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Those Plucky Brits: the Crew of HMS Sheffield Sang as Their Ship Burned

The military is no doubt a dangerous place to be, in the sense that part of your sworn oath was that you’re basically agreeing to risk your life while performing your duties. At times, those who served had developed this kind of sense of humor that civilians might find disturbing. Calling deadly s-mines that could shred you into pieces as adorably as Bouncing Betty? Sure! Sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian after your ship was hit by an enemy rocket? Why not? In fact, that’s exactly what the crew of HMS Sheffield did that time in 1982 during the Falklands War.

The Falklands War

Falklands War, also known as Malvinas War, was an undeclared war between Argentina and the United Kingdom in 1982 that lasted for about ten weeks. The conflict was about the two British-dependent territories in the South Atlantic: the Falkland Islands and its territorial dependency, South Georgia, and the South Sandwich Islands.

It all started when Argentina decided to invade and occupy the Falkland Islands on April 2 and South Georgia just a day apart, with 10,000 Argentinian troops rushing into the islands. Their invasion was triggered when some Argentine laborers had a workers’ dispute and raised the Argentinian flag on South Georgia Island. The Falkland Islands is a series of small islands off the Argentine coast, and at that point, it had been held by Britain for about 150 years.

On April 5, the British government responded by sending out a naval task force to combat the Argentine Navy and Air Force before taking the battle to the islands. Argentina surrendered after 74 days on June 14 and returned control of the islands to the British forces.

All in all, the British lost 255 military personnel, the Argentines lost 649, and the Falklands lost three islanders during the conflict. As mentioned, neither of the sides declared an official war, although both of them assigned the Islands as a war zone.

HMS Sheffield

HMS Sheffield at Diego Garcia. February 1982. (Nathalmad, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent out British forces to the area, she dispatched a two-carrier naval task force that would patrol and secure the 200-mile war zone that they declared around the Falklands. One of the ships deployed was a Type 42 guided-missile destroyer the HMS Sheffield, named after the city of Sheffield in Yorkshire. On April 2, 1982, she was ordered to be part of the task force assembled to reclaim the islands. Before it sailed to the war zone, it was loaded with ammunition and supplies, and the unnecessary memorabilia were removed. Vertical black markings were also painted on the funnel and the sides up to her waterline so other crew could easily differentiate it from the Argentine ships like the Hercules and Santisima Trinidad.

HMS Sheffield departed from the South Atlantic on April 10, along with HMS Arrow, HMS Brilliant, HMS Coventry, and HMS Glasgow. They reached Ascension Island on April 14 and joined other vessels of Task Force 317 to continue operations in the Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ) around the Falkland Islands.

Always Look on the Bright Side

Destroyer HMS Sheffield (D80) was fatally damaged in the Falklands War. (Argentina.gob.ar (Argentina Governorate), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

On May 2, the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was torpedoed and sunk by a Royal Navy Submarine (still the only sub kill on a surface ship since WWII), which resulted in the biggest single loss of life in the war, with 320 deaths in the frigid waters of the South Atlantic. Two days later, the Argentine forces fired off a French-made Exocet air-launched anti-ship missile toward HMS Sheffield, and the ship’s anti-missile radar systems failed to pick up the inbound missile until it was too late. The Exocet hit her amidships in the Combat Information Center, killing 20 men instantly. The warhead did not explode but severed her high-pressure water main and the ignited fuel from the missile engine caused a fire that spread to diesel fuel in ready tanks in one of her engine rooms, resulting in a furious blaze. Smoke and flames quickly engulfed the ship, with others suffering from burns and smoke inhalation.

The HMS Arrow was sent to rescue the remaining crew. A chain was formed to keep everyone together. As they departed in the Arrow, in the middle of the chaos, the fire, and smoke, Sub-Lieutenant Carrington-Wood still managed to summon his strength and started singing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, a song from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. As for Sheffield, she was a burned-out hulk being towed across the Atlantic to England for repairs. The hole made by the missile was some 8 feet above her water line but rough seas encountered on the way began to flood her. Four days after the strike by the Exocet, her tow lines were severed and she foundered, becoming the first Royal Navy ship to be sunk in action since World War II.

You could just picture the British Tars singing and whistling along with Michael Palin:

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