Western Evening Herald 14/04/81
Captain of the Royal Navy’s latest Type 22 frigate HMS Brilliant which has just arrived in Devonport from the builders, is Capt John Francis Coward of Horson Farm, near Antony Village .
HMS Brilliant has joined her sister ships, Broadsword and Battleaxe in Devonport where she will be based. She is a potent anti-submarine frigate with a comprehensive fit of space age electronics.
Capt Coward was born in Kent but has adopted Cornwall as his home. He has lived at Horson farm for the last ten years.
Although he served in another brand- new frigate HMS Tenby, as a young officer, his career had been spent in submarines.
He started in the ex-World War II submarine HMS Tactician in 1960 and then served in a succession of submarines.
He was appointed to his first command HMS Oracle, as a lieutenant in 1967.
His last submarine command was the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Valiant.
Between command in Valiant and Brilliant, Capt Coward has served as naval assistant to the First Sea Lord at the Ministry of Defence in London.
Click on video to start
In late March 1982 Brilliant was sailing quietly off the coast of Morocco on an exercise with Admiral Sandy Woodward. We went into Gibraltar for a week and on Sunday the 29th at lunchtime I was in the next berth to the Admiral.
He sent for me and said, ‘It’s the squadron’s Sports Day today. However, we’ve had to send a submarine from the UK towards the South Atlantic as a precaution. The cover story is that it’s exercising with somebody and that somebody had better be you. So get out of here this afternoon and meet it.
So I ran in the veterans race and believe it or not I won; but I hadn’t time to wait for the prize and ran on down to the jetty where my crew had the boat waiting.
As I climbed up the side the First Lieutenant let go and we were off. Sandy Woodward had cut the sports and stood on the bridge of Antrim to see me off. ‘See you in South Georgia,’ we joked; and indeed it was prophetic. So I steamed 200 miles straight out into the Atlantic.
I teamed up with the Admiral and his frigates when they left Gibraltar on 2 April and we steamed down together to Ascension Island, except that we were far from together.
He told us to spread out and avoid being seen by passing ships, fuel when we could, and see him there.
It was a shrewd precaution, We hung around for a couple of days gathering stores. At that stage the Government was deciding whether or not to re-invade South Georgia and trying to get the Task Force together back home. Then Antrim, Plymouth and Fort Austin were sent to South Georgia, and my force -Brilliant, Glasgow, Sheffield, Coventry, Arrow and Appleleaf- was ordered to steam off south towards the Falklands: go as fast and as far as we could until we ran out of fuel and then wait for the tanker to catch up with us, in order to establish a British presence as far South as possible.
Going south as spearhead of the force in this very bracing South Atlantic weather was exciting, probably the most exhilarating part of the campaign. Type 22 frigates are exceptionally good at going fast into weather and Brilliant averaged around twenty-four knots. The other ships didn’t like it; Arrow was starting to crack and I had to send them a message, ‘If you break down, don’t worry -we’ll leave you behind!’
I used to get all the Captains on board at nine 0′ clock each day to talk over what we were going to do. We thought we’d be in action as a group of six against the Argentinean navy a month before a carrier arrived on the scene, so there was quite an atmosphere. We practiced Exocet attacks until we were blue in the face, targeting from our helicopters all the way down. I had a Royal Marine detachment on board and had them practicing against the Glasgow and the Sheffield all the time.
I told them we might get the chance to take or burn or capture an Argentinean Type 42; they thought I was mad!
We’d hardly settled down to that task when the South Georgia operation went wrong, in that the assault force lost their helicopters before they even started. I was signaled to take the troop-carrying helicopters from the Coventry and the Sheffield and rush off on my own. It was blowing like hell, and in running fast to South Georgia Brilliant rode the gales exceptionally well. Until the Falklands conflict the Admiralty had tended to dismiss Type 22s as little more than expensive yachts, but they emerged as one of the successes of the campaign both for their missile capability and simply because they would go so fast in bad weather.
