Smart Missiles and Dumb Bombs: the day Argentinian Super Étendards and A-4C Skyhawks sank MS Atlantic Conveyor and HMS Coventry

By William Cobb
May 26 2022
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May 25, 1982 saw the British Task force off the Falklands take some of its most serious losses to Argentinian Air strikes.

Given the fact Argentina named its Aircraft Carrier after their Day of Independence, 25 de Mayo, May 25, 1982 saw the British Task force off the Falklands take some of its most serious losses to Argentinian Air strikes. On this date MS Atlantic Conveyor and HMS Coventry were both sunk, Atlantic Conveyor by Exocet Missiles launched by Super Étendards from the 2nd Escuadrilla de Ataque Squadron, Armada de Argentina, and Coventry by a stick of three dumb bombs from V Brigada Aerea A-4C Skyhawks.

The loss of Atlantic Conveyor had a substantial impact on the logistics of Britain’s ground campaign, as the ship carried a significant portion of the Task Force’s utility helicopter capability. The ship’s sole surviving Chinook, Bravo November, would go on to perform a series of logistical feats, including the transport of 81 troops during one emergency airlift effort. Sadly, her captain, 57 year old WW2 Veteran Merchant Mariner Ian North, would be among the nine men lost with the ship.

Here’s UPI story on the lives lost aboard Atlantic Conveyor.

Coventry’s loss occurred while she was serving as a Radar Picket and Missile Defense ship in company with HMS Broadsword.

According to www.hmscoventry.co.uk;

‘On 25th May 1982 – Argentina’s National Day – Fuerza Area Argentina (Argentine Air Force) A-4B Skyhawks from Grupo 5 had been given a mission specifically targeted at Coventry and Broadsword. The two ships had been on picket duty, North-West of the Falkland Islands, acting as both early warning and the first layer of defences. They had become quite a thorn in the side for the Argentine forces as a result. Two raids were scheduled against the ships. The first raid descended into chaos and was abandoned when Coventry shot down one of the aircraft with a Sea Dart. The second raid, unfortunately, had more luck.

Smart Missiles and Dumb Bombs: the day Argentinian Super Étendards and A-4C Skyhawks sank MS Atlantic Conveyor and HMS Coventry
Atlantic Conveyor, sunk by a pair of Exocet Missiles launched from ANA Super Etendards. The loss of this ship greatly hampered support efforts for British ground forces as the majority of the support and utility helicopter capability of the Task Force was aboard this vessel. Atlantic Conveyor approaching the Falklands, on or about May 19, 1982

‘Flying extremely low and initially hiding behind West Falkland and Pebble Island to the South, Coventry’s radar was unable to pick up any of the incoming aircraft. Broadsword, however, could see two targets, and called off a Sea Harrier CAP, confident that they could deal with the raid. Coventry’s radar was still unable to break out the contacts from the ground return of Pebble Island, and her lookouts spotted the aircraft first. Small arms and Oerlikon fire opened up, and the two A-4s altered course away from Coventry and towards Broadsword, which had a firm Sea Wolf lock on a single contact.

‘Just before the Sea Wolf was ready to fire, however, the single target it had locked became two, confusing the system. The launcher slewed to its stowed fore/aft position, and was unable to be reset in time before these first two A-4s attacked the Broadsword.’

The Coventry would be lost to retarded dumb bombs dropped from the ultra-low flying A-4C Skyhawks of V Brigada Aerea on this mission, as the Argentinian Air Force attempted to maximize damage while eliminating a series of dud bombs which were caused by their aircraft having to fly ultra-fast and low, due to the defenses of the Task Force. This often resulted in bombs fuses not having time to arm, which in turn resulted in several hits which did not sink the ships targeted.

The bombs which struck Coventry were time delayed, and once again would result in the loss of a British Guided Missile destroyer, with various reports stating 2-3 500 to 1000 lb bombs. In addition, a Lynx from HMS Broadsword was destroyed by a dud bomb, and Broadsword herself rescued Coventry survivors, the crew once again turning to Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” as their Abandon Ship Anthem.

Smart Missiles and Dumb Bombs: the day Argentinian Super Étendards and A-4C Skyhawks sank MS Atlantic Conveyor and HMS Coventry
A Fuerza Aérea Argentina (Argentine Air Force) Douglas A-4C Skyhawk from IV Brigada Aérea during the Falklands War at Mendoza-El Plumerillo Air Base. Note the silhouette of a British Type 42 destroyer painted on the aircraft. However, the only Type 42 destroyer, HMS Coventry (D118), was sunk the day after this photo was taken.

