The Atlantic Conveyor

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. It would go on to be sunk in the 1982 Falkland Islands conflict, where it served as an aircraft ferry.

This is her story.

Before She Was Famous

The Atlantic Container Line (ACL) consortium was founded in 1965, comprising Wallenius Lines (OW), Swedish America Line(SAL/Brostroms), The Transatlantic Steamship Company Limited (RABT) and Holland America Line (HAL).

The four were later joined by the Cunard Steamship Company and the French Compagnie Generale Transatlantique (CGT)

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.

There were six G2 Class vessels;

  • Atlantic Crown (HAL)
  • Atlantic Cinderella (HAL)
  • Atlantic Cognac (CGT)
  • Atlantic Champagne (CGT)
  • Atlantic Causeway (Cunard)
  • Atlantic Conveyor (Cunard)

These were revolutionary designs at the time, combining RORO and container storage in a single vessel.

At just under 15,000 tonnes, she was a hybrid container and RORO ship, commonly called a CONRO.

Until 1982, the Atlantic Conveyor plied her trade on the Europe to North America routes.

Falklands Requirements

By the beginning of April 1982, the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina was imminent and in due course, after a brief firefight, Governor Rex Hunt ordered the Royal Marines garrison to surrender.

Images of the prone Royal Marines were iconic but what was not widely known at the time was that the soldiers that ordered the Royal Marines to do so were admonished by an Argentine officer who then requested the Royal Marines stand up and be proud of themselves.

One Argentine soldier later died from his wounds and two others were seriously injured.

Don’t make yourself too comfy mate, we’ll be back.

Unknown British Royal Marine [as leaving, to Argentine guard]

On the 3rd of April 1982, the UN passed Resolution 502, demanding the withdrawal of Argentine forces, a cessation of hostilities and a political solution. This came as a surprise to the Argentine leadership, they genuinely thought the UN would support their intervention.

By then, the ‘British Military Machine’ was starting to move…

The Royal Navy (RN) and Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ships were not nearly enough for 3CDO, let alone the eventual force that sailed, help would be needed.

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) arrangements.

Other vessels were chartered and in total, just over 40 civilian vessels of many types took part in the conflict.

After some preparation, four Chinook helicopters from 18 Squadron RAF were detached to RNAS Culdrose to support the task force by ferrying all manner of supplies to the ships, including a 7-tonne drive shaft bearing. The original plan was to deploy four aircraft to the Task Force and one at Ascension. It should not be forgotten that the Chinook had at that time, only been in service for a short time.

Harriers and Sea Harrier teams started preparations; the Harrier GR.3 was fitted with radar warning receivers and even modified to carry and fire the Sidewinder air to air missile. Additional Harrier GR.3 modifications included tie down points on the outriggers, changes to the nose wheel, various holes either drilled or plugged and changes to the navigation system, all to allow them to deploy from aircraft carriers.

After a meeting at the MoD on the 14th April 1982 during which the concept was evolved, the SS Atlantic Conveyor was designated to carry a number of Harriers and helicopters south, the Harriers were to replace expected combat losses.

The Atlantic Conveyor was therefore not to be an aircraft carrier conversion, but primarily a transport vessel for Harriers and Chinook’s,

She sailed from Liverpool the day after, bound for Devonport. After arriving at Devonport on the 16th of April, conversion started immediately.

Conversion and Departure

The modification package for the Atlantic Conveyor included covering the container hold with steel plates, fitting a Replenishment at Sea (RAS) system, creating a system of shelters and equipment stores on the deck using ISO containers and installing additional communications equipment. The containers on the deck were used for storing fresh water and oxygen, accommodation for 100 personnel of all three services, and workspaces for maintenance. The stern container deck was also modified for helicopter operations.

The image below shows Captain Ian North (left) and Royal Navy Captain Mike Layard (right) on the bridge during conversion.

capt-north-on-bridge

As described above, the original plan for the Atlantic Conveyor was to use her as an aircraft ferry only, but during a number of meetings on the 17th and 20th of April 1982, it was decided to make use of the valuable cargo spaces for other task force stores. Because of this last minute decisions, no additional magazine capacity was installed. Instead, 600 cluster bombs, rocket motors, anti-tank missiles, grenades and small arms ammunition were stored in normal containers.

