25 May 1982: Two Ships lost, 31 Dead in Falklands War
Tuesday 25 May 1982 would have been marked well in advanced by British task force commanders in the South Atlantic as being a potentially difficult day.
25 May is Argentina’s National Day, a day of pride, being the day in the May Revolution of 1810 when the first steps were taken towards independence from Spain.
The flagship of the Argentine navy, the aircraft carrier that presented such a threat in the early part of Operation Corporate, was named Veinticinco de Mayo (25th of May), and Battle Group Commander Admiral Sandy Woodward, in his book One Hundred Days, spoke of his suspicions that the ship might attempt a do-or-die strike against the two British carriers.
So the British carrier group, the escort ships, the amphibious flotilla, the troops around San Carlos Water, were all prepared for a special effort by the Argentinians – and that is exactly what they got, though the threat, as had been the case so often, came from land-based aircraft.
Sadly, being prepared, professional, highly-trained and highly-motivated isn’t always enough, and on 25 May 1982 two more British ships were destroyed with significant loss of life.
The first to suffer was the third of the original three Type 42s that sailed to the Falklands, HMS Coventry, which by 25 May was a well-trained, efficient and battle-hardened ship, having spent long periods in the most exposed and dangerous position of radar picket to the carrier battle group.
The destroyer, along with Type 22 frigate HMS Broadsword in the familiar ’42-22 combo’, was on station a dozen or so miles off Pebble Island, to the north-west of the San Carlos Water anchorage and landing area, in the dual role of radar picket and missile trap.
The theory was that Coventry’s long-range radar and Sea Dart system could spot Argentine jets approaching without the clutter of the land mass to obscure the picture, and the jets could be picked off before they got close to their targets.
If they got past Sea Dart, patrolling Sea Harriers could be vectored in by either ship to meet the incoming threat, and Broadsword’s Seawolf missile system would be a formidable close-in third line of defence.
The plan worked well late morning on 25 May when the first Argentine attack materialised. Brilliant fed her radar data into Coventry’s operations room systems and the destroyer fired off a Sea Dart which brought down one of the Skyhawks at long range; the other aircraft broke off and veered away.
Three hours later a second wave of attackers approached from a different direction and streaked through Falkland Sound, but one was shot down by a Seacat missile from HMS Yamouth, and as the other three turned for home, having missed the ships with their bombs, Coventry again proved deadly with her Sea Dart system, recording her second kill of the day.
But luck was with the third wave of Skyhawks later that afternoon. The first pair were shadowed by patrolling Sea Harriers, but the jump jets were warned off as both ships sought the targets with their missile systems.
However, Sea Dart failed to lock onto the incoming aircraft, once again blinded by the land masses around the ship, and Seawolf refused to recognise the incoming jets, close together, as a valid target.
The jets pressed home their attack.
One bomb fell short into the sea, two flew just over the frigate’s superstructure, but the fourth bounced off the surface of the sea and up through the frigate’s stern and flight deck, wrecking her Lynx helicopter on the way into the sea beyond the ship.
There was plenty of damage, but at least it failed to explode.
The second pair of Skyhawks now appeared and bore down on Coventry. Once again Broadsword’s Seawolf was readied – but once again contact was lost as the destroyer, desperately trying to work out from which direction the Argentines were attacking, veered across Seawolf’s radar arc.
It also meant the ship was bow-on to the bombers – the worst possible position as it gave the pilots a long target to aim for – and the jets duly dropped three bombs into the hull of the Type 42, at least two of which exploded to devastating effect.
It was immediately obvious that the destroyer was doomed. One of the bombs exploded close to the ship’s Operations Room, injuring many of the command team, while her engines rooms were also wrecked.
The flank of the ship was ripped apart and numerous fires broke out., but a calm, smooth evacuation was initiated by junior sailors, and around than 250 men were taken off.
More than 20 sailors were injured, and treated at Ajax Bay and in the hospital ships HMHS Uganda.
And when Coventry capsized less than half an hour after the bombs struck her, and sank soon after, she took with her 19 men who died in the attack.
MEM Frank Armes
A/CWEA John Caddy
MEA Paul Callus
A/POCA Stephen Dawson
A/WEM John Dobson
PO(S) Michael Fowler
WEM Ian Hall
Lt Rodney Heath
Laundryman Kye Ben Kyu
A/WEM David Ozbirn
Lt Cdr Glen Robinson-Moltke
LS(EW) Bernard Still
MEA Geoffrey Stockwell
A/WEA David Strickland
AB(EW) Adrian Sunderland
MEM Stephen Tonkin
A/Ck Ian Turnbull
A/WEA Philip White
WEA Ian Williams
There was one further victim of the attack the following year – MEM Paul Mills, who died on 29 March 1983 of complications from the injuries he sustained in the bombing.
As Coventry and Broadsword came under attack, two Argentine Super Etendards had just refuelled and were heading straight towards the British carrier group, less than 100 miles to the north-east.
