Tuesday 4 May 1982 was a dark day for the British forces involved in Operation Corporate, the campaign to retake the Falkland Islands after Argentina invaded a month before.
The day had started with a second Black Buck strike on Stanley airfield by an RAF Avro Vulcan B2 bomber which had taken off from Ascension Island in the finals hours of 3 May, accompanied by a string of Handley-Page Victor tankers.
This time the run-in to Stanley was at a much higher altitude than Black Buck 1, as Argentine air defences were not expected to be caught napping again.
And while the objective was not met – no bombs hit the runway – a cluster of craters left at one end of the relatively short airstrip meant it could not be lengthened to accommodate fast jets. It could, and did, continue to operate normally for Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft and other light aircraft.
But it was another air strike that made the headlines on 4 May – one carried out by two Argentine Navy Super Etendard aircraft, each loaded with a fearsome loaded with Exocet missile.
The pilots of these aircraft, and their colleagues, had been practising attacks on Argentine ships in the weeks before the British task force reached the Falklands, including runs against Argentine Type 42 destroyers which were identical to the three Royal Navy destroyers on picket duty on 4 May, providing advanced ant-aircraft cover.
The two pilots were, then, familiar with their prey – although the British Type 42s were not their preferred targets.
Those would be the two British carriers, the loss of either of which would have put the entire operation to retake the Falklands in jeopardy, according to Battle Group Commander Admiral Sandy Woodward.
But the carriers, 80 miles south east of the Falklands, were protected by a series of screens of ships, the innermost being the two ‘bodyguards’ for the carriers – Type 22 frigates HMS Brilliant, assigned to HMS Invincible, and HMS Broadsword, protecting flagship HMS Hermes.
The frigates both mounted the new and highly-rated Sea Wolf close-range anti-aircraft (and anti-missile, and in trials even anti-shell) missile system.
Further out to the west were three RFA ships, tanker Olmeda and supply ships Resource and Fort Austin, which themselves presented major radar targets to confuse any incoming attackers.
Further west again, towards Argentina, were frigates HMS Arrow, HMS Alacrity and HMS Yarmouth, along with the County-class destroyer HMS Glamorgan.
The first line of defence was the anti-air specialist trio of HMS Sheffield, HMS Glasgow and HMS Coventry, strung out almost 20 miles west of the frigate screen.
And it was one of those three, Sheffield, that was spotted by an Argentinian maritime patrol aircraft before 0800 on 4 May; her position was confirmed again before the two Super Etendards took off from Rio Grande air station.
Little over an hour later the jets, having descended to wave-skimming low-level flight, popped up twice to obtain radar contacts, and on the second attempt they were successful.
This distinctive manoeuvre was spotted by Glasgow, which alerted the air defence controllers on Invincible then went to action stations.
But 20 miles away, a fluke of unfortunate timing meant that Sheffield was using a communication system just as the Argentine aircraft popped up, which meant her radar did not pick up the contacts.
While still at least 20 miles from Sheffield and Glasgow, the two aircraft launched their Exocets before turning and heading back to the Argentina.
Glasgow fired decoy chaff clusters but Sheffield was not aware of the missiles until lookouts spotted the smoke trail of the fast, low-flying Exocets barely seconds before one struck amidships, leaving no time for evasive manoeuvres.
The strike badly damaged the destroyer’s power supply and firefighting water main, leaving her ship’s company unable to effectively fight or even contain the fierce fires that broke out.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack HMS Arrow and HMS Yarmouth went to the picket line to find out what had happened, and to assist, though it was important that the defensive line-up was maintained in case of further attacks.
As sailors fought a losing battle with fire aboard Sheffield, Arrow and Yarmouth went alongside to help, but the risk of a devastating explosion in the Sea Dart missile magazine, and the risk to other ships from further air strikes or submarine attacks, persuaded Capt Salt to order Sheffield be abandoned, little more than four hours after the missile strike.
A group of 26 wounded men had already been taken off Sheffield and transferred to aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, while most of their remaining 260 or so shipmates were taken off the destroyer by Arrow, a few more crossing to Yarmouth in small boats.
Later around 170 survivors of the attack were transferred to RFA Fort Austin, along with the doomed destroyer’s Lynx helicopter.
Although Sheffield was actually lost on 10 May when she foundered in rough seas while under tow, she was effectively a smouldering, dead ship within hours of being struck by the Exocet – and the first Royal Navy vessel to be sunk in action since World War 2.
A memorial to the 20 men who died in Sheffield takes the form of a cross and cairn on a headland on Sea Lion Island, the closest part of the Falklands to the position in which Sheffield was hit.
The 20 men who died were, in alphabetical order:
Lt Cdr David Balfour
POMEM(M) David Briggs, who was awarded a posthumous DSM
CA Darryl Cope
WEA Anthony Eggington
Sub Lt Richard Emly
POCk Robert Fagan
Ck Neil Goodall
Laundryman Lai Chi Keung
LMEM(M) Allan Knowles
LCk Tony Marshall
POWEM Anthony Norman
Ck David Osborne
WEA1 Kevin Sullivan
Ck Andrew Swallow
Act CWEM(N) Michael Till
WEMN2 Barry Wallis
LCk Adrian Wellstead
MAA Brian Welsh
Ck Kevin Williams
Lt Cdr John Woodhead, who was awarded a posthumous DSC.
There was one further Royal Navy fatality on 4 May.
A flight of three Sea Harriers from 800 Naval Air Squadron, based in HMS Hermes, carried out a bombing raid on Goose Green airfield, in the middle of East Falkland.
Unknown to the pilots, the air defences at Goose Green had been modified and put on constant alert, and the second Harrier in was hit by cannon fire.
The aircraft caught fire and crashed, killing pilot Lt Nick Taylor. The Royal Navy officer was buried, with military honours, by local residents under supervision of Argentine forces in a grave close to where his Harrier crashed.
Today’s image, from the Imperial War Museum collection (© IWM FKD 2319), shows Type 21 frigate HMS Arrow going alongside the burning HMS Sheffield shortly after the destroyer was struck by an Exocet missile on 4 May 1982.
* These posts can only give a brief sense of what was a complex and fast-moving situation 40 years ago, and cannot cover the involvement of every ship, squadron and unit in detail – for a much more comprehensive account see naval-history.net at https://www.naval-history.net/NAVAL1982FALKLANDS.htm