This would have a significant bearing on the aftermath of the attack.

The vehicle decks were used for all manner of military stores including tentage and tent heaters for the entire task force, 11 Squadron RE’s G10 stores, equipment and plant for the planned Harrier Forward Operating Base (FOB), stacker trucks, twelve Combat Support Boats, specialist spares, dracones (floating rubber fuel tanks), fuel pumping equipment, water desalination equipment, generators, lighting sets and other non-aircraft munitions.

Helicopter and Sea Harrier (809 NAS) operations were also tested and confirmed, surely an incredible feat by Naval and civilian personnel, just to remind you of the time scale, 10 days.

Five Chinook HC.1’s of No. 18 Squadron RAF were flown to the Atlantic Conveyor, rotor blades removed and the airframes protected with Dri-Clad covers and corrosion inhibitors. Joining the Chinook’s were also six Wessex HU.5 of 848 NAS and a small number of Army Air Corps Wasp helicopters.

With Harrier GR.3 modifications and training still ongoing, the ship set sail for Ascension Island on the 25th of April 1982 after a day of RAS trials in the English Channel.

Joining the Atlantic Conveyor for the voyage to Ascension Island was the MV Europic Ferry and MV Norland.


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The Voyage South

On the 2nd of May, she arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for refuelling and replenishment, once complete she then sailed for Ascension Island. The day after, the Harriers began their complex and demanding journey south.

Three days later, on the 5th, she arrived at the by then, buzzing, Ascension Island.

Stores were offloaded, loaded and re-stowed. One of the Chinook’s was also embarked to be used for moving stores between ships. The Sea Harriers and Harrier GR3’s, after a series of record-breaking single seat ferry flights from the UK, were flown onto the Atlantic Conveyor.

A complex series of aircraft movements culminated in all aircraft being stowed for the onward journey to the Falkland Islands, 8 Sea Harriers and 6 Harrier GR3’s were to be carried south. The ship left on the night of the 7th of May and the next day, the Harriers were covered with the same Dri-Clad bags that protected the helicopters.

The journey to the Maritime Exclusion Zone (MEZ) took until the 19th of May and during that time, one Sea Harrier was kept on ‘Deck Alert 20’ in the ‘anti-shadower’ role to protect against Argentine Air Force 707 reconnaissance flights. With no tanker support, increasing temperatures and a fuel intensive vertical take-off and landing, the mission would have been very challenging.

Wessex helicopters were used to transfer personnel and stores between the Atlantic Conveyor and the rest of the amphibious group sailing south.

Task Force Rendezvous

As the Atlantic Conveyor approached the Maritime Exclusion Zone the Harriers were de-bagged (Stop laughing at the back) and further preparations made for disembarkation.

HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible closed with the amphibious group on the 19th of May to allow the aircraft to transfer from the Atlantic Conveyor. With a few engine problems and difficult conditions this transfer took slightly longer than planned but by the 21st, all the Harriers were gone.

During this short period the Atlantic Conveyor stayed in close proximity to the Battle Group, providing helicopter cargo support in which 1 Chinook and 3 Wessex were used extensively.  The first 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 images above, must still have been quite hairy flying.

Stores and munitions were also transferred and a Lynx disembarked.

With the Harriers no longer on board, the main mission of the Atlantic Conveyor had been achieved.

Exocet

On the night of the 21st of May 1982, the beachhead at San Carlos was established, with follow-on landings taking place soon after.

LCVP San Carlos

By the 24th, commanders felt increasing optimism; the beachhead had been secured, stores were being built up and combined forces had started to achieve the upper hand in the air war, despite significant losses. Argentine commanders correctly assumed that the opportunity to dislodge British forces from San Carlos had passed and their best course of action was to disrupt the sustainment of the blockade.

The Atlantic Conveyor was instructed to be ready to move to San Carlos Water on the 25th of May under cover of darkness to disembark all helicopters and begin transferring all stores using Mexeflote’s and landing craft at first light. Preparations on-board continued, including moving stores to disembarkation points and ‘ground testing’ of some of the remaining helicopters.

Captain North reportedly said to his crew;

Well boys, its May 25th, something spectacular should happen today

Meanwhile, two 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.

