How an extraordinary merchant ship probably saved the British from defeat in May 1982
Note: The following reconstruction 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, outlying warships of the British Task Force sent to recover the Falkland Islands from Argentine occupation detected the approach of two Super Étendard aircraft armed with deadly Exocet ship-killing missiles.
Operations room staff on board the ageing British flagship and aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, began coordinating the Task Force's response. Their priority was to protect the two carriers Hermes and Invincible at all cost.
Commanders of ships in the vicinity launched chaff to try and confuse the aircrafts’ targeting radar and began their pre-planned evasive manoeuvres. Despite these and other British countermeasures, the pilots of the Argentine jets spotted Hermes and launched their Exocets in her direction.
What Happened Next
Captain Middleton, the commanding officer of Hermes, knew his ship had more personnel crammed on board her than the whole population of the Falkland Islands they'd come to liberate. He was also well aware that the modern destroyer, HMS Sheffield, had been crippled by a single Argentine Exocet earlier in the conflict. If the two inbound Exocets hit Hermes, this could easily result in horrendous casualties and loss of half the expedition's air power.
Having no time to issue warnings to those on deck, Middleton put Hermes into a tight turn. He needed to point her bows towards the incoming missiles in order to reduce the chance of them finding her amongst the chaff. He also wanted to keep the Exocets away from his engines.
For similar reasons, Captain North of the nearby merchant support ship, Atlantic Conveyor, also wanted to turn his ship end on to the threat. However, he had no military radar and needed Hermes' command to tell him which direction the missiles were coming from.
The Tragic Loss of the Atlantic Conveyor
Instead of revealing the direction of the attack to Captain North, Hermes' operations team him to immediately turn Conveyor onto course '040'. A heading that would place his ship almost exactly at right angles to the approaching missiles, maximising rather than minimising Conveyor’s radar visibility to the Exocets.
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. Despite a sky full of confusing chaff clouds and Hermes’ defensive manoeuvring, the missiles initially locked onto the flagship and came so close to her, those on her bridge were able to make out Argentine graffiti scrawled on the Exocets' sides.
The only thing left was for Hermes' command to pipe for her crew to "hit the deck!"
David Bass, an 18-year-old Able Seaman watchkeeper on 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 Captain North swung Conveyor swung round onto her new course, she became the larger of the two targets in the Exocets’ ‘killing zone’ and they veered away from Hermes towards her. Moments later, the missiles slammed into Conveyor's port side spewing their burning propellant through her open decks full of inflammable cargo.
Conveyor quickly turned into a raging inferno. Crew cut off on the front flight deck above her magazine full of cluster bombs were rescued by her returning Wessex helicopter. After losing the fight against the fires, other crewmen clambered down broken ladders from burning decks to take to the water and crowded rafts.
Twelve of Conveyor’s gallant crew, including Captain North, died that night and the ship 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 8,000 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 from her decks. She was loaded with heavy-lift helicopters, munitions and 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 with well-researched narrative. Also, 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.
Were you onboard or in the vicinity? - Do get in touch ...
Atlantic Conveyor survivors on board British Tay heading for Ascension Island (thanks to Nige Phillips)
(1) Glasgow Herald, 27th July 1982