The incredible story of merchant ship transformed into an aircraft carrier and accidentally sent to her destruction
The Forgotten Falklands Ship
The story of the 14,950-ton container ship SS Atlantic Conveyor's role in the 1982 Falklands War 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 Atlantic Conveyor was initially taken up from trade for adaptation into an aircraft ferry on 14th April 1982 but ended up resembling a WWII merchant aircraft carrier equipped with Harrier jets and helicopters. After her newfound capabilities were shown off to the press on 25th April, little more was heard of her until the 25th May when she was destroyed by Exocets most probably aimed at the nearby British flagship, HMS Hermes. The incredible filmlike adventure had ended in disaster.
The MoD played down the significance of the attack releasing only sketchy detail about a lone merchant ship having been damaged on her way into San Carlos Water. Unfortunately, this misinformation was taken up by the media of the time and is still repeated in publications and documentaries, including C4's recent 'Falklands War - The Untold Story' (March 2022).
The purpose of this site is to give a well-researched and accurate account of Conveyor’s brief wartime duties and demise based on eye-witness accounts and analysis of archive information such as MoD reports, Cabinet Minutes and ships’ logs. The site also provides a focal point for those, including the author, who served on Conveyor or surrounding ships to share their experiences.
Trial of a Harrier landing on Conveyor's forward flight deck (Source: MoD - used under licence)
The Atlantic Conveyor's Last Voyage - Conversion
The following is a summary of the Atlantic Conveyor's Falklands service. Follow links to find out more.
Part I: From Conversion to Ascension <This page>
Part III: The Argentine Exocet Attack of 25th May
Part IV: The Return Home
Conversion and Preparation (Early April 1982)
When Ministry of Defence (MoD) planners realised there would be a need to supply the deployed Falklands Task Force aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible with spare Harrier vertical take-off jets, they started looking around for a ship with a suitable flat deck capable of transporting required aircraft to the war zone.
By the second week of April 1982, they’d approached Cunard to make use of the Atlantic Conveyor which was laid up in Liverpool. The company agreed to release the ship along with a volunteer civilian crew to sail her south. The only problem was that the ship would need to be altered to allow the embarked Harriers to be flown on and off as there would be no other way of physically transferring the aircraft to the carriers at the destination.
Above - Fore and aft flight decks being added (Source: MoD - used under licence)
Accordingly, huge metal plates were welded on fore and aft to form flight decks before the ship moved to Devonport Dockyard for fitting out. There, during a frantic ten-day conversion, the ship was provided with the means to store, repair, refuel, arm, launch and recover Harriers and helicopters. Liferafts and ladders were added and a magazine created at the bow to house cluster bombs. Pieces of equipment salvaged from laid-up warships were used to transform the existing sickbay into a makeshift hospital after asbestos dust was removed. Conveyor's fuel system was modified so she could refuel at sea and fire mains and fire fighting equipment were added fore and aft.
Meanwhile, as news spread around the MoD that there was a transport ship with capacious cargo decks about to head south at speed, logistics teams from all services started dispatching lorries and railway trucks full of equipment to be loaded on board before she sailed.
In the end, local establishments were turned out and even helicopters employed to somehow help pack the delivered stores onto the ship, including such things as a tented city, a portable runway, equipment for constructing an airfield, small boats, containers, gas, bombs, missiles, thousands of gallons of kerosine, electronic equipment, paper, food for hundreds of crew for six months, and every conceivable item planners thought the deployed forces might need.
By 24th April, everything that could be done had been done. But, time had now run out. Conveyor was to leave port with no military radar, usable weapons, or chaff launchers and any remaining safety concerns about the loading of munitions would have to be dealt with after she'd sailed.
Note: For many years afterwards, accountable items that went missing ashore were often written off as having been ‘lost on the Atlantic Conveyor’.
Above - Liferafts being attached to the accommodation block to supplement the ship's liferafts (Source: author)
Above - Cargo deck being filled shortly before sailing (Source: author)
Above - Fore and aft flight decks and container windbreaks (Source: MoD - used under licence)
A Spectacular Air Display
On 25th April, Atlantic Conveyor was guided out of Devonport Dockyard and then proceeded under her own steam into nearby Plymouth Sound.
There, she anchored in full view of the shore where media had gathered to witness a rather special demonstration of naval air power.
The press and TV cameras were acting on tip-offs (including one passed to a tipsy journalist in the Brown Bear by the author) that the MoD had converted the Cunard ship into the modern equivalent of a World War II merchant aircraft carrier. Now they were here to see what this new class of vessel could actually do.
Above - Chinook helicopters on deck when the test Harrier comes into land (Source: MoD - used under licence)
They weren’t to be disappointed. Soon, huge Chinook helicopters arrived to circle and land for the first time on the container ship’s two specially strengthened decks. It had certainly turned out to be a spectacular air display, but the best was yet to come.
After the helicopters had been moved out of the way, a military jet arrived overhead. It was a new Harrier aircraft which hovered above Conveyor like a hummingbird before dropping gently onto her forward flight deck. Later, the fighter took off vertically, realigned its thrusters and headed off towards the horizon.
Unseen by the cameras, a naval party aircraft engineering officer and civilian members of Conveyor's crew were working out how to cut pieces out of the aft deck so the ship's modified stern ramp would close properly.
