That time British sailors sang Monty Python as their ship burned

by Vern Evans

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 life.”

On May 4, 1982, a month after forces from Argentina 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 spread almost immediately 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 in an interview with 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.”

It was then, while watching their ship burn, that Sub-Lieutenant Clive Carrington-Wood struck up a tune, bringing the sardonic British sense of humor into full display as he and his fellow sailors sang “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” — a classic from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”

The attack was a blow to British military prestige, especially so after the report found the anti-air warfare officer negligent due to his “lengthy absence” from the ops room, which “meant an important air-defense facility was not manned,” according to a report by The Guardian. Twelve minutes after the impact, the officer was still not convinced that the ship had even been struck, the report added.

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 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 the track as they sat precariously perched in life rafts.

A little more than a month later, British forces prevailed to force Argentina’s surrender, giving new meaning to the notion that “when you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle, and this’ll help things turn out for the best.”

Claire Barrett is the Strategic Operations Editor for Sightline Media and a World War II researcher with an unparalleled affinity for Sir Winston Churchill and Michigan football.

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