This is a reprint and refresh of an older post on the story of the Atlantic Conveyor, one of many incredible stories to come out of the conflict.
The Atlantic Conveyor was built on the Tyne by Swan Hunter and delivered to Cunard in 1970 as part of their contribution to the Atlantic Container Line consortium.
At just under 15,000 tonnes she was a hybrid container and RORO ship. These were revolutionary designs at the time, combining RORO and container storage in a single vessel and were designated the G2 class
ACL are still in business, read about their history here.
I won’t go into much detail here, there are plenty of sources online for that but this early phase is best characterised by this quote;
Don’t make yourself too comfy mate, we’ll be back.
Unknown British Royal Marine [as leaving, to Argentine guard, following Operación Azul]
One must remember in 1982 UK forces were configured for ‘Cold War’ NATO tasks and expeditionary capabilities did not have the same priority as given to the expected Warsaw Pact thrust into Western Europe. In order to support the logistics effort a number of civilian vessels were therefore requisitioned under the Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) system. Other vessels were chartered and in total just over 40 civilian vessels of many types took part in the conflict.
After some preparation, 4 Chinook helicopters from 18 Squadron RAF were detached to RNAS Culdrose to support the task force by ferrying supplies to the ships including a 7 tonne bearing. Radar Warning Receivers were fitted and discussion on how they would be transferred South commenced. The plan was to deploy 4 aircraft to the Task Force and one at Ascension and it should not be forgotten that the Chinook had at that time, only been in service for a short time.
Harriers and Sea Harrier users started preparations, the Harrier GR3 was fitted with radar warning receivers and even modified to carry and fire the Sidewinder air to air missile.
After a meeting at the MoD on the 14th during which the concept was evolved, the Atlantic Conveyor was designated to carry a number of Harriers and helicopters, the Harriers were to replace expected combat losses.
The Atlantic Conveyor was therefore not an aircraft carrier conversion in the typical sense but a transport vessel for replacement harriers.
She sailed from Liverpool the day after.
16th April to 5th May
After arriving at Devonport on the 16th conversion started immediately.
Modifications included covering the container hold with steel plates and creating a system of shelters and equipment stores using ISO containers (I knew I would be able to squeeze containers into this post) both on deck and in the hold. Existing accommodation, showers, kitchens and other facilities ion the ship would support the extra embarked personnel and the on deck containers were used to store fresh water to wash the seawater residue off the aircraft, oxygen and other essentials.
The decision to use the Atlantic Conveyor for other stores was taken on the 17th and 20th of April, after the initial concept had been approved. Thus, no additional magazine capacity was installed with the 600 cluster bombs, rocket motors, anti-tank missiles, grenades and small arms ammunition stored in normal containers, this would have a significant bearing on the aftermath of the attack.
A wide variety of things like a tent city, stacker trucks, 12 Combat Support Boats, specialist spares, munitions and more or less our entire stock aluminium matting for temporary airfield construction were loaded.
Helicopter and Harrier operations were also tested and confirmed, surely an incredible feat, just to remind you of the time scale, 10 days.
The short time in which the conversion went from concept to reality demonstrated how close working relations between military and civilian personnel could achieve stunning results.
The 4 Chinooks were flown to the Atlantic Conveyor, rotor blades removed and the airframes protected with Dri-Clad covers and corrosion inhibitors.
At 4pm on the 24th, the ship left Devonport and after a period of further loading and testing the newly installed RAS gear, she arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the 2nd of May arrived at Ascension Island and offloaded some stores, including one of the Chinook helicopters.
The Sea Harriers and Harrier GR3’s, after record breaking single seat ferry flights from the UK, were flown onto the Atlantic Conveyor and covered with the same Dri-Clad bags that protected the helicopters.
8 Sea Harriers and 6 Harrier GR3’s were to be carried South.
A number of different sources cite the 5th of May as the date when the aircraft were loaded but a day here or there is not significant for the purpose of this post.
