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Was the "Atlantic conveyor" sacrificed to save the British from defeat?

Was the "Atlantic conveyor" sacrificed to save the British from defeat?

  • Gordon Brooks

By Gordon Brooks

  • Received at: 14/02/2022
  • Published at: 30/04/2022. Visto 1363 veces.
  • Abstract (spanish):

    El 25 de mayo de 1982, la Armada argentina intentó un ataque decisivo con misiles Exocet contra dos portaaviones británicos, que otorgaban cobertura al desembarco en las Islas Malvinas. Aunque los pilotos navales probablemente tenían como blanco el portaaviones HMS Hermes, los misiles impactaron al Atlantic Conveyor, que navegaba junto a la Fuerza de Tarea.

    Este artículo analiza si las instrucciones del buque insignia Hermes al Conveyor, que lo obligó a exponer su cuadra contra los misiles, pudo haber influido en el resultado del ataque y la campaña.

  • Keywords (spanish): Falklands War, Atlantic Conveyor.
  • Abstract:

    On 25th May 1982, the Argentine Navy attempted a decisive Exocet strike against two British carriers supporting troop landings on the Falkland Islands/Malvinas. Although the attacking pilots probably targeted the larger carrier, HMS Hermes, their missiles hit the nearby container ship Atlantic Conveyor instead.

    This paper explores whether the outcome of the attack could have been influenced by a hitherto overlooked urgent manoeuvring instruction passed from Hermes to Conveyor which exposed the merchant ship’s side to the approaching missiles.

  • Keywords: Falklands War, Atlantic Conveyor.

On 25th May 1982, the Argentine Navy attempted a decisive Exocet strike against two British carriers supporting troop landings on the Falkland Islands/Malvinas. Although the attacking pilots probably targeted the larger carrier, HMS Hermes, their missiles hit the nearby container ship Atlantic Conveyor instead.

This paper explores whether the outcome of the attack could have been influenced by a hitherto overlooked urgent manoeuvring instruction passed from Hermes to Conveyor which exposed the merchant ship’s side to the approaching missiles.

By late May 1982, the struggle between Argentina and the UK for control of the Falkland Islands hung in the balance. Although Argentine troops were dug in on the islands, the British had established a beachhead supported by Harrier jets from two aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes, and HMS Invincible (Smith, 2006).

Having realised that the British needed air support from both of their carriers to retake the islands, the Argentines employed state-of-the-art French-built Exocet missiles to try and destroy the British ships.

On 25th May (Argentine Independence Day), Argentine naval pilots flying Super Etendards caught the British Carrier Battle Group (CBG) by surprise and attacked a large target with two of their country’s three remaining air-launched Exocets, only to hit the 14,950-ton container ship, Atlantic Conveyor.

Although Conveyor’s destruction was considered by Major-General Moore, the commander of the British land forces at the time, as the ‘most serious loss of the war’ (Dorman, 2005, p. 49), it was not the decisive blow the Argentines had hoped for.

Fourty years after the war, the author of this paper, who had served as an officer on Conveyor, was surprised to discover in the report of the inquiry into the ship’s loss (BoI Report, 1982-3) that during the Exocet attack, Conveyor’s agreed defence had been overridden by a direct order from Admiral Woodward’s flagship, Hermes.

Instead of manoeuvring to minimise her visibility to the missiles’ homing radar as planned, Conveyor had been turned onto a course that would have increased the chance of the Exocets picking her as their final target.

This paper reports the author’s investigation into why the order had been given and whether it had influenced the outcome.

The Current Historical Record

Little information about the reasons for Conveyor’s loss was made public at the time of the Exocet attack other than she had possibly been mistaken for Hermes (BBC News, 1982). Media interest in the return of Conveyor’s survivors to Brize Norton on 7th June cast light on the horrific details of the ship’s demise but not why the Exocets had hit her (News: Falklands War, 1982).

