HMS Coventry D118 - Four Weeks in May - Extract
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 Four Weeks in May - Extract

This page last updated on Sunday 16th November 2014.

HMS Coventry Summer 1981 Newsletter
Four Weeks in May
Sea of Fire
Penguin News

What follows is an abridged extract from Four Weeks in May: The Loss of HMS Coventry: A Captain's Story by David Hart Dyke published by Atlantic Books. © David Hart Dyke, 2007:

During the last few hectic weeks of the Falklands War, every man on HMS Coventry realised that the odds of emerging unscathed were stacked against us. We always knew that we might be hit from the air - it was just a question of where the blow would fall, and of how many casualties we would sustain. After all, three British warships had already been sunk and others grievously damaged.

I frequently thought along these lines and I am sure most of my sailors did, but we never admitted it openly. That would have been demoralising. Conversations were brave and cheerful, full of confidence that we would all get home safely. I was shocked when, a day or two before the end, the first lieutenant, my second-in command, came into my cabin and with noticeable hesitation said: 'You know, sir, some of us are not going to get back to Portsmouth.' Although it disturbed me to hear him say this, I thought it was very brave of him to admit to his captain what he really felt, and at least we no longer had to pretend to each other about the risks we were running. He included himself among those who would not return and in his last letter home he told his wife as much. She was to receive the letter just after she heard the news that he had been killed.

Towards the end of our time, the strains were definitely beginning to tell. Although most people remained outwardly strong and in control of themselves, feelings clearly ran high. Once, quite unprompted, a young sailor on the bridge showed me photographs of his girlfriend and talked freely about her. He was in need of reassurance and this was his way of showing it. There had already been air raids that day, and we knew the enemy would be among us again very soon. On a similar occasion, a petty officer produced a prayer, given to him by his mother when he first joined the Navy, which he kept with him all the time and which clearly meant a great deal to him, especially now. He asked me to read it in our church service on Sunday and then moved quickly out on to the wings of the bridge for fear of showing the tears in his eyes. War can be an emotional business.

I found it depressing to wake each morning to beautiful, clear and sunny weather which favoured the enemy air force and illuminated us sharply against the blue sea. I would wait on the bridge, heavily clothed for protection against fire, life jacket and survival suit around my waist, ready for the next air raid warning. When it came, I would go down to the operations room to prepare to counter the threat. These moments invariably demanded a certain amount of nerve: you had to put on a confident face as men watched you go below and wondered whether we would win the next round and survive unharmed.

Tuesday, May 25, 1982, was another of those days. We had survived two air raids and shot down three aircraft with missiles. Inevitably, there was another warning and I went below feeling more fearful than before. I paused for a moment at the top of the hatch and talked briefly to Lieutenant Rod Heath, the officer responsible for the missile system. I never saw him again. At 6pm precisely, I pressed the action- station alarm from the command position in the operations room and within four minutes the ship was closed down, ready and braced for action. As we listened to the air battle raging, we tried desperately to avoid losing radar contact with the fast and low- flying enemy aircraft and to predict where they were going next. There was the familiar air of quiet professionalism, the sound of swiftly tapping keyboards as operators tracked targets and of soft but urgent voices exchanging information over the internal lines. It was like some frantic computer game, and we knew we would lose the battle if we could not keep up with its ever quickening pace. As I glanced around at the warfare team, their pale and anxious faces said everything. I looked at the clock - it was nearly 6.15 - and prayed that time would somehow accelerate, enabling us to see out what would surely be the last air raid of the day. Even now, I knew that outside in the South Atlantic the light was already beginning to fade, the prelude to another brilliant sunset.

As it was, we came up against a very brave and determined attack by four Argentinian aircraft. We opened fire with everything we had, from Sea Dart missiles to machine guns and even rifles, but two aircraft got through, hitting us with three 1, 000lb bombs. My world exploded. I was aware of a flash, of heat and the crackling of the radar set as it literally disintegrated in front of my face. When I came to my senses, I could see nothing through the dense black smoke, only people on fire, but I could sense that the compartment had been totally devastated. All power and communication had been lost. The ship was flooding and on fire. We had been plunged into a nightmare of chaos and confusion.

