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Falklands 30 – HMS Coventry

A starboard bow view of the British destroyer ...

After experiencing heavy air raids at San Carlos, and some very brave flying by Argentine pilots, the Task Force commanders devised a new tactic to try and give early warning of air raids, and also to shoot down offending aircraft before they got close to the vulnerable landing ships or the carriers out to sea.

HMS Coventry – a Type 42 Destroyer – and HMS Broadsword -a Type 22 Frigate – were paired up and stationed north of Pebble Island, ‘up threat’ as a radar picket and trap for Argentine aircraft heading for San Carlos. Coventry was armed with Sea Dart, a medium-range anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapon. Broadsword had the new Sea Wolf system, more ideal for close range work. The idea was that Broadsword could defend Coventry, whilst Coventry’s long range radar and Sea Dart could pick off incoming threats. This was specifically suggested by the Commanding Officers of both ships. Of the three Type 42 Destroyers that had originally sailed with the Task Force, one had been sunk (Sheffield) and another had been badly damaged (Glasgow), both by air attack. The ‘Type 64′ combo took up position north of Pebble Island on 21 May.

Coventry had had an eventful – and rather succesful war – thus far. One of the ships on Exercise Spring Train before being sent south to the Falklands, she entered the Total Exclusion Zone on the 1st of May, taking up picket duties in advance of the Task Force. She alternated between acting as a radar picket and bombarding shore positions around Stanley. For these shore bombardments she was teamed up with HMS Broadsword, for extra defence. On 3 May Coventry’s Lynx was sent to attack the Argentine patrol ship Alfrez Sobral. The patrol boat was heavily damaged by the new Sea Skua missiles, and later boarded by the SBS. On 4 May – the day that HMS Sheffield was sunk – Coventry was to the north west of the task force, repairing her troublesome 909 Radar. Sheffield was in the south-western position that Coventry had occupied until that point when she was hit by an Exocet missile. On 9 May Coventry was sent closer to the Falklands in an attempt to lure out Argentine aircraft. Four Sea Dart missiles were fired – a Hercules transport escaped unharmed, one Puma Helicopter was destroyed and two A-4 Skyhawks may possibly have been shot down. Later on the same day Coventry directed two Sea Harriers to attack the spy ship Narwal.

Remaining off Pebble Island for several days, Coventry and Broadsword continued acting as a radar picket. Coventry directed numerous Sea Harrier patrols onto targets – this is a role performed by surface ships, escorts in particular, that is often overlooked. It is possible, in hindsight, that Coventry and Broadsword had been in the same position for too long, and it is clear that the Argentines were well aware that they were there and determined to do something about it.

25 May – Argentina’s national day – began in much the same hectic fashion. One Skyhawk was shot down after returning from a raid on San Carlos, and another Skyhawk was splashed, this time directly attacking Coventry and Broadsword. The second raid, however, had more luck. Of the six airfraft – in two waves of three – two returned to base before reaching the Falklands. Flying low and using the land mass of West Falkland as radar cover, Coventry was unable to pick up the Skyhawks on their radars. Broadsword DID pick them up, but called OFF a Sea Harrier patrol. Coventry’s radar – designed for operating in open sea – was struggling to pick up the aircraft against Peble Island’s land signature. Small arms fire diverted the first two Skyhawks towards Broadsword. Her Sea Wolf locked on, but unable to distinguish between the two targets, for all intents and purposes went to sleep. Defenceless, one of the Skyhawk’s bombs hit the sea, bounced up and passed through the flight deck, destroying the Lynx helicopter in the process.

The second wave pressed on soon after. Once again Coventry and Broadsword declined assistance from the Sea Harriers, confident that the threat could be dealt with. Coventry fired a single Sea Dart and missed. Broadsword locked on with her Sea Wolf, but at the last minute Coventry, carrying out evasive maneouvres, slewed right in front of Broadsword’s line of fire. The first Skyhawk pilot fired his cannon at the hangar, before releasing his bombs – three 550lb general bombs. All three struck, and exploded seconds later. The second Skyhawk failed to release its bombs.

A large hole was torn in the port side, and men were killed in the auxiliary machine space, the computer room and the dining room where a first aid party were mustered. The explosion in the computer room wrecked the operations room above. Fire spread through the ship, and water poured in through the gaping hole. Smoke and fire spread beyond the capabilities of damage control, particularly as the ops room – the nerve centre of the ship – had been taken out. No order to abandon ship was given, but it was obvious to all onboard that the Coventry was sinking. Quietly and efficiently, liferafts were deployed. Broadsword began picking up survivors, and helicopters began arriving from San Carlos water. Many men – including Captain Hart-Dyke – simply stepped off of the upturned hull into lifeboats. Twenty minutes after being hit, HMS Coventry sank – the fourth Royal Navy warship lost in the Falklands, and the third in four days since the landings at San Carlos. Coventry’s survivors were later returned home on the QE2. 22 men were killed, and one man died in 1983 of his injuries.

Although the loss of any warship is hard to take – and especially the loss of lives – Coventry had performed admirably, and had probably saved countless ships at San Carlos and in the Task Force from being attacked and sunk. Such is the lot of Royal Navy warships sometimes. I’ve always found it intriguing that Coventry was sunk in a manner almost identical to Lieutenant-Commander Bill Hussey’s HMS Lively in 1942. Different war, 40 years apart, but the same spirit.

