Tuesday, April 7, 2009

HMS Coventry (D118)

Figure 1: HMS Coventry (D118) prior to the Falkland Islands War. Photo courtesy of the Royal Navy. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: HMS Coventry (D118) in Hong Kong Harbor in 1980. Courtesy Donald Couper's Public Gallery (web site: http://picasaweb.google.com/navydonald). Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: HMS Coventry (D118) leaves the Armilla Patrol in the Persian Gulf and is headed back to Great Britain, circa 1980. Courtesy Donald Couper 's Public Gallery (web site: http://picasaweb.google.com/navydonald). Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: A starboard bow view of the British destroyer HMS Coventry (D118) underway. In the background is USS Bagley (FF-1069). Courtesy US Navy. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: HMS Coventry (D118), while steaming northwest of the Falkland Islands, fires a Sea Dart missile at oncoming Argentinean jets on 25 May 1982. Courtesy Royal Navy. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: Argentinean A-4 Skyhawks attacking HMS Coventry (D118) on 25 May 1982. Courtesy Royal Navy. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: HMS Coventry (D118) exploding after being hit by three Argentinean bombs. Courtesy Royal Navy. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 8: HMS Coventry (D118) listing to port after being hit by bombs from Argentinean A-4 Skyhawks on 25 May 1982. Her Lynx helicopter (armed with Sea Skua missile on its port pylon) was still lashed to the flight deck on the stern of the ship. Courtesy Royal Navy. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 9: HMS Coventry (D118) listing and sinking as the crew abandons ship on 25 May 1982. Life rafts can be seen floating next to the ship. Courtesy Royal Navy. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 10: HMS Coventry (D118) beginning to capsize as Sea King helicopter rescue operations are underway. Courtesy Royal Navy. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 11: HMS Coventry (D118) capsized and about to sink on 25 May 1982. Courtesy Royal Navy; see web site http://www.teamportsmouth.com/Mem-OscarWhild.html. Click on photograph for larger image.

NOTE: An excellent web site for additional information regarding HMS Coventry can be found at: http://www.hmscoventry.co.uk/home.html

Named after a British city, HMS Coventry (D118) was a 4,350-ton Type 42 destroyer that was built by Cammell Laird and Company at Birkenhead, England, and was commissioned on 20 November 1978. The ship was approximately 410 feet long and 46 feet wide, had a top speed of 30 knots, and had a crew of roughly 300 officers and men. Coventry was armed with one 4.5-inch gun, two 20-mm guns, six antisubmarine warfare (ASW) torpedo tubes, and one twin-armed Sea Dart GWS30 surface-to-air missile (SAM) launcher. The destroyer also was armed with one Westland Lynx helicopter, capable of launching either Sea Skua anti-ship missiles or Mk. 44 antisubmarine torpedoes.

Coventry initially was assigned to the Eighth Frigate Squadron and then was transferred to the Third Destroyer Squadron in 1980. Her first major overseas deployment was to the Far East, where she participated in naval exercises with the navies of France, Pakistan, Oman, and the United States. Coventry visited ports in East Africa, Oman, Karachi, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Coventry also made a special trip to Shanghai in September 1980, along with HMS Antrim and HMS Alacrity. They were the first Royal Navy warships to visit Communist China in 30 years.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Coventry patrolled the Persian Gulf as part of the Armilla Patrol. She remained in the Persian Gulf for six weeks before returning to England in December 1980. In 1981, Coventry participated in a large NATO naval exercise called “Ocean Safari” and also took part in several smaller naval exercises until March 1982, when she was sent to Gibraltar. While Coventry was in Gibraltar, on 2 April 1982 Argentina invaded and captured the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island deep in the south Atlantic. These islands belonged to Great Britain and, after Argentina refused to return them, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave the orders to re-take the islands militarily. A large Royal Navy task force was assembled to mount an amphibious assault on the Falklands and HMS Coventry was ordered to join that task force. The Royal Navy, though, only had two small carriers that were able to take part in the operation (HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible), so Coventry’s precious Sea Dart SAM missiles were to provide badly needed antiaircraft protection for the fleet.

On 25 May 1982, HMS Coventry and HMS Broadsword were on aircraft picket duty to the northwest in Falkland Sound just off the Falkland Islands. These two ships were to intercept any Argentinean aircraft that were attempting to attack the British amphibious warships at San Carlos Bay in the Falkland Islands. Unfortunately, the ships were not in the open ocean and were close to land, which interfered with the accuracy of their antiaircraft missiles. Suddenly, four Argentinean A-4 Skyhawk jets came screaming in low just a few feet above the water, headed straight for Coventry and Broadsword. Since the planes were flying so low with a nearby island behind them, the antiaircraft targeting radar on board Coventry and Broadsword could not “lock-on” to the targets because their radars could not distinguish between the jets and the land. Therefore, only the guns on board both ships began firing frantically at the oncoming planes. As the planes came closer, HMS Coventry fired a Sea Dart antiaircraft missile at the jets but it missed. The two aircraft flew so close together that they confused Broadsword’s Sea Wolf antiaircraft missile system, preventing it from firing because it was unable to select a single target. The first two Skyhawks, each armed with two 1,000 lb. bombs, went for Broadsword. Of the four bombs aimed at Broadsword, only one hit. The bomb bounced or “skipped” off the surface of the water and struck Broadsword approximately five feet above the waterline. The bomb passed through the ship’s side without exploding and exited through the flight deck, taking off the nose of the Lynx helicopter that was sitting there. The bomb’s forward momentum moved it away from the ship and it finally landed harmlessly in the water.

The other two Skyhawks went for Coventry. Broadsword’s Sea Wolf antiaircraft missile system could “see” the incoming Argentinean jets on its radar screen, but at that same moment Coventry began turning to avoid the attack. That turn, unfortunately, put Coventry in between Broadsword and the attacking planes, preventing Broadsword from firing its missiles. These two Skyhawks also were carrying four 1,000 lb. bombs, but this time three of them hit their target. The bombs smashed into Coventry and exploded deep inside the ship. Two of the bombs blew up near the forward engine room and the other destroyed the computer room, blowing huge holes in the port side of the ship and causing massive fires. The ship began listing to port and it was clear to the ship’s commanding officer, Captain David Hart-Dyke, that Coventry was going to sink. Nineteen men were killed during the attack and the ship was beginning to roll over. The crew was ordered to abandon ship and Captain Hart-Dyke was the last man to leave Coventry. He literally walked down the side of his ship and into the water to a waiting life raft. It is believed that his life raft was punctured by Coventry’s superstructure as it rolled over and capsized. Coventry sank in less than twenty minutes after being hit by the bombs. Helicopters from the other ships in the task force rescued Captain David Hart-Dyke and the surviving members of his crew.

Coventry was the sister ship of the other ill-fated Type 42 destroyer in the Falklands Task Force, HMS Sheffield, which sank on 10 May 1982. In all fairness, the Type 42 destroyers were designed as open-ocean escorts for carrier battle groups and were ill-suited for amphibious operations close to land. However, the plain fact is that the British simply did not have enough air support during the Falkland Islands War. The two small aircraft carriers they did have (HMS Hermes and HMS Ivincible) could not carry enough Harrier jets to intercept all of the enemy aircraft before they could come close enough to threaten the British task force. The British, therefore, had to rely on the SAM missile batteries on board their escorts as a last line of defense against the attacking jets. Given the large number of aerial assaults the Argentineans threw at them, it’s amazing the British didn’t lose even more ships than they did.