Within about 20 minutes, the Coventry would be upside down, her keel horizontally above the sea. Nineteen brave men would be dead. It still strikes me as remarkable that some 280 of us got out of the ship, whose interior was utterly devastated and filled with thick suffocating smoke. I can only put that down to good training, discipline and high morale. You need all of those - especially the last - in desperate situations. As for myself, I was two decks down and had a long way to go to reach fresh air. I could see no way out and was suffocating in the smoke. The ladders were gone and doors blocked by fire. I was calm and not at all frightened. I was feeling quite rational and was prepared to die. There seemed to be no alternative.

We had been on training exercises off Gibraltar in April 1982 when we heard the startling news that South Georgia and the Falkland Islands had been overrun. We were ordered south immediately and at best speed for Ascension Island. War still seemed unthinkable. I wrote home to my wonderful wife Diana, known as D: ' Here I am steaming south. It's very hot. We're all praying for a political solution and a quick end to the problem - otherwise we could be here for several months. Hardly bears thinking about.'

Ascension brought us up with a start. Weapons training intensified, and we carried out frequent first-aid and damage-control exercises, simulating fire and flooding. We took on a vast amount of stores and spares and received charts of the Falklands - which was just as well, since for most of us they had been no more than distant dots in the atlas at school. For some, they were never to have much appeal. Much later, when we got our first actual glimpse of the islands, one of my officers logged in his diary: 'What a dump. Looks like Wales on a wet Sunday after England have beaten them at Cardiff Arms Park and all the pubs have run out of beer.' From intelligence briefings we learned that the Argentinians had 200 front-line aircraft and two modern submarines armed with very effective homing torpedoes. They would be a nasty threat if properly deployed. We were worried now - and with good reason.

All the trappings and comforts of peacetime were removed as we secured the ship for action. Wind- surfing boards and a sailing dinghy were among items thrown over the side. We mounted machine guns in the ship's Lynx helicopter, improvising rotating platforms for the guns from swivel chairs. Such ingenuity would see us out of many tight spots in the days ahead. On one occasion, we would somehow repair our defective long-range radar in the middle of an air raid by using the heating elements from a mess deck toaster.

After we left Ascension and headed further south, Admiral Sandy Woodward-the Battle Group commander, came on board and addressed the crew. It was the first time we heard someone actually say that war was possible and that we could expect ship losses and casualties on our side. This came as a shock to many on board, but it helped us to concentrate even more on preparing for what was clearly going to be a tough fight. As we left the tropics, the weather began to change: grey skies, biting winds and crashing waves. We could cope with the worsening weather but for me this period before the conflict started was the most testing, and the most frightening. It was a time of both self-examination and adjustment. I had to remove from my mind all thoughts of a safe, familiar peacetime world and come to terms with danger and violence. This was far from easy. I remember a terrible hollow feeling in my stomach as the full realisation of what was happening dawned on me. I felt I was being swept helplessly along in a fast flowing river to an uncertain end, and that I was unable to strike out for the banks and safety. I could scarcely believe we were going to be asked to resolve the issue by force when we were so heavily outnumbered on the ground and in the air. I reckoned the Argentinian Air Force alone could win the war and that just those two submarines could bring us to our knees by picking off the aircraft carriers or the troop ships as they approached the landing area. I feared for both the reputation and the future of the Royal Navy should we fail. But I noticed that the men were now watching me more closely and listening to every word I uttered. Any chink in my armour would increase their anxiety and perhaps reduce their will to fight. I had to remain outwardly unafraid and cheerful, whatever my inner turmoil. Their lives were in my hands and I could sense that they felt it.

It was soon time for wills to be completed and last letters home written. Morphine was issued, along with life jackets, survival suits and identity discs. I scribbled a letter to my wife: "All is well as I lead my ship's company into war. What a thing to be doing! But, although I hate it all, I am ready for it. I have terrible thoughts about leaving you and the girls to continue life without me. I hope if it comes to it you will be very, very brave. Life must go on and you three must be happy. But I will be back, so don't worry about me. I am in good health and the ship is ready for anything." Our readiness was soon to be tested, as by now the diplomatic negotiations had failed. Britain declared a 200-mile exclusion zone around the Falklands. Come inside it, the enemy was warned, and we will attack.

