On This Day: HMS Sheffield destroyed by Argentina during Falklands War

Smoke billows from the Type 42 destroyer HMS A Sheffield as fire rages through the warship after she was hit by an Argentinian missile

May 4, 1982: HMS Sheffield was destroyed by Argentina 31 years ago today – killing 20 British sailors and becoming the first Royal Navy ship to be sunk since World War II.

The vessel caught fire after being hit by an Exocet missile during the Falklands War, leaving dozens of on board with horrific burns and others suffering smoke inhalation.

The attack came two days after the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was torpedoed and sunk, causing the biggest single loss of life in the 1982 conflict with 320 deaths.

The sinking was a blow to British military prestige, not least because the radar systems had failed to pick up that a plane-fired missile was heading towards the ship.

Luckily, the rocket didn’t explode – otherwise the death toll would have been higher.

But it did directly penetrate the control room – causing twenty men to die instantly - and set the ship ablaze.

[Read more: The Falklands War]

Yet amid the misery, there were also tales that cheered the nation.

While waiting to be rescued, Sub Lieutenant Carrington-Wood led the crew in singing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from Monty Python’s Life of Brian movie.

On June 14, British forces went on to liberate the Falkland Islands 10 weeks after Argentina’s invasion.

British sailors and soldiers, who lost 252 of their comrades, were welcomed home as heroes when they returned.