Long after the Falklands war was over, controversy continued to dog the sinking on 4 May 1982 of HMS Sheffield, whose captain, Sam Salt, has died of lung cancer, aged 69. The loss of 20 of his comrades left him with a deep emotional wound.
The ship was hit by an Argentinian Exocet missile only three days after hostilities over the disputed sovereignty of the south Atlantic islands began in earnest. On Saturday 1 May, with a 200-mile total exclusion zone declared around the islands, British warships had begun bombarding Argentinian positions close to the capital, Stanley. Simultaneously, Stanley airport was attacked by Vulcan bombers flying a round trip of 6,700 miles from Ascension Island. Twenty-four hours later, the nuclear submarine Conqueror sank the cruiser General Belgrano, with the loss of 368 Argentinian lives.
Flames and smoke billowing from the bombed HMS Sheffield Photograph: PA. Two days after that, the Argentinian air force sought revenge. At around 2pm on 4 May, two Super Etendard fighters, hunting for the prize of the British task force, the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, spotted a group of three type-42 destroyers, HMS Sheffield, Glasgow and Coventry, guarding the western flank of the British fleet, then hiding in the south Atlantic mists east of the Falkland Islands. At first it looked as though they would attack the Glasgow but, at 15 miles’ distance, the aircraft turned away, instead launching two Exocet missiles at the Sheffield. One bounced harmlessly into the sea. The other smashed a hole 15ft x 4ft into the warship’s starboard side. The crew had 15 seconds’ notice of the mayhem to come.
The missile itself failed to detonate, but its leaking fuel caught light and sent clouds of black, acrid smoke billowing through the ship. The destroyer’s supplies of diesel oil were soon ablaze as well. To make matters worse, the impact of the missile shattered the Sheffield’s fire main, reducing the water pressure and removing any real chance of firefighters controlling the blaze. What water there was boiled as it hit the surface of the ship, so intense was the heat. Of the 281 crew members, 20 died, most of them asphyxiated as they tried to escape, and 26 were injured.
All afternoon Salt directed hopeless efforts to save his vessel. Then, just before 6pm, fearful that Sheffield’s stock of Sea Dart missiles was about to explode, he gave the order to abandon ship. Several days later, with fires still burning, it sank into the south Atlantic (where it lies to this day, designated an official war grave). The Sheffield became the first British warship to be sunk by enemy action since the second world war and the first of four lost in the Falklands conflict. Its fate ended hopes of a diplomatic solution to the dispute about the islands’ sovereignty.
Long after the Argentinian surrender that June, the crucial question remained: why, if HMS Glasgow had identified the Exocet threat at 25 miles and taken counter-measures to divert the Etendard pilots, could not the Sheffield have done the same? A board of inquiry established a conjunction of unfortunate coincidences. It emerged that immediately prior to the attack, Sheffield’s communications system, transmitting other messages, could not pick up signals from the incoming aircraft. Salt had gone off duty and several key officers were away from their posts, so that when warnings did arrive from the Glasgow, they got no immediate response. Crucially, there was also an underlying scepticism about the potency of the Argentinian air force.
Salt emerged from the episode a chastened figure. A short, quiet and precise man, he was admired for his leadership qualities, a mischievous sense of humour and his ability to motivate colleagues. This week, naval blogs have been buzzing with tributes to him, a testimony to the loyalty he continued to inspire from survivors through the HMS Sheffield Association.
Salt was born in Yeovil, Somerset, just six months before his father, Lt Cmdr George Salt, was lost at sea in October 1940, while commanding the submarine HMS Triad on Mediterranean patrol. The vessel disappeared without trace, probably sunk by the Italian submarine Enrico Toti in the Gulf of Taranto. Salt’s mother, Lillian, later married another naval officer and her son was brought up in a service atmosphere.
Salt was educated at Wellington college, Berkshire, and at the Dartmouth Royal Naval College (1958-59) in Devon. He served in the far east, the Mediterranean and the south Atlantic before, in 1969, taking a two-year command of his first submarine, HMS Finwhale. He was soon promoted to Britain’s nuclear fleet, serving as second-in-command of the Polaris missile submarine Resolution (1973-74), and commander of the nuclear-powered attack submarine Dreadnought (1978-79). Immediately after the Falklands war, he was given command of another type-42 destroyer, HMS Southampton.
He effectively came ashore in 1984, when he moved to Fleet headquarters at Northwood, Middlesex, as assistant chief of staff (operations), managing British naval activities around the world. He was director of defence intelligence (1986-87) and, promoted to rear-admiral, spoke for the navy at the Royal College of Defence Studies, Belgrave Square, in London (1988-90). As assistant chief of naval staff (1990-91), he played a key role in co-ordinating naval support during the first Gulf war.
He retired from the service in 1997 after five years with Defence Export Services, to become head of marketing at the engineering and defence company Colebrand. In 2001 he joined Vosper Thorneycroft as director of UK ship sales, retiring in 2005. He was appointed CB in 1991 and was involved with charity work through the Cordwainers’ Company, of which he was master in 2000-01.
Salt is survived by his wife Penelope, whom he married in 1975, and their three sons, George, Charles and Tom. A fourth son, Jack, died in 2004.
• James Frederick Thomas George “Sam” Salt, naval commander, born 19 April 1940; died 3 December 2009