When I arrived at South Georgia our ships ‘were well off the coast because they’d heard the night before that there was an Argentinean submarine in the area. Our helicopters joined up with those from Antrim Plymouth and Endurance to range along the coast and found at once, just diving on his way out of Grytviken at dawn, having landed some commandos overnight to bolster the Argentinean base headed by Captain Astiz. The boys dropped bombs and torpedoes and damaged it quite badly, and the Captain, shaken, turned it back to the harbour and rammed it against the old base jetty. The Argentineans in South Georgia capitulated when the firing really laid itself down on their heads, and the next morning the Army asked me to get the submarine off the jetty in case it sank and blocked the harbour.
The British force commander Brian Young , had instructions to salvage it because of its supposedly high intelligence value, and decided it should be put with the old whaling wrecks up beside the whaling station. It really was a horrible, old-fashioned piece of junk, in a terrible state and I realized I would have to use the Argentinean crew to help move it. So we gathered them up and I was given some Marines to guard them. I was worried they might try to scuttle it which would have been a bold stroke for Argentina, blocking the harbour beautifully, but in retrospect they didn’t have the fight left in them, they were crushed, poor chaps, absolutely crushed. I stood on the bridge as we moved off, the Captain giving orders in Spanish, and then suddenly he realized it was going to sink on us, and ordered the crew down below to blowout the tanks to keep the boat on the surface. The trouble was, down below it was dark and drippy, and the marines thought the crew were trying to scuttle it so a fight started. The first thing I knew there were shots in the air and an Argentinean was killed. There were boats coming out from the shore. The Captain, I think, understood the situation and the Argentinean crewman was buried with full military honours
It seemed it was going to be rather an odd war up to then nobody had been killed.
Almost immediately I embarked Cedric Delves and his SAS men and rushed off to get them up to the Falklands. I joined up with Sandy Woodward and the main Task Force who at that point was starting to move into the Total Exclusion Zone. The Argentineans had a lot of exocets spread around their fleet and we were convinced we had to win the initial exocet encounter. Both sides were firing the same weapon from their ships which was a bit worrying since Exocet is quite a successful fire-and forget weapon if the right person fires it first. We weren’t sure then if they were going to be as incompetent as we hoped, particularly their type 42 Exocet ships , because we’ d trained those ourselves at Portland and we knew they weren’t that bad. So we were much more concerned about their surface force than anything else; wrongly, as it turned out. The Total Exclusion Zone was dominated by the Argentine air force and there was bound to be trouble, and the trouble descended on Sheffield. From then on, as far as we were concerned, it was very much a shooting match.
Brilliant’s principal job throughout the Falklands episode was body guarding HMS Invincible during daylight hours every day. Whatever else I was doing, I had to flash back and fall in dead astern of the Invincible by first light, and HMS Broadsword did the same job for Hermes. Everyone was worried that an Exocet would flash out of the sky, and the Sea Wolf missile system on board the Type 22 frigates was the only weapon available that had a chance of shooting one down. Every dawn they thought they were about to be attacked, but in the event dusk became a much more dangerous time. We would close up at action stations an hour or so before dusk and wait anxiously while we heard the reconnaissance flights for the Exocet coming up. Then, when it was nearly dark, I would say to the ship’s company, ‘Right, that’s it for the night, chaps, we hope!’, and two minutes later the bloody alarm would go. The crew got sick of that!
On many nights we ran into the islands to drop off SAS, SBS and Marines or to collect them after daring deeds ashore. I had a marvelous boatman, Leading Seaman Gould, who really liked getting wet and cold a tough character, the sort of bloke you’d normally find running a boxing booth. I gave him a wireless, and our fast boat used to flash him into the night, often on his own, to land or pick up the Marines. Once close inshore we’ d direct him like a helicopter and tell him where the rocks were from the radar. His principal interest was the bottle of rum I’ d leave for him in my pantry for when he got back, but we all thought Gould was pretty noble and he was mentioned in dispatches. He is the sort of seaman Nelson relied on and just as good.
