The Aircraft Attack

The Etendard Aircraft Attack

Towards dusk, Conveyor was sailing in line abreast the flagship, Hermes, each about a mile apart. Helicopters were being used to fly essential stores between the ships. One of Conveyor’s huge Chinook helicopters was off transporting helicopter spares to an outlying destroyer and a Wessex was transferring stores between Conveyor and Hermes.

The second Aircraft Carrier HMS Invincible was several miles to the south providing air cover whilst protected by HMS Brilliant, the remaining ‘goalkeeper’.

Onboard Conveyor, Captain North (who’d been on a ship torpedoed in WWII) was entertaining off-duty helicopter pilots with a few beers at Cunard’s expense prior to them going into action the next day.

It was then that the Argentines launched their attack on the British carriers. Their pilots had been practising such attacks against their own British-built warships. These preparations, along with good intelligence, enabled two of the Argentine’s most experienced military pilots to fly a huge dogleg course and approach the British fleet from the entirely unexpected north-westerly direction, bypassing Admiral Woodward’s line of large decoy Royal Fleet Auxiliary supply ships.

Although, special forces units ashore in Argentina had informed the British command that French-built 'Super Etendard' Exocet-carrying aircraft had taken off, once the maximum flight time of the jets had passed, it was assumed that the danger of attack was over. However, unbeknown to the British, the Argentine air force had developed an in-flight re-fuelling capability which enabled them to extend the range of the attacking aircraft.

The approaching Etendards were detected by HMS Exeter, an outlying anti-aircraft destroyer, when they popped up from near sea level to pinpoint the Carrier Group with their radars. Exeter informed the fleet and headed north to investigate.

When the Argentine aircraft popped up again a few minutes later to locate targets, their radar signals were noticed by the small general-purpose frigate, HMS Ambuscade. Although the alerted British ships then fired chaff to try and confuse the pilots' radar systems, the pilots identified a couple of aircraft carrir sized hard targets and fired their two 'Fire and Forget' Exocet missiles at the larger one before escaping.

The missiles were picked up on radar by Ambuscade and the remaining ‘goalkeeper’, HMS Brilliant. From observations recorded at the time, it has been possible to plot the path of the missiles. The Exocets flew in at low level on autopilot straight towards the position Hermes was last seen on the aircraft radar, indicating that the flagship had been correctly targeted by the Argentinian pilots.

Next: A Ship will Die