People who serve in the military tend to develop a pretty dark sense of humor. It comes with the territory. When a very large part of your life involves risking it for your country and for the guy next to you, the idea that your last moments could be closer than you think never fully leaves your mind.
This can change a person. Veterans have a different outlook on some of the more serious aspects of life, laughing at things many others would never dream to, for fear of offending others or, worse, tempting fate. For the crew of the British destroyer HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War, this change became readily apparent and their darker sense of humor flourished.
In 1982, the military junta that ruled Argentina decided that the nearby Falkland Islands, a series of small and strategically unimportant islands off the Argentine coast were going to belong to Argentina again. They had been held by Britain for about 150 years at that point. After a workers’ dispute saw Argentine laborers raise the Argentinian flag on South Georgia Island, Argentina invaded. Soon, 10,000 Argentinian troops occupied the islands. The Argentines thought the UK was unwilling and unable to defend their territories so far from the mainland. They were wrong.
They thought the woman with the nickname “Milk Snatcher” was gonna just let them have the goddamn Falklands.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched a two-carrier naval task force to the area and declared a 200-mile war zone around the Falklands. Within two months, the British retook the Falklands and punished the Argentinian military, but their win was not totally without loss. One of the deadliest weapons the Royal Navy had to face was the new French-built Exocet anti-ship missile. The versatile weapon is capable of sinking enemy vessels with a single, well-placed shot.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in sinking the HMS Sheffield.
Exocet: the trump card of naval warfare.
The Sheffield was on alert but was more concerned about the submarine threat from Argentina’s navy. The crew was totally unaware of the incoming ordnance until they could see smoke from the sea-skimming missiles. The firing aircraft, two Argentinian Navy Super-Étandards weren’t even detected. One missile hit the water, well away from the ship, but the other hit the Sheffield just eight feet above the waterline.
The ship was set on fire and, because the missile hit Sheffield’s water main, there was no way to put it out. Smoke and flames quickly filled the ship, beginning from the second deck where the Exocet missile struck. The crew could only gather and accept the ship’s fate as it burned and they waited to be rescued. Some 20 British sailors died in the initial explosion.
The HMS Arrow was on its way to rescue the Sheffield’s crew, so they formed a chain to keep everyone together and a Sub-Lieutenant named Carrington-Wood led the crew in singing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. To this day, it’s the most-requested funeral song in the UK.
The Sheffield did not sink immediately. She was looked at to see what could be salvaged and only began to take on water as she was towed across the Atlantic. When she sank, she was the first Royal Navy ship to be sunk in action since World War II.