Was one of Britain's biggest naval vessels deliberately sacrificed to save Falklands flagship?

92 28/07/2022

Was one of Britain's biggest naval losses since WWII deliberately sacrificed to save Falklands flagship? PROFESSOR SAUL DAVID reveals startling controversy as the French are accused of shamefully refusing to deactivate Argentine Exocets that rained terror

By Professor Saul David For The Daily Mail

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The time was 7.36pm on May 25, 1982. Michael Williams, principal warfare officer on the frigate HMS Ambuscade, which was acting as the final line of air defence for Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward’s Carrier Battle Group near the Falkland Islands, detected the approach of two Argentinian aircraft from the north-west at an estimated range of 35 miles.

He signalled the find to Woodward’s flagship, the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, which was sailing on a slightly divergent course two miles to the east. The skipper of Hermes immediately ordered full power, but kept on the same southerly course.

The aircraft were two French-built Super Etendard strike fighters, armed with Exocet missiles, which had taken off from Rio Grande on the Argentinian mainland two hours earlier.

Woodward had been told of their departure by a British special forces team observing the airfield. But as soon as the maximum flight time of the jets had passed, he assumed the danger of an attack was over.

In fact, unbeknown to the British, the Argentinians had developed an in-flight refuelling capability that could extend the range of the attacking aircraft.

Having flown a lengthy dog-leg to the north of the Falkland Islands at extremely low altitude and in radio silence, the planes had ‘popped up’ to activate their radars and were now in a perfect position to attack the 25,000-ton HMS Hermes.

The two experienced Argentinian pilots, Robert Curilovic and Hector Barraza, could see three targets on their radar: two large and one smaller.

The HMS Hermes is pictured: The French had shared information about the Exocet with the British, and refused to deliver some missiles Argentina had already paid for. It has long been suspected that Aerospatiale, the French state-owned aerospace manufacturer, had equipped the Exocets with a ‘kill switch’ that would allow them to be disarmed if they were ever used against French forces

Last week a French former defence official called Pierre Razoux claimed that in 1982 the French had a disabling device

They selected the biggest, Hermes, and launched their rocket-propelled anti-ship Exocet missiles, French-designed and armed with 165kg warheads.

Flying just 50ft above the waves at a speed of more than 700mph, the missiles would arrive in under three minutes.

At the start of the war, the French had shared information about the Exocet with the British, and refused to deliver some missiles Argentina had already paid for.

But it has long been suspected that Aerospatiale, the French state-owned aerospace manufacturer, had equipped the Exocets with a ‘kill switch’ that would allow them to be disarmed if they were ever used against French forces.

The then French president, Francois Mitterrand, stubbornly denied the existence of such a function, but only last week a French former defence official called Pierre Razoux claimed that in 1982 the French had a disabling device — an electronic countermeasure, shaped like a small box — that could ‘kill’ an incoming missile by emitting a signal on a particular frequency.

He alleged that Mitterrand was unwilling to share the technology with Britain because it would be ‘like giving the keys to your safe to your neighbour. It’s not done’.

Razoux added: ‘It is because we were and still are competitors in the arms industry and Francois Mitterrand knew that if he had handed over the plans in full, then the British would have let it be known the world over.’

Deprived of the kill switch, British ships had limited defensive options when it came to combating Exocet attacks.

The burnt-out hulk of the container ship Atlantic Conveyor shortly before she sank after being hit by an exocet missile off the Falkland Islands

British troops are pictured in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands in April, 1982

The revelation about the switch, and France’s apparent refusal to help Britain by using it, incensed Tory MPs, who are demanding an inquiry.

But there is another compelling controversy concerning British ships that were attacked by Exocets — and it has gone unnoticed.

One way for a vessel to escape the deadly weapon was to fire chaff — small strips of metal intended to disorientate the Exocets by presenting them with alternative targets to lock on to. This is what Michael Williams resorted to when he became aware the missiles were incoming on May 25.

Captain Linley Middleton, 52, the skipper of Hermes, did the same, simultaneously ordering a tight turn to starboard so its bow faced the missiles and presented as small a target as possible.

