HMS Coventry: Reflections on a Falklands Campaign 1982 – A Villager’s Tale
The spring of 1982 saw three young men from Rowlands Castle in Gibraltar, Michael O’Connell, Ian Young and one other, whom I have been unable to contact prior to writing this article, I will call him Bill. All three were Lieutenant Commanders they were serving in the Royal Naval destroyer HMS Coventry. The ship had left Portsmouth on the 17th of March and they anticipated being home for a late Easter leave.
Whilst in Gibraltar it became apparent that the government of Argentina was intent upon landing people, including troops, on British territories in the South Atlantic including the Falkland Islands. On the 2nd April, Coventry along with a group of seven other RN ships was told to head south, she was not to return.
Coventry was a second-generation air defence destroyer of the Type 42 class, it had been in naval service for just two and a half years. The ship was 125m long, weighed 4,800 tonnes, with a crew of some 290. The rationale for the ship was its Sea Dart missile system which was designed to shoot down large, high flying, Soviet missiles. Other weapons included a 115mm gun for bombarding a coastline, a series of self-defence anti-missile decoy launchers, a general-purpose Lynx helicopter and two 20mm cannons for use against small boats. The ship carried two junior officers trained to direct fighter aircraft on to approaching air threats, these were to prove most valuable. Coventry was powered by four gas turbines and commanded by Captain David Hart Dyke.
The concept of operations of a Type 42 was for it to detect a target on its surveillance radar at ranges beyond 100 miles, the target could then be indicated to one of the ship’s two fire-control radars (imagine these as powerful search lights) to lock onto it. Should the target be identified as hostile, a Sea Dart missile would then be fired from a launcher immediately forward of the Bridge, the missile homes onto the radar reflections off the target, to achieve a hit at a range of between 4 and 40 miles.
HMS Coventry before the Falklands conflict
The Trip South
Initially the RN ships were directed to Ascension Island, the 4,000 miles passage was spent consolidating stores, practising warfighting drills including the control of any damage that the ship might sustain. Some crew members wrote wills and last letters home.
Argentinian troops invaded the Falklands on the 2nd of April.
Coventry arrived off Ascension on the 11th of April, in advance of this, many stores and a few specialist personnel had been flown down from the UK. In a flurry of activity these were embarked they included our first detailed charts of the Falkland Islands. Briefings and teach-ins at every level were conducted in a frenetic atmosphere.
To visually differentiate from the two Type 42 destroyers of the Argentine naval service, we and the other British 42s painted a Union Jack on our Bridge roof and a wide black vertical stripe down our funnel and ship’s side.
Towards the Roaring Forties
We started south again on the 13th of April saying good-bye to the sunshine and really started preparing for war. All perspex, formica and glass surfaces were taped up in case they should shatter, all loose fittings were tied down, chairs and tables were lashed together in heaps in the corner of compartments; we got used to eating whilst sitting of the floor. A fleet wide decision had been taken to adopt UK (Greenwich mean) time for the duration of the operation. This gave the advantage of removing the possibility of getting time zones mixed up as well as physiologically being up, whilst still dark, hence always ready should an early morning raid be mounted against us.
To keep the potential enemy guessing, we and the other British ships were now operating totally silently e.g. no radars or radio transmissions, orders were passed by written message delivered by helicopter and flashing lights.
In an operational situation much of the ship’s company, that’s the bridge, marine engineering, weapons and operations rooms teams together with damage control and first aid parties are split into two teams (watches) with one team always being ‘on’. The ‘off’ team are sleeping, eating, reading, writing or watching a film; this set-up is known as the Defence State; a smaller number of people: cooks, maintainers and stores personnel tended to work a more normal daily routine. The Captain remains always on call relying upon his Warfare Officers to ensure that he is in the right place at the right time. Should the ship enter a dangerous situation the Action State would be adopted; this requires everybody to be closed-up at their battle position. For key operational roles the on-watch occupant remained in place and others (off) filled in around them. Obviously the longer at the Action State, the less sleep one of the teams will have.
From the outset of the campaign the weakness of the 42’s close in-air defences were recognised; hence the formulation of what became known as the 22/42 Combo. When working away from the main group 42s were accompanied by a Type 22 Frigate (HMS Broadsword or HMS Brilliant) armed with the new Sea Wolf missile system. With its pulsed doppler surveillance radar, which could ‘see’ over land, 22s were optimised for close-in, point air defence. Conceptually, should an air raid develop the 42 would attempt to down the threat at range using Sea Dart, should it get close or come off the land, the 22 would place itself between the threat and the 42 and use Sea Wolf. This ploy worked effectively on several occasions.