We had a great rapport with the SAS; they really were wonderful chaps and we regarded them as our special army. They were outstandingly brave. One night about twenty-five were being transferred across to Fearless when their helicopter fell in the water. About five SAS men were clinging to a small life raft that had inflated automatically and we brought Brilliant up alongside them. It was cold, dark, rough and horrible, and they were in a terrible state, with broken arms and legs and collarbones, and weren’t wearing life jackets. One of my young Marines, Neat, dived in and prized them off the raft they were hanging onto and swam them back to the ladder -he was also mentioned in dispatches. I remember packing one of the survivors, an Army sergeant in Delves’s squadron, into our helicopter to send him back to Hermes. His arms and legs and neck were all bandaged up. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘this is the fourth helicopter ride I’ve had in the last fortnight, courtesy of the Royal Navy. The first one fell on the glacier at Fortuna on South Georgia. The second one rescued me and then fell in the bleedin’ Fortuna glacier again. Then I got in the one that fell in the water! I hope yours is under guarantee.’ Quite tough lads.
The anti-aircraft requirements in the anchorage by day, running in SBS or Marines to the islands at night, and rushing back for the dawn action stations in the Task Force was tiring. But I had very good young officers and could safely go to bed and let them get on with it; they were totally capable. I never had a moment of worry over the ship’s company. I’d talk to them every day to keep them informed of all I knew of the situation and I’d arranged beforehand a signals link via our sister ship Battleaxe in the UK which kept our wives in the picture. In a very modern ship like Brilliant you are remarkably detached; it’s lovely and warm inside and you know everything that’s going on because you’ve got better radio and monitoring equipment than anybody else. It’s a slightly unreal world. Even action stations didn’t quite break that, but it certainly got the adrenalin moving when you heard that general alarm -it really is the most hideous, horrible sound.
One night Brilliant went chasing submarines, which proved rather less than successful. I had received a typical Woodward signal:
‘An aircraft has reported sighting a submarine twenty miles north of Port Stanley. Go find him and bring me back his hat.’
I knew if we found him he’d be on the bottom and the whole place was littered with old whaling ships. We would find something, ping on it and it would look about the size of a small submarine, so we’d fly a helicopter with a magnetic detector over it and, yes, it would say it’s metal. But I didn’t have enough bombs to cover each wreck, and very few helicopters with metal detectors on them. The place was also full of whales, which gave enormous echoes on the sonar. Every so often a whale would come up, give a little blow, and a flock of seagulls would gather round, appearing as a quick flash on the radar. Everybody would say, ‘Christ, it must be a submarine,’ and we launched a few torpedoes at things like that. All in all, it was a total frustration but, looking back, I’ve a feeling that one of those wrecks was the San Luis and I think that eventually the analysis boys will confirm it.
On 12 May Sandy Woodward sent us in to bodyguard the Glasgow with the Sea Wolf whilst he shot up Port Stanley. The aim was also to bait their aircraft out to try and shoot a few down -nobody had shot anything down then. After Glasgow had been banging away for about half an hour it was quite obvious that somebody was going to be called out to thump us and on the radar we picked up two squadrons of their aircraft flying down over the mountains. Four of them then peeled out from the coast and started skimming out towards us in a tightly-packed group, right down on the water. I said to the Glasgow, ‘You steer over here and I’ll keep between you and them. Watch the Sea Wolf go!’ and turned it on.
The Sea Wolf is an entirely automatic system designed to shoot down missiles fired at you at close range as long as it’s switched to FIRE it’ll go on its own. It went on its own and shot down three of the four aircraft with two missiles: the first missile took the first aircraft, the second took the second, and the bits from the second aircraft knocked out the third one, which flew into the sea. The fourth one dropped some bombs, which bounced over us. We didn’t mind that. Then the second squadron came at us, more spread out, and I said to the Glasgow, who’d started firing his gun, ‘Relax, don’t fire -the Sea Wolf might think it’s a missile. We’ll do the same trick again.’ The Sea Wolf looked at this lot, said, ‘That is not a missile,’ and went back to park. Things happened quite fast then and they dropped bombs everywhere.
