The Aircraft Attack
The Etendard Aircraft Attack
Towards dusk, Conveyor was sailing in line abreast with RFA Regent (an ammunition and stores ship) and the flagship, HMS Hermes, each 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 away providing air cover protected HMS Brilliant, the remaining ‘goalkeeper’.
On board 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 Argentinians 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 Argentinian’s most experienced 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.
In fact, the British Task Force had received intelligence from special forces observers that the Argentinian’s new French built 'Etendard' Exocet carrying aircraft had taken off. But 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 Argentinian air force had developed an in-flight re-fuelling capability which had extended the range of the attacking aircraft.
The approaching Argentinian aircraft were first detected at a range of about 30 miles by an outlying anti-aircraft destroyer HMS Exeter. They'd given their positions away by briefly popping up from near sea level and turning on their radars to look for the carriers. HMS Exeter let the fleet know and headed north to investigate.
A few minutes later the aircraft popped up again, this time being detected by the small general purpose frigate HMS Ambuscade which alerted the flagship. And although the British ships then fired chaff to try and confuse the pilots' radar screens, the Argentinian pilots spotted a couple of aircraft carrier sized targets and fired their two 'Fire and Forget' Exocet missiles at the larger one before escaping.
The missiles were picked up on radar by HMS Ambuscade and the remaining ‘goalkeeper’, HMS Brilliant. From observations recorded on Ambuscade at the time, it has been possible to plot the path of the missiles. The Exocets came in at low level on autopilot heading straight for HMS Hermes indicating that the flagship had been correctly identified and targeted by the Argentinian pilots.
Next: A Ship will Die