The Falklands War

Selected as part of the Advanced Group of the Taskforce sent to retake the Falkland Islands after the Argentine invasion of 1st/2nd April 1982, Coventry sailed for Ascension Island on the 2nd. Any home going ships were paired up with South-bound ships to offload stores. Coventry paired up with HMS Aurora on the 3rd and 4th of April; 5 members of Coventry’s crew were released to return home on Aurora, and 5 members of Aurora’s crew replaced them – sadly including one young man who was to lose his life with us. Over the course of several hours, Aurora’s crew parted with just about anything of any conceivable use – including so much of their toilet roll stock that they arrived home in Plymouth with just one roll remaining.

Just before being ordered to Ascension Island, late March 1982

On 3rd April, South Georgia was also invaded by Argentine forces. As Coventry proceeded South, the ship began to prepare for war. She arrived at Ascension Island on the 11th of April. Over the next four days, a large amount of stores and spares were taken onboard via helicopter. Training for the approaching conflict continued with weapons and damage control drills.

The Argentine Navy operated a pair of Type 42 destroyers themselves, so recognition markings were added to Coventry and the other RN type 42 destroyers to help UK forces identify them. A large black stripe was painted from the waterline to the funnel amidships (primarily so that submarines could identify the ship in a hurry), and her funnel regained the slim horizontal stripe also. A large union flag was painted on the bridge roof to help with identification from the air. The ship’s pennant number (D118) was painted over. Various bright areas of paintwork (mostly white areas) were covered with grey paint, as were the ship’s boats, and the satcom radomes were painted black. The 4.5″ gun received a coat of darker grey paint to tone down its appearance.

The civilian personnel that operated the NAAFI and laundry were given the opportunity to leave the ship before combat operations began. All refused and chose to stay with their shipmates.

On 15th April, with the bulk of the Task Force including the two aircraft carriers arriving at Ascension, Coventry was signalled to proceed South along with Brilliant, Sheffield, Glasgow, Arrow and RFA Appleleaf. This mini-Task Force was to take up a position some 1,000 miles North of the Falklands; the Argentines would hopefully continue to believe that the Royal Navy was far away at Ascension, but in reality this formidable group would be much closer to hand and ready to act if necessary.

Coventry rendezvoused with RFA Fort Austin on 16th April to swap our Lynx (XX700, ‘Lady Godiva’) for a Sea-Skua equipped example (XZ242 ‘Wee Geordie’, formerly of HMS Newcastle’s Ship’s Flight). Our Lynx helicopter crew familiarised themselves with the handling and firing of the new Sea Skua anti-ship missile, and cobbled together swivel mounts for machine guns to fire out of the cabin doors using office chair bases! When a proper mount was made available it was found to foul the Sea Skua hardware inside the cabin, so was instead attached to a bollard on the flight deck for local defence.

HMS Coventry transferring Sea Dart missile on lines from RFA Fort Austin
RAS with RFA Fort Austin, 17th April 1982; Peter George

We stayed with RFA Fort Austin throughout the 17th April, taking on stores in one replenishment rendezvous and then rejoining for another, during which 7 Sea Dart missiles were loaded. Fort Austin had a hugely busy day, also offloading stores and munitions to HMS Arrow, Brilliant, Glasgow and Sheffield.

As we proceeded further South, the balmy tropical weather was left behind and the sea became increasingly rough. Preparation for war changed the interior of the ship as well the exterior – survival gear, life jackets and identity discs were issued; soft furnishings, pictures, trophies and ornaments were put into storage where they would not be a fire or shrapnel hazard. Some less important items were heaved overboard. Consideration was given to removing the ship’s small boats, but in the end they stayed on board.

Training continued on the journey south, concentrating on NBCD drills, naval gunfire support and using the ship’s Lynx helicopter to simulate Exocet missile attacks on the ship – whilst not using the ship’s radars, and relying only upon on listening for threats rather than actively looking.

By 28th April, the carrier battle group was now nearing our position. Electronic signal silence was abandoned and Coventry was signalled to be ready for war on midnight of the 29th. Some of the stores we missed getting hold of at Ascenscion were now made available and as a result more Sea Skua missiles and machine guns were added to the ship’s arsenal. One particularly dramatic bit of training was HMS Brilliant landing a Royal Marine assault team on Coventry’s deck in the dead of night, to practice assaulting and taking over an Argentine Type 42, if the chance should arise!

