On This Day – 25 May – The Sinking of HMS Coventry

On 25 May 1982, Coventry and Broadsword were ordered to take up position to the north-west of Falkland Sound. There she would act as a decoy to draw Argentinian aircraft away from other ships at San Carlos Bay. In this position, close to land, with not enough open sea between her and the coast, her Sea Dart missiles would be less effective. Broadsword was armed with the Sea Wolf missile, which is for short range anti-aircraft and anti-missile use.

At first, the trap worked, with FAA A-4B Skyhawk C-244 of Grupo 5 shot down north of Pebble Island by a Sea Dart. Pilot Capitán Hugo Ángel del Valle Palaver was killed. Later a FAA A-4C Skyhawk coded C-304 of Grupo 4 de Caza deployed to San Julian was shot down north east of Pebble Island by another Sea Dart while returning from a mission to San Carlos Water. Capitán Jorge Osvaldo García successfully ejected but was not recovered from the water. His body was washed ashore in a dinghy at Golding Island in 1983. Garcia’s wingman, Teniente Ricardo Lucero, was also shot down during the raid on San Carlos by a Rapier Missile from ‘T’ Battery, 12 Regiment Royal Artillery, but he was luckier, and ejected into captivity, in front of waiting news crews.

The two ships then came under attack by two waves of two Argentine A-4 Skyhawks. The first wave carried one 1,000 lb free fall dumb bombs while the second one carried 3 x 250 kg bombs. The four Skyhawks flew so low that Coventry’s targeting radar could not distinguish between them and the land and failed to lock on. Broadsword attempted to target the first pair of attackers (Capitán Pablo Carballo and Teniente Carlos Rinke) with her Sea Wolf missile system, but her own tracking system locked down during the attack and could not be reset before the aircraft released their bombs.

Of the bombs released, one bounced off the sea and struck Broadsword’s flight deck and, though it failed to explode, wrecked the ship’s Lynx helicopter. Coventry claimed to have hit the second Skyhawk (Capitán P. Marcos Carballo) in the tail with small arms fire, although the aircraft returned safely to Argentina. In fact, Carballo’s plane was hit under the right wing by a piece of shrapnel on his way in, that pierced his aircraft’s right fuel tank.

The second pair of Skyhawks (Primer Teniente Mariano A. Velasco and Ensign Alférez Leonardo Barrionuevo), headed for Coventry 90 seconds later at a 20-degree angle to her port bow. Still unable to gain a missile lock, Coventry launched a Sea Dart in an attempt to distract them and turned hard to starboard to reduce her profile. On Broadsword the Sea Wolf system had been reset and successfully acquired the attacking aircraft, but was unable to fire as Coventry’s turn took her directly into the line of fire.

Coventry used her 4.5-inch gun and small arms against the attacking aircraft. The port Oerlikon 20 mm cannon jammed, leaving the ship with only rifles and machine guns to defend herself. Coventry was struck by three bombs just above the water line on the port side. One of the bombs exploded beneath the computer room, destroying it and the nearby operations room, incapacitating almost all senior officers. The other entered the Forward Engine Room, exploding beneath the Junior Ratings Dining Room where the First Aid Party was stationed and the ship immediately began listing to port. The latter hit caused critical damage as it breached the bulkhead between the forward and aft engine rooms, exposing the largest open space in the ship to uncontrollable flooding. Given the design of the ship, with multiple watertight compartments, two hits virtually anywhere else might have been just survivable. The third bomb did not explode.

Within 20 minutes Coventry had been abandoned and had completely capsized. Coventry sank shortly after. Nineteen of her crew were lost and a further thirty injured. One of the wounded, Paul Mills, suffered complications from a skull fracture sustained in the sinking of the ship and later died on 29 March 1983; he is buried in his home town of Swavesey, Cambridgeshire. After the ship was struck, her crew, waiting to be rescued, sang “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Broadsword subsequently rescued 170 of Coventry’s crew.

RNA Norwich

RNA Norwich

The Norwich Branch is one of 300+ branches of the Royal Naval Association world wide. It was commissioned in 1979 and today has a membership of just over 90. It is a registered charity in its own right - the Registered Charity Number is: 1068699

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