The morale of any ship’s company is fundamental to the success of a mission, food, communication with home and knowledge of what one is trying to achieve are key. Throughout our time in the South Atlantic our chefs worked wonders by providing hot, tasty food virtually around the clock. An amazing supply train of ships kept the units operating in the Falklands area topped up with fuel both for engines and men. The Royal Mail worked wonders, every ship going north took mail collected by helicopter to Ascension from where it was flown to the UK. Ships coming south brought mail, this was supplemented occasionally by RAF aircraft dropping canisters of mail to be picked up by boat and distributed by helicopter. Even today the music ‘Lilliburlero’ lifts the hairs on my neck, the BBC World Service signature tune ushered in news of home and what the politicians, and indeed the military, were up to. Our Captain (David Hart Dyke) broadcast at least daily keeping all abreast of the situation; he was held in very high esteem.
Into the Fray
On the 30th of April the British government announced that a Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ) of 200 miles around the Falkland’s had been established stating that any sea or air craft from any country entering the zone may be fired upon without further warning.
Early on the Sunday 1st of May Coventry, along with 12 other warships including the Carriers HMSs Hermes and Invincible, entered the TEZ; at about the same time an RAF Vulcan aircraft conducted a bombing raid on the Stanley airfield. At first light Sea Harriers from the Carriers attacked the Stanley airfield and the Argentinian garrison at Goose Green.
To ensure the protection of the vital British units (Hermes and Invincible) from air attack, primarily the feared Super Etendard aircraft armed with the Exocet missiles; they were for most daylight hours positioned 100 or so miles to the east of the Falklands with layers of ships placed between them and the enemy. Some 35 miles ahead of the Carriers, the outer layer was formed by the 42s (HMS Glasgow, HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry), some 10 miles behind them were other warships including HMS Glamorgan and HMS Arrow; the inner layer was made up of supply ships, the 22s (HMS Broadsword and HMS Brilliant) which were tasked as ‘goalkeepers’ close to the Carriers. Coventry spent most of its time in the South Atlantic in this role. The positioning and layered defence was highly effective, albeit at the expense of Sheffield and the container ship Atlantic Conveyor.
The severely limited number of Sea Harriers from the Carriers had two basic roles; bombing shore targets and providing air defence to the group and later the forces ashore. The Harrier’s radar had a limited surveillance capability and in the absence of any airborne early warning, it was a role of the 42s to take voice control of the Harriers and direct them onto threats as they were detected. It was anticipated that the Super Etendard would, within our radar coverage, fly very low making them invisible to us; sailors suffered eye strain and conjunctivitis from the long hours staring at their screens attempting to detect an Etendard popping up for a radar ‘look’ prior to releasing an Exocet.
The Falklands campaign is remembered by many because of Exocet and air attacks, it is often forgotten that Argentina had three diesel electric submarines. One was neutralised early, in South Georgia, but the other two were thought to be prowling close to the battle group throughout. Numerous detections of submarines were made by all types of unit, none to my knowledge were confirmed. The mere potential presence of these submarines added to the general pressure upon our crew members to remain constantly alert.
The waters around the Falkland Islands are rich in wild life (whales, albatross, kelp etc.) and on occasions between the storms remarkable atmospheric conditions lead to very clear horizons. These phenomena gave rise to many spurious / false submarine, ship and aircraft detections.
Just after midnight on the 3rd of May a patrolling Sea King helicopter came upon two surface craft approaching the islands from the north west. Being the nearest ships Coventry and Glasgow were directed to dispatch their helicopters. At a range of some 100 miles from the group and within the TEZ two ships were found. Coventry’s Lynx fired two Sea Skua missiles at one gaining direct hits resulting in a ball of flame and the vessel sinking; it was later identified as an Argentinian patrol craft.
With the aim of taking the fight to the Argentinians, nightly pairs of ships were sent inshore to bombard targets whose positions were reported by special forces operating ashore. Coventry supported ‘in-combo’ by Broadsword undertook this mission for the first time on the 6th of May by going within five miles of the shore to fire its 115mm gun at a variety of targets in the vicinity of the Stanley airfield, returning to the battle group as dawn broke.
