Missile strike on HMS Sheffield seared in Colin's memory

"Exocet!" Colin Haley cannot be sure, but he thinks that moments before the missile struck home one of his colleagues in the operations room of HMS Sheffield cried out a last minute warning.

Shropshire survivors, from left, Trevor Wright of Broseley, Paul Entwhistle of St Martins, and Sub Lieutenant Colin Haley, celebrate their return to Britain.
Shropshire survivors, from left, Trevor Wright of Broseley, Paul Entwhistle of St Martins, and Sub Lieutenant Colin Haley, celebrate their return to Britain.

He can still remember clearly the events of that day 40 years ago which sent a shockwave through the nation.

The loss during the Falklands War of the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield on May 4, 1982, was the first sinking of a Royal Navy ship in action since the Second World War. A total of 20 sailors on board died and 26 were injured.

The then Sub Lieutenant Haley, from Telford, was 23, and was the fighter controller in the operations room, his role being to talk to Sea Harrier pilots and help them intercept enemy aircraft. His station was vertically below the bridge of the ship, and about 40ft in front of where the Exocet struck.

A Ministry of Defence "local boy" photo of Colin taken on HMS Sheffield in September 1981.

It had been an uneventful day. And then...

"I was on watch in the operations room and looking at my radar screen and just saw an orange blob appear, 22 to 23 miles away from the ship.

"That quite often happened. Over the course of the previous three days, and even on that day, blobs would appear from time to time. You had to work out if it was a spurious return or a real contact," he recalls.

The blob reappeared on the next radar sweep.

"On the third sweep I knew it was something, and not spurious. I remember turning and saying to nobody in particular 'fast moving contact, 20 miles to the south west.'"

His colleagues immediately took an interest and they identified at least one, and possibly two, fast moving and low flying contacts, which at times were difficult to follow.

"Even at that early stage people were trying things, like the missile system operator who tried to get a firing solution on them, but was unable to do so.

"I said 'They're not Harriers.' The closer they got to us, the harder they were to see. I thought they must be aircraft flying towards us but they weren't – they were missiles. At 10 miles they became really difficult to see. We had worked out that there were two of them.

"I literally followed that radar contact all the way until it got so close to the ship on radar that I couldn't see it any more.

"Then I heard a cry over internal communications – 'Take Cover!' Seconds later there was, I wouldn't say it was a big bang, it was more like a dull metallic thud. The ship shook briefly but very violently."

Colin says when that warning went up he was supposed to brace himself, but didn't.

"I just sat there thinking, 'oh dear.'"

On impact all systems went dead and the violent shaking lifted a cloud of dust in the operations room.

"It was like somebody had burst a Hoover bag in my face. We were coughing and spluttering. At the same time you could smell a very acid, acrid smoke and there was a bit of fire in the next door communications office and you could hear people setting off fire extinguishers and people calling for first aid help.

"For a brief moment everybody was stunned and then our training kicked in and we did all the sorts of things we needed to do to recover from whatever had hit us.

"In my own mind I thought we were being attacked by aircraft. Only right at the very end did I get the inkling that it was not. I'm pretty sure, but not 100 per cent sure, that right at the very end one of the other operators in the ops room shouted 'Exocet!'"

Exocet was a deadly air-launched anti-ship missile.

As realisation set in that Sheffield had indeed been struck by a missile Colin and his colleagues set about trying to get their systems up and running again.

"The smoke was getting thicker and thicker rather quickly, and the officer in charge of the operations room decided it was time to evacuate, I think quite rightly because we were coughing and spluttering and already struggling to breathe."

Just as he was about to leave he heard a cry from the computer room below to say the computer was back up and running.

"I looked at this hatch and there were two faces, weapons engineer officers, and I said 'really?' All the computer screens in the ops room had come on again, and I said 'But we've evacuated, there's nobody here now.' They said 'okay' and they turned round and disappeared.

"That is one of my poignant memories of the day, looking in the faces of two officers who then died, because there were several people in the computer room, including those two, and none of them came out. I suppose within a few minutes of us leaving they were overcome by smoke and would not have been able to get out."

HMS Sheffield burns after being hit by an Exocet missile.

Colin emerged into brilliant sunshine and a sparkling sea.

"And then you turned round and saw the whole of the ship, and the smoke and the steam and everything else and the bedlam behind. It was quite surreal.

"I was lucky. There were a few guys in the operations room who were injured, but luck was on my side, and I was unscathed."

Colin was one of three Shropshire survivors of those dramatic events of 40 years ago.