Argentine air controllers had for days been trying to piece together intelligence to work out where the British carriers, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, were operating, to no avail as the Royal Navy kept the task group on the move.
But on 25 May they cracked the problem, pinpointing the ships with an accuracy of just a handul of miles, and the Etendards were readied – though they had to wait several hours to take off as they had to use the same tanker as the Skyhawks that took on Broadsword and Coventry.
Having picked up potential targets on their radar, the two planes launched their Exocets, and the missiles’ internal radar started searching for targets ahead of them.
The ships they had spotted was indeed the carrier group – HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible just a few miles apart, a clutch of escorts and a group of auxiliaries and merchantmen with them.
One of the merchantmen was the 15,000-ton S Atlantic Conveyor, originally a Cunard roll-on, roll-off Atlantic container ship, but which had undergone a stunning transformation before she left the UK.
She was now essentially a third or auxiliary aircraft carrier, with two landing spots on her new flight deck, and she had brought a priceless cargo with her – Harriers, helicopters, 600 bombs, helicopter spares and a complete landing strip for Harriers to be assembled at San Carlos.
The helicopters were crucial to Operation Corporate as they would be used to whisk troops across the difficult terrain of East Falkland as they homed in on Stanley. Without them, the Royal Marines, paratroopers, Guardsmen and Gurkhas would have to walk.
Eight Sea Harriers and six RAF Harrier GR3s had been flown off the ship days earlier to join the carriers and carry out combat air patrols and bombing raids.
Atlantic Conveyor had been kept well out to the east of the Total Exclusion Zone so far, away from the threat of Argentine aircraft, but she was due to run in to San Carlos Water on the evening of 25 May, unload her vital cargo, then head back out early on 26 May, to avoid being caught in ‘Bomb Alley’.
So she had joined the carrier group in preparation for the passage in – and was one of the larger targets as the Argentine Super Etendards released their missiles.
As soon as the Exocets were detected by the Royal Navy warships, clouds of chaff – thin metal strips which appear as large objects on radar – were launched to deceive the missiles, but the pair locked on to Atlantic Conveyor.
When the ship was struck one of the Chinooks was airborne, but she still had six Wessex HU5s of 848 Naval Air Squadron, three Chinooks of RAF 18 Sqn and a Lynx of 815 NAS aboard. and all were lost as the ship caught fire and burned fiercely.
Eleven men died in Atlantic Conveyor, and the 12th fatality was her master Capt Ian North, who had been sunk twice in World War 2. He was last off the Atlantic Conveyor, jumping into the water, but as the ship lurched in the swell he was sucked under the stern and despite the best efforts of colleagues he was lost to the sea.
Three of the victims from the Royal Navy, three from the RFA and six from the Merchant Navy. They were:
AEM Adrian Anslow RN
Laundryman Chan Chi Shing RFA
Bosun John Dobson
CPO Wtr Edmund Flanagan RN
ERM Frank Foulkes
Std David Hawkins
1RO Ronald Hoole RFA
ERM James Hughes
Laundryman Ng Por RFA
Captain Ian North
LAEM Donald Pryce RN
ERM Ernest Vickers
Capt North was posthumously awarded the DSC in recognition of gallant and distinguished service during operations in the South Atlantic.
Life rafts from the doomed ship were also at risk from being swamped, or being caught in an explosion if the flames reached the bombs or aviation fuel on board, so Type 21 frigate HMS Alacrity – at considerable risk – edged in close to Atlantic Conveyor and using lifelines towed them clear. By this time the hull of the burning ship was glowing bright red in places.
25 May had started with an alarm around the amphibious flotilla when sailors in RFA Fort Austin reported hearing suspicious sounds underwater in the small hours of the morning.
Divers from Fleet Clearance Diving Teams (FCDT) 1 and 3 checked the hulls of all the ships in the anchorage, finding nothing of concern, but the ships were repositioned to give them greater protection from air raids.
It was the start of another busy day for the divers, who started to clear the way for the removal of the bomb from Landing Ship Logistic RFA Sir Lancelot, delivered in air raids the previous day, but the removal of the bomb from RFA Sir Galahad had to be postponed as FCDT 3 had to move with all their kit to assault ship HMS Intrepid because their host ship, RFA Sir Bedivere, had to sail from San Carlos Water at short notice.
Out to the east, anticipating the arrival of Cunard-liner-turned-troopship Queen Elizabeth 2 at South Georgia, P&O liner-turned -troopship Canberra, carrying the survivors from HMS Ardent, North Sea ferry-turned-troopship Norland, with survivors from HMS Antelope, and County-class destroyer HMS Antrim sailed from the Total Exclusion Zone around the Falklands on 25 May; supply ship RFA Stromness, with survivors from HMS Coventry, followed them out of San Carlos Water.
Today’s image from the Imperial War Museum collection shows Type 42 destroyer HMS Coventry sinking after having been bombed by Argentine aircraft on 25 May 1982 off Pebble Island in the Falklands (© IWM FKD 126).
Courtesy of the Royal Naval Association