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 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. 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 Hermes ordered full power to race ahead of the accompanying Conveyor before turned the ship sharply to starboard 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 not capable of destroying the Exocets, but she launched chaff 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. 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 Hermes on the ‘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.

As recorded in Admiral Woodward's account, Conveyor's naval party captain, Mike Layard, hurried to the bridge from the mess decks below and tried to find out the direction of the attack from the flagship so he could confirm Conveyor was stern on to the threat. But, he was not informed.

At about 6-8 miles out from the destination set at launch, the Exocets 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. They spotted Hermes, locked onto her and descended to their kill altitude. The lookouts on Hermes' bridge saw the missiles coming straight for them. They were even able to make out graffiti scrawled on the missiles' sides.

Then, in the final seconds of flight, the Exocets veered away from Hermes ( being 'seduced') towards Conveyor which, through her ordered turn, had become the larger target.

Witnesses on Conveyor and surrounding ships observed both Exocets slam into Conveyor's port side punching holes right through her. Her engine room was hit and her engines stopped.

The Exocets spilled their burning propellant through Conveyor's open cargo decks igniting everything in its path. The ship quickly filled with acrid thick black smoke which was sucked into the ventilation system and spread around the ship and out onto the decks impeding the work of 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.

Days later, Conveyor's burnt-out hulk split in two and sank.

Twelve of Conveyor's heroes, including Captain North, perished on that day.