On the 1st of May, the Task Force entered the Total Exclusion Zone. Coventry took up her radar picket position to the South West of the force. Over the next two weeks, Coventry would alternate between her picket duties and closing on the Falklands to bombard shore positions and the area around Stanley airport with her 4.5 inch gun, though the first two attempts at NGS were cut short by problems with the gun turret. Additional protection for these ventures into more dangerous waters was afforded by pairing up with the Type 22 Frigate, HMS Broadsword. This ‘Type 64’ combination enabled Broadsword to defend both ships with her close range Sea Wolf missile system, whilst Coventry handled more distant targets with her Sea Dart system.

The damaged Alferez Sobral, May 1982

On the 2nd of May, news of the sinking of the Belgrano reached Coventry. The feeling onboard was a mixture of jubilation and silent contemplation that the war had now really begun. That evening, Coventry’s Lynx was tasked with a surface search – looking for some Argentine corvettes – and discovered an unidentified contact. Running low on fuel with the light fading and weather worsening, no identification was possible in the limited time remaining and an 826 NAS Sea King was tasked to try and identify the contact. The Sea King was fired upon by what turned out to be the Argentine patrol vessel ARA Alférez Sobral, which was engaged in a search for the crew of an Argentine Canberra shot down by a Sea Harrier North of the Falklands. Coventry’s Lynx had returned to the ship and been refuelled, so was scrambled to attack the hostile contact. The Lynx fired two Sea Skua missiles (the first time this new missile had been used in combat), damaging the vessel (and claiming it as sunk at the time). HMS Glasgow’s Lynx was called in to check for potential survivors, but once again the patrol vessel fired at the incoming helo, so Glasgow’s Lynx fired two more Sea Skuas – assuming this was a second vessel. The bridge was destroyed, and the Alférez Sobral retreated with 8 crew killed, 8 wounded and heavy damage. The boat returned to port and did not venture out again during the war (her badly damaged bridge is now on display at the Naval Museum in Tigre Partido, Argentina, but the vessel itself was repaired and returned to service, retiring in 2018).

The 4th of May was a bad day. Coventry’s 965 radar had been troublesome and needed to be repaired. The ship moved away from the south-west sector of the screen protecting the carriers, and took up a position to the north-west, judged to be a less threatened position. HMS Sheffield took up the Coventry’s former position. Repairs to the radar began. Coventry and Glasgow’s ESM gear picked up brief radar sweeps from Argentine Super Etendards – indications of an incoming attack; Sheffield did not, as her ESM gear was blanked by her satcom system being used for a transmission.

HMS Sheffield on fire after the Exocet hit, 4th May 1982

The indications of a raid were judged by the controllers on HMS Invincible to be spurious, and they called off a Sea Harrier combat air patrol. Coventry and Glasgow, however, believed the evidence and both fired chaff rockets to create false radar targets. Sheffield went deathly quiet, and it soon became clear that she had been hit, completely unprepared, by an Exocet missile. Sheffield was hit amidships and burned for hours, finally being abandoned when it appeared that the flames would soon reach the Sea Dart missile magazine. There was silence onboard Coventry for many hours – the type 42 community was a small one, and many had friends onboard Sheffield.

Two days later on the 6th of May, Coventry was on patrol south of East Falkland, in contact with a pair of Sea Harriers when they detected a suspicious surface contact. Both aircraft descended to investigate and were not heard from again, with a collision in poor visibility feared. Postwar, the surface contact was judged to have been the still-floating hulk of HMS Sheffield.

HMS Broadsword, May 1982; Jan Cox

After spending the night of the 8th of May bombarding shore positions, Coventry formed up with HMS Broadsword and closed on Port Stanley during the next day to try and lure out Argentine aircraft in response. This certainly worked because the Argentines laid on a raid specifically targeted at the two ships after sending two Learjet recce missions their way first.

Coventry first picked up a distant contact at extreme range, and fired a pair of Sea Darts – the first operational use of the missile. This was suspected to be an Argentine Hercules on a supply run, escorted by Mirage fighters, but it was actually the pair of Learjets attempting to find the two ships. Regardless, they escaped unharmed as the Sea Darts were fired at maximum range, the launches were spotted, and the aircraft turned away to evade. Onboard Coventry, it was thought that the missiles had failed, a depressing repeat of the rogues experienced during Springtrain. The Sea Dart launches confirmed the ship’s positions to the searching Argentines.

