TV Review – Sea of Fire

Windfall Films made a programme on the loss of HMS Coventry, which was first broadcast on BBC 2 at 9PM on Friday 1st June 2007, one week after the 25th anniversary of the ship’s loss. Here’s the accompanying press release:

It has taken 25 years for the Captain to be able to talk about these events on camera. Sea Of Fire is the story as seen through his eyes, and with the testimony of some of his ship’s company On 2 April 1982, Argentinian troops invaded the Falkland Islands. HMS Coventry, a key warship in the British Fleet, was sent to join the conflict. Despite knowing the odds were probably against them, they were a successful and confident crew under a trusted leader – Captain Hart Dyke.

As other ships were targeted around them, the Coventry felt invincible. But their luck was about to run out. It has taken 25 years for the Captain to be able to talk about these events on camera. Sea Of Fire is the story as seen through his eyes, and with the testimony of some of his ship’s company.

At the height of the conflict, Coventry was sent on a mission to deliberately act as bait for enemy fighter-bombers. Obligingly, on 25 May, the Argentineans sent waves of Skyhawks armed with British-made bombs to take out the British destroyer. At first Coventry had the upper hand, claiming three kills with her Sea Dart missiles, but just as Captain Hart Dyke thought he had weathered the storm, the Argentinians launched one last attack. Three bombs hit the Coventry, killing 19 men and leaving many of the crew injured.

The survivors evacuated through choking black smoke and buckled ladders as the sinking ship tilted further over, finally jumping overboard into the freezing South Atlantic. Within 20 minutes, the ship had capsized.

Sea Of Fire speaks to the survivors of the bombing and sinking of HMS Coventry.

Day of trepidation, and pride in ship’s crew

Captain David Hart-Dyke, commander of HMS Coventry, remembers thinking that if they survived this day, they would survive the war.

“The Argentinians were losing the air battle and we knew that this was going to be their last push,” he recalled.

Ironically, because of Coventry’s role of protecting the British Task Force carriers and to draw enemy fire, he also knew that the odds were stacked against them. The Portsmouth-based Type 42 destroyer was specially fitted to listen to the Argentinians and had Spanish interpreters on board. From his command position in the operations room, Captain Hart- Dyke had been able to hear President Galtieri and Foreign Minister Costa Mendez talking.

“I could also hear the pilots in the air talking to each other and conversations about who they were going for.”

But nothing could have fully prepared him for the mayhem that would ensue later that afternoon when his ship became caught up in the eye of the high explosive storm. Without warning, four Argentinian Skyhawks screamed out from behind land cover, and seconds later at least three 1000lb bombs tore through the decks of Coventry, destroying her computer room and damage control nerve centres.

Fires started, she took a heavy list to port and sank within 15 minutes with a loss of 19 of the ships’company.

Captain Hart-Dyke said: “The main decision makers had been taken out. The heat and light was intense. The flash gear I wore was burned off me. People’s clothes had caught on fire.

I made my way up to the deck and I was amazed at what I saw. There were sailors, many young, who were just acting without orders to organise the evacuation – just going about their duty in a very calm and orderly fashion.

It’s something I’ll never forget. I felt very proud.”

Captain Hart-Dyke was the last to leave the ship. He literally walked down her side to the water, and it is believed his life raft was punctured by the super structure as Coventry rolled over.

“Eventually the air battle stopped and it was getting dark and I was picked up by a helicopter,” he recalled.

“I can remember being given a brandy on RFA Fort Austin, having just been fished out of the water, when I heard the news that a ship had been sunk on the BBC World Service. I didn’t believe it – although I was the commanding officer of that ship which had just been sunk.”

Captain Hart-Dyke, now aged 67, admitted that it took him at least two years to get over the trauma of the Falklands war. He remained with the Royal Navy for a further eight years and was involved in a warfare advisory role, largely responsible for evaluating lessons learned in the South Atlantic. And, in an almost cathartic sense, he lectured at university seminars and wrote about battle stress and war and its effect on people.

“You have to believe that out of a disaster comes good. There are some people who are strengthened by it and end up doing remarkable things, but then there are others that fall apart and cannot come to terms with their new lives.”

As a navigation specialist and veteran of previous marine conflicts, he still maintains that no other navy in the world could have achieved what the British did in the South Atlantic. He had headed for the Falklands convinced it was a war with no prospects of a clear victory. Afterwards, with hindsight, he believes it may be remembered as one of the greatest maritime operations in our time.

Captain David Hart-Dyke left the Royal Navy in 1990 and worked as a chief executive in the a City of London.

He lives in Hambledon with his wife Diana, and the couple have two daughters, Miranda, 34, and Alice, 31.

Civilians who lived and died on ship

Photo courtesy Ken Griffiths

The men and women of the Royal Navy have traditional Chinese laundry skills to thank for keeping their white and blue uniforms ship-shape. The Royal Navy recruits civilians from Hong Kong to run laundry shops on-board ship. But the reward of running a floating business – which earns them enough to retire after several years – means they run the same risks as the crew.

The first grave dug in the Falklands was a temporary resting place for Kye Ben Kwo – laundryman in HMS Coventry – who was one of two Chinese laundry workers who died.

Sea of Fire is well made documentary on the loss of ship with participation from some of the key personnel and well worth a watch. It is occasionally repeated on satellite channels – keep an eye out for it – at the time of writing it is also to be found on YouTube and Facebook, though these links may cease to work.

Book review – Four Weeks In May

Shortly after returning home, Captain David Hart Dyke committed his memories of Coventry’s war to a series of audio tapes and also wrote a series of articles for various naval publications. These formed the basis for his book, which he describes as “not a history book”. Despite that, it is a brilliant history of one ship’s contribution to the campaign to liberate the Falkland Islands and never falls into the trap that other similar works have of concentrating too much on either the overall conduct of the war or of the minutiae of day to day life onboard ship.

The story is begun with sufficient background about the Type 42 in general and the Coventry in particular to give those unfamiliar with the subject a good idea of the ship’s capabilities and her vital position within the Task Force. Building up to the start of the war with a mixture of anecdotes and observations, the book really does a superb job of giving a good idea what it must have been like to be onboard at such an uncertain time. Always readable, never bogged down in detail or repetitive, it is the sort of book that grabs you from the beginning and may well not let go until you reach the final page.

The book stands out for me in two ways; first of all the Captain manages to keep it centred on Coventry while filling in enough background about what is happening to other ships to ensure you are always aware what part Coventry is playing. Secondly, the account of the final fateful half hour of the ship’s life is obviously the result of a great deal of research which must have been painful. As the son of a crew member, I was familiar with Coventry only from a few visits as a child – I well remember running up and down corridors and occasionally getting lost deep inside the ship. I am humbled to read the accounts of the heroics of the crew that searched through that complex interior with smoke, fire, holes blasted by bombs and a rapidly increasing list turning it into an inferno that any sane man would want to get out of immediately.

There are a few small errors – the crew list and roll of honour both contain mistakes that will no doubt be corrected in the next edition, but they should not detract from an excellent work that is a fine tribute to the heroes of the day, and the crew members who remain forever on patrol Down South.

Four Weeks in May was published on 12th April 2007, and is currently available – click here to buy from Amazon UK.