Four years ago, my ship – the HMS COVENTRY went to war in the Falkland Islands. The ship never returned; it now lies 300 feet down in the South Atlantic. The men who survived learned some fundamental things about themselves and about war.
The Falklands conflict showed that, as always in war, the critical factor is morale. High morale is the quality which makes men endure and show courage in times of fatigue and danger. It is this quality, not so much the advantage in numbers of men and weapons that counts. And the cultivation of morale depends on good leadership, discipline, comradeship and devotion to a just cause.
The British task force had all those ingredients off the Falklands in 1982, and the enemy did not. We had confidence and the enemy did not. OUr men never doubted that they would win and they could not wait to start the battle and then to get home after the victory. That is what made the Falklands such a total triumph.
Oddly, the most testing and frightening time for me was the period before the conflict started, as we sped south and prepared for war. It was a time of sobering self-examination and adjustment. Somehow you do have to remove yourself from the safe and familiar world of peace and come to terms with the largely unknown existence or real danger and violence. I found this far from easy.
The days or not knowing whether we had to fight or not – or listening to the BBC giving the latest reports on the chances of successful negotiations – were unnerving, mentally exhausting and for most people extremely hard to suppose it was because we reared to go to to leave our safe and friendly world maybe forever.
These days were bard for me because I had to remain outwardly unafraid and cheerful in order to provide that much-needed strength or leadership for my ship’s company. My men began to watch me more closely and listen to every word I uttered, such that any chink revealed in my armor would have considerably increased their anxiety and even, perhaps, reduced their will to fight. Their lives were in my hands and I could feel it.
As the chances of a political settlement slipped away and war seemed a real possibility, we became somewhat concerned. A mood of anxiety pervaded the ship.
There was also the traumatic experience for many of preparing the ship for war; securing for action, for real. The issue of morphine, life jackets and identity discs to wear around the neck, together with the removal of pictures, trophies and soft furnishings made a dramatic impact. Letters from home, thoughts of family and friends, heartfelt messages and telegrams wishing us good luck and a safe return all added to the tension and highlighted the risks ahead.
After three weeks of worry and uncertainty, it finally came as a great relief when it became clear that there was no option left but to fight. Our anger mounted against this harsh and unpredictable enemy. Morale rose and we became united to a man in our pur~~se. The faint-hearted became strong, the ship’s company as a whole stiffened to the tasks and we went headlong into battle, confident and, outwardly at least, cheerful.
For myself, I was particularly thankful that I had had a long experience at sea in destroyers and frigates. I was confident and did not find it difficult to go to war. I was surprised how very quickly I discarded all peacetime inhibitions and thinking. Many rules and regulations became irrelevant. My life suddenly became very straightforward and my aims crystal clear: they were aimed solely at getting at the enemy and surviving; and that concentrates your mind on essentials.
One essential to grasp very early on is that you are on your own. It is no use worrying the flagship with your problems or expecting a spare part to appear out of the sky to overcome this or that defect. You have to fix things yourself. We somehow fixed our long-range radar in the middle of an air raid by using the elements of a toaster from the junior ratings’ dining room. We used the steel legs of swivel chairs bolted to the floor of the helicopter to provide revolving machine gun mountings.
As we approached the war zone, the dangers and the challenges seemed to produce a step-up in ability overnight in most people. Young sublieutenants found themselves conning the ship while refueling alongside a darkened tanker in the blackest or nights and in the dirtiest of weather, and they did magnificently. The first lieutenant often took command of the ship for a few hours in the night so that I could get some sleep.
This was a new experience for us all and until the first disaster occurred we could not begin to imagine what the horror of war was really like. Besides, there is always the hope that “it will never happen to you.” Hopes such as this, however fragile in reality, are very strong in war; they actually keep you going, however dangerous the fighting might be. They prevent you from anticipating or imagining what disasters could befall you, or indeed what the real risks are. This is a perilous state of mind which I suspect prevails among all but the really warhardened.
The first few days of war were nervously exciting and cheers erupted throughout the ship when enemy aircraft were shot down. But we had not yet seen real war, we were naive and far from being battle-hardy.
The real conflict started when we began to suffer losses ourselves. Attitudes then changed and our excitements and reactions became more measured and mature. We were quite close to HHS SHEFFIELD when she was hit and the effect on my ship’s company was devastating. Hardly a word was spoken for nearly 2~ hours and people had to struggle to overcome their tears and emotions.