‘While I was under the wing of a Sea Harrier,’ an armourer on the flight deck later recalled, ‘Commander Locke told us that two Exocets had been launched towards the task force . . . I heard the explosion of Hermes’s chaff and we banked heavily to one side.’

Middleton had more personnel crammed on board the Hermes than the 1,800 people who inhabited the islands they had come to liberate.

He knew, moreover, that the destroyer HMS Sheffield had been crippled by a single Exocet earlier in the conflict, and that Hermes’s loss — along with half the task force’s air power of 40 or so Sea Harriers — might be fatal to the campaign’s chances.

The third vessel noticed by the Argentinian pilots, the 15,000-ton Cunard container ship SS Atlantic Conveyor, had also been sailing south, a mile to the rear of Hermes.

Packed with vital equipment and stores for the British troops on the Falklands — including heavy-lift helicopters, aviation fuel, ammunition and tents — it had no radar capability and no chaff.

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Its ability to avoid the incoming missiles was entirely dependent on instructions from Hermes.

What happened next is the subject of heated debate. The conventional story is that the Atlantic Conveyor was hit by Exocets because it was a defenceless merchant ship in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A very different version of events was told to me by the ship’s doctor Gordon Brooks, then 25, which leads me to conclude that the Conveyor was deliberately sacrificed to save Hermes.

The evidence he presents — after ten years of detailed research — is compelling.

There had been much talk on the journey south about what the chaffless Conveyor might do to avoid the dreaded Exocets. Eventually it was agreed, with Woodward’s approval, that ‘she should turn her stern to the missiles to make her a smaller radar target’.

This would have the added benefit of using the heavy stern ramp to ‘act like armour plating’.

The Conveyor’s affable, bearded skipper Ian North — nicknamed ‘Captain Birdseye’ — was enjoying a beer with some off-duty helicopter pilots when the crisis unfolded. Racing back to the bridge, he expected Hermes to confirm the direction of the attack so he could change course.

Unbeknown to him, Conveyor was at this point almost stern-on to the incoming missiles and already in a defensive posture. But an order came through from Hermes on the tactical channel at 7.40pm: ‘Immediate Execute. Turn port to 040 degrees’. This was a direct order to turn the ship on to a course that would present not her stern but rather her entire port side to the incoming missiles.

The conventional story is that the Atlantic Conveyor was hit by Exocets because it was a defenceless merchant ship in the wrong place at the wrong time, but a leading professor has said the Conveyor was deliberately sacrificed to save Hermes

Was one of Britain's biggest naval vessels deliberately sacrificed to save Falklands flagship?

French President Francois Mitterrand answers questions at a press conference with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Mitterrand's own former defence official said he was unwilling to share the technology with Britain

Having passed through Ambuscade’s chaff, the missiles appeared to angle left, towards Woodward’s flagship. On board Hermes, a lookout remembered: ‘I saw a white-hot glow on the horizon.

'I shouted a warning to the bridge. 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.’

It appears that after losing their ‘lock’ in Ambuscade’s chaff, the Exocets searched for a new target, which left them with a choice between Hermes — bow-on, trailing chaff — and Conveyor to their left, exposing her port side as instructed. They picked Conveyor as the larger target and turned towards her.

Gordon Brooks, the medical officer, was playing a board game in the improvised hospital on the port side of the ship when the hooter sounded and ‘Emergency Stations’ and ‘Air Raid Warning Red’ were piped on the Tannoys.

As the ship made a tight turn, he got on the field telephone to check his medical assistants were in position.

‘A few minutes later,’ he recalled, ‘there was a jarring thud that reverberated around Conveyor and felt to me like the ship hitting some obstruction.

‘The previously reassuring steady heartbeat of the ship’s engines stopped and shortly afterwards [the captain’s] voice came over the Tannoy warning us to “hit the deck”. There was another bang, then the cabin lights went out.’

The Exocets had hit the Conveyor’s port quarter, stopping her engines and spilling burning propellant through the open cargo decks that ignited everything in its path.

The Conveyor quickly filled with acrid black smoke, which was sucked into the ventilation system and spread around the ship and on to the decks, hampering the damage-control groups.

The Conveyor’s burnt-out hulk split in two and sank. She was the first British merchant ship to be destroyed by enemy action since World War II

The crew fought an heroic, but ultimately futile, battle to save the ship while Conveyor’s escort, the frigate HMS Alacrity, came alongside to use its hoses to fight the fire.

