After the cancellation of the RN’s new CVA-01 aircraft carrier in 1966, the planned fleet of Type 82 air defence destroyers was also cancelled (with just the single example under build entering service – HMS Bristol), and a cheaper option was sought. The result was the Type 42 destroyer, a considerably smaller ship with reduced anti-submarine capability and Sea Dart missile capacity, but the addition of a helicopter hangar which would considerably expand her ability to take on submarines and smaller ships with helicopter-launched torpedoes and missiles. HMS Coventry was to be the fourth Type 42 Destroyer to enter RN service, and the fifth Royal Navy ship to bear the name.
Armed with a 4.5″ gun, a twin arm GWS-30 Sea Dart missile launcher, STWS triple torpedo launchers on each beam and a Lynx helicopter capable of carrying torpedoes, nuclear depth bombs and Sea Skua missiles, the type 42 made the most of its relatively small size. Close-in air defence was limited to a pair of WW2 vintage 20mm Oerlikon cannon on each side just aft of the bridge, as it’s primary purpose was to fend off hostile aircraft at medium range over the open ocean.
The first type 42, HMS Sheffield, was ordered in November 1968; shortly before she was launched in June 1971, a further two were ordered in May of that year (Birmingham and Coventry). In those days shipbuilding was mostly carried out by individual yards rather than having blocks built in various locations, but ship orders were spread across the various yards to keep them all in business. Birmingham and Coventry were selected to be built by Cammell Laird & Co. at Birkenhead, and Coventry was laid down on 29th January 1973. Her hull was launched on 21st June 1974 by Lady Lewin. At this point she was largely an empty shell, lacking most of her systems and weaponry.
Her build and fitting out continued until early May 1978, when she was finally ready for sea trials, slipping from the Cammell Laird basin at the decidedly uncivilised hour of 01:20 AM on 11th May 1978. Her extra time in build had enabled some improvements to be made to the ship in comparison to Sheffield and Birmingham, but the Batch 1 ships were essentially pretty similar and sea trials for them all found that the ships rolled quite badly in heavy seas and the deck also needed strengthening; Coventry had reinforcing girders fitted on the weatherdeck edges during build as a result.
HMS Coventry was commissioned on 10th November 1978 at Portsmouth Dockyard. Following initial trials she was given the task of trialling the Lynx helicopter to determine safe operating limits for the Lynx/Type 42 combination (Sheffield and Birmingham were operating with a Wasp helicopter at this time). In April 1979, the ship was awarded the Freedom of the City of Coventry. In November 1979 Coventry took part in the search for the crew of the coaster Poole Fisher, which sank off the Isle of Wight in heavy seas. Later in the year she hosted a Chinese military delegation – a prelude to a historic deployment that would end up visiting China.
Initially allocated to the 8th Frigate Squadron and under the command of Captain C. Burne, Coventry was transferred to the newly formed 3rd Destroyer Squadron in 1980. Trials with the ships inflatable lifeboats had found they were capable of holding more men than originally designed, and with top weight a constant worry on the type 42, the decision was taken to reduce the number of life rafts carried by removing two from each beam station and to cut off the empty shelves at her first refit.
Her first major deployment was to the Far East, leaving Pompey on 19th May 1980 and exercising with the navies of France, Pakistan, Oman and the USA. Visits were made to Mombasa, Oman, Karachi, Singapore, Kure, Tokyo and Hong Kong. In September 1980 she arrived at Shanghai along with HMS Antrim and HMS Alacrity; this was the first visit by British warships to the Republic of China in 30 years.
During the voyage home the Iran-Iraq war broke out, and Coventry detoured to patrol the Persian Gulf for six weeks, beginning the Armila Patrol that the RN has kept up ever since. She finally returned home in December 1980 to spend some time in refit, including the removal of the forward pair of life raft mounts on each beam station and the addition of a Coventry coat of arms on the funnel sides, a recognition of the efforts made by her crew to raise money for various charitable concerns in Coventry (including the refurbishment of a narrowboat for use by the city’s handicapped children).
In 1981 she took part in a large NATO exercise codenamed ‘Ocean Safari’, gaining a NATO badge on her main mast for the duration, visiting Lisbon and Wilhemshaven before more exercises in the North Sea. In March 1982 she arrived at Gibraltar for the annual Operation Springtrain exercise.
This began on the 20th and began with an initial work-up phase, followed by a live-firing phase beginning on 29th March. The exercise was due to end in early April with HMS Coventry due to leave Gibraltar and begin her journey to Portsmouth on 6th April.
With the news of Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands, however, Coventry was selected to become part of the Advanced Group of the Task Force and Spingtrain was terminated early. HMS Coventry set sail for the Falklands.