One Sea Harrier was kept on ‘Deck Alert 20’ in the anti shadower role to protect against the Argentine Air Force 707 reconnaissance flights with tanker support provided from Ascension for a short period should it be needed.
18th to 24st May
After rendezvousing with the Task Force, the Harriers were disembarked to HMS Invincible HMS Hermes, with all the GR3’s going to Hermes. They would of course had to take off vertically, a difficult manoeuvre from a rolling deck.
During this period the Atlantic Conveyor stayed in close proximity to the Battle Group, providing helicopter support in which 1 Chinook and 3 Wessex were used. The Chinook crews broke new ground, the aircraft was still in its introductory trial period..
The one Chinook used was the famous Bravo November, flown off the small rear deck. Because of blade clearances the ships rear ramp had to be partially lowered as can be imagined by looking at the image above , still, must have been quite hairy flying.
Stores and munitions were also transferred and a Lynx embarked as a hot spare.
With the Harriers no longer on board, the main mission of the Atlantic Conveyor had been achieved.
The Atlantic Conveyor was signalled to be ready to move to San Carlos Water under cover of darkness to disembark all helicopters at first light. Preparations continued including moving stores to disembarkation points and ground testing of some of the remaining helicopters.
2 Super Etendard’s of CANA 2 Esc approached from the North after refuelling from a Hercules tanker.
The call ‘Handbrake’ was received on board the RN ships, indicating a detected Super Etendard radar emission.
At 19.40, Emergency Stations was sounded by the Atlantic Conveyor’s ships alarm.
A number of warships including HMS Alacrity deployed chaff countermeasures but whilst lured into the chaff cloud the missiles flew through it and detected the Atlantic Conveyor.
There is some difference of opinion on whether one or two missiles hit the Atlantic Conveyor.
The official Board of Inquiry stated two and three diary extracts from the HMS Brilliant website would also seem to confirm that.
Our weapon systems locked onto both the missiles and tracked them all the way in but they were unable to engage them because they were out of range. She was on fire within minutes of being hit and it was getting dark we were told to get in as close as we could and pick up people in liferafts. We picked up a life raft with about 24 in while we were doing this about five floated past, they looked dead a couple had put there survival suits on wrong and were floating feet up. I think they were picked up by helicopter. It was a terrible feeling knowing it could have been you and so it goes on.
The Captain put the ship into defence watches at 7.30 but I stayed in the Ops Room and we had an EW detection of Etendard radar at about 7.40 then shortly after this an unknown contact to the NW. We then saw them – contacts double (obviously missile release) as the missiles started in. The system immediately acquired them and the T.V. monitors showed them heading some 5 miles NW of us toward the Atlantic Conveyor. The missiles were so close together they were both on the same T.V. monitor. They were v. low and v. fast. We saw them hit the middle of the “Conveyor” and the explosion seemed to go through her and out the other side.
While the rescue attempt were being carried out on Coventry two low aircraft were spotted at about 26 miles away from the force. They released Exocet missiles at 23 miles All the ships fired Chaffe which is just bits of silver paper it worked for a second but the missiles locked on again straight into the stern of the Atlantic Conveyor. Our weapon systems locked onto both the missiles and tracked them all the way in but they were unable to engage them because they were out of range. She was on fire within minutes of being hit and it was getting dark we were told to get in as close as we could and pick up people in liferafts. We picked up a life raft with about 24 in while we were doing this about five floated past, they looked dead a couple had put there survival suits on wrong and were floating feet up.
The Board of Enquiry stated the following;
ACO hit by two Exocet, port quarter level with after end of superstructure, 10-12 feet above waterline. Missiles entered C cargo deck in vicinity of lift shaft. Ship in a port turn passing through approximately 90 degrees at the time
Between then and 20.10, when the decision was made to abandon ship, the damage control and fire fighting continued, despite a number of systems failing. HMS Alacrity came alongside to attempt boundary cooling and RFA Sir Percival also stood off the port quarter to render assistance.
