A Ship will Die
A Ship will Die
On the British side, all hell let loose as ships tried to down or distract the incoming Exocets.
The small frigate HMS Ambuscade which was passing across the track of the missiles didn't have weapons capable of shooting them down but she was able to launch chaff. HMS Brilliant, which did have suitable weapons, was able to continue tracking the missiles but was unable to fire her Seawolf missiles as she was too far away.
The captain of HMS Hermes ordered full power to race ahead of the accompanying Conveyor and RFA Regent before turned the ship sharply to port to bring her bow round to face the threat as had previously been agreed with planners in London. There was confusion on Hermes' deck as the ship heeled into the turn. Hermes was armed with antiquated ‘Sea Cat’ missiles, which were also not capable of destroying the Exocets, but she fired chaff towards her original position in an attempt to confuse the missiles.
On Conveyor’s bridge, Ian North’s team and the helicopter pilots watched the warships firing chaff and heading off in various directions. As the Conveyor was not fitted with any defensive weapons or chaff launchers, her only defence against missile attack was to turn her stern towards the incoming missiles and use the thick stern ramp as a makeshift armour plating. The turn would also minimise her radar profile and place the bow magazine of cluster bombs and deck fuel tanks as far away from the likely point of impact as possible. However, Conveyor wasn't fitted with military radar capable of detecting the attacking missiles, so her command was totally reliant on being informed of the threat direction by accompanying warships.
Unbeknown to her command, Conveyor was at this point almost stern on to the incoming missiles and therefore already in her defensive posture. But an order came through from HMS Hermes, on the permanently manned ‘tactical’ channel, for Conveyor to immediately turn to port onto course 040 (as recorded in the Board of Inquiry report). The civilian master, Captain Ian North (who died in the action) ordered the turn which when completed would have maximised Conveyor's visibility by placing her exactly side on to the incoming missiles.
RFA Regent was presumably also ordered to port by the flagship onto a course that took her astern of Conveyor. As recorded in Admiral Woodward's account, Conveyor's naval party captain, Mike Layard, hurried to the bridge from the mess decks far below and tried to find out the direction of the attack from the flagship, but to no avail.
Hermes, meanwhile, had now put Conveyor between her and the missiles. In addition, whilst Hermes was rapidly reducing her radar profile by turning towards the Exocets, Conveyor was increasing her visibility by following Hermes' navigation instructions.
At about 6-8 miles out from the destination set at launch, the Exocet missiles switched on their seeker systems to find Hermes' current position. The missiles hunted ahead looking from left to right to find the largest surface target within a pre-set escape distance from Hermes' original coordinates. By this time Conveyor had become the largest target and the missiles turned away from Hermes towards her.
Less than a minute later, the Exocets emerged from the smoke pall behind Ambuscade and witnesses on Conveyor and surrounding ships observed both Exocets slam into Conveyor's port side punching holes right through her. Those on Hermes' bridge were even able to make out markings on the missiles as they came in. The Exocets spilled their burning propellant through Conveyor's open inner decks igniting her inflammable cargo and the ship quickly filled with acrid thick black smoke. The engines stopped and the smoke got into the ventilation system quickly spreading it round the ship and out onto the decks impeding the damage control parties.
Conveyor's crew fought a heroic but ultimately futile battle to save the ship whilst Conveyor's escort, the frigate HMS Alacrity, came alongside to play hoses on the decks. But the fires continued to spread and Conveyor's upper deck was soon cut in two by a pall of thick black smoke.
Eventually, Conveyor's crew abandoned. Some were picked up by helicopter from the bow while the rest took to the freezing sea where many found their survival suits filled with water.
Later, Conveyor's bow magazine exploded, sinking the ship.
Twelve of Conveyor's heroes, including Captain North, perished on that day.