The early morning of the 4th May passed without any major incidents. The main part of the British fleet was 75 nautical miles to the south east of Stanley. Morale was high in the light of the successes thus far, although the fleet was in a high state of tension as there had been several tentative reports of Argentine air activity, and it was realised that a strong reaction to their presence must come soon. Lynx helicopters undertook patrols around Stanley to pinpoint the positions of Argentine radar systems. At 0815 hrs an Argentine reconnaissance aircraft, in this case an old piston engined Neptune maritime patrol aircraft, was sufficiently close to detect the radar emissions from one of the British Type 42 destroyers. The position was plotted and it was assumed that the carriers would be just to the east of the contact. Ninety minutes later, two Super Etendards of 2 Escuadrilla de Caza y Ataque, each carrying the air-launched version of the Exocet anti-ship missile, took off from their base at Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego. Unlike the previously attempted raid, the Etendards successfully refuelled from a Hercules and then descended to sea level as they approached the estimated position of the British fleet. The aircraft, flown by Lt Commander Bedacarratz and Lt. Mayora, did not communicate with each other but were updated from the Neptune reconnaissance aircraft, and thus were successful in making an undetected approach. Around 25 miles out from the carriers they climbed to 120 ft and detected one large target and two smaller ones.
At 1104 hrs local time, having set the internal guidance systems of the Exocets to the targets they released their missiles and turned for home. While the enemy aircraft were running in to the attack, Able Seaman Rose, and air defence operator aboard HMS Glasgow, detected what was thought to be radar emissions from the Etendard's targeting systems, then as the Etendards pulled up the aircraft themselves were fleetingly detected before they descended again and turned home. An alert to the fleet was sent out, and HMS Glasgow fired chaff rockets to provide false radar targets. By this time, however, the missiles were already in flight, on an attack profile which was only two minutes long from the point of launch to the targets. The first missile headed straight for the nearest ship, the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield. Unfortunately, HMS Sheffield was using her SCOT sattelite communications system, sending routine messages at what was considered a quiet and threat-free time. The frequencies used blotted out the radar emmissions that might have warned of both the Etendards and the Exocet missiles presence, so no evasive action was taken. The second missile headed for the main group of ships but ran out of fuel and dropped harmlessly into the sea.
The first Exocet hit HMS Sheffield's starboard side, at an angle and around the midpoint of the ship. It punched through the outer skin and disintegrated inside Sheffield. Luckily the warhead did not explode, saving a great many lives, but the rocket fuel started a fire in the ship which spread rapidly. The main fire-fighting system had been cut, and all power was lost. Fire-fighting efforts began using a bucket-chain, the only option left. The Lynx helicopter lifted from the stern and began evacuating casualties, joined quickly in this effort by Sea Kings from other ships. Despite the arrival of portable pumps from other ships, the crew were forced back into the bow and stern sections by the fire which still raged out of control four hours after the ship had first been hit. A six man team in the computer room led by Lt. Commander John Woodhead struggled to get the ships weapons systems back on line and restore power. Their lines of retreat were cut off by fire and the entire team were overcome by smoke and fumes.
The crew were forced to retreat on deck in the bow section, but Petty Officer David Briggs returned several times below decks to retreive important equipment. He did not return from his last trip below having been overcome by smoke. Captain Sam Salt had no further choice, and despite the valiant fight by the whole crew, the order to abandon ship was given. After only forty minutes all the survivors were off the ship. Twenty men were killed in the attack and twenty-four were injured, four of them seriously. 242 men escaped without injury. However, their ship refused to sink, despite the damage. HMS Sheffield was towed out to sea where due to the heavy swell that developed she finally capitulated, becoming a war grave for the bodies of the 19 men still on board.