B O M B A L L E
Y - F I F T H D A Y -
H M S C O V E N T R Y
Coventry fires her Sea Dart Taken by Lt Bell Davies
May 25 - a day to remember, one never to be forgotten. May 25 is Argentina's National Day and the Task Force Commander had warned us to expect fierce attacks from the Argentine Air Force. Well prepared we stationed ourselves, together with COVENTRY, about 10 miles north of the northern entrance to Falkland Sound off Pebble Island. The day began well and after an attack on San Carlos, Sea Harriers chased two Mirage north out of the Sound towards us. As the fleeting aircraft approached they banked left, climbed and headed for home using their superior speed to outrun the Harriers. Imagine what shock the pilots must have suffered, when after thinking they wore home and dry, they were hit by Sea Darts from COVENTRY. Two down.
This was more like it - the missile trap was beginning to work. Shortly after the first encounter another aircraft appeared heading out of the Sound and it too felt the power of Coventry's sea Dart. Rapier and Yarmouth's sea Cat were also proving successful, shooting down one each. Perhaps the 25 May was going to prove to be a sad National Day for Argentina. Wrong. Things then started to go against us. The group intercepted a radio message saying that Port Stanley airfield was ready. Ready for what? The Admiral assumed that there was going to be an Exocet attack on the carrier group 150 miles to the North East. We sat and waited and nothing happened until a raid of strength four was detected closing our position from the West. They were tracked in until they disappeared from the radar as they crossed West Falkland. The first two were detected again as they came over the sea and Coventry's missile system locked on ready to fire. Unfortunately the lock was broken and COVENTRY started firing her gun instead so the aircraft turned slightly and attacked our starboard quarter.
They were flying extremely low and close together and our Sea Wolf tracker was unable to form a clear track for the missile to engage so we were unable to fire. "Take Cover", came the cry. Everyone dived for the deck, except the gun crews who kept on firing for all they were worth, and hearts in mouths we awaited our fate. Seconds seemed like hours and then there was a loud CLANG from aft.
Nobody moved and the explosion was awaited. The seconds passed and still nothing happened. We were still alive and afloat! However the raid was not over because the other two aircraft were attacking from ahead. This time Sea Wolf had locked on to the aircraft. They were still outside range so we waited for the right moment to fire. Then without explanation COVENTRY moved across our bows, probably to open her weapon arcs, preventing us from firing. The Skyhawks dropped their bombs and at least one and maybe two hit COVENTRY midships. Five seconds later there was an almighty explosion and she took on a severe list. It was apparent that she was capsizing and the ship's company were already abandoning ship.
We had also been hit by a bomb which fortunately entered the starboard side of the ship and bounced out via the flight deck, demolishing the Lynx enroute, but passing through without exploding. Realising we were safe for the time being, we set about the task of recovering the COVENTRY survivors and prayed that no more aircraft would attack us while we were attempting this rescue. Harriers provide us with a protective umbrella as we fought to get everyone onboard by nightfall. Men were leaping into liferafts and others were just jumping into the icy water, so it was imperative that the survivors were rescued as quickly as possible. Fortunately we had an already developed, but as yet untested, survivor handling plan which swung into action. All available boats were lowered and helicopters streamed out from San Carlos to assist. Men suffering from the effects of the blast were brought onboard and everyone was examined, given medical treatment if required, reclothed, fed and the more seriously injured were flown straight to the hospital ship, UGANDA. The helicopters proved to be invaluable. Time and again aircrewmen were winched down to pluck men from the icy sea and at one stage a Wessex landed on the hull of the strickened COVENTRY to pick up survivors. One extremely brave piece of flying occurred when one pilot hovered above the Sea Dart magazine, and his winchman recovered 17 men from a group of life rafts which were trapped alongside the ship's hull. At any moment the magazine could have exploded. With all the survivors rescued we returned to San Carlos where they were put into a landing craft and transferred to the CANBERRA.
While we had been suffering at the hands of the Skyhawks we had forgotten about the carrier group. The Admiral had been right in his assessment and an Exocet firing Super Etendard had attacked the group. The pilot fired at the first contact he saw which was HMS AMBUSCADE. AMBUSCADE took the correct action and fired "Chaff". The Exocet was seduced by the "Chaff" and veered away from AMBUSCADE but then re-commenced its search pattern and locked onto the unfortunate ATLANTIC CONVEYOR who was defenseless. The missile struck aft, under the bridge, setting off fierce fires throughout the ship and she had to be abandoned. Fortunately the extra Harriers she had brought from Britain had all flown off but a whole squadron of Wessex, three Chinooks and the metal runway were all lost. These could all be replaced as could both the COVENTRY and the ATLANTIC CONVEYOR but the lives of 20 COVENTRY sailors and 12 from the ATLANTIC CONVEYOR were lost forever.
A sad day for the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy and the Task Force. However their loss was not in vain. The beach-head had been defended and the advance was about to begin. Perhaps of more importance was that we were winning. There was to be only one more serious air attack on the Fleet and the reason for this was quite simple. In five days the ships , Harriers, Rapier and small arms fire from ashore had decimated the Argentine Air Force. Not only had they lost one third of their fighters, but also nearly all their front line pilots. This was to prove decisive - the war was beginning to be won.