It was the first British warship lost in enemy action since World War II, yet as flames engulfed HMS Sheffield the crew managed to “look on the bright side” of things.
On May 4, 1982, a month after Argentinian forces invaded the British overseas dominion of the Falkland Islands and two days after a British task force traversed nearly 8,000 miles to join the fight, an Argentine Exocet missile slammed into the destroyer as it patrolled off Port Stanley in the South Atlantic.
According to the warship’s board of inquiry report released in 2012, “the Missile’s impact left a 15 feet by 4 feet hole in the ship’s side and caused widespread minor shock damage.” Fire almost immediately began to spread throughout the lower decks of the ship.
“My boots were actually melting because the superstructure was getting that hot,” John Miller, a Royal Navy weapons engineer, recalled to the York Press. “We couldn’t put the fire out. All we could do was close the steel bulkheads down and contain it.”
Of the 300 sailors that manned the 4,100-tonne destroyer, 20 were killed and 26 wounded.
“After some 4 hours firefighting the situation was deteriorating,” the report continued. “Internally the ship was burning fiercely…SHEFFIELD’S fighting capability was totally and probably irremediably destroyed.”
Finally, Rear Admiral James “Sam” Salt ordered the crew to abandon ship, and sailors began to form a human chain in the water to keep everyone together while awaiting rescue from the nearby HMS Arrow.
It was there that Sub-Lieutenant Clive Carrington-Wood struck up a tune, and the sardonic British sense of humor was on full display as he and his fellow sailors began singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” as they watched their ship burn.’Life of Brian as they watched their ship burn.
The attack was a blow to British military prestige, especially so after the report found the anti-air warfare officer negligent because his “lengthy absence” from the ops room “meant an important air-defense facility was not manned. The report notes that 12 minutes after impact, this officer was still insisting the ship had not been struck by a missile,” The Guardian writes.
But ever the masters of spin — Dunkirk, anyone? — the news of Carrington-Wood’s cheekiness reached the British press and injected some pride back into the British spirit in the aftermath of the devastating attack.
Three weeks later, as the HMS Coventry sank after coming under waves of attacks from Argentine Douglas A-4 Skyhawks, the survivors took a leaf out of Carrington-Wood’s book and hummed, sang, and whistled that fire track as they sat precariously perched in their life rafts.
Little more than a month later, British forces prevailed to force the Argentinians to surrender, giving new meaning to “when you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle, and this’ll help things turn out for the best.”