She was hit by both missiles at C Deck.

The image showing the missile tracks below is taken from a now declassified SECRET memo to cabinet on the 2nd of June 1982.

Atlantic Conveyor Missile Track

Another version of this, collated from various sources, is presented here and here.

There is some difference of opinion in public documents 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 life rafts. 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 their 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.

and…

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.

Finally,

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 Chaff 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.

The Board of Inquiry 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

Multiple sources are clear that it was two missiles.

HMS Alacrity came alongside to attempt boundary cooling and RFA Sir Percival also stood off the port quarter to render assistance. Shrapnel was reported to be seen coming through the ship’s sides as ammunition was exploding, despite this, helicopters rescued twenty-two personnel from the forward deck.

Damage control and firefighting continued, and ammunition was dumped overboard, but it was a losing battle, with systems failing and light fading fast, the decision was made to abandon ship at 20.05, 25 minutes after the attack. 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.

Despite the valiant efforts of those involved, twelve men lost their lives. Three were lost on board and nine after entering the water.

In total, one hundred and thirty-seven out of the one hundred and forty-nine on board were rescued, obviously a great credit to all involved and testament to the calm and orderly manner in which the ship was abandoned.

The last lifeboat was recovered by HMS Alacrity at 23.00.

The 12 men killed in the sinking of the Atlantic Conveyor were:

Merchant Navy

  • Bosun (Petty Officer I) John B. Dobson
  • Mechanic (Petty Officer I) Frank Foulkes
  • Assistant Steward David R. S. Hawkins
  • Mechanic (Petty Officer II) James Hughes
  • Captain Ian H. North, DSC
  • Mechanic (Petty Officer II) Ernest M. Vickers

Royal Fleet Auxiliary

  • First Radio Officer Ronald Hoole
  • Laundryman Ng Por
  • Laundryman Chan Chi Shing

Royal Navy

  • Chief Petty Officer Edmund Flanagan
  • Air Engineering Mechanic (R) Adrian J. Anslow
  • Leading Air Engineering Mechanic (L) Don L. Pryce

I thought this, from the London Gazette for Captain North, was fitting at this point.

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

And another.

Third Engineer Brian Robert WILLIAMS, Merchant Navy.

At the time when ATLANTIC CONVEYOR was hit by Exocet missiles. Mr Williams, the Engineer Officer was stationed on watch
in the Engine Control Room with the mechanic. Soon after the missiles hit, the mechanic left the room and shortly after this was heard calling for help. The room was filling with smoke and would shortly be abandoned. Nonetheless Mr Williams promptly put on breathing apparatus and set off to the rescue of the mechanic whom he found, following a further large explosion, seriously injured and trapped in a way that assistance would be required to release him.

Mr Williams went quickly to get help.

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. However, as they approached, the conditions became literally unbearable and the mission had to be abandoned. Mr Williams made his report calmly and then went to the Breathing Apparatus store where he began valiant efforts to recharge air breathing bottles. He was eventually ordered to the upper deck to abandon ship.

Throughout the incident Mr Williams showed exceptional bravery and leadership and a total disregard for his own safety

Brave men all.

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 using the tug, The Irishman, one of the STUFT vessels.

Atlantic Conveyor under tow by the tug the Irishman

Despite repeated efforts of the crew of The Irishman, she sank in the early hours of the 28th of May, 1982.

Three containers were sighted floating at the position where it was assumed she sank.

A handful of comments from an older version of this text at the Think Defence blog.

The Conveyor 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 peek to see what was happening. I could see her clearly ablaze especially around the superstructure 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?

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?

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!

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 firefight and rescue survivors but it was too rough and we were getting smashed together. We then stood off and put swimmers into rescue survivors and recover some of those less fortunate.

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

Was serving aboard HMS Alacrity at the time. As I recall the Exocet(s) were aimed at us and 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 alongside 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

Aftermath

Although the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor ultimately did not change the result of the campaign and her primary mission of delivering the precious Harriers and Sea Harriers completed, her loss would be acutely felt.

In addition to the huge volume of stores, three Chinook, six Wessex and a Lynx helicopter were lost, including all their specialist tools, spares and manuals.


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The original plan called for the Chinooks from Atlantic Conveyor to move an entire Commando to secure Mount Kent with another Commando and Parachute Battalion to Teal Inlet and Douglas Settlement.

