Operation Blackleg: Riding a Missile Like a Motorbike

“Fraction of a Second” by Dave Coburn, depicts hard hat Royal Navy Clearance Diver Ray Sinclair, his saturation rig above him, placing a 4-pound C4 packet on the live warhead of a GWS.30 Sea Dart missile on the wreck of the Type 42 (Sheffield-class) destroyer HMS Coventry (D118), on her side some 330 feet down on the bottom of the icy South Atlantic.

The painting comes as part of the 40th anniversary of “Operation Blackleg” undertaken in October-December 1982 by 25 divers and 13 support staff of the Royal Navy’s Clearance Diving Branch. This historic series of dives were carried out by the Deep trials and Saturation Diving Team (NP2200), and either fully recovered or destroyed– at depth– all of the NATO sensitive equipment and documents from the war grave of HMS Coventry.

Coventry was sunk by Argentine Air Force A-4 Skyhawks on 25 May 1982 during the Falklands War, capsizing 20 minutes after three 1,000-pound bombs hit the 4,800-ton destroyer. While the nearby Type 22 frigate HMS Broadsword subsequently rescued 170 of Coventry’s crew, 19 were killed.

David Lidd: HMS ‘Broadsword’ Rescuing Survivors from HMS ‘Coventry’, 25 May 1982.

Following the conclusion of hostilities, the Admiralty evaluated its underwater graves for sensitive equipment and cryptographic material that could be salvaged and exploited by passing Soviet submarines that would likely not be concerned about the wrecks’ status as an official war grave, protected by the Military Remains Act.

Of the six British ships sunk in the Falklands, one, SS Atlantic Conveyor, was a roll-on/roll-off type container ship taken up from trade so she possessed few secrets.

Two 1960s-designed Type 21 frigates– HMS Antelope (F170) and HMS Ardent (F184)— sank inside the close littoral of the Falkland Islands themselves, within sight of shore on the bottom of San Carlos Water and in nearby Grantham Sound, their wrecks often checked on by RN survey ships.

The Round Table-class LST, RFA Sir Galahad, wrecked by Argentine Skyhawks and burned out, was towed to deep water after the end of the war and scuttled.

Perhaps the most famous British loss of the war was that of the modern Type 42 guided missile destroyer HMS Sheffield (D80), which was towed off and scuttled in more than 9,000 feet of water after she was abandoned following a hit by an Argentine Exocet missile and resulting inferno that gutted the ship. The fire likely destroyed anything useful and the depth kept her shrouded if not.

However, Coventry, Sheffield’s sister, went to the bottom quickly after she was hit, some 13 miles north of Pebble Island, at a depth of 330 feet. Less than four years in the fleet, she carried both advanced equipment and sensitive books that had not been secured. While a tough technical dive, her location was still within the realm of potential discreet salvage by skilled military teams either from Soviet subs or passing Warsaw Pact “trawlers.”

The command, in a scene reminiscent of a James Bond film and spoken with the seriousness of ‘M’, informed the divers, “If we fail to recover or destroy all the items on the Ministry of Defence list, NATO would be set back by 25 years.”

This was a problem that had to be fixed.

The NP2200 team, operating from the chartered support ship MV Stena Seaspread and equipped with early ROVs, made contact with the ship, penetrated the wreck– which still had deceased ship’s company aboard– made their way to the Computer Room to recover the crypto tapes from the computers, cleared the safe in the Captain’s Cabin of Top Secret documents, recovered some of the ship’s relics, and, finally, set demo charges.

As noted by Sinclair:

On November 26, 1982, my final excursion as diver (1) was to make my way over to the Sea Dart missile launcher. There, on the launcher, was the last armed Sea Dart missile sticking defiantly out 90 degrees to the ship. There would have been a different outcome if this missile had shot down the attacking Argentine jets.

The top side sent down one 4lb pack of plastic explosives and two 50lb charges. I placed the 50lb charges on the ship’s superstructure at strategic locations. I then swam over to the Sea Dart, straddle the missile like a motorbike, and secured the explosive pack to the warhead. Command was unsure whether deep demolitions using cortex would work. The diving bell and divers of 003 were now safely on board and commencing decompression. The Stena Seaspread moved off station. All three charges detonated.

Commissioned to honor all the divers of NP2200, who in the most harrowing and dangerous conditions performed as a team to successfully complete the arduous mission. The painting also honors all military personnel who risk their lives in bomb and mine disposal operations.

One comment

  • Thank you for sharing my story. The team of Operation Blackleg did an amazing job under the most difficult and harrowing circumstances .

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