The light was fading and sunset marked at 19.58.
Ammunition was dumped overboard but at 20.05 the fires were assessed as being uncontrollable with a high risk of spreading to the forward hold where considerable quantities of kerosene and cluster bombs were stored.
Shrapnel was reported to being seen coming through the ships sides as ammunition was exploding.
There is often a debate about the difference between military and civilian ships in terms of design, damage control being one of the principal differences. The document below is from the Board of Inquiry highlights those differences.
Despite the valiant efforts of those involved 12 men lost their lives.
3 were lost on board and 9 after entering the water. 22 were rescued from the forward deck using helicopters and more from lifeboats. 137 out of the 149 on board were rescued which is obviously a great credit to all involved and testament to the calm and orderly manner in which the ship was abandoned.
I thought this, from the London Gazette was fitting at this point in the post.
Captain Ian Harry NORTH, Merchant Navy. On 14th April 1982 SS ATLANTIC CONVEYOR was laid up in Liverpool. On the 25th April she deployed to the South Atlantic converted to operate fixed and rotary wing aircraft and loaded with stores and equipment for the Falkland’s Task Force. This astonishing feat was largely due to Captain North’s innovation, leadership and inexhaustible energy.
SS ATLANTIC CONVEYOR joined the Carrier Battle Group on 19th May 1982 and was immediately treated as a warship in most respects. Almost comparable in manoeuvrability, flexibility and response Captain North and the ship came through with flying colours. When the ship was hit on 25th May Captain North was a tower of strength during the difficult period of damage assessment leading up to the decision to abandon ship. He left the ship last with enormous dignity and calm and his subsequent death was a blow to all.
A brilliant seaman, brave in war, immensely revered and loved his contribution to the Campaign was enormous and epitomised the great spirit of the Merchant Service
The last lifeboat was recovered by HMS Alacrity at 23.00.
A few comments from the earlier article on Think Defence
The conveyer was with us as we had been cross decking harriers and kit all day. I can remember the action station alarm going off and the urgency in the voice of the person sounding the alarm and we knew it was close. When I closed up to my action station I got kitted up I opened the weather deck access door for a peak to see what was happening. I could see her clearly ablaze especially around the super structure lads running up and down the deck donning there once only survival suits and going over the side as she was that close to us. Then all the helicopters started closing in on her and winching up the lads out of the water and from the life rafts. I knew several of the lads who were on her and they were brought over to us. It seemed quite funny at the time in a strange way and we were taking the piss out of them (gallows humour I suppose) then I can remember looking at them and seeing the shock in their eyes and the reality of what had just happened to them sank in. Had she not taken the hit would it have taken us?
Hermes 82 – TD Commenter
I was embarked on the Conveyor (848 NAS) at this time. There has always been a debate as to whether we were hit by one or two missiles – it doesn’t really matter I guess, despite gallant efforts there was nothing we could do to save her. The lone question I have always carried with me is, if she was so important to the success of the landings, why weren’t we better protected?
Peter Burris – TD Commenter
I was spreading the rotors of the Wessex 5 just aft of the forward flight deck when we were hit. A scary time for a young 19 year old, but recently my mind has been blown away by a fact that I read in the “Board of Enquiry” of the sinking of the AC. I was rescued by a Wessex 5 of 845 squadron “YD” XT459. I didn’t know this until last week when I read the report. In December 1983, I was on operation “Clockwork” in northern Norway, left hand seat in “YD” when we spiralled in nose first from 1200ft. I’m in shock that the same aircraft rescued me, then 19 months later nearly killed me!
Phil Russo – TD Commenter
I was on the Alacrity at the time we had detected the Etendards and had fired chaff resulting in the conveyor being hit. we spent the next few hours first tied up alongside trying to fire fight and rescue survivors but it was too rough and we were getting smashed together. We then stood off and put swimmers in to rescue survivors and recover some of those less fortunate.
