The day dawned bright and clear once again, with the fleet warned that the 25th of May was Argentina’s national day and an extra weight of attacks could be expected (in fact by this point in the war the Argentine’s losses were beginning to seriously reduce their capability and in terms of numbers, there was not much of an extra effort put on compared to previous days). After requesting a patrol line further away from land and it’s handicapping effect on radar effectiveness, Coventry and Broadsword were positioned approximately 8 miles north of Government Islet, running an east-west patrol line that took them to the north of Pebble Island at around 10-15 miles distance. This gave the radars clearer sky in all directions but to the south, and enabled them to give 30 miles worth of additional warning to the ships in San Carlos. However, it also put the pair of ships further away from Sea Harrier cover, and the additional distance degraded radio comms with the San Carlos group.
Raids on San Carlos
The first Argentine raid of the day was to be aimed at the San Carlos area, departing Rio Gallegos at 08:10. Two of the four aircraft experienced problems and turned back, with the remaining pair continuing on. After aerial refuelling, the pair approached West Falkland and attempted to enter San Carlos from the north – which would have led them right into our missile trap. Luckily for them, they met some low cloud and altered their route, putting Pebble Island between them and us. That was the end of their luck, as they turned into what they thought was San Carlos Water and the first ship they saw was white with big red crosses on – SS Uganda, which as a hospital ship they could not attack.
In fact, they had flown into Grantham Sound, and continued on to Goose Green and made a strafing run against one of their own ships, then a strafing run against some of their own troops, then got fired at by their own anti-aircraft artillery (damaging one of them, Capitan Hugo Angel del Valle Palaver’s C-244). The pair split to take different routes back to Argentina, one going south… and Palaver, running low on fuel, choosing the slightly shorter route back to tanker support to the north. As his Skyhawk climbed away from the islands it was locked on to and Coventry fired a pair of Sea Darts (suspecting the target was a pair in close formation and hoping to knock them both down). Unfortunately, the luckless Capitan Palaver did not survive this encounter, though at the time Broadsword reported a parachute had been seen.
Later in the day, Coventry detected another raid developing. This raid, Toro Flight, which had taken off at 11:30 and consisted of 4 Skyhawks, disappeared from view over West Falkland, and entered San Carlos Water from the south. One of them was immediately shot down by HMS Yarmouth’s Sea Cat (also claimed by a Rapier battery and some Royal Marines blazing away with their rifles), and the pilot ejected into captivity; the remaining three attempted to attack HMS Plymouth and HMS Arrow, one suffering jammed cannons and another failing to release his bombs due to a fault. Both ships escaped damage. The trio exited San Carlos to the north and once again, as they climbed to go home, Coventry and Broadsword picked them up.
A single Sea Dart was fired this time, and Capitan Jorge Osvaldo Garcia’s Skyhawk C-304, climbing higher than his colleagues whilst he dealt with a hydraulic problem, was hit shortly after passing Pebble Island’s coastline. He ejected successfully, but sadly was not recovered from the water, and his body washed ashore in his dinghy at Golding Island in 1983.
A further raid warning sent from HMS Plymouth triggered Coventry and Broadsword to go to action stations once again a short time later; however, this was based on mistaken identity of the radars of an approaching pair of Sea Harriers and the ship returned to defence stations.
Vulcano and Zeus Flights
It was 2-nil to Coventry so far. The next raid, around 1.5 hours later, was specifically tasked with hitting Coventry and Broadsword, and unfortunately had more luck. Split into two flights of three (‘Vulcano’ and ‘Zeus’ flights), Vulcano flight took off missing one aircraft which had become unserviceable. Zeus flight also became short one aircraft shortly after departure as his VHF radio failed. The remaining four Skyhawks flew on. The surviving Skyhawks of earlier raids had pinpointed the ships’ general positions, so spotters were tasked with climbing to high ground on Pebble Island and radioing an accurate position report to a Learjet (callsign ‘Ranquel’) that was orbiting well to the west out of missile range. With this position report in hand, a route was chosen to mask the raid’s approach.
