In this historical piece, former Royal Navy clearance diver Ray Sinclair reveals details of Operation Blackleg – the hazardous work to recover classified materials from the wreck of HMS Coventry sunk off the Falkland Islands in May 1982.
HMS Coventry was sunk in about 100 metres of water to the north of the Falklands Sound. Although the wreck was considered too deep for amateur diving, it could be accessible to professional divers. Fearing that the Soviet navy could attempt to access the site, it was considered necessary to mount an operation to recover classified cryptographic material left on board as soon as possible.
Operation Blackleg was led by Lieutenant Commander Mike Kooner and a team of Naval divers operating from the chartered vessel MV Stena Seaspread between from October – December 1982. It saw the team secure various weapons, destroy sensitive equipment and recover items including coded documents, the captain’s ceremonial sword and telescope, as well as the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral, presented in 1978 when the ship was commissioned. Four decades later, lead diver Ray Sinclair (formerly Suckling), now a journalist has written this narrative:
Our Naval Party 2200, aboard the Dive Support Vessel (DSV) Stena Seaspread, had reached its destination. The ship is stationed 13- miles North of West Falkland Island in the tempestuous South Atlantic Ocean. Directly below us, 300 feet down, laying on her port side, was the wreck of the Royal Navy’s Type 42 Guided Missile Destroyer, HMS Coventry.
Time tends to blur and distort memories. Yet, nearly 40 years on, the recollections of the war grave HMS Coventry have strengthened with clarity and poignancy. What has affected me the most is the moving of the bodies of the fallen, those brave young men who sacrificed everything and remain forever on watch.
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.”
I was on the second saturation dive, my first saturation dive as a Royal Navy Clearance Diver. On my first excursion to the Coventry, I exited the diving bell and sat on the clump weight, which hangs by two metal cables just below the round entrance door of the bell. Below me, the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), with its twin lights and camera, illuminated small sections of the ship as it flitted across the enormous expanse of the grey hull. I stepped off the clump weight and slowly drifted down to the ship’s starboard side to commence cutting a larger access hole. I looked up at the diving bell, which now hung like a glittering Christmas bauble in the blackness of the surrounding ocean.
We continued cutting to enlarge the hole as two-man teams with the usual unsettling small blowbacks. Unfortunately, Clegg was to experience what must have been a bigger underwater explosion, the force cracking the thick polycarbonate face plate of his diving helmet. Clegg made his way back to the safety of the bell, understandably shaken up, but luckily was able to continue to carry out his diving duties.
The team was now split into two teams of three. Harrison, Wilson and I formed a team. We were to rotate from Diver (1), Diver (2) and Bellman. Our task was for Harrison to enter the ship’s interior through the enlarged hole and myself to station inside the lobby to tend the diver’s umbilical.
Harrison would then navigate his way along the passageway to the Computer Room to recover the crypto tapes from the computers. We knew a body lay over the doorway, which led directly to the start of the passageway. Edwards and Daber had finished their dive, clearing out the lobby to gain access, when they came across the body. The divers were instructed to use the term Code Bravo for any deceased ship’s company that needed to be relocated to carry out the operation.
Via radio communication, I informed Dive Control of the Code Bravo and what was to be done. Assuming we had a better grasp of the situation and Dive Control did not know what to do, silence was the answer. Finally, after what seemed like an age, Harrison and I picked up the sailor and positioned him through the doorway. We let him go and watched him serenely float down to his final resting place.
Harrison could now cautiously make his way along the passage to recover the tapes. After about an hour, Dive Control informed me Harrison was trapped, and I needed to go along the passageway to where he was and free him. I cautiously made my way, following his diver’s umbilical in the cramped and cluttered space to where Harrison was stuck. He had his arms full of cryptographic tapes. Wires and cables entangled around his diving helmet and bailout bottle.
Harrison was also wedged between a locker and the side of the ship’s structure. He did not know I was there and was struggling to free himself. I communicated to Dive Control to tell him to remain still. I then set about removing the nest of wires and grabbing his bailout bottle at the back and his diving harness at the front and pulling him through the tight opening; this is the job of diver (2). At the lobby, Harrison gave me the tapes and went back to recover the remaining tapes, this is the job of diver (1).
The Computers Room successfully cleared. Dive team 003 was tasked with clearing Captain Hart-Dyke’s cabin. The primary aim was to open the safe and recover the top-secret documents. The team of Edwards, diver (1), Daber, diver (2) and Clegg (Bellman) were the first team to enter the cabin. They were tasked with clearing out the clutter for a safer work environment. This dive is where Edwards and Daber recovered the much revered ‘Cross of Nails’, and Daber recovered Hart-Dykes ceremonial sword and telescope.
On the next dive, I was diver (1), Wilson, diver (2) and Harrison (Bellmen). I was to open the safe. I made my way to the safe, the size of a small chest. Wilson on the outside, tending my umbilical. Dive Control relayed the combination, so many turns left, stop, a number to the right, stop, three to the left, stop. I then tried the handle, but the safe door didn’t open.
I attempted the combination lock three times to no avail. Wilson passed down the oxy-arc cutting gear and, like a pro, cut into the safe. Once open, I took out the documents marked TOP-SECRET. I confess to reading a few, but the encryption was above my pay grade. Also, in the safe were some beautiful silver ornaments, small candelabras, and I distinctly recall the small antique silver box with a stagecoach drawn by six horses embossed on the lid. I put all the silver into a dark blue mail sack and handed it to Wilson. No money was in the safe in the way of petty cash. When I exited the Captain’s cabin, the safe was empty.
The last missile
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.
For 30 years, due to the Official Secrets Act, only the MOD’s sanctioned accounts of the dives were allowed to be reported. There was no credit whatsoever given to the Leading Divers who accomplished the bulk of the dangerous, harrowing and demanding work. Now, 40 years on, my account serves as a factual retelling and I’m immensely proud to have been part of the three-man dive team that saw Petty Officer Micheal (Harry) Harrison awarded the Queens Gallantry Award. This crew, including the two civilian contractors, Dive Supervisor Geoff Stone and ROV Operator Jim Pye, made this epic dive possible. From the most junior sailor to Commanding Officer, this Royal Navy team deserved at the very least a Commander in Chief’s Commendation.
Based on an original article written by Callum Hoare and Ray Sinclair.