As the Navy force neared the zone, we in Coventry, plus HMS Sheffield and HMS Glasgow, were sent 20 miles ahead of the carrier group. We were on picket duty, out there to detect and deal with any threat to the highly valuable ships of the main force by taking them on with our own missiles or calling in help from the Harrier jets on the aircraft carriers. The task of the picket ship is a lonely one: you are intentionally placed in harm's way. You are likely to be sunk first in any attack on the main force, and you are always a tempting target to a submarine. Such was my lot, but I wasn't complaining as, in the early hours of May 1, the Carrier Battle Group entered the exclusion zone and we were at war. After three long weeks, the worry and uncertainty were over. The faint- hearted became strong. And I no longer feared that I was being swept helplessly down a river: I was simply following its course wherever it might take me, and I was in full control. As well as being on picket duty, another of Coventry's tasks was to creep inshore and bombard military installations near the Falklands' capital Port Stanley. SAS patrols operating behind enemy lines provided us with the coordinates of the artillery, radar and ammunition dumps we should hit. The SAS were already up to their usual tricks - setting off a random explosion here, leaving a discarded British cigarette packet there, and perhaps even adding something nasty to the water supplies. Some of them took passage in Coventry before being dropped for their missions. Afterwards, word went around that they had liberated the odd carving knife from the ship's galley, either to discard near their vacated campfires as an overt sign of their presence - or to use more directly on the enemy.

Four days into the fighting, we were having trouble with our long- range radar, so we moved to a safer sector to carry out repairs. Sheffield took our place. Then we and Glasgow got wind of a possible Exocet missile attack. It was hard for warfare officers to make these calls as they scanned their radars and listened to their electronic sensors. The weather and atmospheric conditions often played tricks and any number of spurious contacts would appear on our screens: once, we engaged and destroyed what we thought were Argentine patrol boats, only to discover they had been a group of albatrosses. Glasgow seemed sure about the Exocet attack but Sheffield was uncertain. We three screening ships kept talking to each other to try to work out exactly what was happening. Suddenly there was silence from Sheffield. Complete silence. Had she suffered a communications failure? No such luck. An Exocet had found her, skimming the sea at hundreds of miles per hour and slamming into her starboard side, creating an inferno of fire and smoke. The Argentinian pilot had come in very low, underneath Sheffield's main radar beams, seen an echo on his own radar, and just fired. Then he skedaddled home, not even aware of what he had done. Twenty members of Sheffield's crew were dead, and when the fire got out of control, the ship had to be abandoned. The effect of her loss on my ship's company was devastating. Hardly a word was spoken for several hours and people had to struggle to overcome their feelings and fears. But although we had all been shocked, we were becoming battle hardened ourselves, and the next day our confidence returned and we became even more determined to hit back at the enemy.

When it was all over, there would be time for reflection and understanding, and to express sympathy for the losses incurred on both sides. But for now, I am sad to say, it was all about killing. Following the attack on Sheffield, the Battle Group retreated so as not to risk getting too close to the islands. This meant less air cover for us from the Harriers. This was bad news, and it got worse when Glasgow was put out of action, with large holes in her sides from enemy bombs. We were left to shoulder even more of the hazardous tasks. We were deployed to the north of West Falkland along with HMS Broadsword. Although it was not spelt out in as many words, it was clear to me that our job was to draw the enemy fire towards us and away from San Carlos Water - the area designated as a landing zone for our troops - and that we were to be sacrificed if necessary.

Although every ship involved in the war had drawn a short straw, ours, I think, was the shortest. During the next few days Coventry would be in the front line against an enemy hell-bent on preventing a landing and advance on Stanley. D-Day had been set for May 21 and it was not long before an armada of ships, with all our troops, weapons and equipment, appeared over the horizon. They were embarking on the largest British amphibious operation since World War II and, to my mind, probably one of the riskiest. Under cover of darkness, the landing force went into Falkland Sound and the first units landed on the beaches of San Carlos at 4.30am. The outcome of the war would now depend on securing the beachhead from which the troops could advance and fight. And that's where we in HMS Coventry came in. With Broadsword, we were to act as a missile trap - to intercept aircraft as they swept in over the Islands before they could drop their bombs on the assault ships in the Sound. But it was not going to be easy.

Although we could see the enemy aircraft on radar soon after they took off from their mainland bases 200 miles away, when they descended to low level on nearing the Islands we lost them completely. They flew low, following the contours of the hills, and were absorbed by the land clutter on our radar displays. A surprise low-level attack was something our Sea Dart missile system was not designed to cope with. As the air war raged above and around us, I would listen on my headset to the voices of the Harrier pilots as we directed them towards the enemy. They were almost conversational but at the same time urgent, clear and decisive. It was a little like listening to a commentary on a very exciting football match, only the stakes were considerably higher. The Harriers were forever active, outmanoeuvring the enemy, scoring hits. It was a battle of attrition, and one which we appeared to be winning. But I realised just how vulnerable the Coventry was, exposed for long periods at the heart of so much air activity. Sheffield was gone. I wondered when our turn would come. We were all very aware that May 25 was Argentina's National Day, which would stir the enemy into producing his best and most determined effort.