A week after Conveyor’s destruction, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) sent a secret briefing paper about the attack to the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, which included a sketch plot showing the relative positions of the ships involved (Thatcher Paper, 1982) (Figure 1).

The authors of the paper concluded that the British warships had mounted a faultless defence with the small frigate HMS Ambuscade successfully deploying chaff to lure the Exocets away from her, after which the missiles had homed in on the unprotected Conveyor.

Woodward (2014) gave a similar two-ship explanation in his book, ‘One Hundred Days’, which has largely been accepted as fact by subsequent historians (Villar, 1984) (Smith, 2006) (Hime, 2010) (Snow, 2019), as well as being incorporated into the British Cabinet Office ‘Official History of the Falklands’ (Freedman, 2005).

The admiral further asserted that the attacking pilots had probably fired at the first warship they’d come across (Ambuscade) rather than pressing on for the carriers. Thus repeating the error of 4th May when two Argentine Exocets had been expended on the outlying CBG destroyer HMS Sheffield.

Argentine reports that Roberto Curilovic (PILOT-1) and his wingman, Hector Barraza, who flew the 25th May mission, had actually launched their Exocets at a large warship prompted authors to speculate on its identity. Whilst Brown (1987, p. 408) suggested Sir Tristram and Corum (2002) proposed Invincible, Dorman (2005) and Fremont-Barnes (2017) preferred Hermes.

Further Sources and Methods

Given no historian seemed to have noticed the flagship’s order to turn Conveyor into danger, the author sought eyewitness information about the action from published accounts and, whilst taking care not to exacerbate any suffered trauma, through correspondence with those involved. Other sources of first-hand information were located in the National Archives at Kew, within declassified MoD reports and warships’ logs (Ships’ Logs, 1982).

After building a detailed plot of the Exocet attack refined by witness feedback (a draft appeared in Widow Ruiz, 2021), the author used the Earth geometry mapping program Google Earth Pro. to create a best-fit scale reconstruction taking into account published unit performance data (Moore, 1982).

A Reconstruction of the Argentine Exocet Attack of 25th May 1982

O    The British Defence

    Woodward was well aware of the risk Exocets posed to his carriers, explaining in One Hundred Days how he’d agreed with the MoD at Northwood that major damage to Hermes or Invincible would almost certainly force the British to abandon the campaign.

    Acting on intelligence that the French-built Super Etendards were not capable of in-flight refuelling, he kept his carriers outside the planes’ estimated maximum strike range of 460 miles1.

from their Argentine Rio Grande air base during daylight hours

    On 25th May, Woodward had set out a layered defence stretching from two anti-aircraft picket ships off Pebble Island in what he called a ‘Missile Trap’ to a north-south line of chaff-fitted Fleet Auxilliary ships positioned west of his carriers as decoys.

    The innermost of the CBG’s defences comprised two small Type 21 general purpose frigates, HMS Alacrity and HMS Ambuscade, an old guided-missile destroyer, HMS Glamorgan, and the Type 22 frigate, HMS Brilliant. Brilliant had recently been brought back from front line duties in San Carlos Water (Brilliant, 1982) to act as the carriers’ sole ‘Goalkeeper’. In this role, she was required either to destroy any incoming Exocets with her Sea Wolf missiles or to block them by becoming a physical barrier of last resort.

    As for the carriers located at the heart of the CBG, although Invincible was equipped with Sea Dart missiles capable of engaging radar-visible aircraft up to 40 miles away, neither was fitted with anti-missile weaponry.

    Conveyor had been kept in close company with the carriers since delivering extra Harriers to them on 21st May. Before sailing in April, she’d had flight decks added and was now being used as a helicopter support ship whilst waiting to unload her heavy-lift helicopters and stores ashore overnight on the 25th. During her conversion there hadn’t been time to fit her with chaff launchers or defensive armaments.