Fortunately, they nearly all bounced over us again, but one went straight through the Glasgow’s engine room and out the other side -it didn’t explode, but it knocked out an awful lot of pipes and mucked up her fuel and compressed-air systems. We then thought that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea -fifty percent probability by the Sea Wolf wasn’t what we’ d expected. So I called up Hermes and said we’ d come back out and try to persuade the Sea Wolf it had to do better. The problem was that the Sea Wolf is controlled by its surveillance computer system which was originally designed to recognize missiles not aircraft. In order to see a projectile approaching against the background it was programmed to pick out something less than a football in size and to reject clutter and big things. So the things the Sea Wolf discriminated against had included these four aircraft flying in loose formation. The system was still in the Experimental stage and I had on board an electronics engineer from Marconi, David Breen, who’d been with us on Operation Spring Train off Africa in March. On the way south I’d received repeated orders to send him back to the UK because he was a civilian. So very reluctantly I’d transferred him to a tanker going north, asking him to pack his bags of spares and fly down to meet us in Ascension, which he did.
He was absolutely first class. He kept the Sea Wolf going, and being strafed by Mirages and the like didn’t put him off at all! Once he had identified the problem he got on the telex to the team working on the computer at Portsmouth and by the next morning they came up with a change in the software, telling the Sea Wolf that once it had seen one target it should engage it, and not take notice of any other distractions. We put that into the system.
The Glasgow went back to find the support ship 5tena Inspector, to have a patch put over her side. But the bomb had done her a lot of damage and because at that stage Sandy Woodward thought there might be a stalemate lasting many weeks, he sent her back home to be repaired.
Brilliant’s next big job was body guarding the Task Force at San Carlos. That morning, 21 May, I took up position out in the Sound on the gun line with Broadsword, Ardent, Argonaut and Alacrity. When things really started to get nasty and the Antrim was bombed I moved in to be close to the Fearless and Intrepid. The aerial attacks were very, very fierce and we found ourselves virtually defenseless because the Sea Wolf wouldn’t go at all. 11 had been all right in the Sound but in San Carlos Water, which is virtually a creek, its radar was seeing so much clutter and putting so many inputs into the computer that it was overwhelmed: the computer could handle thirty or forty inputs but not hundreds all at once. We felt absolutely frustrated and infuriated because we knew bloody well that if we could get the missiles away they were going to knock the Mirages down. The only other firepower we had on this almost brand-new ship were two absolutely useless Bofors, built in Canada in 1942! The only modification they’d had since then were electrical firing circuits instead of old springs, which virtually ensured that they hardly ever worked. But it was well worth staying there because half way through the morning it suddenly became clear that all the ships with fighter direction capability were miles too far away to do anything about the Argentinean aircraft, who were over San Carlos Water; the Antrim could have hacked the problem but got bombed. Our Sea Wolf computerized radar was seeing them all right and my First Lieutenant, Lee Hulme, who’d been a fighter direction instructor back in the great days of the Fleet Air Arm, picked up the fighters coming in off the carrier and guided them in.
Although the computer wasn’t designed for this task, by reading off its printout numbers he managed to intercept seven Mirages and Skyhawks during the day. That evening I was handed a smashing message from the carrier saying, ‘ All our pilots here are talking with great admiration about your First Lieutenant, who really made the day.’ That was nice and Lee Hulme was mentioned in dispatches.
On the second day of San Carlos, Brilliant was hit, the first and only time during the campaign. A Mirage shot a string of 35mm cannon shells through our side, which exploded inside. We weren’t badly hit by many poor chaps’ standards, just three men injured, but it was disastrous for our weapons system. 11 came in from the water line right up to the Ops Room, through the Sea Wolf office, through the for’ard Sea Wolf launcher and peppered the wiring to all the electronics. In our wisdom we’d run the computer’s myriad input channels right up the ship’s side, and the whole system was firmly out of action. We tried to fix it up as best we could, using everything we had on board, but it definitely didn’t work so Sandy Woodward called us out to the repair ship.