At the end of that day my petty officer steward came into my cabin and with noticeable emotion remarked, “It has been a bad day today, sir,” and I replied, “Yes, it bas been a bad day.” That is all we could say and that was difficult enough. It was hard to talk without giving away one’s tears, and our minds were too occupied. We were stunned!
This incident shocked us into reality and made us all realize how difficult it was going to be to bring our ships close to the enemy air force and land the army with all its equipment safely on the beaches of the Falkland Islands. This was, after all, the only way to win the war. We were now rapidly becoming battle-hardened. Twenty-four hours after that first tragedy, we were no longer gloomy. Morale returned to a high point and we became even more determined to hit back at the enemy just as soon as we could.
Thoughts of getting home to a hero’s welcome were highly motivating, and I became aoutely aware that nearly 300 people were depending on me to get them home safely. I told them that my holiday was booked from the 4th of August and so we would have to be back by then; out of this statement arose an almost mystical belief that no matter what happened, we would get back by this time -because the Captain had said so.
After SHEFFIELD was sunk and HHS GLASGOW put out of action, we shouldered more of the hazardous tasks. We were frequently deployed to the front line against the enemy air force and to protect the vital amphibious shipping in San Carlos Water. Our task was to control the Sea Harriers (carrier jet fighters) so as to get them poised in the right place to meet the incoming air raids and to use our Sea Dart missiles. It was clear that we had to draw the enemy fire away from our troops and to be sacrificed if necessary.
We only saw our friendly forces to the east ot the Falklands when we refueled or reammunitioned in the middle or the night. We always felt safe among the familiar dark silhouettes of the task force on these occasions and when we came to leave to return to our solitary post, we bad to steel ourselves to do so and hide the fear at what the next day’s battle might bring.
When we had survived the daytime, and darkness came to give us some measure of protection, I used to sit down in my cabin with a glass of port, a King Edward cigar and a Mozart symphony. That was sheer heaven!
During these last few hectic days we all knew the odds were against us emerging unscathed. We always knew that we might be hit from the air; it was just a question of where and how many casualties we would sustain. After all, several other ships already had been 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 demoralizing. Conversations were brave and cheerful, and invariably confident that we would all get home safely. We were all strengthened by such reassuring talk, however much we inwardly believed that some of us might never get back.
I was shocked when, a day or two before the end, my first lieutenant came into my cabin and with hesitation said, “You know, sir, some of us are not going to get back to Portsmouth.” Although it disturbed me to hear him say that, it was very brave to admit to his captain what be really felt, and we now no longer had to pretend to each other about the risks we were taking. He included himself among those that would not return and in his last letter home he told his wife so. She received the letter just after she heard the news of his death.
These were difficult days indeed, and I found it demoralizing to wake each morning to beautiful, clear and sunny weather which favored the enemy air force and illuminated us sharply against the calm blue sea. I waited on the bridge, heavily clothed for protection against fire, life jacket and survival suit round my waist, ready for the next air warning signal. I then went down to the operations room to prepare to counter the threat. These moments demand considerable nerve and a brave face as men watch you go below wondering whether they would see you again.
Tuesday, May 25 was one of those days. We had survived two air raids and shot down three aircraft with missiles. I responded to the next inevitable air raid warning and went below with more feeling of fear than before. I paused momentarily at the top of the hatch and talked to the officer responsible for the missile system. I never saw him again. At 6 p.m., precisely, I pressed the action station alarm from the command position in the operations room.
We listened to the air battle and tried desperately hard to avoid losing the fast and low-flying enemy aircraft on radar and to predict where they were going next, so as to guide the Sea Harriers to the right place. It was like a fastmoving computer game, full of tension, all eyes strained and almost impossible to win. We knew we would lose if we could not keep up with the quickening pace. The pale and anxious faces told the whole story. I looked at the clock — it was nearly 6:15 p.m. — and prayed that it would go faster to see out this last air raid of the day and bring on the night. The light was already beginning to fade as another brilliant sunset developed.
At 6:15 p.m. we came up against a very brave and determined attack by four aircraft. We engaged with everything we had, from Sea Dart missiles to machine guns, and even rifles, but one of the aircraft got through, delivering three 1,000-pound bombs, which exploded deep down inside the ship. The severe damage caused immediate flooding and fire, and all power and communications were lost.
Within about 20 minutes the ship was upside down, her keel horizontal a few feet above sea level. Later she sank. It is still remarkable to me that, but for the 19 men tragically killed by the blast of the bombs, some 280 of us got out of the ship — much of which was devastated inside and filled with thiok suffocating smoke. I can only put that down to training, good discipline and high morale.
