The incredible story of merchant ship transformed into an aircraft carrier and accidentally sent to her destruction
The Conveyor's Last Voyage - Ascension to FEZ
Continuing the summary of the Atlantic Conveyor's Falklands service
Part I: From Conversion to Ascension
Part II: Ascension to Falklands Exclusion Zone <This page>
Part III: The Argentine Exocet Attack of 25th May
Part IV: The Return Home
Above - Unwrapped Harriers on Conveyor at Ascension (Source: MoD - used under licence)
An Aircraft Carrier?
Over the next days, all but one of the Harriers were wrapped up in green plastic to end up like oversized Christmas presents. The one unwrapped Harrier was hidden from aerial reconnaissance under a stretched tarpaulin on the forward flight deck. Whenever the ship was informed a Russian satellite might be passing overhead, additional tarpaulins were pulled over between the containers to cover the Harriers on deck.
Although the medical officer had been involved in the mild subterfuge of talking up Conveyor’s capabilities to the media in Plymouth, she was not a real aircraft carrier like Admiral Woodward’s flagship, HMS Hermes, or the new HMS Invincible.
Above - Wrapped Harriers on deck with 'alert' Harrier on standby (Source: MoD - used under licence)
For one thing, Conveyor could only launch one Harrier at a time and that vertically from the forward flight deck. Such launches were also extremely hazardous operations given the proximity of containers and stowed rubber bags full of aviation fuel.
Conveyor’s limitations were demonstrated on the way south from Ascension when the MoD decided her available Harrier would be put to good use. On one occasion, the ship was buzzed by a giant Russian ‘Bear’ aircraft taking pictures of her decks. Knowing there was little that could be done about it without causing an international incident, when the plane flew over, British tars waved up at the Russian aircrew and they waved back.
But then, when the MoD received word that an Argentine airliner had adapted as a spy plane and had been trying to photograph the convoy, Conveyor was instructed to use her 'alert' bow Harrier to shoot the plane down.
Such a mission was far more complex than it appeared at first sight. In fact, it was a logistic nightmare. The Harrier, armed with Sidewinder missiles and guns, would use a great deal of its fuel on take-off and would need to refuel before going after the spy plane.
So, in order to complete the mission, there would have to be sufficient warning for tanker aircraft to leave Ascension and refuel one another, so they could be overhead to refuel the armed Harrier when it took off from Conveyor.
Nevertheless, on two occasions, Conveyor came within a minute of launching her available Harrier against the spy plane before the project was abandoned. In the event, Conveyor didn’t enter the history books as the first merchant aircraft carrier to successfully attack a target using vertical take-off jet fighters.
Delivering the Harriers - Mission One Completed
On 19th May, Conveyor arrived in the Exclusion Zone and rendezvoused with the flagship Hermes to offload four Sea Harriers and four GR3s. The next day, Conveyor offloaded a further four Sea Harriers to Invincible and one GR3 to Hermes.
On the 21st, with the final GR3 departing to Hermes, the task force’s two carriers now had sufficient reserve Harriers available to support the invasion. British troops landed at San Carlos Water and, at the cost of a number of ships, established a beachhead.
For the next four days, Conveyor stayed with the carriers acting as a helicopter support ship, using three active Wessex and one Chinook to transport much-needed supplies and spares around the task force. On the 22nd, a Lynx was embarked for the MARTSU unit to cannibalise for spares and one Wessex transferred to RFA Stromness.
Above -Conveyor joins the carriers (Source: author)
There were frequent air raid alerts and alleged submarine sightings that had Conveyor and the other ships of the Carrier Group zigging and zagging with planned irregularity to put off anyone watching through a periscope.
On the 23rd, twenty cluster bombs were laboriously transferred from the bow magazine along the packed cargo deck and up through the aft deck hatch for transfer over to Hermes by helicopter. Two more Wessex 5 of 845 Squadron joined and the ship's company continued to rehearse emergency drills dealing with imaginary fires and practising the rescue of casualties from deep within the ship's cargo decks.
The danger from Exocets was also discussed amongst the ship's officers and aircrew. Conveyor had not been fitted with chaff launchers or any anti-aircraft weapons, nor did she have military radar so would not be able to track approaching aircraft or missiles.
Above -Stores being transferred by helicopter, Hermes in the background (Source: author)
Nevertheless, there was one thing she could do to lessen the chances of Exocets locking onto her with radar in the last phase of their approach. Like the two carriers, she was to turn end-on to any incoming Exocets to minimise the size of her radar echo in the hope that missiles would choose a larger dummy chaff target over her.
Whereas, the carriers were to put their bows to any incoming Exocets, in order to try and save their engines, Conveyor could risk this due to having a large magazine of cluster bombs up front. Instead, she was to put her reinforced stern ramp to the Exocets and hope that if she was hit, the ramp would act a bit like armour plating.
During daylight hours, the carrier group would stay east of the Falkland Islands keeping out of range of the Super Etendard aircraft the Argentines were using to carry and set up targets for the few remaining Exocets they owned.
Though the crew never saw the Falkland Islands, those on the bridge sometimes glimpsed the outline of land on the radar when the carrier group closed in at night to support operations ashore.
Above - Conveyor's defence plan - She was to turn her stern to missiles to minimise the radar echo for Exocets to home onto. It was hoped the ramp might also act like armour plating (Source: author)
Above -Cluster bomb transfer (Source: author)
Mission Two - San Carlos Water
Early on the 25th May, Captain North received battle orders to take the Conveyor into San Carlos Water overnight to unload the transported helicopters and stores needed by the land forces.
The operation was clearly going to require a lot of skill and hard work. The large draught container ship would be brought in to anchor close to land where she would lower her stern ramp. The outline plan was then for small ferries to back their ramps over the top of Conveyor's so cargo could be rapidly moved across for transport ashore. The ship's helicopters would also be used as well as small landing craft stowed on the cargo decks once they'd been released.
Above -Superstructure being painted battleship grey (Source: author)
If necessary, Conveyor would be beached in the hope of being refloated later. There was a shock for Gordon Brooks, the ship's doctor and diving officer, who was put on notice for helping clear any obstructing mines found in the shallows.
In case the ship fell into Argentine hands, crewmembers were issued with a copy of prisoners' rights under the Geneva Convention.
In the morning, (as it turns out) false news was received that the Argentian aircraft carrier, ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, and her escorts had broken out of the British nuclear submarine blockade and were heading for the British carriers. This added spice to the already excited talk about the technicalities of being able to achieve what had been asked of the crew and aviators.
Above -Chinook helicopter BT being prepared (Source: author)
Although everyone had absolute faith in Captain North's ship handling skills, anyone who’d toured the vast decks full of equipment and munitions below, and witnessed the difficulties of loading it all on, would have known it would be virtually impossible to unload all Conveyor’s gear and helicopters before the Argentine bombers found the ship at first light on 26th May. Faced with this prospect, it is known that more than one person on board started looking around for thick pieces of metal to hide behind if it all went badly wrong.
The afternoon of 25th May was spent transferring cluster bombs and stores to nearby Hermes by helicopter and preparing the ship, her helicopters and the embarked aviation equipment for the overnight rush into San Carlos Water. Ammunition and grenades were piled up on the aft flight deck ready for transfer. Elsewhere, merchant crewmen busied themselves finishing off the repainting of Conveyor's white accommodation block in battleship grey to try and make the ship less obvious.