Initially detected whilst they were refuelling, the raid was thought to be inbound for San Carlos once again, so Coventry directed the incoming Sea Harrier patrol further south-west to be ready for them when they turned up there. The Skyhawks descended to extremely low level and disappeared over West Falkland. Minutes later, as they were crossing the western tip of Pebble Island, Broadsword picked them up again. Coventry’s radar was unable to pick up any of the incoming aircraft because of ground clutter. The Sea Harrier CAP was put into an orbit as they were now too far away to the south, and Broadsword were confident that Sea Wolf could deal with the raid.
Coventry’s radar was still unable to break out the contacts from the ground return of Pebble Island, and her lookouts spotted the aircraft first. Steaming east, the aircraft had followed the coastline briefly before turning towards the two ships and so were on the starboard beam. Coventry opened up with the 4.5″ gun, the starboard 20 mm Oerlikon, a light machine gun from the flight deck area along with numerous hand-held SLRs. The maelstrom of incoming fire impressed the two A-4 pilots sufficiently that – after a brief burst of cannon fire in our direction – they altered course away from Coventry and towards Broadsword, which they judged to be putting up less of a defence.
Broadsword, following us astern, now had a firm Sea Wolf lock. Just before the Sea Wolf was ready to fire, however, the single target it had locked on to became two contacts of equal priority, confusing the system. The computer reset; the launcher slewed to its stowed fore/aft position, and the crew frantically began working to bring the system back online. There simply wasn’t enough time, and with only a single 40 mm Bofors and some machine guns brought to bear on the incoming jets, this time the pilots weren’t quite so distracted.
Vulcano flight – Capitan P. Marcos Carballo and Teniente Carlos Rinke – both attacked the Broadsword. The Argentines had, as noted previously, become conscious of the ineffectiveness of many of their Mk.17 1,000 lb or M117 750 lb bombs, which were often passing straight through ships without detonating, or lodging within them but still failing to explode. As a result, Zeus flight were trialling the use of smaller bombs; low drag 250 kg (550 lb) bombs installed on a triple ejector rack under the Skyhawk’s belly. However, Vulcano flight were still carrying Mk.17 1,000 lb bombs – one each, as the Skyhawk could not carry three under the belly and the outer wing stations were needed for drop tanks.
The two aircraft therefore released one bomb each (not three each as is sometimes published); one missed entirely, the other managed to hit the Broadsword in the face of intense cannon and small arms fire. This bomb bounced off the sea (twice!) near the stern, passed through the side of the ship and up through the quarter deck and flight deck, tearing the nose off the Lynx helicopter in the process, damaging the live torpedo mounted on the Lynx and starting a fire on deck. The bomb continued up and away from the ship, landing harmlessly in the sea nearby (accounts differ as to whether it then exploded or not). Once again a Mk.17 had failed to do its job despite hitting the target. Carballo’s windscreen had become obscured by sea salt during the low level flying in the run-up to the attack, and he describes releasing his bomb when the ship was dead centre in his windscreen, filling it entirely from left to right, so it is likely that his was the bomb that missed, and that it was Rinke’s bomb that hit Broadsword’s stern.
Zeus flight – Primer Teniente Mariano A. Velasco and Alférez Leonardo Barrionuevo – were close on the previous raid’s heels and were sighted further East along the Pebble Island coastline than the previous raid. Coventry’s skipper had initially ordered a turn to port (at the end of the patrol line, to go back West), which would also have kept the incoming raid on her starboard beam, avoiding the switch of gun direction from starboard to port and opened up Broadsword’s firing arcs more) but, with a report of another contact to the North-West, the order was changed to a hard turn to starboard – which would move the ‘new’ contact to the North-West on to the starboard beam whilst putting the incoming jets from the South on her port bow to give Sea Dart the maximum chance of engaging in a hurry and the best view for the 4.5″ and 20 mm guns. However, the contact to the North-West was almost certainly the pair of jets that had hit Broadsword climbing away and exiting the area. With the missile team working frantically to get a Sea Dart away, they were indeed successful with acquiring a lock and the call of ‘Birds Affirm’ was made in Coventry’s Ops Room.