The news of the Atlantic Conveyors loss came as a bitter blow.

We’ll have to bloody well walk then

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 made largely on foot. Although Sea King and Wessex helicopters could both lift external sling loads, they were in no way comparable to that of the Chinook. With only one Chinook available, priorities would mean that it would be largely used for supporting the Royal Artillery Light Guns.

No large scale moves of infantry forces by helicopter were 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 5 Infantry Brigade to land at Bluff Cove with its subsequent losses.

Another other significant implication of the sinking was on plans for the Harrier Forward Operating Base (FOB). It was a huge blow to the construction of the FOB, compounded by the fact that many of the Sappers vehicles were unable to be offloaded from RFA Sir Lancelot because of unexploded bombs. On the SS Atlantic Conveyor were all of 11 Squadron’s stores, i.e. the FOB and the means to create it (engineering plant etc.). All was not lost, though, supplementing the initial stores being used to build the FOB, on RFA Stromness was a small quantity of PSA (Prefabricated Surfacing Airfield) panels that were used for bomb damage repair and vertical take-off and landing pads. The loss fuel dracones and associated pumping and storage equipment meant fuel was always a problem, arguably, the task force would not have been able to sustain the three Chinook helicopters lost in any case without it.

On 11th June the British force mounted a brigade-sized night attack on Argentine positions in the mountains surrounding Stanley and three days later, after heavy fighting in the area, the Argentine garrison surrendered.

Because the Task Force tentage, heaters and most of the generators and lighting sets were lost with the Atlantic Conveyor, post ceasefire arrangements would be extremely challenging until additional stocks could be transported south.

Controversy

There remains to this day some controversy about the level of protection afforded the Atlantic Conveyor, why one the two Seawolf armed Type 22 frigates were not assigned to escort her, why no self-protection measures were installed and whether, given the significance of the 25th of May, she was in a danger area in the first place.

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 11th 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 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.

The key parts are in Attachment’s 1 and 2, these cover the subject of self-protection measures, stores stowage and damage control issues.

The vessel might have been stationed further east until the Chinook’s were ready to fly off, and some of the FOB stores and plant distributed on other vessels, perhaps she could have even stayed in a safer area until the Seawolf armed HMS Andromeda arrived on the 26th.

It is easy to see things with perfect 20:20 hindsight and be wise after the event but I think any discussion must take into account the incredibly short time in which conversion and operations took place and the comparative risks to the operational success of protecting the Atlantic Conveyor and protecting the carriers.

Tough times needed tough decisions.


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Sisters

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 that supported operating helicopters, not just transporting them.

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 31st of May.

From Hansard;

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.

During the operation, she received 4000 helicopter landings and refuelled aircraft 500 times, an impressive feat for a conversion and restoration that cost £2 million.

Another couple of merchant conversions are also worth mentioning.

Contender Bezant was utilised as an aircraft transport, ferrying helicopters and Harriers south to the Falkland Islands.

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. 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”. Most famously, RFA Argus participated in OP GRITROCK, the UK’s response to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, and of course, a star turn in the Brad Pitt film, World War Z.

MV Astronomer was another civilian container ship pressed into service for Operation Corporate.

After unloading all cargo and containers, she was sailed to Devonport and converted to the helicopter forward support ship, sailing South on the 8th of June 1982. The six-day conversion included the installation of a landing pad, hangar, RAS gear, communications equipment, additional accommodation and self-defence equipment. In addition to three Chinook, Wessex and Sea King helicopters, the ship had its crew of 34 joined by 53 Royal Navy, 21 RAF and 8 Army personnel. During her time in the Falkland Islands, the MV Astronomer carried out all manner of aviation support, patrol and logistics activities.

The one thousandth landing was completed by a Royal Navy Sea King from HMS Invincible by the end of August.




ZA718 Bravo November

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 a netted cargo of Lynx spares and was therefore still in the air, after being ordered to hold the 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 the Falkland Islands.

In one mission, it carried 28 men and two 105mm Light Gun’s 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.

Developing the Concept

With the Falklands matter resolved, the utility of merchant conversions was deemed to be a concept worthy of further exploration.