Four A-4 Skyhawks – callsign Trueno – accordingly lifted off from San Julian in Argentina, enroute to attack Coventry and Broadsword, but two of them encountered problems during air-to-air refuelling and returned to base. The remaining pair braved a low cloud base, poor visibility and inconsistent radar reports from the Argentine operators at Stanley to try and approach the last reported position of the two ships and attack them.

A-4C C-313 refuelling prior to attempted raid on HMS Coventry, 9th May 1982

The next contact to appear on Coventry’s radar scopes is suspected to have been this pair of A-4s that were hunting the two ships. Coventry fired a single Sea Dart and both targets disappeared from radar shortly afterwards, however no hits could be confirmed. The Argentines later reported the loss of the two A-4s on this day (C-303 and C-313 flown by Lt Jorge Farias and Lt Jorge Casco). At the time, Broadsword had reported that their radar had tracked the Sea Dart missile merging with the pair of suspected Skyhawks. To this day it is not known for sure whether the aircraft simply flew into the sea or ground in bad visibility, or whilst evading the missile, or collided with each other, or perhaps were fatally damaged by a near miss. The Argentines say that the second missile launch was more likely targeted at the pair of Learjets (and missed), but they had long left the area by then.

After the war, the wreckage of C-313, the body of pilot Lt Jorge Casco and his 1,000lb bomb were all found on South Jason Island by HMS Hecate’s Wasp helicopter, the indications being that the A-4 had flown into a ridge line before impacting a cliff. The wreckage of C-303 has never been found.

Narwal being boarded by SBS troops, 9th May 1982

Later that day, Coventry directed two Sea Harriers of 800 NAS to attack the Argentine spy ship Narwal. This was a fishing trawler commandeered by Argentine naval intelligence, and the Argentines had disgracefully kept the fishermen on board to crew her – among them old men in their seventies. Dead in the water with a single crewman unfortunately killed after a second attack by SHARs, she sank under tow the next day having been boarded by the SBS who captured cipher equipment and code books as well as taking the crew prisoner.

Within hours of the attack on the Narwal, with Coventry now beginning more shore bombardment, Broadsword passed contact information on a target moving across East Falkland (Broadsword’s radar had far superior moving target indication against ground clutter); Coventry fired another Sea Dart and downed SA.330L Puma AE-505 of Combat Aviation Battalion 601 over Choiseul sound, 13 nautical miles away from the ship. The Puma had been tasked with finding the Narwal after the trawler had made a distress call during the SHAR attack. This was the first confirmed successful engagement by the Sea Dart system, as the impact and explosion were clearly visible, though no trace of the Puma’s wreckage or the three crew were ever found. Confidence in the Sea Dart system increased.

On the 11th of May, Coventry returned to picket duties with the carrier group, further East. Glasgow took our place on the Stanley gunline. The weather continued to worsen. Between picket duties, shore bombardment and constant calls to action stations, the crew was getting tired. At night the ship would often carry out short dashes further East to replenish fuel, ammunition and other stores from the RFA stores ships.

HMS Glasgow about to be hit by an A-4’s 1,000lb bomb, 12th May 1982

Coventry’s luck held once again as our replacement on the gunline, Glasgow, was hit by a 1,000lb bomb from an A-4 – thankfully it did not explode, passing straight through the ship, but a large amount of damage was caused, not least to her main Olympus engines, and Glasgow was no longer able to provide anything other than radar warning of incoming attacks. Glasgow’s crew have celebrated their ‘Lucky To Be Alive Day’ annually ever since. Back in 1982, though, with both Sheffield and Glasgow gone or ineffective, Coventry had become the only Type 42 left able to defend the carrier group. The next week was a tense one.

Happily, on 20th May, two more Type 42s arrived – Exeter and Cardiff, along with the Amphibious Task Group and Landing Force. During the night of 20th/21st May they entered Falkland Sound and made their way to San Carlos Water (or ‘Bomb Alley’ as it was to become known) where the landings were to begin.