The night before, I had a vivid dream of my twin brother Robert, who had been killed in a road accident when we were both 25. I had never dreamt about him before. He was sitting at a bare table in an empty room and crying. He seemed to be worrying about me. I was looking down on him from one end of the room and just said: 'Don't worry, I' ll be all right.' As with most dreams, it faded quickly when I woke and I thought no more about it.

From first light, Coventry and Broadsword were braced for action, and when it came it was fast and furious. The Argentinians must have worked out what a nuisance we were being, co-co-ordinating the defence of the landing force, and they were now clearly determined to take us out. Another raid was on its way. We knew the planes were close but try as we might, we could not see them on the radar. Then suddenly the lookouts on the bridge spotted them as they came clear of Pebble Island about ten miles away, two aircraft, probably Skyhawks, flying very fast and low straight towards us. It was too late to get my missiles anywhere near to firing but our barrage of fire from the deck drove them off, and they veered towards Broadsword, launching two bombs at her. One missed altogether but the other hit the sea, bounced, went through the quarterdeck, up through the flight deck and destroyed the ship's helicopter. It did not explode, however, and there was no further damage. Later, we discovered Broadsword had tried to get the Skyhawks with her Sea Wolf missiles. She had the pair clearly in her missile sights but the system switched off at the critical moment. It turned out the software could not decide which target to fire at when two aircraft were flying close together and so it did nothing. A crucial opportunity was lost and the enemy aircraft got away. Perhaps if Broadsword had shot down even one of them, they might have thought twice about coming again. But come they did.

Less than a minute later, another attack began. Two Skyhawks, two Mirages. But again, where were they? I strained to find them on my radar set. Suddenly, from the bridge, two aircraft were sighted heading straight for us, so low that water sprayed up behind them. We opened fire with all the deck guns we could muster and even tried to dazzle the pilots with beams of light from our signalling equipment. But this time we could not beat them off. Down in the control room, there was a dreadful silence. The Argentinian pilots had outwitted us. Both aircraft got through and released their bombs. They tore into the side of the ship and ripped their destructive paths downwards through steel decks before coming to rest deep inside the hull. Then they exploded. In the operations room the vicious shock wave knocked me out.

When I came round, I was still sitting, very precariously, on the edge of my now broken chair in front of what little remained of the radar screen into which I had been peering intently a few seconds before. My headset and microphone had disappeared - burnt off me without a trace. So too had my anti-flash hood and gloves. I looked to my left and saw a sheet of orange flame leap out of the hatch down into the computer room below and envelop a man as he attempted to climb out. He had nearly reached the top of the ladder, and someone stretched towards him and tried to catch his hand. But it was too late. The fire consumed him, and he fell back with a final, despairing cry. I looked all about me in the darkness and through the thick black smoke I saw a few dim shapes of people with their clothes alight, human torches. One of my officers was beating out the flames on his own head where his headset melted into his scalp. As far as it was possible to tell in the dark, the ladder behind me which led to the bridge was broken. I struggled towards the door to the main passage but that way was now just a wall of fire and terrible destruction. I was trapped. I could see no way out and I was fighting for breath. Suffocation begins with a welcome calming effect, yet it is only one small step away from collapse and death. I was not far from it.

Coventry, crippled by the explosion and with a hole in her side below the waterline, began to keel over, and the ice- cold waters of the South Atlantic thundered into the engine rooms, the largest compartments in the ship. The situation could not have been worse. Watertight doors had been blown off and water and lethal smoke began to penetrate the whole length of the ship. With Coventry in danger of capsizing, we now depended on the initiative and bravery of individuals to rescue trapped crewmates and get them to safety. In Coventry's dark and devastated operations room, semi-conscious and suffocating, I heard urgent voices of authority summoning help and maintaining order. But I was fading fast. I thought of home and wondered who was going to mow the lawn in my absence. Then my mind went blank.