You can find the consensus of Coventry Crewmembers themselves as to what sank their ship again at www.hmscoventry.co.uk:

‘Velasco fired his cannons, hitting the hangar area, and then pressed his bomb release. Coventry’s luck had run out and all three of his bombs, released at just the right moment, hit the ship, carving a path of destruction deep into the interior. Barrionuevo witnessed the bombs striking Coventry’s hull and seconds later his Skyhawk flashed across the top of the ship – but despite pressing his bomb release, none of his bombs left his aircraft. Velasco’s bombs, fitted with delay fuses, had all come to rest within the ship instead of tearing straight through, due to their lighter mass compared to the Mk.17 bombs. One bomb failed to go off, but the other two exploded several seconds later, tearing out a large amount of the port side and killing several of the crew, mostly in the auxiliary machine space, computer room and dining room where the first aid party were stationed. The explosion just forward of the computer room boiled up through the open computer room hatch and wrecked the operations room. A large fire immediately took hold and water began pouring into the ship through the holes ripped in her side.

‘The third bomb had not gone off, but the hole it ripped through the decks allowed smoke and fire to spread beyond the abilities of damage control to combat it, and as ever more water poured into the ship she began rapidly listing to port. The large number of holes torn by the bombs, explosions and cannon fire became submerged and added to the weight of water pouring into the ship.

Smart Missiles and Dumb Bombs: the day Argentinian Super Étendards and A-4C Skyhawks sank MS Atlantic Conveyor and HMS Coventry
The British destroyer HMS Coventry (D118) underway in the Atlantic Ocean, circa in 1981. In the background is the US Navy frigate USS Bagley (FF-1069).

‘No ship-wide order to abandon ship was given – the confusion and chaos and total failure of ship-wide communications saw to that, but it was clear to everybody that Coventry was in a bad way and had to be abandoned. Quietly, efficiently, the crew nearest the upper decks had released the starboard side life rafts – those on the port side were at too sharp an angle to be of any use now. Evacuation took place in an orderly fashion, while several members of crew were performing heroics rescuing fellow survivors from shattered and burning compartments throughout the ship.

‘Broadsword had immediately begun rescue operations using her ship’s boats and helicopters also arrived from the ships in San Carlos Water. A particularly brave bit of flying from CPO Aircrewman M J Tupper of 846 NAS – hovering very near to the Coventry’s magazine (which could have blown up at any moment) – resulted in 17 survivors in life rafts trapped alongside the ship being lifted onto the Broadsword. Tupper later received the Distinguished Service Medal for his bravery. Broadsword’s crew performed just as magnificently, with her ship’s boat and Gemini towing life rafts away from the Coventry as she rolled over despite the ever present danger of a major explosion.’

The following video features Imperial War Museum Interview with Commander Nigel “Sharkey” Ward on the events of 21-25 May 1982 and how Flag errors compounded the losses to the Task Force off San Carlos Water. Ward remains a controversial figure, yet as a former RN Phantom Air Warfare Instructor (RN equivalent to TOPGUN graduate) and Sea Harrier Project Officer, “Mr. Sea Harrier.” He was in unfortunate position of being a subject matter expert whose expertise was ignored from on high.

All in all, Argentina managed to inflict a series of blows on the Task Force, but were unable to prevent the landings or further advance of British Land forces, who began their long “yomp” across the Falklands.

Be sure to check out William Cobb’s Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for awesome aviation’s photos and stories.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy, DM Gerard – Private collection, Martín Otero via Wikimedia Commons


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William Cobb

William Cobb

Mr. William Cobb is a licensed Instrument Flight Instructor in Single and Multi Engine Airplanes who is the founder and director of the Pensacola Aerospace Museum. Mr. Cobb spent from 2008 to 2015 instructing for the U.S. Navy's Initial Flight Screening program. After 8 years of full time Flight Instruction, Mr. Cobb started his own Commercial Drone Business, obtaining the first FAA Part 107 certification in his FAA region. Subsequent Drone work led to his becoming involved in Film Production work, and his establishing the Pensacola Aerospace Museum, an entity dedicated to honoring the memory of all those who ever gave their lives to flight.

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