Stevey – TD Commenter
Certainly brought back a few memories for me! 54 merchant ships were taken up from trade (STUFT) to assist the armed forces during the South Atlantic conflict. 43 sailed for the South Atlantic with Merchant Navy crews and Naval Parties embarked, before the Argentine surrender on 15th June
Commander Nick Messinger RD** FNI RNR Retd – TD Commenter
Was serving aboard HMS Alacrity at the time. As I recall the Exocet(s) were aimed at us andor the carriers, but we sent up loads of chaff which confused the missile(s), which carried on past us and then, as programmed, they hunted for the next large object which happened to be Atlantic Conveyor, about a mile away from us? Alacrity was first alongside, and as Stevey correctly stated, it was far too rough for us to stay alonside for long, especially as it turned out that the Alacrity’s hull was already in poor condition due to the battering it took down south. I recall vividly hauling some bodies on board, we had nowhere to store them, so we had to temporarily stow them in one of our ammunition stores. It was another terrible day, coming only four and two days after losing two of our sisters, Ardent and Antelope respectively. Morale was pretty low for a time. Dave “Bungy” Williams WEM(R)1
David J Williams – TD Commenter
26th to 28th May
A Wessex helicopter from HMS Hermes photographed the still burning ship the day after the attack.
On the 27th at 50305 5451W the Atlantic Conveyor was again sighted and although the bow section had been completely destroyed by exploding cluster bombs and fuel, a decision made to attempt to bring her under tow.
Despite repeated efforts to tow using the tug, the Irishman, she sank in the early hours of the 28th of May.
Three containers were sighted floating at the position where it was assumed she sank.
In addition to the huge volume of stores, 3 Chinook, six Wessex and a Lynx helicopter were lost, including their specialist tools and spares. The remaining Chinook, the famous Bravo November, would be kept flying with borrowed tools and improvised engineering but one thing was certain, the route to Stanley would be carried out on foot.
The full BOI report can be found here, which includes an extensive narrative and a great deal of supplementary information including information on how the explosives, ammunition, bombs and other hazardous stores were stowed.
Although the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor ultimately did not change the result of the campaign the loss of two things were to be acutely felt.
The first and obvious one was the amount of vertical lift available to land forces, although Sea King and Wessex could both lift sling loads they were in no way comparable to that of the Chinook. Personnel transport using helicopters were also much fewer than the Chinook. With only one Chinook available, priorities would mean that this would be largely used for supporting the Light Guns. No large scale move of infantry forces by helicopter was now possible and most of the troops had to walk (tabbing or yomping depending on the colour of your beret) up to fifty miles across East Falkland, from San Carlos to Stanley, before starting the main attack, a feat of arms that is still notable today.
The impact of a shortage of helicopter lift on the decision to attack Goose Green and the subsequent tactics is interesting to debate but the most significant impact would be the decision to send 5th Brigade to land at Bluff Cove and its subsequent losses.
A second, but less widely discussed impact of the sinking of the Atlantic Conveyor was the loss of the Harrier Forward Operating (FOB) equipment and stores. Using scrounged materials the Royal Engineers completed an improvised FOB at Port San Carlos on the 2nd of May and whilst providing a vital ‘pit stop’ for both Harrier GR3′s and Sea Harriers it was at nowhere near the capacity of the one by now sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic.
If a more capable FOB could have been established earlier, following the planned 25th/26th offloading of the Atlantic Conveyor it would have provided an operating base for the Harriers much closer to land forces and vessels near the Falkland Islands. Pure speculation of course, and maybe a spot of what of revisionism but the impact of this on subsequent ship losses and casualties would have been significant.
On 11th June the British troops mounted a brigade sized night attack on Argentine positions in the mountains surrounding Stanley and three days later, after more heavy fighting in the area, the Argentine garrison surrendered.
There remains to this day a question of why the Atlantic Conveyor was not provided with a suitable escort, with Sea Wolf and not equipped with any self-protection, beyond GPMG, such as chaff launchers.
