She was the big ship that could — until she couldn’t. In early 1982, Atlantic Conveyor was nothing special: a mere civilian container ship belonging to the Cunard Line. Then, on April 2, Argentine troops invaded the South Atlantic’s Falkland Islands, long a British territory. The U.K. Royal Navy quickly assembled a task force around two medium aircraft carriers with Harrier jump-jet fighters. The task force include 40 commercial vessels pressed into wartime service, including the 15,000-ton Atlantic Conveyor.
In just 10 days starting April 16, Atlantic Conveyor was modified to carry munitions, helicopters and spare Harriers, as well as a single operational Harrier launching from the helicopter pad for air defense. Thus equipped, Atlantic Conveyor sailed south with the task force, aiming to reconquer the islands.
On May 25, off the Falklands coast, two Argentine Super Etendard fighters attacked, striking Atlantic Conveyor with two Exocet missiles. “The attack was devastating,” Think Defense recalls. Twelve men died and the ship and much of her cargo were lost. Now, 29 years later, Think Defense has a fascinating summary of the ship’s impressive wartime service, along with many photos.
Atlantic Conveyor‘s story is one of innovation and adaptation by a stretched Royal Navy and courage from the vessel’s crew. But it’s also a warning: a properly armored and defended amphibious ship might have survived the Argentine attack and fully protected her crew. As the cash-strapped Royal Navy decommissions ships and planes wholesale — including both remaining carriers and all the Harriers — it’s worth remembering what can happen when a deprived navy must make do in the face of a determined enemy.