This naval gunfire support operation was repeated on the night of 8th / 9th of May, again with Broadsword. On this occasion the ships were instructed to remain inshore during the following day in an attempt to trap an Argentinian Hercules supply aircraft which was known to be landing at the Stanley field. Early in the day, four aircraft, the Hercules with escorting Skyhawks / Mirage fighters, were detected approaching the islands as they flew in at a high level. Coventry’s fire control radars acquired their targets and a total of three Sea Dart missiles fired with the aim of achieving maximum (35 miles plus) range hits. The Hercules went low and escaped, two of the fighters crashed with pilots ejecting either as the result of a Dart exploding close by or a mid-air collision.
Later that same day as the ships were some 10 miles south of the Stanley airfield; Broadsword detected on its doppler radar a slow-moving air track near the airfield. Unseen by Coventry, Broadsword passed details via a digital data link, using this data Coventry had one of its Tracker radars acquire and a single Sea Dart was fired. Later it was learnt that this was an Argentinian Puma helicopter. An aircraft shot down over land by ship lunched missile as the result of data link information, was probably a world’s first.
Following the San Carlos landings by British forces on the 21st of May it became apparent that Argentinian aircraft were transiting at low level to the south of the islands turning north up through the Falklands Sound into the landing area to bomb the ships there, then making their escape via the north of the islands. To counter this Coventry in a combo with Broadsword were positioned to the north of Pebble Island. For a short period, they were spectacularly successful, by providing early warning and up-threat direction of Sea Harriers against the marauding bombers. This location, the most westerly of all British forces was recognised as being precarious.
HMS Coventry’s Final Day
The 25th of May was a calm, bright and sunny day; at around midday a pair of Argentinian fighters, having delivered their bombs in San Carlos came up the Sound towards Coventry before turning left en route home. Our radars acquired, Sea Dart fired, and both aircraft were shot down.
Just after six in the evening on the same day the Coventry / Broadsword combo was targeted, possibly as the result of the morning’s success. It all happened in less than two minutes; four aircraft attacked at very low level, from over land in pairs, see picture below. Sea Harriers were in the general area but were told to keep clear; the merits of this decision have since been discussed endlessly. The first wave hit Broadsword with a bomb entering through the ship’s side and bouncing up through the flight deck to hit the Lynx helicopter ranged on deck without exploding.
Argentinian Skyhawks attacking HMS Broadsword 25th May 1982
With the combo manoeuvring in close formation and with Coventry firing Sea Dart, 115mm and 20mm guns plus some rifles; the second pair came straight at Coventry, who was hit on the port side by three 1000lb bombs and cannon fire. One bomb exploded in a machinery compartment below the Operations Room another in the Forward Engine Room. The third is thought to have entered a Naval Store without exploding.
Control rooms were immediately put out of action and logged with smoke. The compartments where the bombs had entered and exploded were devastated, all occupants being killed.
It rapidly became apparent that massive flooding was taking place as many normally watertight bulkheads had been breached by the explosions. All internal, external communications and sensors were rendered useless. Many ladders were damaged, doors and hatches distorted movement was difficult as the ship developed an alarming list to port.
Without any central orders being given the ship was evacuated in an orderly manner as it became obvious to all that capsize was imminent. Within 30 minutes of being hit the ship was on its side, it sank within the hour. A total of nineteen lost their lives, the clear majority in the explosions however two or three perished escaping from the ship or in the water. Several were badly physically injured, mainly with burns. There were numerous acts of bravery as members of the ship’s company helped each other flee.
Most who entered the water either slid down or walked down the starboard ship’s side before stepping off, the majority were wearing or partially wearing their immersion suits and lifejackets, once in the water people swam or were pulled to life rafts. Again, there were several incidents of significant courage as not everybody could swim and the injured required help. The water was cold, 7 degrees C, the sea state was mercifully low.
With the hostile aircraft gone and dusk rapidly closing in, a boat from Broadsword was joined by several helicopters from San Carlos as the word spread as to what had happened, most survivors were taken to Broadsword. The majority of Coventry’s injured were flown directly to the Hospital Ship Uganda; Ian and others were flown to the field hospital ashore at Ajax Bay, five miles south of the San Carlos waterway, for treatment.