Once again, Coventry and Broadsword declined assistance from the Sea Harrier CAP (much to the pilot’s vocal disgust). Whilst the SHARs were within seconds of being able to take a Sidewinder shot, the judgement was that the engagement would happen practically overhead the two ships – far too close for comfort. With Sea Dart apparently locked on, the SHARs also needed to be kept clear for their own safety. The 909 radar only had a brief lock and lost it before the Sea Dart was even fired (the lock may even have been on a ground return from Pebble Island). Both A-4s turned hard left to avoid the now-unguided missile, which passed harmlessly within 300-500 meters of them (and ended up spearing into a peat bog on Pebble Island, from where it was recovered after the war). Then they turned hard right back towards Coventry.
Broadsword’s Sea Wolf had locked on, but as the turn to starboard continued, Coventry crossed in front of the Broadsword’s line of fire, and her Sea Wolf was unable to fire for fear of hitting the Coventry instead. The two A-4s – armed with three lighter bombs each rather than the single heavy bomb carried by each of the previous pair – were now only seconds away, and Coventry’s fate was now in the hands of her basically WW2 vintage guns.
Unfortunately, a fault in the port lookout aiming sight led to the main 4.5″ gun being given erroneous target elevation angle information, and the gun depressed to the point that it was firing below the incoming jets and was soon stopped from firing whilst an effort began to get it pointing in the right direction. Then, Coventry’s port Oerlikon 20 mm cannon jammed. In desperation, an attempt was even made to order the use of a signal projector lamp to try and blind the oncoming pilots (the signal projector operator was unimpressed with this idea). The call of “BRACE BRACE BRACE” was made on the ship’s broadcast system and shouts of “TAKE COVER!” rang out around the ship.
Velasco first fired his cannons, possibly aiming for the bridge, but if so, the ship’s continued motion spoiled his aim and he sprayed the entire ship’s side from just aft of the bridge to the quarter deck, mostly hitting the hangar area. Then he pressed his bomb release. Coventry’s luck had completely run out and all three of his bombs, released at just the right moment, hit the ship, carving a path of destruction deep into the interior. Velasco’s 250 kg bombs had all come to rest within the ship instead of tearing straight through, due to their lighter mass compared to the Mk.17 bombs. Barrionuevo, just behind him, witnessed his leader’s bombs striking Coventry’s hull.
The first bomb hit the port side of the hull, about 3 feet above the waterline, below the bridge, passing through the computer room and lodging in the conversion machinery room below. The second bomb entered through the side of the superstructure just forward of the life raft stowage and tore through the main fore/aft passageway, breaking a hydraulic ring main and starting an immediate fire and passing through the naval store room below before lodging in the provision store below that. The third bomb hit the outer deck edge in the area of the Olympus engine intake grilles – outboard of the foremast – and lodged in the aft part of the forward (Olympus) engine room.
Seconds later, Barrionuevo’s Skyhawk flashed across the top of the ship – but despite pressing his bomb release, none of his bombs left his aircraft. Two witnesses onboard Coventry reported a single ‘bomb’ tumbling overhead at this stage, however – it may have been that this second Skyhawk released a drop tank in error.
On 25 MAY six of us departed Rio Gallegos but two aborted with problems. The four of us headed north towards the island of Borbon (Pebble Island). At about 15 to 20 miles in the open sea north of the islands we saw two frigates on our left, which I pointed out to the leader – the two aircraft ahead attacked the frigate that was toward the west and cruising toward the continent. The other two headed for the frigate that was directly ahead (we didn’t know which one it was). Then we heard the first flight was attacking, we (the last aircraft) separated about 4 miles from the frigate that was to the left. We saw something very tiny and I told the leader “There, to the left, frigate! What do you think that is?” It was the ship. He looked at it and replied “Yes, those are the ones”. As we began our run (one minute out at top speed) they fired a missile. I don’t know what type of missile it was; perhaps a Sea Dart because the frigate was of the 42 type, which turned out to be the Coventry. The missile passed over us at about 300 to 500 meters. Once I framed the ship in my sight, I saw nothing else for about 30 seconds, but I felt something like the impact of cannon fire before releasing my bombs. As we were coming toward the frigate, we noticed it began to quickly change course by 90 degrees. By the time I released my bombs, I was 40 degrees off from the ship. We passed over the ship and noticed three bomb hits on it. As I came back down to just over the water, I saw the other two A-4s had escaped successfully. I caught up with them in front of me, and we returned together.Post-war interview with Alférez Leonardo Barrionuevo (National Archives file AIR 20/13030)
Note that they misidentified both ships as frigates and his bombs did not in fact release from his aircraft.
