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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On the night of the 21st of May 1982, the beachhead at San Carlos was established, with follow-on landings taking place soon after.
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;
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.
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.
The Board of Inquiry stated the following;
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:
- 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
- Chief Petty Officer Edmund Flanagan
- Air Engineering Mechanic (R) Adrian J. Anslow
- Leading Air Engineering Mechanic (L) Don L. Pryce
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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!