O    Commencement of the Air Raid

    At 1730Z2.

on 25th May, as Argentine bombers mounted an attack3.

on Woodward’s ‘Missile Trap’, two Exocet-bearing Super Etendards, took off from Rio Grande bound for the British carriers.

    Prior to departure, the Argentine pilots had been provided with the estimated location of the carriers derived from analysis of Harrier return flights using a Westinghouse radar system at Stanley (Clancy, 2012) (Columbo, 1984).

    As described by PILOT-1, the Argentine pilots flew northeast avoiding Woodward’s picket ships to rendezvous with an Air Force KC-130 Hercules tanker aircraft some 330 miles from their target (Figure 2).

    Hermes’ Commanding Officer (HERM-CO) (L. Middleton, personal communications, 2012) recalled that Woodward had been alerted to the Super Etendards’ departure by a British special forces unit posted near their airfield. When they subsequently didn’t appear at the predicted time for their range, it was assumed their mission had been aborted.

    After refuelling, the Argentine pilots flew southeast at low altitude maintaining complete electronic silence. When nearing the CBG’s anticipated position, they popped-up twice to gather further information.

O    The Argentine Pilots Find the CBG

    British sources agree that Exeter detected the Argentine’ Agave radar signals at 1930Z, followed six minutes later by Ambuscade at an estimated range of 35 miles (Figures 3,4).

    Ambuscade’s Principal Warfare Officer (AMB-PWO) (M. Williams, personal communication, 2012) noted in his war diary that when the radar contacts became steady at 28 miles on a bearing of 310°, Ambuscade’s course was 210°, which she maintained from then on.

    At this point in their account, the Thatcher Paper authors add an unsupported claim that Ambuscade fired gun chaff to ‘confuse’ (Huber, 2011) the Argentine pilots’ aim.

    PILOT-1 reported encountering no such British countermeasures and on the second pop-up, both pilots were able to spot two large vessels behind a smaller one (Strace, 2021). After they’d selected the largest of the three ships for attack, their aircraft systems programmed the Exocets with an ideal flight plan for the type of target (Kopp, 19834.

    At around 1937Z, Ambuscade’s Commanding Officer (P. Mosse, personal communication, 2012-13) noticed Hermes 2-3 miles off his ship’s port beam, putting Ambuscade directly between the aircraft and the flagship, which he assumed had been their intended target. He subsequently observed Hermes increasing speed and drawing away to the south.

    Meanwhile, as recorded in her log, Invincible began flying off helicopters with chaff decoys and designated Combat Air Patrol Harriers (Britain at sea, 2014). The jets were later held to the north to prevent them being inadvertently brought down by friendly fire (BoI Report).

O    The Exocets are Released

    On closing to within 30 miles of their target, the Argentine pilots released their Exocets then headed away (Figure 5).

    After launch, the Exocets sped towards their target at around 10 miles/ min under inertial guidance, maintaining an altitude of 10-15 metres above sea level (Kopp, 1983).

    Ambuscade’s radar operators detected the missile separation 22 miles away, at which time  AMB-PWO observed Conveyor was 2-3 miles off his ship’s port quarter on course 170°.

    Concerned that the Exocets were heading in Ambuscade’s direction, AMB-PWO fired three rounds of 4.5” gun chaff to the right of their track (known as Chaff-D, for ‘Distraction’) (Huber, 2011) in order to present the missiles with large alternative targets to lock-onto.

O    Which Way to Turn?

    Throughout the Falklands campaign, analysts had been updating the Exocet countermeasures advice provided to the CBG (Thatcher Paper, 1982). HERM-CO related that by 25th May, it had been agreed Conveyor and the two carriers should turn end-on to approaching Exocets to reduce their visibility to the missiles’ Seekers.

    Wary of losing steerage, the carriers’ Commanding Officers had decided to turn their ships’ bows to the Exocets. Accordingly, as reported in her log, at 1939Z Invincible came round onto course 307° to face the Exocets.