That night about thirty-five electrical engineers descended from the Stena Inspector, and under the guidance of David Breen they bypassed the whole mess with a load of new wiring and got it working again, virtually overnight. The chap at San Carlos who stuck out in my mind as a very tough egg was Pentreath in the Plymouth. That first morning it became obvious that the Plymouth was more or less useless to the event, being an ancient ship with ancient radar and no very modern weapons. Pentreath’s answer to that was to steam in defiant circles round and round Fearless and Intrepid just to show he was there, blazing away with his gun. About a week later I flew over the anchorage and he was still doing this -it was perfectly clear that sooner or later he was bound to be bombed, which he was, quite badly. It was magnificent defiance, quite preposterous really, and very good stuff I thought.
Next night, the Commander of the Amphibious Force asked me to bring in the Monsoonen, a supply ship for the islands, which the Argentineans had taken from the islanders and were now using to run their supplies. He wanted it intact for his own use. We nipped down through Falkland Sound and found it, about twenty miles away, steaming east towards Stanley. He saw us coming from behind, and although we called on the radio to him to stop or we’d blow him out of the water, he turned north and ran it into the shore, through the rocks, through the kelp and up the beach. That was a bit disappointing, but I didn’t want to gun it to ruination. It seemed possible the war might be over pretty soon and as well as the Amphibious Force the Falkland Islanders would want it back, so I didn’t think they’d thank me for smashing it up.
The islanders got it off later and it is back in use round the islands. If I’d known that it was carrying howitzers for the defense of Stanley I would have changed my mind, but Invincible was calling me to get back out to the Task Force because dawn was coming up. We continued body-guarding Invincible, but of course after San Carlos the Navy’s role as a fighting force diminished. On the basis of first in, first out, Brilliant steamed up north soon after the Argentinean surrender.
Looking back, the ship and everybody in it had behaved exactly as expected, and the things that went wrong had done so for entirely predictable reasons. On the way north, the weather was very similar to when we went down, big sea, bright sky, lots of cloud, the same albatrosses -very South Atlantic. I fell the crew in, in their best uniforms, and we had prayers for the dead, particularly for the Sheffield and the Coventry. Both ships had been part of my little squadron coming down from Ascension. Now we were going back without them and it seemed almost incredible that those fine ships had disappeared.
Distinguished Service Order
As the Commanding Officer of HMS Brilliant, Captain Coward was involved in many of the significant incidents during Operation Corporate.
This was not coincidence, but a reflection on the outstanding initiative, determination and bravery which he displayed at every stage of the operation. He took HMS Brilliant to South Georgia to join in the final stages of Operation Paraquat and contributed markedly to the success of the operation, particularly with regard to the determined and professional handling of his ship which led to the attack on and subsequent capture of the Argentinean submarine Santa Fe.
After South Georgia he rejoined the remainder of the battle group as quickly as possible and upon entering the Total Exclusion Zone he showed tremendous initiative and capacity to engage the enemy on every conceivable occasion.
With HMS Brilliant he encouraged enemy air attack on several occasions by forming a gun line off Port Stanley with a Type 42 destroyer and shot down several enemy aircraft. He seized every opportunity to volunteer his ship for dangerous night raids through the Falkland Sound and assisted with several difficult missions to infiltrate Special Forces.
He escorted the amphibious group into the Amphibious Operations Area and was in the thick of the action during heavy air raids for the whole of D-Day. Despite damage to his ship which effectively put most of his weapons system out of action, he was determined to stay in the area for the second day and quite prepared to take on the enemy with whatever means remained at his disposal.
Even on retiring from the Amphibious Operations Area after the second day for essential defect repair, he managed to engage the Monsoonen, a resupply vessel, and caused it to run aground after giving it suitable warning.
Captain Coward showed exceptional professional ability, stamina, leadership, initiative and personal bravery in every aspect of his duties, and the high performance of his ship and the men he commanded reflects this.