HMS Sheffield memorial: Survivor recalls horror after ship was hit during Falklands War

A survivor of the sinking of HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War has recalled the horrors he witnessed, ahead of a new memorial being unveiled.

Brian Winterburn had joined the Royal Navy aged 19 and was just 21 and working as a radio operator on HMS Sheffield when the destroyer was hit by an Argentine missile on May 4, 1982, killing 20 crew members.

“I remember hearing a bang, which woke me, and I started going up the stairs. You could smell the smoke and see it coming down the corridor,” he said.

"At that point, I heard a pipe and went down to the mess and started waking people up and saying there’s something not quite right.

Brian Winterburn in the messdeck on HMS Sheffield

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"When I reached the top deck I saw a man in his boxer shorts heading for the sick bay. He was saying ‘sick bay, need to get to the sick bay’, and the skin was hanging off his arms.

"That’s when we realised it was real and not just an exercise.

What happened on board HMS Sheffield after it was hit by Exocet missile

HMS Sheffield survivor Brian Winterburn and his son Sam at a Remembrance Day service

“We went round to the hangar and just as we were getting into the hangar all of a sudden a helicopter came across from HMS Hermes and someone started shooting at it because he didn’t realise it was one of ours.

“We were all on the floor of the hangar with our arms over our heads. We thought we were in a big fight.”

Brian, who grew up in Sprotbrough, Doncaster, but now lives in Newcastle, was tasked with collecting buckets from the mess room and filling them with water to tackle the fire which was now blazing.

"I remember seeing the horrified looks on everyone’s faces when we realised we were going to have to go back inside the ship which was on fire. There was a lot of smoke but it wasn’t so bad,” he said.

"It didn’t seem like that long but we must have been fighting the fire for a good two hours.

"Two ships had joined us and one started firing off mortars because it had detected a possible sub in the area and torpedoes had been fired.

“We all jumped onto the ship on the other side, HMS Arrow, and somehow everyone made it across without ending up in the drink, because we literally had to jump.

"It’s not an experience I want to repeat.”

What is happening to commemorate Falklands War 40th anniversary in Sheffield

Brian went on to serve on an aircraft carrier before quitting the Navy in 1985. He now works as a software support technician and has a 15-year-old son.

He plans to be at Sheffield Cathedral for the memorial service on Sunday, May 1, marking the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, and while in the city he plans to visit the Shiny Sheff pub in Lodge Moor – which is named in honour of HMS Sheffield – for the first time.

Although he is unable to attend the dedication service for a new HMS Sheffield memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum three days later, he is delighted that it is being created to honour all those who served on the three ships.

"The memorial will give us something to be proud of when we visit the arboretum. It’s something to show our young ‘uns and a great way to remember the 20 shipmates who died that day,” said Brian.

"It’s nice to be able to attend the reunions and catch up with old mates, and this year we’re bringing our son, who’s proud of what his dad did, with us.

"He’ll probably have a tear in his eye, because he gets a bit emotional like his dad does sometimes.

Bond ‘unlike any other’ between former HMS Sheffield shipmates

"The anniversary is always difficult because there are so many different emotions involved. We lost 20 crew members and if I’d been on a different watch I could have been one of them.

"But even 40 years later, it’s a strong family and we do what we can to support one another. The bond you form in the Navy is unlike that you get with colleagues in any other line of work.

“It's not just us remembering. There’s the next generation too. More and more you see the sons and daughters of the 20 we lost at the commemorations, and it’s important that what happened is never forgotten.”

Brian is also pleased by plans for a fourth HMS Sheffield, which will be part of the Navy’s new fleet of submarine hunters.

"It will mean a lot to have a new HMS Sheffield. I was there then the third one was launched in Newcastle and it’s good to see the name carrying on with a fourth ship,” he said.

The tragedy left many survivors suffering PTSD, Brian says, and, while for him while the nightmares have stopped, he still gets flashbacks.

“You can be doing anything and all of a sudden you’ll just stop and have this flashback, then it’s gone and you carry on,” he said.

"I don’t get nightmares any more but every now and then I’ll have a dream where I’m wandering about the ship.”

Brian has still never set foot on the Falkland Islands but says it is something he would love to do one day.

"I know there’s an HMS Sheffield memorial there which it would be great to visit but it’s a case of finding the funds and the time, among other things,” he said.

"I’ve always said if I won the lottery I would probably charter a flight there for all the guys from HMS Sheffield and their families.”

To donate to the HMS Sheffield memorial appeal, visit: www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/hmssheffieldnationalarboretummemorial.