But the flames continued to spread and Conveyor’s upper deck was soon cut in two by a pall of thick black smoke.

Gordon Brooks and engineer officer Brian Williams, the latter using breathing apparatus, tried to rescue a badly wounded mechanic who was trapped in the engine room, screaming for help.

‘We were driven back by the heat and smoke,’ remembered Brooks, ‘and any thoughts of trying again were banished by an order from the bridge to seal all hatches to the cargo decks.’

By the time the order to abandon ship was given, the decks were so hot that the soles of Brooks’s shoes had begun to melt. The hull was ‘glowing red’ and full of ‘jagged holes where exploding munitions had shot debris through’.

Some of the crew were rescued by helicopters from Hermes, one of which was co-piloted by HRH Prince Andrew.

Like many others, Brooks climbed down a rope-ladder and jumped the last 30ft into the icy sea, only to find his survival suit was rapidly filling with water.

He was saved by his inflatable vest, eventually got on to a life raft and, after several more close shaves, was picked up by HMS Alacrity.

Twelve of the crew were not so lucky, including the skipper, Ian North, who was last seen in the water trying to reach a life raft.

A few days later, the Conveyor’s burnt-out hulk split in two and sank. She was the first British merchant ship to be destroyed by enemy action since World War II.

The sinking of the Conveyor with its vital stores, including Chinook helicopters needed to transport troops across the Falklands, would affect the rest of the campaign and was described by ground commander Major General Jeremy Moore as ‘the most serious loss of the war’.

But it was not a fatal blow, as it might have been if one of the two carriers had been sunk.

So was Conveyor sacrificed to save Hermes and win the war? ‘Such a decision makes military sense,’ Gordon Brooks told me, ‘but I still think Conveyor was turned the wrong way by accident.’

My conclusion is not so generous, and is supported by two revealing comments from Sandy Woodward.

The HMS Sheffield was unprepared for attack as the deadly Exocet missile was launched

The first was in his post-battle war diary. ‘Using merchant vessels as spare targets,’ he noted, ‘probably not such a good idea — unless they have chaff.’

The second was the admission in his war memoir, One Hundred Days, that if the occasion had demanded it, he would have sacrificed any ship for Hermes: ‘In the most brutal terms, I could afford to lose a big merchant ship, or even a tanker, a whole lot more than I could afford to lose a carrier.’

Conveyor was not the first or last victim of the Exocet. Exactly three weeks earlier, HMS Sheffield had been sunk by an Exocet with the loss of 20 lives and 26 injured, after a catalogue of errors by officers and crew that included a failure to anticipate the attack and react effectively, and critical deficiencies in the fire-fighting equipment.

Then on June 12, towards the end of the war, the destroyer HMS Glamorgan was badly damaged by a land-launched Exocet which skidded along the top deck and penetrated the helicopter hangar, killing 14 crew.

One of the dead, a helicopter pilot, had written to his wife a few days earlier: ‘It doesn’t feel that you are very far away . . . I’m looking forward to when I can put my dreams into practice.’

These tragedies turned the Exocet into a totemic weapon and in the words of one commentator, the British media and public began to use the term as ‘a metaphor for anything that was suddenly and unstoppably destructive: a winning argument, for example, or a footballer’s shot on goal’.

Plans for British special forces to destroy the Super Etendards and kill their crews at the Rio Grande airbase were aborted after bad weather forced the helicopter carrying the SAS team charged with the mission to land in Chile.

If Pierre Razoux’s claim about a kill switch is true, of course, none of this would have been necessary had the French shared the technology with us.

The claim that they failed to inform us about the existence of a function which could have saved British lives has outraged British politicians and former servicemen.

Bob Seely, the MP and former Army officer, said: ‘If it turns out information was withheld, that would be one of the most shameful episodes in Anglo-French relations.

A lot of British sailors died because of those weapons and we owe it to the families of those who died, and to history, to get to the truth.’

Saul David is a military historian who co-hosts Battleground: The Falklands War, a podcast with Patrick Bishop, via Apple podcasts. atlantic-conveyor.co.uk.

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