Suddenly - and I really don't know how much later this was - I found myself in clearer air in the starboard passageway. I have no recollection at all of how I got there, but suddenly I was alert again, or so I thought, and intent on getting to the bridge as fast as possible. I made my way aft up twisted ladders towards the bridge from where I thought I could exercise some authority and get the ship heading in the right direction. When I got there it was deserted and filled with smoke and fire billowing up through an open hatch. It was untenable as a command post, and anyway I could not get in. I rested on the port bridge wing, and tried to take in what was happening. I saw one of my air warfare officers, Lieutenant-Commander Mike O' Connell, and ordered him to get the ship going fast to the east to get us into safer waters. He calmly replied, 'Aye, aye sir.' I had no idea at that moment how absurd my order was. Coventry was not going anywhere, as I am sure Mike must have known. All power and communication were lost, the ship was stopped, burning furiously and beginning to roll over. She was in her death throes.

I became aware that my wrists and hands had been burnt. The rubber of my anti-flash gloves had melted into my skin. I removed the pieces of loose skin and the remains of the gloves. My face felt hot from the flash of the bomb explosion, as though I had been exposed to the sun for too long. I climbed the now steep slope to the starboard side and saw the ship's company abandoning ship. It was all remarkably orderly and calm, looking just like a peacetime exercise. I never discovered who gave the general order to abandon ship. Perhaps no one did. But people very sensibly just carried on and did it. Life-rafts were now in the water and people were jumping into the sea to get into them. I looked on almost as though I was watching a film, and then moved down to the forecastle to prepare to leave myself. People were helping each other to put on their life jackets and survival suits. Someone helped me with mine as my hands were painful. I don't remember who he was but it was very good of him, given how anxious he must have been about his own safety. The ship was now almost on her beam ends and it was time for the captain to leave. When I had seen everyone jump into the sea and get into life-rafts, I walked down the side, jumped the last two feet into the water and swam to a life-raft about 20 yards away.

I was pulled into it by someone with a cheerful smile who said, 'There you are, sir, it worked.' It was the petty officer who had given me the prayer, which was still in my pocket. I was hauled out of the sea and taken to Broadsword, now no longer a ship's captain but a mere passenger, just waiting to be told what to do. I was in my cabin when one of Broadsword's officers came in and asked me, rather nervously, whether I would like to see my ship. I looked out from a porthole to see Coventry for the last time. She was upside down a short distance away, keel showing just a few feet above the sea and her propellers up in the air. Less than an hour ago, she had been an efficient fighting unit, complete with a brave and determined crew. I could hardly take it in. The loss of Coventry - along with the merchant ship Atlantic Conveyor on the same day, sunk by an Exocet - shook both the Task Force and the country. Yet we soon realised that the air battle had largely been won, and that this had been the enemy's final, desperate fling at us. No more of our ships would be lost, and our troops could land on the Falklands largely unhindered from the sky.

A Royal Marine Commando, who was ashore when he heard we had been hit, remarked: 'Thank God for good old Coventry. If it wasn't for her, the bombs would have been falling on us.' Nothing, though, could ease the pain of losing a ship and so many fine men. We had not deserved to go down on that last fierce day of fighting. It was like falling at the last fence in the Grand National when well in the lead - only a million times worse. From Broadsword we were transferred to Stromness, a converted troopship. Safely on board, I was feeling sorry for myself. I simply could not avoid the overwhelming feeling that, as their captain, I had let my people down. I did not find it easy to be with the officers or men, and chose to recuperate slowly in the confines of my cabin. I think I probably worried about what people thought of me. The fact that I so admired the ship's company only made me feel even more upset for having put them through these ordeals. Eventually, I heard some of the men were anxious about me. They wanted to make sure I was all right. Their concern for their captain touched me deeply and persuaded me to become more sociable again. It also made me feel immensely humble and merely intensified my regard and respect for my ship's company. Love might sound an unlikely word, but I did love my men. There can be no bond closer than that between men who have fought side by side in battle.

While I was in Stromness, my dream about my twin brother Robert suddenly came back to me. I was wide awake this time, but everything seemed just as vivid as when I had first dreamt it on the eve of our sinking. It all returned with such surprising force and clarity that I realised it had been my brother who had saved me. It had been with his guidance that I had walked, almost unconsciously, out of the inferno of the operations room to safety. The complete void in my recollection between preparing myself to die one moment and being alert and safe the next suddenly had an explanation. I have always felt my brother around me as I journey through life. I now know he was with me on that dreadful day.

Four Weeks in May was published on 12th April 2007, and is currently available: click here to buy from Amazon UK.