    HERM-CO, in Hermes’ Operations Room, similarly, put the flagship into a tight turn to starboard onto 310° whilst firing chaff that would be carried astern of her with the northeasterly wind (Chaff-S, for ‘Seduction’) (Figure 6).

    All of which came as a great surprise to those arming Harriers with bombs on her flight deck (A. Jones, personal communication, January 2013).

    In Conveyor’s case, a large improvised forward magazine full of cluster bombs and containers of aviation fuel on her main deck above precluded a bow to threat orientation, as Woodward related:

    Captain North [CONV-CAP] had ordered a hard turn to port in an attempt to present Conveyor’s very strong stern to the incoming missiles.

    Here, Woodward’s version of events directly conflicts with the BoI Report, which makes it clear CONV-CAP was not acting on his own initiative but following a direct order sent from the flagship at 1940Z:

    Whilst  AMB-PWO picked up the order over the CBG’s tactical radio system and saw the merchant ship comply, an air engineering officer on Conveyor’s bridge (K. White, personal communications, 2021), witnessed the ship’s helmsman being instructed to make the turn.

O    The Exocets Lock-on

    When the Exocets came within 5 or so miles of Hermes’ expected position, their Seekers would have activated to hunt for a suitably large radar target. Directly between them and Hermes lay Ambuscade’s chaff and it seems likely that they transiently locked-onto it (or Hermes’ chaff)5.

Aboard Hermes, operators tracking the Exocets’ approach detected a change in signal and informed HERM-CO that the missiles had locked-on to Hermes.

By now, the Exocets had been spotted from Ambuscade’s bridge billowing thick black smoke. AMB-PWO fired chaff rockets and turned the ship’s main and secondary armaments on them. The missiles appeared to make a course correction to their left before passing through the chaff and weapon smoke astern of Ambuscade (Figure 7).

    On Hermes’ bridge, David Bass, one of the lookouts instructed to report the bearing of the missiles so the bows could be kept pointing towards them, described what happened next6.

    “I saw this white-hot glow on the horizon — Although I had never seen an Exocet, I knew what it was — The missile was coming towards Hermes. Suddenly it bore to the right and hit Atlantic Conveyor. She went up in a big pall of smoke.” (Glasgow Herald, 22/7/82)

    After emerging from Ambuscade’s chaff, and losing their lock5, the Exocets would have had to search for a new target. Ahead of them now were Hermes, bow-on trailing chaff, heading straight for them, and Conveyor to their left, exposing her side as instructed. One or both of the Exocets picked Conveyor as the larger target and turned towards her (Figure 8).

    Contrary to the Thatcher Paper’s placement of Brilliant between Hermes and the Exocets, witnesses reported how the frigate was tracking the missiles from 5 miles to the southeast, out of Sea Wolf range:

    “The missiles were so close together they were both on the same T.V. monitor…The explosion seemed to go through her [Conveyor] and out the other side.”

    The BoI Report describes how the Exocets were spotted approaching Conveyor from RED 150 before impacting her port quarter at their attack height stopping the ship’s engines. A dense cloud of smoke from the aft vents quickly gathered amidships, cutting off the forward damage control party from those in the accommodation. Given the strong southwesterly wind, this suggests Conveyor was close to being on course 040°at the time the Exocets hit.

    The explosion was also witnessed from RFA Regent, which was probably the northernmost of the decoy ships in Woodward’s ‘Chaff Wall’ (C. Mortlock, personal communications, 2013).

    Those watching the unfolding disaster from Hermes’ bridge, a mile to the south, were almost immediately deafened by six of Invincible’s Sea Darts exploding nearby (R Nichol, personal communication, 2015), which had probably been fired at Hermes’ chaff blooms.

    For some while, Conveyor’s crew fought a losing battle to try and save crewmen trapped below and to contain fires spreading through her open cargo decks crammed with inflammable materials and munitions (Richards, 1983, p 791).