The Board of Inquiry absolved Coventry’s crew of any blame. Coventry was noted to be well prepared for war, having spent much time training and 6 months serving with NATO standing forces in the North Sea in 1981, in addition to Exercise Spring Train. However, there were a few lingering mechanical difficulties, such as the 909 radar. The Board of Inquiry – and others – did find that the ships had a lack of close in weapons, beyond missile systems, and this was rectified with the fitting of Phalanx and Goalkeeper to many ships soon after the Falklands War. Coventry and Broadsword had been instructed not to call on Sea Harrier support unless absolutely necessary, as this might chase enemy aircraft away rather than destroy them. Both ships had worked well together. It was found, however, that Coventry was not sufficiently trained for inshore anti-air warfare work. This is not surprising, given that the ship was designed for open-water warfare against the Eastern Bloc in the North Atlantic.

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The vagaries of warship naming

HMS Ark Royal (R07)

Image via Wikipedia

I didn’t think it would take long. There have already been calls for one of the Royal Navy’s new supercarriers to be renamed HMS Ark Royal. Even though a poll in today’s Portsmouth News showed that 94% of people asked did NOT want a new Ark Royal right away.

Personally, I just cannot agree. The names selected for the two ships – Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales – are fine, historic names. Classes of ships should all have logical names that follow a pattern. To have one ship names Ark Royal and another named something completely random would make no sense at all.

The problem is, there is a precedent. The current Ark Royal (RO7) was due to be named HMS Indomintable, alongside her elder sisters Invincible and Illustrious (both, incidentally, names as famous as Ark Royal, if not more so). But the popularity of the old Ark Royal, helped by the TV documentary Sailor, led to an outcry demanding that one of the new Invincible class carriers should be named Ark Royal in her honour. Sadly, in this case their Lordships made a rod for their successors backs.

A quick glance at Colledge and Wardlow’s Ships of the Royal Navy shows that the Royal Navy has literally hundreds of famous and proud names that it could call upon. The Navy had so many ships in years gone by, that it pretty much had to scrape the barrell for names – how else could you explain the fearsome sounding HMS Beaver? I remember a few years ago the letters that flew back and forth in the Navy News and Portsmouth News, complaining that sailors were expected to go to war in ships named after furry little animals or plucked from the road atlas of Great Britain.

If we really want to talk names for Aircraft Carriers, then we have plenty to choose from – Courageous, Glorious, Eagle, Hermes, Furious, Victorious, Formidable, Implacable, Indefatigable… I might have been tempted to go for Glorious and Courageous, both ships sunk in the Second World War, or Perhaps Invincible and Hermes in tribute to the Falklands War.

Reportedly the naming of the new Type 45 Destroyers aroused controversy. The previous class of Destroyers, the Type 42’s, were named after British cities. This was great for building up links with the respective city. Wisely, the Royal Navy decided to carry on with the ‘alphabet’ system of ship naming for Destoyers and Frigates. As the last sub-batch of the Type 22 Frigates were given ‘C’ names, the Type 45 became the ‘D’ class – Daring, Dauntless, Diamond, Defender, Dragon, Duncan. All historic, brave sounding names. Yet some of the cities who had been twinned with the old Type 42’s threw their toys out of the pram, refusing to take up links with the new ships and insisting that there should be an HMS ‘insert name of city here’.

There are some even more random naming controversies. HMS London, a Type 22 Frigate launched in 1984, was originally due to be called HMS Bloodhound, but was ‘renamed at the request of the Lord Mayor of London’. Aww, diddums. Her sister ship HMS Sheffield was originally to be called HMS Bruiser, and another sister HMS Coventry was supposed to be Boadicea. Bloodhound, Bruiser and Boadicea are all fine names. Perhaps we can understand the sentiment of naming ships after vessels that were sunk in war, but is rushing to rename ships of another class really a dignified way to do it?

I’m surprised that we haven’t had calls to name the new Antarctic icebreaker HMS Endurance. The Navy has been brave in announcing that she will be called HMS Protector, an old South Atlantic ship name with heritage and also sounds formidable. Who says that it absolutely has to be called Endurance anyway? A change of name makes a welcome change from the not so great publicity regarding the ship in recent years.

But please, let the name Ark Royal rest in dignity for a while, ready to sail again in years to come. Ship names should be a case of ‘the king is dead, long live the king’. The Royal Navy and the Ministry of Defence should issue a statement as soon as possible to shoot down all the spurious brownie point chasing. It’s quite distasteful.

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HMS Coventry at War

I’ve found this cracking documentary on youtube. It was originally screened a few years ago, and is based on the diaries of HMS Coventry’s Captain, David Hart-Dyke. It deals with all of the major episodes of the war, from the sinking of HMS Sheffield to when HMS Coventry finally sank. Its gripping stuff indeed.

HMS Coventry at War – Part 1

HMS Coventry at War – part 2

HMS Coventry at War – part 3

HMS Coventry at War – part 4

HMS Coventry at War – part 5

HMS Coventry at War – part 6

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