The incredible story of merchant ship transformed into an aircraft carrier and accidentally sent to her destruction
The Conveyor's Last Voyage - Exocet Attack
Continuing the summary of the Atlantic Conveyor's Falklands service
Part I: From Conversion to Ascension
Part III: The Argentine Exocet Attack of 25th May <This page>
Part IV: The Return Home
Above - Hermes in close company with Conveyor (Source: Author)
Exocet Attack (25th May 1982)
In the early evening, Conveyor was sailing in close company with the frigate HMS Ambuscade and the flagship, HMS Hermes. The ship had two helicopters in the air. Chinook (BN) was off on a mail run with instructions to pick up helicopter manuals from HMS Glasgow, 30 miles to the NE. Wessex (YD), was returning from a short test flight to Hermes by a circuitous route to allow the navigator to take photos of the ships in the fading light.
Above - Casualty Clearing Station, Conveyor (Source: Author)
Elsewhere, Captain North had broken open the ship's supplies of Double Diamond ale to throw a small farewell celebration for the off-duty helicopter crews who were due to depart the ship the next day. Whilst many of the ship's company were enjoying their evening meal, others were on deck preparing the helicopters. The medical team was closed up for flying stations with the doctor in the hospital and the first aid team at their casualty clearing station just aft of the main deck.
All of a sudden the hooter sounded and 'Emergency Stations' and ‘Air Raid Warning Red’ were piped on tannoys throughout the ship. The ship then heeled over as the helmsman acted on an urgent navigation instruction from Hermes to turn to port onto course 040.
Whilst the medics confirmed their readiness, other crewmembers grabbed their gear and headed for their allocated emergency positions, whether on the bridge, in the fore and aft damage control parties or forming a manpower pool ready to react to any crises on board. On reaching the bridge, Captain Layard tried to find out from Hermes where the attack was coming from but didn't receive an answer.
At about this time, the crew of the airborne Wessex spotted a missile passing under them which they later thought must have been one of the Exocets (the photos were confiscated on Hermes).
A few minutes after the air raid warning, and with the sky full of chaff clouds from vessels and helicopters, aircrew on Conveyor's bridge spotted an approaching missile off the port quarter. There was a jarring thud that reverberated all through the ship as if she'd gone aground, then her engines stopped.
Shortly afterwards, Captain Layard took to the tannoy to encourage crewmembers to 'hit the deck'. There was another bang and the cabin lights went out.
Seeing the ship now pouring smoke from the hole in her side, and realising she was on fire, the forward damage control team let slip the liquid oxygen tank stored on deck and started preparing to boundary cool the magazine one deck below.
But, before long they were called to work their way back through the upper cargo hold to assist the merchant navy mechanic trapped in the engine room.
At main deck level in the accommodation block, after recharging his breathing apparatus, the partially-fire-suited ship's third engineer set off down through a hatch towards the engine room in a second attempt to try and rescue his shipmate accompanied by the ship's doctor who was sheltering behind him.
Brian Williams - Queen’s Award for Gallantry
…Then, realising that a further rescue mission was a forlorn hope and knowing that there was a grave risk of further explosions and the spread of fire, he armed himself with asbestos gloves and fresh breathing apparatus and accompanied by the Doctor and a PO Engineer again braved the appalling heat and smoke for a further attempt to rescue the mechanic.
They were almost immediately forced back by the intense heat and smoke and no sooner had they cleared the hatch than it was ordered shut so the command could activate the ship's CO2 system to try and dampen the fire.
Shortly afterwards, crewmen from the after-deck who'd suffered smoke inhalation were brought to the casualty clearing station and were given oxygen.
By now, there was a strong smell of smoke and the crew could hear the background rumblings of explosions in the cargo decks below.
Above - Forward flight deck, Conveyor (Source: Author)
The forward damage control team who had attempted to work aft to help the trapped mechanic were now at the bow cut off from the rest of the ship’s company by an impenetrable cloud of thick smoke.
Back at Conveyor, Prince Andrew brought his Sea King helicopter in after the Wessex had gone and took off the remaining men from the forward deck.
The Cruel Sea
In Conveyor's accommodation block, with the air full of smoke, the baking deck melting shoes and explosions being heard from below every few seconds, many started to lose hope of getting off the ship alive.
In this darkest moment of impending doom the order to abandon ship came through. Sensing a glimmer of hope, crewmen quickly pulled on their plastic once-only-suits and life jackets ready to take to the rafts.
Whilst the medical assistant and first aiders helped three aircrewmen who'd been treated for smoke inhalation into their gear, the doctor clattered up the external stair to see if he could launch a starboard lifeboat for them.
Above -Life rafts mounted on the outside of the accommodation (Source: author)
Unfamiliar with the mechanism and seeing people already in the water below where the boat would fall, he headed back to find what looked like a crowd of aliens from a horror film inhabiting the smokey gloom of usable deck by the unrolled ladders.
Men took their turn at the descent past glowing red steel and holes in the side spouting flame and smoke. But some soon came to the end of ladders that had been cut when Alacrity had briefly nudged alongside spraying water, and they were forced to jump.
Above -Alacrity coming alongside to spray water (Source: Stephen Shore)
Sadly, the poorly-positioned rafts had fallen together and were now held in a tight circle by their tangled ropes making access from the water difficult. Swimmers trying to reach the entrances had to deal with a considerable swell which threatened to batter them against the unforgiving side of the doomed ship. To make things worse, around half of the once-only-suits failed and started filling with icy water which soaked into garments beneath and rapidly drained precious energy.
Although some, including Captain North, didn't manage to make it to the rafts, others were hauled in to find places around the side. At this point, many of those unlucky enough to have been wearing waterlogged suits found themselves falling into the middle of rafts where they lay like beached whales trapped by their weight with pooled seawater slopping around their faces.
Above -Conveyor burning (Source: MoD - used under licence)
In one raft there were calls to cut the tethering ropes before the inflatables were sucked under the stern of the ship and crushed. Other survivors voiced their concerns about rafts being overloaded.
At this point, Christopher Craig brought Alacrity back in and fired lines over the huddle of small craft so they could be dragged clear from Conveyor's looming stern. Once the rafts had been pulled into open water, Alacrity and Brilliant started gathering up the survivors.
Once aboard, they were dried off and taken to messes for sustenance and strong drink. Having come round from having fallen briefly unconscious after a slow climb up Alacrity's side from the water in a bulging suit, Conveyor's doctor joined the warship's medical team who were trying to resuscitate others who had been less fortunate.
Above - Alacrity at dusk (Source: author)
Some while later, another air raid warning came through and Conveyor survivors, who'd previously been sitting around lost in their thoughts were seen to get up and start putting on their survival gear ready to go over the side again. They were held back and reassured.
Despite the conflagration having burned through Conveyor's decks of cargo and munitions and destroyed ten (3 Chinooks, 6 Wessex V and a Lynx) of her twelve helicopters, the ship remained stubbornly afloat.
Although the ship subsequently looked like a burned-out hulk, for the next few days, MoD planners hoped it might still be possible to beach the ship and cut a hole in her side to extract some of her cargo and helicopters intact.
Conveyor was taken under tow but broke in two and sank.
Above -Burnt out Conveyor (Source: MoD - used under licence)
Conveyor being taken under tow. Note the collapsed remains of the Chinook on the aft deck (Source: MoD - used under licence)