    Despite the heroic efforts of those on board, helicopter crews and crews of ships in the area, twelve of Conveyor’s complement were lost. The container ship and her entire cargo were destroyed in the inferno, apart from a Wessex and a Chinook helicopter7.

which landed on Hermes.


O    Why the Exocets hit Conveyor?

    From the evidence-based reconstruction above, it would be reasonable to conclude that when the attacking Argentine pilots popped-up for their second scan, they detected Hermes and Conveyor behind Ambuscade (Figure 4).

    As Hermes was the longer, wider and bulkier of the two large ships (Figure 9),

    and they were both presenting the same aspect to the planes’ radar, it would also seem likely the pilots selected Hermes as their target.

    From Figure 5, it can be seen that Exocets launched towards Hermes’ location would pass close to Ambuscade, which would explain why both commands suspected their ship had been targeted.

    Despite finding the pilots probably aimed their Exocets at Hermes, rather than Ambuscade, the reconstruction supports Woodward’s and the Thatcher Paper’s conclusion that the Exocets looked for a new target after passing through Ambuscade’s chaff.

    The key difference is whilst the reconstruction shows that after passing Ambuscade, the Exocets could have picked Hermes or Conveyor as their final target, the two sources removed Hermes from the equation. In the Thatcher Paper’s case, by transporting the flagship to safety behind Brilliant, and in Woodward’s by simply leaving Hermes out of his narrative.

    The Thatcher Paper authors’ exaggerations about the textbook British defence can perhaps be explained by an immediate need to reassure nervous British politicians that, despite Conveyor’s recent loss, the carriers and campaign were in safe hands. Cabinet Minutes (1982) of the time contain a similarly optimistic MoD claim that much of Conveyor’s lost equipment ‘was for the long term’ rather than needed immediately.

O    Was Conveyor Sacrificed?

    Writing after the war, Woodward had no such need to reassure. The question then arises, did he omit Hermes’ actions from his account to divert attention from a necessary military decision to use the defenceless Conveyor as a decoy like one of the ‘Chaff Wall’ ships or a ‘Goalkeeper’?

    A post-engagement entry in his war diary seems to suggest that is what happened:

    ●Using merchant vessels as spare targets probably not such a good idea – unless they [also] have chaff.

    When asked about this, Woodward was clear he would not have authorised turning Conveyor into danger. Other key witnesses agreed and were certain there must be another explanation.

    To find it, we must return to the moment when Conveyor and the carriers were being positioned end-on to the Exocets. In order to put their bows to the missiles, the carriers simply needed to head in the direction the missiles had been spotted, in this case, 310°.

    CONV-CAP’s position was more problematic. Having no access to military radar, he needed Hermes to inform him where the attack was coming from so he could put Conveyor’s stern to the missiles by sailing the reciprocal course:

    310 -180 = 130°

    But instead, Hermes ordered him to:

        ‘Immediate Execute. Turn port to 040°’

    Rather than being a last ditched defence, could the reason Conveyor was ordered onto 040° have been a tiny communication error8.

made by those under pressure of being two minutes from possible defeat?

    If Hermes had signalled:

        ‘Immediate Execute. Turn port 04’

    Then, CONV-CAP would have turned Conveyor 40° to port from 170° onto the required reciprocal course of 130°, putting her stern to the missiles.

    Conveyor would probably not have drawn the Exocets onto her, leaving them to endanger the thousands of personnel on Hermes, the outcome of the war, and possibly even confidence in Margaret Thatcher’s government.


I should like to thank the numerous contacted witnesses to the events of the 25th May 1982 for providing details of their experiences and for their feedback. I am particularly grateful to Peter Mosse and Malcom Williams, formally of Ambuscade, as well as the late admirals Lin Middleton and Sandy Woodward for sharing their recollections and records. My thanks also go to Juan Widow Ruiz for his review and technical assistance with missile technology of the time.

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