HMS SHEFFIELD and the Exocet

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    David M

    Please note that we will exploring this topic in an episode on the Falklands conflict in the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. Enjoy! Dr Sam Willis, Editor.

    Good afternoon all, this is my first posting to the forum, and I hope the readership finds it of interest. I’m posting in response to the recent Mariner’s Mirror podcast episode ‘The Falklands Sinkings‘ and the findings in Paul Brown’s excellent and recently published book, “Abandon Ship”, which was recently published by Osprey. As someone with deep interest in the Falklands campaign for 40 years – and in a professional capacity for over 30, I was keen to see what Paul had uncovered through his extensive use of FOI requests, and I was not disappointed. It is an excellent piece of work.

    The chapter on the loss of SHEFFIELD was of particular interest. I was pleased to see reference to the MOD paper that re-evaluated the loss of SHEFFIELD, but surprised to see the re-evaluation result, that the Exocet warhead most likely did detonate, as being in doubt. As the author of the paper and the instigator of the work by several agencies that led to that conclusion Sam Willis suggested I make a short post here to explain the reasoning behind that conclusion (I would have liked to have proposed a precis of the paper as an article for The Mariner’s Mirror, but having been published in its full form by the Royal Institution of Naval Architects it falls foul of the “original research” requirement).

    My interest in SHEFFIELD from a professional perspective came when I joined the MOD’s warship survivability team in 2000 (a team that I now lead). At the time we were bringing into service a new vulnerability assessment analysis code called SURVIVE, developed by QinetiQ. As part of my personal programme to develop my experience in using the code I recreated a number of historical incidents and trials results to run as validation exercises. In all cases the results I obtained were close to reality, except in the case of SHEFFIELD, where I was not able to replicate the reported blast damage using only a non-detonating warhead and the effect of the ship’s fuel. Further analysis showed that the only way that the observed damage could be replicated was to assume a full on high order detonation of the Exocet warhead. Of course this was at odds with the Board of Inquiry results, but my results were confirmed independently by the QinetiQ survivability team and later by Dstl. At the time I was fortunate to be working with several retired members of SHEFFIELD’S crew by virtue of their working on projects for BAE Systems and they also suggested the results we were obtaining were correct and that they had never believed the pronouncement from the BOI.

    So the obvious question was, why did the BOI conclude that the Exocet had detonated? Further investigation at the Naval Historical Branch led to the finding of the technical input to the BOI where the story was revealed. The BOI was working to very short timelines and on the warhead front this meant only a day’s review at AWE Portsdown. The experts gathered has as their primary source of weapon effectiveness evidence the Exocet trials conducted against ex-HMS UNDAUNTED in the 1970s. This revealed massive damage forward in the ship, clearly far greater than SHEFFIELD had suffered. With that as their handrail it was a logical conclusion. However, the differences in circumstances were legion – SHEFFILED was a far larger, more modern and well built welded ship using high quality steel, as opposed to UNDAUNTED’s WW2 era emergency construction. The missile hit UNDAUNTED forward in a narrow part of the ship where the deck above the point of impact was unsupported by superstructure, whereas the hit on SHEFFIELD caused the weapon to enter an area of large compartments with superstructure above, restraining blast effects. Indeed, trials in 1984 against ex-HMS HARDY (a “mod point” between the WW2 era UNDANUNTED and the relatively modern SHEFFIELD) featured a detonating Exocet hit in the hull underneath HARDY’s superstructure that was almost identical in nature to that in SHEFFIELD, and analysis of the Exocet strikes against USS STARK in 1986 revealed damage that was also very similar.

    ex-UNDAUNTED hit by Exocet

    ex-HARDY hit by Exocet. Photos from the port side show damage similar to that suffered by SHEFFIELD

    With the benefit of modern, verified and validated analysis codes coupled with trials and operational evidence that was not available to the BOI at the time a very strong case supported by technical peer review was made that the Exocet that hit SHEFFIELD did, indeed detonate as designed. And indeed that is now the line that is briefed in the RN’s Command Warfare Course and the MOD’s various survivability courses to designers and planners in the MOD and UK Industry.
    I hope the above made interesting reading, and served as a useful adjunct to readers of Paul’s excellent book.

    Paul B

    As the author of Abandon Ship, the book in question, I am most grateful for this posting from David M. It gives a very clear explanation of his findings, which I fully accept. I think that my statement about whether the warhead detonated, “This remains in doubt”, was over cautious, but it was meant to convey that we can never be absolutely sure. Since the book went to press I had already revised that view in the light of an article by the first lieutenant of HMS Sheffield, published in June 2020 (but not seen by me until many months later). This stated that he had returned to view the abandoned ship from a helicopter a couple of days after the missile strike: “On closer inspection of the missile entry point one could clearly see that the hull plating was ‘belled’ outwards with considerable ‘petalling’ of the plating, consistent with our belief that the missile had indeed exploded inside the hull in the area of the FAMR and Galley.” Consequently, before seeing David M’s posting, I had asked the publisher to delete the sentence, “This remains in doubt”, in any future reprints or editions. It is very helpful to have the other evidence that David M has provided here.

    Malcolm Lewis

    Paul Brown’s book featured as an SNR Podcast is an important record of the sad loss of six RN and RFA ships as well as the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano. It is a MUST READ for the naval historian.
    Both the British Government and its military were unprepared to respond to the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, the windswept rocks 8000 miles away in the South Atlantic. Paul gives a harrowing description of life aboard a modern warship under constant attack from fast jets with bombs and missiles. The book is very well researched and includes information from government files only recently released.
    The unanswered question I suppose is would Argentina have carried out such an invasion if the UK had not withdrawn the ice patrol ship Endurance, which showed a lack of commitment to the Falkland islanders and, at the first signs of trouble such as the landings at South Georgia, sent a nuclear submarine from its patrol area in the North Atlantic to the Southern Ocean?

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