HMS COVENTRY 30 minutes after being hit
Broadsword was directed into the San Carlos landing area where the Coventry survivors including Bill and myself were transferred to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Stromness. Later that night Stromness sailed for South Georgia.
Some 12 hours after the sinking it was announced in the UK that a British Destroyer had been sunk, it was not named thus causing heartache amongst hundreds of families. It was another 12 hours before Coventry was named and then a further day before our families knew if we were alive or not. For the wives of both Bill and myself, with children at St. John’s school in the village, it was a harrowing time, not knowing what was happening or what to tell the children.
Ian spent about a day at Ajax Bay, during which time there was an air raid alert. From Ajax he was transferred, by helicopter, to the Hospital Ship Uganda, which was operating in declared neutral waters, some 20 miles north of East Falkland. After two weeks spent recovering in Uganda, Ian and other injured were transported by HMS Hecla, a survey vessel being used as an ambulance ship, to Montevideo in Uruguay. From there they were flown, by the RAF, to Brize Norton via Ascension Island. After a check in the nearby West Oxfordshire RAF hospital, some of Ian’s family drove him back to Rowlands Castle.
It took a couple of days to arrive in South Georgia, during this time the Stromness crew had been very kind not least by giving us some clothing, we only had what we swam in. By the time we arrived in Grytviken we knew that we were going to meet up with the liner Queen Elizabeth the Second who had brought reinforcements down from the UK and that we, along with the survivors from HMS Antelope and HMS Ardent would be returning home in her.
The passage north felt long, we were despondent; for a month we had been constantly alert, with little sleep, straining to find the pieces that would complete the battle jigsaw, to see through the fog that is war. In QE2 there was little for us to do but mull over events, mourn our dead and fret over the unknown condition of our shipmates who were not with us.
There was a carnival atmosphere for our arrival in Southampton on 11th June; the Royal Yacht, so many small boats, the press, the bunting, the band, the mayors but most of all our loved ones.
Coventry was sunk by World War two bombs delivered by 20-year-old aircraft. The ship had not been designed to combat such a threat, indeed WW2 destroyers were arguably better equipped to meet such an encounter. I am delighted to note that post Falklands British warships putting themselves in harm’s way are fitted with autonomous, rapid fire, radar-controlled systems to provide effective close-in, low-level, air-defence.
Looking back years later I am satisfied with the meaningful contribution that Coventry played in what was a remarkable turn of events. It is of note that for the 27 days that the ship spent in the operational area it was, but for a few hours, continuously in front line action.
For me the key lessons to be learnt are: One – war is horrific and should be avoided. Two – that in an unpredictable world, credible armed services are an essential form of insurance.
A comprehensive telling of HMS Coventry’s Falklands exploits can be found in David Hart Dyke’s book ‘Four Weeks in May’.
Ian has much enjoyed living in Rowlands Castle. In the years following the Falklands, he had a full naval career with time spent mainly in ships and large, mostly international equipment procurement projects. Since leaving the RN his time has been split between project management consultancy work, and community activities. Ian was a member of the Board of Governors at the St John’s Primary School (2007-14), Chairman (2010-14) and during this time school facilities were enhanced and developed, including initiation and implementation of much of the Outdoor Learning Project. Ian has been a Trustee of Rowans Hospice since 2007 and Board Chairman (2011-16) also participating in the Rowans Support Group fundraising activities in Rowlands Castle, the local support for the hospice is much appreciated. Since 2017 Ian has been a member of the Rowlands Castle Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group.
After living in the village for 15 years, my wife Isabelle and our children Joanne and Jamie moved closer to Chichester in 1988. Bill has also moved away.
The O’Connells enjoyed their time in Rowlands Castle. When not away on naval service I relished being involved with the thriving village cub and then scout packs, father and son camps and Sunday morning orienteering practice being highlights. Isabelle was a leading light with the Rowland Castle Painting Society. Like so many other naval families having a loved one away is the norm and our fabulous wives just got on with making life happen, not least for our children. In May 82 we had a set of supportive neighbours, the navy arranged individual ship, family support gatherings in Fareham, but it was not easy. A combination of no real information and poorly handled press briefings didn’t help wives at home. Following a long naval career, I joined a major defence contractor where I put my experience to good use in the detailed design of current classes of naval ship. Upon stopping paid work, I have been committed to a number of charitable and community activities.
This article is by courtesy of Michael O’Connell who retains the copyright. 23 February 2018