“Coventry’s blown up”
Velasco’s bombs were fitted with delay fuses, so several seconds of deathly silence elapsed within the ship and just as the first damage reports were being made reporting the holes the cannon shells and bombs had torn in various decks and bulkheads, the first bomb went off, tearing a hole in the ship’s port side, destroying the conversion machinery room and computer room above, with the explosion boiling up through the computer room hatch to wreck the operations room, injuring and badly burning many of the occupants. Simultaneously, the third bomb – in the forward engine room – went off, tearing a large hole in the hull below the waterline and two smaller splits in the ship’s side below the Cheverton motor launch davits and killing several of the crew, mostly in the auxiliary machine room, forward engine room itself and the junior rates’ dining hall above (where one of the first aid parties had been stationed). The blast tore a hole in the bulkhead between the forward and aft engine rooms, allowing the fireball to enter the aft engine room too, injuring several of the occupants.
Fires immediately took hold and water began pouring into the ship through the holes ripped in her underside. Electrical power was lost from many areas of the ship. Both the Tyne engines declutched from the gearbox and the ship rapidly came to a halt, aided by the drag of the torn open hull. The forward engine room was open to the sea, and the bulkhead between the fore and aft engine rooms was torn open. There was no amount of damage control effort that could save her now, and HQ1 – the primary area to run damage control from – was without power and rapidly filling with smoke. The ship immediately began to list to port, and the weight of incoming water was added to as the entrance hole from the first bomb became submerged.
Back on the flight deck, the ship’s flight crew were busily clearing debris in an effort to get the Lynx flashed up and airborne, but the Lynx was heavy with full fuel and 2 Sea Skua missiles and despite getting the engines started, the list was soon beyond limits. Releasing the harpoon holding the helicopter to the deck would have resulted in the heavy helo sliding straight off the deck. They shut down without ever engaging the rotor blades.
While the second bomb had not gone off, the hole it ripped through the decks helped to allow smoke and fire to quickly spread, and as she began rapidly listing to port from the flooding into the engine rooms, this large hole was soon itself at water level and further accelerated the flooding into the main 2 deck passageway. Within 10 minutes, the ship was listing to port by 35 degrees. The large number of holes torn by the shrapnel from the bomb explosions and cannon fire also became submerged and further added to the weight of water pouring into the ship.
No ship-wide order to abandon ship was given – the confusion and chaos and total failure of ship-wide communications saw to that, but it was clear to everybody that Coventry was in a bad way and had to be abandoned. Quietly, efficiently, the crew nearest the upper decks had released the starboard side life rafts – those on the port side were at too sharp an angle to be of any use now. Evacuation took place in an orderly fashion, while several members of crew were performing heroics rescuing fellow survivors from shattered and burning compartments throughout the now smoke-filled ship.
Broadsword had immediately begun rescue operations using her ship’s boats and helicopters also arrived from the ships in San Carlos Water. The reduction in the number of life rafts since the ship was commissioned now became an issue, as all the rafts on the port side remained lashed to their mounts and only the starboard ones had been released. Some of the rafts in the water became desperately overcrowded. Two life rafts drifted around the bow of the ship and as the ship rolled over, the Sea Dart missile on the launcher slowly cut through one life raft, putting all onboard back in the water once again – sunk twice in half an hour.