After the BOI report was released in 2007 the newspapers printed the headline grabbing news that Atlantic Conveyor was left defenceless over concerns about legality.
From the Times, December 11 2007
A helicopter-carrying merchant ship that sank with the loss of 12 men after being hit by two Exocet missiles in the 1982 Falklands conflict was unarmed and unprotected because Ministry of Defence lawyers feared that it was illegal to fit a commercial vessel with weapon systems, according to newly released classified documents
The full text from the BOI report is below
I would tend to veer towards the very short time period for conversion as a critical factor but that is just a personal opinion.
The point about a shortage of suitably equipped escorts is critical.
The decision on what to protect, carriers or the Atlantic Conveyor, must have been an agonising one to make and one should never seek to second guess that process.
Not considering the Atlantic Conveyor a High Value Unit was maybe an error but we should also avoid any criticism, difficult decisions have to be made and there is no doubt about the value of the aircraft carriers. What would have more effect on the outcome of the operation, the loss of a carrier or the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor?
It is an interesting subject to discuss but it is very easy to understand the decision making process.
However, with a greater appreciation of the value of the heavy lift helicopters, perhaps the Chinooks could have been offloaded sooner?
Also, if the commander(s) also appreciated the value of the FOB, enabling both Harrier and Sea Harriers to operate from the Islands with obvious endurance benefits, would subsequent outcomes been different.
Despite seeing with perfect 20:20 30 year hindsight vision, I do wonder if not providing the Atlantic Conveyor with sufficient priority was indeed, a mistake.
The Atlantic Conveyor had a less well known sister ship that also took part in operations in the South Atlantic. The Atlantic Causeway was pressed into service in the same time frame but with a different set of modifications. Requisitioned on the 4th of May and taken to Devonport on the 6th she was converted to carry, operate and support helicopters.
The conversion differed from the Atlantic Conveyor in having a large hangar forward and improved aviation fuel handling facilities
Atlantic Causeway sailed on the 14th of May with 28 helicopters and arrived in the Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ) the 27th of the same month, disembarking her aircraft and stores in San Carlos Water from 31 May.
During the operation she received 4000 helicopter landings and refuelled aircraft 500 times, an impressive feat for a conversion and restoration that cost £2million.
HC Deb 22 December 1983 vol 51 c424W 424W
Mr. Dalyell asked the Secretary of State for Defence what has been the cost of converting the Atlantic Causeway into a ship capable of carrying helicopters.
Mr. Lee The Atlantic Causeway was taken up from trade and converted to transport aircraft and stores during the Falklands emergency. She has since been restored and returned to her owners. The total cost of conversion and restoration was about £2 million.
That particular aircraft in the picture below is FMA 1A 58 PUCARA A-515/ZD485/9245M, now an exhibit at the RAF Museum, for a full history, click here
Two other similar and arguably even less well known vessels were similarly converted, the Contender Bezant and Astronomer.
Contender Bezant was utilised as an aircraft transport, ferrying helicopters and harriers on deck. Following purchase by the MoD in 1985 for £13million she was converted to an aviation training ship at the shipyard of Harland & Wolff, Belfast, with the addition of extended accommodation, a flight deck, aircraft lifts and naval radar and communications suites. She is now effectively an aviation support ship operating aircraft from her former container deck with the RORO vehicle deck converted to an aircraft hangar. A Primary Casualty Receiving Facility was added before Argus was sent to participate in the 1991 Gulf War. Another role of RFA Argus is that of RORO vehicle transport with vehicles carried in the hangar and on the flight deck, a role she performed in support of United Nations operations in the former Yugoslavia. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Argus was again present in the Persian Gulf as an offshore hospital for coalition troops, earning the nickname “BUPA Baghdad”.
MV Astronomer was another civilian container ship pressed into service for Operation Corporate. Originally owned by the Harrison Line she was converted and departed the UK on the 8th of June 1982.