The Atlantic Causeway was returned to service with ACL and Contender Bezant converted to RFA Argus but it was the MV Astronomer that would be the focus of trials and experimentation for the auxiliary aviation support vessel concept.

In December 1982, Astronomer was leased by the Ministry of Defence and underwent further conversion during which she was fitted with the US 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. Cammell Laird and BAE completed the conversion which included two accommodation blocks (called the Village and the Hilton), power and ventilation, water purification and storage, communications, hangar and flight deck, generators and electrical distribution systems, and weapons and fuel storage. It was a much more comprehensive version of what was originally installed, cost £25m. The ship was tested with helicopters and Sea Harriers.

In 1984, RFA Reliant played a key role in the evacuation of British citizens from Lebanon, supporting the UK contingent (BRITFORLEB) of the UN Multinational Force (MNF) in Lebanon between 1982 and 1985, Operation HYPERION.

Despite this promise, the experiment was not a success. The ARAPAHO installation, on loan from the US Navy, was not of high quality and would not have fared well in South Atlantic conditions, even in the Mediterranean, there were problems. Design faults meant the system was not watertight and the landing pad surface was so coarse, it resulted in a great deal of aircraft tire damage. A short tour to the Falkland Islands was followed by decommissioning of the ARAPAHO equipment and sales of the vessel back to the MoD. She ran aground in 1995 and was scrapped at Alang, India, 1998.

The Ship Borne Containerised Air Defence System (SCADS) was another proposal, it included a complete aviation setup and a containerised Sea Wolf missile system.

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.

A working test was completed for Mexeflote/Rear Ramp access and the installation of a landing pad.

The G3’s are now being replaced with the latest generation of CONRO, the G4, which don’t, I think, have any similar provision.


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Memorial

In June 2007 a memorial to those lost on the Atlantic Conveyor was unveiled at Cape Pembroke, the most Easterly point on the Falkland Islands, near the now disused lighthouse.

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.

Atlantic Conveyor Memorial

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 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!

 

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16 Comments on "The Atlantic Conveyor"

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LouisB

I don’t fully understand the legalities put forward re defensive armament of ‘auxiliaries’. Even as long ago as the Beira blockade some RFA’s carried small arms and a few had Bofors that were carried below decks (usually under the for’d deck housing) wrapped in protective greased cloth.. Occasionally mounted and tested before being re-stowed. I think that it was all a rather grey area that was brought to light during Corporate. The eventual defensive armament fit for RFA’s was through a major effort by an RFA Captain, Gordon Butterworth, who was attached to the MoD, who brought some reality to the Civil Servants of the day. In any case the whole shebang was, a few years later, put under the direct auspice’s of CinC fleet – something that I personally thought should have been done many years previously.

Peter Larson.

An insight to the Falklands War that a lot of people will never know about. I couldn’t stop reading this account.

JohnHartley

During WW2 CAM ships (Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen) launched an old Hurricane on a one way trip to shoot down German Condors that stalked the convoys.
Am I right in thinking that during the “Battle of the River Plate” film there is mention of a British merchant ship that was armed with a single 4″ gun?
Jumping to the present day, do not nuclear fuel/cargo ships have a 30 or 35mm turret?

DaveS

In my mind is an image of one of the STUFTs mounting a pair of Bofors guns, but perhaps memory is playing tricks.

Not A Boffin

“There remains to this day a question of why the Atlantic Conveyor was not provided with a suitable Sea Wolf armed escort “.

Nonsense. There were two GWS25-armed ships in theatre at the time. Each one assigned to goalkeeping an MEU (vice an HVU like ACO). No question whatsoever. Andromeda didn’t arrive until shortly after. Frankly a little naughty dropping that line under a sub-heading “controversy” – even with the caveat re hindsight.

“In my mind is an image of one of the STUFTs mounting a pair of Bofors guns, but perhaps memory is playing tricks”. That would be MV Elk whose master and SNO seemed to be particularly adept at proffing things that might be useful.

A very good friend of mine was 1st Mate on the Irishman and was awarded the MBE for his efforts in getting those tow’s secured in horrible weather. My instructor Yeoman at HMS Mercury in 83 was at times a bit odd. After passing out I was told he was the CY of the naval party onboard the ACO, and that he had been picked out of the water as dead, put in a body bag and thrown in the back of a Sea King, where he warmed up and came to, giving the flight crew the fright of their life. No wonder he was a bit odd at times…….