Safety at sea aside, it was later discovered that the stern ramp had to be left slightly ajar when flying helicopters off the aft flight deck where a wrapped Chinook was taking up some of the room.
Above - Test Harrier departs from forward flight deck (Source: MoD - used under licence)
Nevertheless, with the Conveyor now having demonstrated an ability to transport, refuel, launch and recover the latest fighter aircraft, on the face of it, it appeared the Royal Navy had just demonstrated a step-change in its capabilities. Although very far from the truth, this was certainly the message the MoD hoped the media would report in order to add to the pressure for Argentina to withdraw its occupying forces from the Falkland Islands. If Britain had secretly been able to convert one merchant ship into an aircraft carrier in two weeks, how many more such ships would the Argentines have to face in the coming months?
When the air display in Plymouth Sound was over, the militarily blind and defenceless floating bomb that was Conveyor left Plymouth disguised as an aircraft carrier.
South to Freetown (25th April - 2nd May)
When Captain Ian North headed Conveyor out of Plymouth en route for the Falklands, he had a merchant crew of 30 merchant navy volunteers under his command to sail the ship.
A further 90 military personnel were on board to assist with the running of the ship and operation of her aircraft. These were either part of Naval Party 1840 under the leadership of the experienced aviator, Captain Mike Layard or embarked squadron aircrew. NP 1840 included a MARTSU aircraft repair team, a medical team of two and aircraft handlers from the three services.
The first aircraft to join Conveyor were five huge Chinooks of 18 Squadron and 6 Wessex V helicopters of 848 Squadron. These were flown on in Plymouth and sailed with her. The Chinooks subsequently had their blades removed for storage inside their airframes and were wrapped up against the elements. One Chinook ended up tucked away aft of the accommodation block leaving just enough room for Wessex helicopters to use the adjacent flight deck providing the stern ramp was slightly lowered.
Although Conveyor's crew had been assembled from various units and ships and had very different ways of doing things, they worked well together in good spirits to tackle the not inconsiderable challenges thrown up by the improvisations inherent in the ship's rapidly conversion.
Ian North showed off his skill when bringing Conveyor alongside the tanker Grey Rover to refuel at sea for the first time. In Biscay, the naval maintainers had to find a quick way of stabilising the huge aviation fuel bag in one of the deck containers that was spewing aviation fuel over the helicopters and threatening to rupture. It was drained and then shored up with wooden supports before being refilled from a tanker.
Above - Refuelling from Grey Rover (Source: author)
In the scratch-built hospital, Gordon Brooks, the ship's doctor and Ken Dunn, his assistant were sorting through medical stores they'd haggled for, training up first aiders and trying to work out crewmembers' blood groups in case the combination of new aircraft using a new flight deck went badly wrong.
Up to Conveyor's arrival at Freetown on 2nd May, many on board thought the crisis to be a phoney-war that would probably end in a standoff. Attitudes changed on hearing about the large loss of life when the Argentine cruiser Belgrano was sunk by HMS Conqueror.
Above - Crew watching the refuelling from Conveyor' bridge wing (Source: author)
The British blow provoked a swift response. When, on the 4th, crewmembers were informed about the destruction of the modern destroyer HMS Sheffield by a single French-built Exocet missile, this convinced many sceptics that Conveyor was heading into a real war after all.
Despite this, there was considerable optimism on board as the damage control and first aid teams hoped for the best whilst preparing for the worst. Everyone had been issued with a once-only immersion suit (a plastic oversuit) and a demonstration was given about how to put it on.
Above -Wessex on aft flight deck, stored Chinook in foreground (Source: author)
Ascension Island (5th May)
On 5th May, after a fast passage south, Conveyor arrived at Ascension Island to join other ships gathering to travel southwest for the Total Exclusion Zone around the Falklands. Here, one chinook was landed ashore and victualling stores were flown over to RFA Stromness.
With most of her helicopters debladed, wrapped up and stashed out of the way, Conveyor now had room on her deck for her most important cargo.
One by one, eight Sea Harriers and six RAF GR3 Harriers landed on the forward flight deck and were then moved back to make way for the next arrival.
Above - Ships gathered at Ascension, Conveyor 3rd from left (Source: MoD - used under licence)
Once shut down, each aircraft was allocated a place on the increasingly crowded main deck and lashed with chains to stop it moving when Conveyor was underway. Things didn’t quite go to plan when it was discovered that the RAF versions of the Harrier didn’t have fixing points for tying down the plane’s nose. After hunting around, the deck crew found Cunard strops designed for securing cars in the vehicle hold that did the trick.
Although landing all these planes on Conveyor’s deck and squeezing them in was an exceedingly hazardous business and there were a few wobbles, the loading passed off without incident. The newly arrived Harrier aircrew and aircraft maintainers all had to be squeezed into the ship's accommodation, and the ship suddenly seemed very crowded.
Conveyor was amongst a convoy of warships, Fleet Auxiliaries, troopships and other requisitioned civilian ships of the amphibious landing group that set off from Ascension for the Falklands on the 7th May.
Above - Harrier landing on at Ascension. Chinook wrapped up on stern (Source: MoD - used under licence)
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 with well-researched narrative. Also, to provide a focal point for the sharing and recording of firsthand information about Conveyor's brief wartime service whilst there are still those who remember.
Were you onboard or in the vicinity? - Do get in touch ...
Atlantic Conveyor survivors on board British Tay heading for Ascension Island (thanks to Nige Phillips)