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I've written this review for the June edition of Navy News. One of the best books to have crossed my desk in 18 months of doing reviews (and I get dozens...)
VETERANS of the 1982 conflict in the South Atlantic often complain that their ship was the â€˜forgottenâ€™ ship of the war.
Others grabbed the glory, or the headlines, but their ship made the decisive contribution to victory.
It is a claim Captain David Hart-Dyke would never make on behalf of HMS Coventry, but itâ€™s probably fair to say her role in the Falklands war has often been overlooked.
She wasnâ€™t the first ship to be lost in the war; she would not be the last. She did not blow up spectacularly for the cameras like Antelope. She did not venture into Bomb Alley like Ardent. She did not survive an Exocet hit like Glamorgan.
She did, however, fight with supreme distinction and bravery â€“ and made the supreme sacrifice, as her former commanding officer describes in the outstanding Four Weeks in May (Atlantic, Â£18.99 ISBN 978-1-84354-590-3).
The emotions, the nerves, the strain the Coventry men felt were identical to those felt by their predecessors 40 years before. The previous Coventry was subjected to repeated enemy air attack in the Mediterranean; like her successor, she fought with distinction but the odds were against her.
The sailors talked of home, of loved ones, they drifted oft silently into thought, tears rolling down their cheeks, they turned to God â€“ irrespective of whether they were religious or not. And if the worst came, they prepared to die. â€œYou know, sir, some of us are not going to get back to Portsmouth,â€ Hart-Dykeâ€™s XO confided him as the war dragged on.
This was the real war, too honest to be trumpeted in the jingoistic press or to be reported to loved ones in letters home. For his daughters Miranda and Alice, David Hart-Dyke sketched a cartoon of Coventry blasting enemy an patrol boat out of the water and an enemy aircraft out of the sky.
It was something the destroyer was particularly adept; on the final day of her life, May 25 1982, Coventry had dispatched three Argentine Sea Darts.
Fate was against her as the day waned; HMS Broadswordâ€™s Seawolf played up, Coventryâ€™s own Sea Dart couldnâ€™t get a lock on Argentine Skyhawk jets, whose pilots showed undeniable bravery as they raced in towards the destroyer.
Coventryâ€™s crew responded with equal bravery; every machine-gun fired, the 4.5in main gun blasted away, the Oerlikons chattered (until one jammed); the sailors even tried to blind the Argentine pilots by shining the beam from the bridge wing signaling projector in their faces.
It was, sadly, to no avail. Three bombs tore into the side of the ship and tore her heart out.
The operations room where David Hart-Dyke had been directing the battle ceased to exist as he knew it. His headset and microphone had vaporised, his anti-flash hood and gloves were in tatters. And yet he was one of the lucky ones.
â€œI 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 up into the operations room,â€ recalls Coventry captain.
â€œHe had nearly reached the top of the ladder and someone had stretched towards him and tried to catch his hand. It was too late: consumed by fire, he could go no further and fell back with a final, despairing cry for help.â€
Seven men were burned alive in the computer room â€“ or were killed by the blast of one of the bombs. A dozen of their comrades were also lost.
The author paints a vivid picture of Coventryâ€™s final moments, drawing upon the accounts of numerous former comrades. Survivors of the Barham, Prince of Wales, Gloucester, Repulse and countless more vessels will identify strongly with the scenes in the destroyer in her death throes.
Training reaped dividends. There was no panic, no selfishness. Each man helped the next to escape the stricken Coventry. Some 250 of them survived.
His crew, Hart-Dyke wrote just a few days after the sinking, had been â€œnothing short of heroesâ€ . Many of the heroes struggled to adjust to life after the Falklands. It took Coventryâ€™s captain perhaps 18 months to come around. He regards himself as one of the lucky ones; he never suffered flashbacks or nightmares like some of his former shipmates.
And it was only back in the UK that the captain realised the scale of Coventryâ€™s contribution to victory.
â€œI really had taken part in a momentous event in the countryâ€™s history,â€ he writes. â€œThe conflict was not just something to be played down as having been merely in the line of duty.â€
Fifteen years ago, reviewers praised Sandy Woodward for the frankness of his account of the campaign, and in particular the strain of command.
David Hart-Dyke gives you the â€˜business endâ€™ of that conflict, the story of the sailors in harmâ€™s way. It is one of the most moving, honest and vivid memoirs of life â€“ and war â€“ at sea you will ever pick up.
Just finished reading it. Superb book, very personal and very sensitive. I remember phoning my mate on there as she sat parked at FLJ before she sailed for the exercises and asking him if he wanted to go on a run down Southsea. He declined as he couldn't get a sub, and the next I knew I was watching for his name being read out on the list of dead. He survived and ended up on a Tribal with me a few years later, very much shot to pieces. Before he went outside, he went inside.
RIP 118. Gutsiest bastards on the planet.
I'll certainly pick up a copy when next back in Blighty. The National Geographic documentry series "Seismic Seconds" also did a programme on the loss.It also included film from the 910 Tracker camera of that horribly critical moment whereby the 909 Dome of the Coventry passes through the 910 boresight, and the Seawolf was forced to disengage.
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