How an extraordinary merchant ship probably saved the British from defeat in May 1982
Note: The following synopsis is based upon detailed analysis of evidence from eye-witness accounts, ships' logs, MoD reports and expert advice
High Drama at Dusk
On the evening of the 25th May 1982, lookouts on board HMS Hermes, the ageing flagship of the British Task Force sent to recover the Falkland Islands from Argentine occupation, spotted two deadly Exocet missiles heading straight for their ship.
Knowing that a single Exocet had already destroyed the modern destroyer, HMS Sheffield, Captain Middleton turned Hermes to face the incoming missiles in order to reduce her visibility to their homing radars.
He was well aware Hermes had more personnel crammed on board than the population of the Falkland Islands they'd been sent to liberate, and that an Exocet hit might result in horrendous casualties and loss of half the airforce.
What Happened Next
Hermes operations room staff were able to plot the developing attack and had the authority to control the relatively blind support ships in the area. They passed Captain North the air raid warning and ordered him to turn Conveyor onto course 040, starting to turn the merchant ship almost exactly at right angles to the approaching missiles.
In the final phase of their sea-hugging flight, the Exocets turned on their homing radars to look for the largest target near to Hermes’ original position and initially locked on to the flagship.
Despite all the defensive chaff and gunfire sent up by ships in the area, the Exocets held course towards Hermes, until they were so close that those on her bridge could make out the Argentine graffiti scrawled on the missiles' sides.
David Bass, an 18-year-old Able Seaman watchkeeper on HMS Hermes that night takes up the story(1):
"I saw this white-hot glow on the horizon. I shouted a warning to the bridge. Although I had never seen an Exocet, I knew what it was. I was shaking and things were flashing through my mind about my family and how I should have got engaged to my girlfriend Jackie Lloyd, before I left. The missile was coming towards Hermes. Suddenly it bore to the right and hit the Atlantic Conveyor. She went up in a big pall of smoke."
As Conveyor swung rapidly round to the northeast, her radar shadow increased attracting the Exocets towards her. Moments later, the missiles slammed into Conveyor's port side spewing their burning propellant through her decks full of inflammable cargo.
Conveyor quickly turned into a raging inferno. Crew cut off on the front flight deck above the magazine full of cluster bombs were rescued by Conveyor's returning Wessex helicopter. After losing the fight against the fires, others clambered down broken ladders from burning decks to take to the water and crowded rafts.
Twelve of Conveyor’s gallant crew, including Captain North, were killed in the attack and she acquired the dubious honour of becoming the first British civilian merchant ship to be sunk by enemy action since WWII.
What was the Atlantic Conveyor and why was she there?
Faced with the invasion of British territory by Argentine forces in April 1982, the UK Government, led by Mrs Thatcher, decided the Falkland Islands must be liberated. This was no mean feat as it meant transportation of land forces and their equipment some 8000 miles by sea to land and wage war on opponents who had dug in and had direct air support from bases in Argentina.
British military units were rapidly gathered for the expedition including the two aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, which had new Harrier jump jets onboard to enable them to launch airstrikes and help protect the invasion force from air attack. Civilian ships were taken up from trade (STUFT) to help ferry the British troops and support the campaign. Included amongst these was the 15,000 ton Cunard container ship SS Atlantic Conveyor, which was ingeniously and rapidly modified to carry and fly Harriers and helicopters. She was loaded with heavy-lift helicopters, munitions and decks full of stores for transport to the war zone.
After successfully picking up Harriers at Ascension Island and delivering them to Hermes and Invincible, she was kept in close company with the two carriers to provide helicopter support until required .to land her stores.
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.
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. Possibly also Mrs Thatcher's government.
The well thought through and rehearsed Argentine plan to sink a British aircraft carrier and win the war on their National Day had failed by a whisker. 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 firsthand information about Conveyor's brief wartime service whilst there are still those who remember.
(1) Glasgow Herald, 27th July 1982