster: Convoy PQ 17 and Admiral of the Fleet Dudley Pound – Part 3

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A 50-foot (15m) high wave towers above the bridge of the cruiser HMS Sheffield. During this Arctic gale the wind reached speeds of 65 knots (120kph). Visibility was less than 180m. The heavy seas stripped the armoured roof off one of the ship’s turrets.

Unlike any other service chief in Great Britain at the time, such as Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), the First Sea Lord was both the professional head of the Royal Navy and the commanding officer of the entire fleet. Pound could, and did, go over the heads of Admirals on the scene in their flagships and even over the head of the C-in-C, Home Fleet, the most powerful fleet in the Navy usually kept close to home to defend the British Isles. The commander of the Home Fleet was always an Admiral of the Fleet as well.

In September of 1943, Pound had a stroke in Washington, DC while accompanying Prime Minister Churchill to a meeting with President Roosevelt. Pound resigned the next day and died a month later in London.

The Western Approaches Command control room as it was during operation.

[Images courtesy of the Imperial War Museum and the BBC.]

Air Attack! HMS Sheffield Hit and Later Sinks – Part 2

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HMS Sheffield (D80)

A recently declassified report from the British Ministry of Defence claims the crew was poorly trained and badly led. Not what one would expect from the Royal Navy. To make this even more important, HMS Sheffield was the first Royal Navy warship to be sunk by enemy action since World War Two.

Shortly after the missile struck, dense black smoke began to fill the ship. Officers quickly lost control of the situation. According to the report, “the control of firefighting and other activity after impact lacked cohesion.” Even worse, “it was not clear where Command of the Ship was located, the control of personnel un-coordinated…”

HMS Sheffield (D80) on fire after being hit by an Exocet cruise missile during the Falkland Islands War, 4 May 1982.

The fires continued to spread as did the impenetrable black smoke and after the fire came close to the magazine storing the Sea Dart anti-aircraft missiles, the Captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. Two Royal Navy ships were standing off from HMS Sheffield and rescued the crew. The ship continued to float in perfect trim for two more days while the fires continued to burn, completely destroying everything within the hull.

Twenty brave men died, most because of incompetence by XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (redacted in the report). Quoting now from the official report:

There were some shortcomings in the performance of XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX which contributed to the ship’s failure adequately to counter the attack.

Nineteen lines of text which follow in the official report, which tell us where the shortcomings in performance were, have been redacted. With the reduction in numbers of Royal Navy ships in the decades after World War Two, its good to know HMS Cover Your Ass is still afloat. The entire report can be found online.

For those who vaguely remember something about the ship burning because of speculation that the superstructure or portions of it were made of aluminum, that is not the case. Only steel was used in the superstructure.

[Images courtesy of Naval Warfare.]

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.]