HMS Ardent burns, 21st May 1982

The Navy primarily relied upon Leander and Type 21 frigates to defend the immediate area of the San Carlos landings, though they were fitted with even less effective Sea Cat missiles. One of the Type 21s, HMS Ardent, was hit repeatedly by A-4s through the day of the 21st, eventually having to be abandoned as a major fire took hold of the crippled ship.

On 22nd May, transiting west from the carrier group to join up with Broadsword for a patrol north-west of Sedge Island, Coventry locked on to an Argentine Boeing 707 reconnaissance aircraft. During launcher loading sequence, the starboard flash door on the Sea Dart missile launcher failed to open due to damage from heavy seas and salt encrustation around a locking bolt and the starboard beam of the launcher could not be loaded. The software of the system could not complete the loading sequence as a result, and this stopped the launcher from being able to be fired. Later in the day HMS Cardiff also attempted to down what may have been the same aircraft – they had more luck in that their missile fired successfully and was seen to explode near the target, but the aircraft’s crew had seen the missile launch and successfully manoeuvred to avoid it, diving at high speed away from the missile and returning to base safely – if somewhat more respectful of the Sea Dart’s maximum engagement envelope!

With the landings at San Carlos Water now well underway, it was imperative to provide better defence against air attack, and placing Coventry and Broadsword way out to the west was a means to give Coventry’s Sea Dart a clearer radar picture to operate in, and for both ships to provide longer range warning of incoming raids to the ships in San Carlos. Before the war, Coventry had been fitted with some extra listening equipment for an intended snooping mission near Soviet naval bases; this came in handy along with some Spanish-speaking interpreters, who passed on valuable intelligence overheard on the airways. This meant that the first indications of a raid were often the chatter of the aircraft shortly after they took off from their bases in Argentina.

HMS Antelope sinks, 24th May 1982

Bomb Alley once again came under heavy attack, with much of the incoming raids avoiding the missile trap set by Coventry and Broadsword, detouring to the south-west over West Falkland. With Argentine aircraft therefore arriving in Falkland Sound with little warning, but also little idea of where they were themselves. With only seconds in which to identify a target before they were themselves under attack, this degraded their ability to make a real impact on the landings, but concentrated their attention on whatever ship first showed up in their sights. HMS Antelope, another Type 21, which had only just arrived on the scene, was hit by a pair of bombs which both failed to explode (but sadly killing one member of crew), and during a defusing effort that night the first bomb exploded, causing a fire and eventual abandonment and loss of the ship. One bomb disposal engineer was killed, but the remaining crew all escaped.

Coventry planned to move the patrol line even further west the next day, but instead we were called back to the carrier group, as part of defence against a suspected Exocet effort against the group for the next day; this did not materialise, and we were released that evening, after refuelling, to rejoin Broadsword in our missile trap position. Admiral Woodward had forcefully requested a patrol line nearer to San Carlos, so the ship’s could provide a better ‘umbrella’ for the defenders there.

On 24th May, the chosen patrol line was therefore around 10-15 miles north of the entrance to Falkland Sound, from a point near Eddystone Rock to around halfway towards Pebble Island’s Cape Tamar. Coventry directed Sea Harriers against various Argentine aircraft; none attacked the Coventry or came close enough to be taken down by Sea Dart. The Sea Harriers did well, taking down 3 Argentine aircraft, and adding to ‘the scores on the doors’ – the Ops Room door’s increasing tally of successes. The weather had cleared up entirely, with blue skies, calm seas and unlimited visibility – not good news for us. Coventry requested permission for a patrol line further to the west for the next day, conscious that hanging around in the same spot would be likely to draw adverse attention. In the meantime, as darkness drew in, Broadsword retired to the east to refuel while we carried out an anti-submarine patrol in the approaches to Falkland Sound.

The BBC World Service helpfully informed the world – including, of course, the Argentines – that many Argentine bombs were not exploding. This was because the arming wires, attached to a small propeller in the tail unit of the bomb, were too long for the very low heights at which the pilots were releasing the bombs. The prop would not turn enough times to arm the bomb before it hit, and with modern warships being unarmoured, the bombs would often punch straight through the thin metal of the hull and out the other side before going off, and if they did wedge within the ship, they would do so as a dud – as Glasgow and several other ships had found. Argentine armourers begin work on fixing the problem, trying lighter weight bombs and shorter arming wires. Coventry’s good luck was just about to run out.

Continue to May 25th 1982.