It was about 6:20 p.m. when my world stopped. I was aware of a flash, heat and the crackling or the radar set in rront or my race as it disintegrated.
As I came to my senses, nothing could be ·seen, except for people on fire, through the dense black smoke but I could sense the total devastation of the compartment. Those who were able took charge calmly and effectively. It seemed like an age, but when you are fighting for your life, the brain speeds up and time slows down; your actions and thoughts are very narrowly focused, enabling a precise concentration on the right priorities for survival. At times like this, pain, injury and rreezing seas are not even distractions; they do not enter into your calculations or decision-making. There are more important matters to think about.
When I eventually got to the upper deck, as the ship was beginning to roll over, I saw the ship’s company abandoning ship. It was quite remarkably orderly and calm, looking just like a peacetime exercise. I am still trying to discover who gave the order to abandon shipl Perhaps no one did. People just very sensibly got on and did it. It was the only thing to do.
When I had watched everyone jump into the sea and get into their life rafts, I walked down the ship’s side, jumped the last two feet into the water and swam to the life raft. My war was over.
When we were fighting for our lives and being rescued from the water, there were many brave deeds done by many of my sailors.
A young officer directing the close range guns rrom the very exposed position or the bridge wings did not take cover when the enemy aircraft were closing at eye level and strafing the ship with cannon fire. He stood there for all to see and ordered the gun crews to stay at their posts and engage the enemy until he gave the order to stop. This order was not questioned by the very young sailors manning the guns, and they kept firing despite their totally exposed position. They remained at their posts, even though the ship was burning and listing steeply, in case or another air attack. Eventually they were ordered to join the rest of the ship’s company in abandoning ship,
Between decks, two chief petty officers, separately and on their own initiative, revisited smoke-filled compartments when everyone else was on the upper deck and the ship listing dangerously to port; they ensured everyone still alive was got out of the ship. One found a senior rating unconscious, his clothes on·fire and slumped over a hatch above the engine room. He got him to the upper deck and saved his life.
The other chief petty officer managed to get two very frightened young sailors, trapped in a compartment, to climb past a large hole in the deck through which intense heat and flame was flaring. He saw them safely to the upper deck and saved their lives. This chief petty officer then continued his search, totally alone, and by wriggling along on his stomach to keep below the layers of suffocating smoke, looked into several spaces for survivors before saving himself and swimming to a life raft.
It is, of course, terrible to lose a ship and some of your people, but it is made easier to bear when you have seen your officers and men, regardless of the dangers, being cheerful, fearless and totally dedicated to tbe ship and the cause for which they were fighting. It was an unforgettable privilege to have led such professional and brave men in action.
Since that fateful day I can say that I have learned a great deal about the effects of shock. The most immediate effect is that you are unable to appreciate what has really happened and you are therefore largely unaware of the horrific experience you have been through. This is nature’s way of shielding you from the awful reality and protecting you until you are ready to know the full scope of the tragedy.
It is a process which takes considerable time and cannot easily be speeded up. It is like entering a narrow tunnel whose limited and close horizons can be seen and coped with, and which gradually widens as progress is made through it, until emerging at the other end with full consciousness and a normal appreciation of events in the real world. The tunnel was very narrow when I started the journey of rehabilitation on the night of May 25 and I finally came out at the end some 14 months later.
It is only now, looking back, that I can fully realize what a dramatic and frightening experience I had been through. At the time you are so completely wound up and braced for war that everything is taken in your stride; fear and even disaster can be faced with not too much difficulty. Times of great stress that call for the hardest test of leadership are also comparatively easily coped with in the heat of war. But when it is suddenly all over, then it is impossible to adjust to an environment where there is no war and no requirement for decisions or leadership.
The city of Coventry presented my ship, when she was first commissioned, with a cross made from three large medieval nails from the timbers of the roof of the Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed by German bombers in ‘941. When it came to prepare the ship for action, all such trophies were taken down and secured in a safe place. However, at the particular request of a young and rather rrightened petty officer, I let this cross remain defiantly where it was. It had, I think, become a symbol of hope and survival for him, no doubt to many others as well at this time.
Tragically, like the medieval cathedral, our cross did not survive that day.
Seven months later the cross was recovered -by chance — from the wreck of the ship 300 feet down. I later returned it, quite unharmed, to Coventry Cathedral for safekeeping. I will present it at the end of next year to the new HHS COVENTRY.
Captain David Hart-Dyke, Royal Navy