T H E V I E
W F R O M T H E F L I G H T D E
Jake and the Buffer discussing Oles
The first encounter with the Argentine Air Force took place soon after lunch on Friday 21st May, when the Flight Commander and Second Observer had returned from a coastal search between Pebble Island and Cape Dolphin. Suddenly a Pucara counter insurgency aircraft appeared from ahead , screaming down the starboard side, dropping bombs well short of RFA FORT AUSTIN before disappearing over the hill and into San Carlos Water itself, where it fired rockets at ARGONAUT, and escaped apparently unscathed to the south. Not long after that, wave after wave of Mirage fighter/bombers swept down on us -three separate attacks being directed at BROADSWORD herself. The first of these three came in from the starboard side. We had a GPMG and two LMGs back aft. The whole of the Flight's attention was drawn to these aircraft whistling past, clearing the top of the mast, and departing to the south west to return to base. Many rounds were pumped into the air in the general direction of the aircraft. It all seemed much like a Portland exercise. We may just as well have been firing blanks at incoming Hunters in a low level exercise. The next wave was to change all our minds.
AEM WEST and myself were following the path of two A4s, sweeping down the starboard side, clinging to the cliffs, well out of range* As I watched them turn, I noticed that WEST was crawling towards the hangar. Indeed, there was no sign of anyone around. Looking right behind me, over the port side, I could see why. Three Mirage were heading straight for us, the left hand one obviously heading for the flight deck and the exposed helicopter. There was only one sensible course of action but rather than head for the hangar, I ran up the starboard waist, collapsing on the deck. Picking myself up and counting the Mirages passing overhead, I ran to the hangar to see what, if any, damage we had sustained. In the hangar was a sight I had never before seen, nor ever wished to see again. Several of the team had been hit. Mercifully the injuries were not as serious as the amount of blood led one to believe.
The third and final attack that day was again pressed home by three Mirages, this time from the starboard side. We were few and far between on deck by this time. The Flight Commander was to my left, manning an LMG, whilst I remained closed up on the GPMG, but without a belt feed man. As the three aircraft closed, one conspicuously broke left, again aiming for the flight deck. Again the starboard battery let rip, only to see the aircraft 30mm cannon open up, and a bomb drop. That was enough for me - rapidly turning to my left, I launched myself under the hangar door. A few moments later, I poked my head out to see if all was well, but the Flight Commander had been hit in the fleshy part of his chin by a piece of shrapnel, and had to be rushed forward for attention. There had been no cover for any of us. It has been an almost futile gesture. Even so it was a help-so much so, that one Mirage was splashed by a combination of 40/60, GPMG, LMG and SLR fire.
The Saturday was much quieter. HMS COVENTRY
and ourselves were deployed to the north of Pebble Island, to act as a Missile trap, with
COVENTRY'S SEA Dart acting as an attack weapon.
On Sunday morning the 23rd, we found ourselves back in Bomb Alley, ready to take out any marauding Argentine aircraft. Once again, our Lynx departed on a coastal/surface search to the north, again finding nothing in the area. Having picked up two Fighter Controllers from FEARLESS (ex ANTRIM) the cab was tasked to investigate three contacts to the north of the AOA at about 50 miles, returning to land on ANTELOPE. That was when the fun started! Air raid warning red was piped minutes after they had shut down on ANTELOPE' s deck. During several attacks by A4s, ANTELOPE was hit, port and starboard, by unexploded bombs, (one bomb hit the Air Conditioning Unit, allowing inert Freon gas to escape). This immediately caused a gas alarm. Our poor crew, minus anti-gas respirators, were in two minds whether or not to leap over the side and try to swim for it. The mere fact that they were standing talking about it of course meant there was no gas present, and they finally managed to leave for BROADSWORD; but not before having a good look at ANTELOPEs pole mast, which has been bent virtually double by an exploding A4, taken out by a combination of BROADSWORD and ANTELOPE'S Small arms fire.
Tactics again changed on the 24th; back to our original missile trap to the North of the Sound. We had very little activity, although the two FCs we had picked up earned their keep by controlling Sea Harriers into incoming raids, and successfully shooting down 7 aircraft.
This plot was repeated on Argentina's Revolution Day the 25th. We remained in defence watches until required to close up at Action Stations. Our first call being at 1234. Two aircraft had been detected 20 miles to the south, and closing. COVENTRY fired two Darts: lockouts sighted one parachute while the other aircraft was tracked by radar heading back over the land. Things then happened thick and fast, at 1800 - Air Raid Warning Red; 1805 -raid now west at 80 miles closing at 450 knots, CAP intercepting; 1820, and we are under attack; 1822, one UXB come inboard from the starboard quarter, exiting through the flight deck, taking with it the nose of XZ 729; 1825, COVENTRY has been hit and was listing to port.
The raids cleared, and we- went to pick up survivors from the now capsizing COVENTRY. She lies on her side, a Wessex 5 resting his front wheels on her port side, winching men out of liferafts trapped by her Sea Dart launcher. There are a total of 10 helos dotted around the sky, picking up survivors who have drifted away in bright orange liferafts; checkiong pieces of flotsam to see if anyone maybe clinging onto them; more are heading in from the AOA.
The job of recovering the survivors continued on into the darkness. By last light the majority had been recovered, and were hustled below, stripped, showered/bathed to warm them up, and fed. It was not until nearly two o'clock in the morning that we finally saw the Ship's Company of HMS COVENTRY depart in an LCM to be taken to a holding vessel. I have never been so moved as when those men sat, huddled together against the chill winter's night, kitted out in borrowed clothes and shoes, with Pusser's towels and blankets, gave three cheers for 'HMS BROADSWORD' not once but twice. Even as they pulled away into the darkness, those unfortunate souls were clapping and shouting their thanks to those of use left on deck.
A "Junglie" picking up survivors
I realised how close the enemy aircraft were when the Bofors opened fire. The next sounds to reach my ears were yells: "Take cover".... "Hit the deck." immediately followed by a series of sharp cracks. This was coupled with a sound which I can only describe as a handful of ball bearing landing in a tin bucket. Shrapnel is certainly no discriminator of metal or flesh as we quickly found out. Hearing a number of moans I tried to open the Magazine Door into the Hangar, but one of the Flight had fallen in front of the Door only allowing me to partially open it: just far enough to get my head out to see what was going on.
The sight before me then I will never forget.
It appeared that everyone had been hit in some way, and it was obvious there were a lot of
people in pain. I thought, "My God. They're all dead" . After informing HQ1 we
had casualties in the Hangar 1 made my way to the Hangar via the Air lock and by this time
everybody who hadn't been hit, and even some of those who had, were attending to the more
seriously injured. I will always remember the calm and businesslike manner of everyone in
the Hangar that day, including the casualties themselves. They behaved admirably: all
doing a lot to help themselves and staying calm and collected, many still showing a sense
of humour. Though being a "Fishhead" I was very proud to be closely involved
with the "Waffoos" through that and other incidents on later days. Their support
and sense of humour were invaluable.
And now we move between decks, firstly to the Operations Room from where, in semi-darkness the Command operates the ship's sensors and primary weapon systems. It is a 'Star Wars' sort of place, computerized and luminous. This is how we prepared for war.