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'A majestically awful sight' - anniversary of the loss of HMS Antelope

Her back broken, Antelope still smoulders as she sinks
24 May 2021
This is the apocalyptic sight sailors, soldiers and Royal Marines in San Carlos Bay woke up to on May 24 1982: HMS Antelope torn apart by internal explosions.

In scenes reminiscent of Jutland seven decades earlier, the frigate was torn in two as her magazines detonated, the result of an unexploded Argentine bomb being triggered as bomb disposal experts tried to render it safe.

The previous day, the Type 21 had come under ferocious Argentine air attack as she stood guard at the entrance to San Carlos – focal point of British efforts to liberate the Falklands.

One Argentine aircraft was shot down – it struck and bent the main mast – while two 1,000lb bombs buried themselves in the ship; they failed to explode, but did kill Steward Mark Stephens.

As bomb disposal experts tried to disarm the explosives, one of the bombs detonated, killing Staff Sergeant Jim Prescott and seriously injuring one of his colleagues.

The loudest bang I ever heard...

Chief Petty Officer Robert Shadbolt, HMS Antelope

It was “the loudest bang I ever heard,” recalled CPO Robert Shadbolt, standing by the hangar door. Antelope herself was mortally wounded. Shadbolt peered over the ship’s side – it was as if someone had gone along her hull with a tin opener. “The most horrendous fire was raging,” he recalled. Electric cables flapped about, arcing. Fire-fighters tried to tackle the blaze, the blast had knocked out the fire mains.

Commander Nick Tobin now ordered his men to abandon ship. The fires raged uncontrolled, reaching the Sea Cat missile magazine – mercifully after the last sailor had left the frigate.

The explosion which ensued that Sunday evening provided one of the most terrifying, yet enduring images of the conflict – “a majestically awful sight”, wrote Royal Marine Ewen Southby-Tailyour, watching from the bridge of HMS Fearless. Flames flared and died down. Spotlights from helicopters drifted across the water. Landing craft buzzed about, ferrying Antelope’s crew to safety.

Antelope’s horrific demise provided one of the iconic images of the conflict. Her back broken, her bow and stern pointing in opposite directions at sharp angles she finally slipped beneath the waters for good. Today she rests some 80ft down, where her White Ensign is replaced by visiting RN dive teams when they are in the area.

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