Observer

To be very fair, the escorts did their jobs, they fired chaff and decoyed the missiles away from the Ambuscade, which was probably their primary target. It was only extreme mischance that causes them to lock on to another target. If you looked at the memo that was so kindly provided, you would see that the original missile track was almost 45 degrees away from the original path.

It’s almost like a bullet ricochet, you never know where the round is going to go, and in this case, sheer bad luck is to blame for putting the Atlantic Conveyor right in the path of the rogue missiles.

Which goes to show Murphy’s Law is still king of the battlefield.

TAS

In the current context there is nothing legally wrong with arming merchant vessels taken up from trade. STUFT assume the legal status of auxiliaries, that is ‘a government owned or operated vessel on non-commercial service’. There is no restriction on providing them with a self-defence capability as we are expecting vessels to operate in a hostile environment. Individual members of the crew may not be armed, as they are not combatants (though they are civilians directly participating in hostilities), but the vessels can be equipped with weapons for self defence.

It might simply have been the case that there were either insufficient chaff launchers available in a short timeframe to provide a self-defence capability, or it could have been decided that since there was not way of reliably cueing the chaff launchers to a threat (i.e. no ESM systems, no radars, takes too long to warn by radio, etc), there was little point in fitting them. A Bofors is not going to be much use against an Exocet.

BRd3012 Handbook on the Law of Maritime Operations refers – if you can get it.

Donald_of_Tokyo

In the days of SeaCat and SeaWolfs, it would have been very difficult to defend the Merchant vessels from ASMs. A 40 mm gun will be no help, and 20mm CIWS (= the only possible measure for ASM defense), was not popular and not easy to purchase around 1982.

I suppose, that is the reason ASTER and CAMMs are developed. With CAMMs, 1 or 2 frigate will be able to air-cover the RFA and merchant vessel fleets. This is game changing, I guess, and now there is no need to arm your Merchant fleet.

@TD. Facinating and seriously heroic. Thank you.

@DoT. Right on SeaCat (world’s first unguided missile), wrong on Sea Wolf – which is why T22s Broadsword, Brilliant and later Andromeda were in such high demand – system was newly in service and insufficient ships with the beggars to go around.

LouisB

@Donald_of_Tokyo

I think that you will find most of the RFA flotilla are now defensively armed with Phalanx/Lmg’s/Mini guns et al. Agree with TAS regarding general legalities. However regarding the standing of RFA civilian crews; I have been researching same and certainly, according to WIKI their position seems quite convoluted and hybrid – Civil Service sailors with special RNR standing when in harms way, legally under Naval discipline. I was aware for some time that certain RFA officers and cpo’s were given naval gunnery instructions for the operation of weapons smaller than Phalanx. As I say, it is all rather convoluted but obviously legal if RNR regulations apply when the vessel is in a combat situation. I’m sure others will have a view. It definitely seems a ‘one off’.

Fedaykin

The old Horizon documentary sets out the thinking why merchantman should not be armed:

https://youtu.be/yDYx84DdJ-w?t=306

George McDonald

This brings back many memories , I served on the Hermes down South . I came up from below when action stations sounded , my station was on the Flight Deck , as the chief in charge of aircraft salvage if required. I went to the back of the island and my first instinct when I seen a ship with a mass of smoke coming from , I thought she’s making a lot of smoke to keep up with us. It was then I realised the ship had been hit. When the first helicopter arrived with survivors , it flew down the port side and I seen it was full of men in there orange survival suits, on the deck everyone was brilliant making space so it could land. When the aircraft landed and the survivors disembarked , I recognised a few of them from MARTSU ( Mobil aircraft repair and transport salvage unit ) I gave them my bar number and took them to the mess , then I returned to the deck to assist. What sticks in my mind was the announcement from Flyco ” can we make room on the deck for one Chinock helicopter it doesn’t have a home !!!”

One of our PO’s had been over to the AC to check out on liquid oxygen earlier in the month , when he was getting ready to fly back to the Hermes , the guys on the AC questioned the way he was putting his survival suit on. RIP the ones who never returned.

wpDiscuz
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