25th May 2017 will be the 35th anniversary of the destruction of the Atlantic Conveyor
The Amazing Atlantic Conveyor
In April 1982, through astonishing feats of ingenuity by dockyard workers and crew alike, the civilian Steam Ship Atlantic Conveyor was converted from a tired ocean going container ship into a vessel capable of launching Harrier vertical take off jet fighters and heavy lift helicopters.
On 25th May, after successfully transporting her jets to the front line of the Falklands war, and subsequently being kept in close company with the two aircraft carriers to provide helicopter support, Conveyor was mortally wounded by Exocet ship-killing missiles. Twelve of ship’s gallant crew, including her captain, were killed in the attack and Atlantic Conveyor acquired the dubious honour of becoming the first British civilian merchant ship to be sunk by enemy action since WWII.
An Unrecognised Critical Moment in British Naval History
Brief reports that the unarmed merchantman Atlantic Conveyor had been damaged by a lucky Argentine hit were broadcast on the evening of 25th May. But that day’s news was already dominated by the tragic destruction of HMS Coventry, one of the Royal Navy's most modern destroyers. And as some political leaders had already expressed concern about the mounting human and hardware cost of the war and their possible deleterious effects on public morale, it quite suited MoD planners to play down the details of Conveyor’s fate.
The return of Conveyor's badly shaken survivors to Britain in early June sparked some focussed media interest in the horrors of the attack on Conveyor, but little emerged about the circumstances of the raid itself. In more recent times, authors of historical works and TV documentaries have pointed out that the destruction of Conveyor's heavy lift helicopters famously meant the Royal Marines had to 'Yomp' to victory.
But arguably, a far more important consequence has been overlooked.
What the MoD was not keen to publicise at the time was that the Argentinians had picked the 25th May, their National Day, to deliver a decisive blow by sinking one of the two British aircraft carriers. If successful, the resulting casualties and loss of aircraft required to support the landings would most likely have fatally compromised the British campaign.
The Argentinian attack was well planned and caught the British by surprise. Two jets with extended ranges flew round the fleet's outer defences and each launched one of their country's last 'unstoppable' Exocet missiles at the carrier Flagship HMS Hermes. During the following few heart-stoppingly tense minutes of countermeasures and manoeuvres, orchestrated from Hermes, the British carriers turned to reduce their radar profiles whilst nearby Conveyor was ordered onto a course that increased her visibility to the missiles.
In the final seconds of flight, both Exocets followed their programmed instructions to look for the largest target close to Hermes’ original position. They found one and turned towards her. Moments later, the missiles slammed into Conveyor's port side blasting their burning propellant through her inflammable cargo. There can have been very few occasions in British Naval History when the fate of one ship has been so critical to the outcome of a war.
Conveyor's story is a powerful mix of adventure, intrigue and horrific tragedy. But more importantly, it is a tale of ingenuity, dedication and courage in the finest traditions of military and Merchant Navy service. The purpose of this site is to fill the gap in the historical record and to provide a focal point for the sharing and recording of first hand information about Conveyor's brief wartime service whilst there are still those who remember.
Site updated May 2014