A particularly brave bit of flying from CPO Aircrewman M J Tupper of 846 NAS – hovering very near to the Coventry’s magazine (which could have blown up at any moment) – resulted in 17 survivors in life rafts trapped alongside the ship being lifted onto the Broadsword. Tupper later received the Distinguished Service Medal for his bravery. Broadsword’s crew performed just as magnificently, with her ship’s boat and Gemini towing life rafts away from the Coventry as she rolled over despite the ever present danger of a major explosion – in fact one Gemini was pulled under whilst attempting to tow an overloaded life raft, adding her crew to those in the water and needing a rescue.
Less than an hour after the first bomb had hit the ship, Coventry had capsized completely. 17 of her crew had died in the ship; two more were killed in the process of abandoning her. As the sun set, her upturned hull, fires now quenched, faded into the darkness.
The Secretary of State for Defence, John Nott, caused a great deal of suffering back home that evening by announcing that a Type 42 had been hit and was ‘in difficulty’. With four surviving Type 42s down south, that meant more than a thousand families were worrying about their loved ones. Portsmouth was a tense and quiet city that evening. It wasn’t until around lunchtime the next day that next of kin were finally informed, and many were incorrectly told that their loved ones were missing. The media confirmed that the ship involved was the Coventry, in many cases before the Ministry of Defence had got in touch with the next of kin of the crew. Many of the ‘missing’ men were confirmed to be on the survivors list only after one more day of heartache for the families.
All four Skyhawks returned to base safely, though Carballo’s A-4 had one fuel tank holed by fire from the Broadsword. Barrionuevo’s bombs had failed to drop because of a suspected faulty landing gear lever microswitch – basically the aircraft thought it was still sat on the ground and so blocked the bomb release. He jettisoned them into the sea on his way home after disconnecting and reconnecting his weapons control panel. The pilot of the aircraft whose bombs sank Coventry – Velasco – was back in action two days later, carrying out an attack on the troops in Ajax Bay. HMS Fearless raked his A-4 with cannon fire, and his aircraft burst into flame. With hydraulics also lost, Velasco ejected over West Falkland between Port Fox and Port Howard. After two days walking he found an empty house which contained some food, and shortly afterwards met some kelpers. After unsuccessfully trying to buy a horse from them, he was dropped off at Port Howard. He took no further part in the war. The other three pilots on the raid also survived the rest of the conflict.
Worried about any possible Argentine efforts to send divers into the upturned but still floating ship, on May 26th a Sea Harrier was tasked with attacking the upturned hull in order to ensure that it would sink. Duly arriving over the given coordinates, there was no trace of Coventry, which had by this time already settled on the sea floor some 100 m below. The SHAR strafed the coordinates regardless – a job’s a job.
The Day After
The day after Coventry’s loss, the survivors were to be found spread among the Broadsword, RFA Fort Austin (the same RFA we had stored from enroute to the Falklands) and the hospital ship Uganda. Some of the more serious casualties had been airlifted to the field hospital at Ajax Bay. Later the survivors were consolidated and transported via helicopter or landing craft to Fort Austin and thence to safer waters East of the Falklands.
After that they were transferred by boat to the RFA Stromness, which sailed for South Georgia on the 27th of May. With the arrival of the QE2 and her cargo of soldiers on the 30th of May, Coventry’s crew were transferred to the QE2 and began the long voyage home.
They arrived to a hero’s welcome (see videos page) in Southampton on Friday 11th June. Three days later, the Argentines surrendered and the Falklands War was over.
As you can perhaps appreciate, the day’s events were seen differently from many perspectives, and the final raid in particular was an incredibly intense and confusing set of events to everybody involved. Much that has been published about it contains errors, notably about the order of the Sea Dart kills on the day, the weight of the bombs that hit Coventry and the direction she turned just before being hit. The above account has been amalgamated from numerous sources including personal testimony of a number of the ship’s personnel and also the pilots on the raid, the board of inquiry report plus numerous published accounts that have all been found to contain some, sometimes minor, errors. I have used my best judgement as to which accounts can be trusted and/or verified against other accounts to produce what I believe to be an accurate story of the day.Damien Burke