Able Seaman Trevor Wright, from Collins Close, Broseley, was just 19, and saw the approaching missile just seconds before it struck 20ft below him as he ran towards a 20mm gun. And 19-year-old Paul Entwhistle was a former Oswestry High School pupil whose parents lived at Oak Drive, St Martins. He was a weapons engineer mechanic working in the radar section.

Shropshire survivors, from left, Trevor Wright of Broseley, Paul Entwhistle of St Martins, and Sub Lieutenant Colin Haley, celebrate their return to Britain.

While Colin can remember in detail the attack and its immediate aftermath, the next three hours or so is a blur of trying to fight and contain the fires. Other ships, HMS Arrow and HMS Yarmouth, came to help, and at first he thought they were starting to win the battle.

But then Yarmouth thought she detected a torpedo fired at her and made a rapid exit – in fact there had been no attack – and soon it became clear Sheffield would have to be abandoned.

"I was helping with a hose very close to where the hole in the ship was, and the second in command was close by me and called up to the captain on the bridge. The captain said something like 'Well then, Number One, what do you think?' The second in command said 'It's no good sir.' The captain said 'Right, let's get everybody off to Arrow then.'"

Crewmen scrambled onto HMS Arrow until she too left the scene for fear of torpedo attack, and Colin and a couple of dozen others were left on the flight deck of the burning ship, with the flames potentially getting near the magazines.

A helicopter arrived but could not take them all, so in the end Colin left HMS Sheffield on a small rubber dinghy.

Burnt out Sheffield sank later.

After a night on HMS Arrow Colin was transferred to an ammunition ship called Resource, and spent the next eight or nine days as her helicopter controller.

"I was very fortunate as she carried three helicopters, but didn't have a helicopter controller. For the vast majority of HMS Sheffield people on board there wasn't anything to do, but it was terrific for me because I was kept very well occupied and for my mental state that was a real positive."

A decision was taken that all Sheffield survivors should return to Britain by the earliest means, but Colin wanted to stay.

Joy as Able Seaman Trevor Wright of Broseley is greeted by his mother Marjorie on his return to Britain

"I wanted to continue to serve, to offset the fact that we hadn't done very much in Sheffield. My personal goal was to come out of the war feeling I had positively contributed. Going home felt like I was withdrawing from what I had been trained to do and was paid to do, and I regret that I didn't put up more of a fight to stay. In the end I did as I was told."

His parents Bill and Esme lived in Field Close, Malinslee, but had been abroad on holiday when Sheffield was struck. But the message that Colin was safe got through to his brother Paul within around 12 hours of the ship being hit.

There was a joyful reunion when Colin and other survivors flew in to RAF Brize Norton. Among those greeting him were his girlfriend Rachel.

Reunited... Colin at RAF Brize Norton in May 1982 with from left, father Bill, girlfriend Rachel, mother Esme, and sister Ann.

"I went on to marry her and we have two daughters."

Bill and Esme live in Bournemouth now, Paul lives in Oakengates, and sister Ann Devrill in Poole.

Colin, a former pupil of Trench Boys School, and then New College in Wellington, had a 26-year career in the navy.

"Immediately after Sheffield I joined the then latest Type 42 destroyer HMS Liverpool and after a couple of months' training we were down the Falklands again immediately after the war for six months."

Despite being a sister ship to Sheffield, Liverpool was already a transformed warship in terms of equipment, training, and procedures as a result of lessons learned the hard way in the Falklands.

"I then had a full career including chasing smugglers in Hong Kong, drug smugglers in the Caribbean, and fishery protection in the UK waters, as captain of a fishery protection squadron ship, and finished working for the Minister of Defence in London.

"I decided to change career – I didn't want another 10 years behind a desk – and went into teaching at a primary school. I worked up to headship and finally finished last year as Executive Head on two primary schools on the Isle of Wight.

"Eighteen months ago I decided I would give up full time teaching and I now go into a local school here in Berkshire in a support role most days and am a governor at the school."

Reflecting on the events of 40 years ago, he says: "I have been very lucky in the sense that I don't think the whole affair has given me many of the problems that others have suffered. I feel I have been blessed in not suffering from that. I have seen several Sheffield shipmates later in my naval career and it clearly did affect some far more than others."

Colin today.

He has been to a couple of Sheffield reunions years ago, but says he has never really been one for reunions with any of the ships on which he served, preferring to look forward, and in the case of HMS Sheffield there has been an undertone.

"There were plenty of people aboard Sheffield who felt we hadn't done in the operations room everything we could have done to save the ship, and they're right about that, as there were things we could have done and didn't do. There was always that feeling that some people let the ship down. As a consequence that's rather divided the ship's company over the years, and there's been animosity against a couple of the officers on board that I have been aware of."

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