In December 1982 Astronomer was leased by the Ministry of Defence and underwent further conversion during which she was fitted with the Arapaho system, a flight deck and hangar facilities for trials.
She was later commissioned into the Royal Fleet Auxiliary as RFA RELIANT in late 1983.
RELIANT’s first deployment was off Lebanon in 1984 in support of British troops in Beirut. She was later redeployed to the South Atlantic to act as a Helicopter Support Ship. However RELIANT soon proved the Arapaho system unsatisfactory, she could not support AEW (Airborne Early Warning) helicopters and 70 containers were needed to support five AS (Anti Submarine) Helicopters.
In 1986 she was decommissioned and returned to Merchant service.
The tremendous versatility of the Harrier was demonstrated a year later with an unplanned conversion of the Spanish cargo ship Alraigo
No story of the Atlantic Conveyor would be complete without some reference to the one that got away, Bravo November
During the attack on the Atlantic Conveyor, Bravo November was moving netted cargo of Lynx spares and was therefore still in the air, after being ordered to hold position for a short period the helicopter returned to HMS Hermes.
The large Chinook on the crowded deck of HMS Hermes caused some problems for aircraft movement and consideration was given to sawing the blades off and stowing below or even dumping it over the side in best Vietnam fashion
Thankfully, these options were eventually discounted and the next morning it was refuelled and flown to Falkland Islands.
A good account of Bravo November can be read in the 18 Squadron Association newsletter, click here including the amusing note that when it landed on the Falkland Islands, Bravo November had a grand total of 18 flying hours logged.
In the same newsletter a mission is described in which it carried 28 men and two 105mm Light Guns in the cabin, plus another Light Gun slung, must have been a tight squeeze!
Another mission included carrying 81 fully tooled up Para’s to Fitzroy, yes, 81.
From commencing operations until the Argentine surrender, Bravo November moved 1,530 troops, 650 POW’s and 1,600 tonnes of stores.
It is difficult to see how the Royal Artillery could have kept up the intense Light Gun firing rate without the heavy lift provided by Bravo November.
Ship Borne Containerised Air Defence System (SCADS)
After the conflict some consideration was given to extending the concept of converting merchant vessels for aircraft operations, one such study was called SCADS.
The September edition of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) News described the system, dubbed HMAS Lego.
Of course, they don’t publish magazines like this anymore, see if you can get past Page 3
The article starts by introducing the need for the system because the UK had decided not to sell the RAN HMS Invincible after all.
The utility of the Atlantic Conveyor and her sisters was clearly recognised and working with the Atlantic Container Line the MoD created a number of working concepts and tests, the ACL Generation 3 (G3) CONRO design even had its own dedicated MoD Radio Room.
RFA Reliant would also see service supporting the UK contingent (BRITFORLEB) of the UN Multinational Force (MNF) in Lebanon between 1982 and 1985, Operation HYPERION.
Up until that point she was the only vessel sunk in the conflict without a memorial.
The memorial features a propeller and shaft that has been aligned on a magnetic bearing of 62 degrees to indicate the point, 90 miles out, where the MV Atlantic Conveyor finally came to rest.
In 2008 the Protection of Military Remains Act (PMRA) 1986 was extended to include the Atlantic Conveyor
A Lighter Note
Thought I would end this post on a lighter note, an urban myth perhaps, but a good one.
Because it was not absolutely clear what stores were on board, it was said for years after the sinking, every enterprising Quartermaster (QM) in the British Army seized the opportunity and indented for equipment that supposedly ‘went down on the Atlantic Conveyor’
The amount of kit thus claimed would have been enough to fill several Atlantic Conveyors.
The best one I heard was that some old tentage, still on the books from Boer War, was finally written off as being lost on the Atlantic Conveyor!
Fast Air UK
The Army Rumour Service
Britain’s Small Wars
Imperial War Museum
RAF Web Site
Some of the images are seen in any number of locations so it is difficult to pin down the originator, as usual, thanks/apologies to those I haven’t managed to get permission from in advance