‘Before I start, this is a totally personal account of my experiences and you have to accept that this is the best that I can do with hindsight. I mention no names as it would serve no useful purpose to do so. I still feel that in getting sunk we in some way let the side down. That feeling will never change. Our aircraft and men would have been so useful to those already ashore.
I think it a good idea to go back to the moments before the missile strike in a little more detail. Atlantic Conveyor’s Cunard crew were simply amazing. They could not do enough for us in enabling things to happen on their merchant ship, the like of which they had never seen before, and much of it involving considerable risk to themselves and the ship itself. You only had to watch the fuel bags burst as the first bad weather arrived to get the idea! Huge bag tanks as used in the field were strapped into containers alongside the upper deck to provide aircraft fuel. Add a bit of pitch and roll and you can quickly get the notion that this was not a very good idea as the fuel sloshed back and forth until the bags burst and fuel poured all over the deck and down the sides of the ship. They dealt with all this alongside the servicemen aboard as though it was an everyday happening.
You get the idea – a crew of servicemen and merchant seamen led by a combined command of Captain Ian North of Cunard and a Senior Naval Officer to meld together the disparate needs of aviation and vital store ship roles. The banter and humour was truly amazing. Not much political correctness in the South Atlantic thank goodness, and I have to mention here that much of this wonderful ambience was down to Ian North and his First Officer – sterling chaps both of them.
For reasons that I still do not understand, the disembarkation of 848 Squadron Wessex 5s was delayed by 24 hours – what a difference a day makes!! Anyway you can probably guess by now that it was a very happy ship with everyone working to the same aim. 848 were pretty short of some supplies as we had left Yeovilton after the others but had overtaken them on the way south. We picked up some vital spares as we passed through Ascension – including a sunhat for me – bald head don’t you know – but the crew of AC helped as well, providing Wellington boots, torches and other bits of equipment that would be so useful once disembarked.
As I posted earlier the officers of the AC had invited the officers and senior rates of the embarked force for a drink on Cunard on the evening of the 25th May. We had a bell system that sounded alerts – the only one that was ever used was “Air raid warning” and this was what sounded as we were about to ruin Cunard’s profits for the year. My action station was on the Starboard bridge wing manning my 7.62 machine gun taken from a Wessex, ably assisted by my loader a Petty Officer armourer. I was on the bridge as I was commanding officer of the Squadron and thus available to the command on aviation matters. Standing there on that evening, the weather grey and a bit forbidding with a fairly low swell, (unlike the blue skies evident in the picture of the burning ship above), looking out at all those warships getting very excited indeed. Helicopters flashing around dropping chaff, rockets going off in all directions, and us not knowing what the hell was going on. Personally I had no fear at all at that point – as my father, an army officer used to say “where there is no sense there is no feeling”!!
Time seemed to roll on and I have even now no idea of the time frame of the following events. As we stood around chatting about the dramatic scenes unfolding we had no idea that there were two Exocets on their way towards us. Decoyed away from several targets apparently, they finally fixed their beady little eyes on us and as we had (a), no idea they were coming and (b), there was nothing we could do about it, we stood about in blissful ignorance.
Then the amazing W-WHUMP. We looked at each other and said “what the **** was that” almost in unison. We soon realised that not all was well as smoke started to appear extraordinarily quickly from the side vents that line the upper deck, ventilating the enormous holds below. Smoke also seemed to be coming from the port quarter where we soon learned that was where the missile or missiles had struck. At the time of the impact we had one Wessex airborne on an HDS sortie and one Chinook airborne on I think a test flight. We also had one Wessex spread on deck amidships facing aft and another on the stern deck. All the others were folded and tucked away. I discussed with the SNO whether I could perhaps get the spread Wessex airborne, but it very quickly became apparent that we were now two ships companies. One was forward near the forward flight deck and the rest of us from the superstructure aft. Somewhere around now I thought it a good idea to put on my goonsuit that was in my cabin just below the bridge. I dragged it and my maewest (life preserver for you young!) up to the bridge. I was very upset to find that it no longer fitted! I soon found out why as I had nicked my senior pilots suit and he was very indignant!
Down below every effort was being made to fight the fires – but this was no warship – so no comprehensive firemain or water and fireproof doors. Jury rigged firemains had been rigged and these were being used as best as possible. At about this point Alacrity came alongside our starboard side and poured huge amounts of water in all directions in a truly brave and valiant attempt to help us. She just nudged up to us and stuck there. She eventually was ordered I believe, to leave us as there was a distinct danger that we might explode and take her with us. We were after all full of excitingly explosive bits of kit. It was getting distinctly darker now and after much discussion between the SNO and the Captain it was decided to order “Abandon ship”. There was by this time no proper broadcast available to inform everyone of the decision, and so the SNO told me to go down to the main decks and encourage everyone to get off. I was lucky to be able to go down inside the island as as yet the smoke was not too thick to stop us using the main stairwell. The SNO and the Captain had subsequently to climb down using the iron ladders on the exterior of the bridge – no joke. The port side of the ship was a no no and so starboard aft seemed to be the place and all the RN standard liferafts were thrown over the side, along with more rope ladders and ropes. Everyone had “once only” suits, those ghastly bulky bright orange things that are difficult to put on quickly let alone correctly – though everyone had been drilled in them and the liferafts on the way south. They also had ‘board of trade’ lifevests.
A quick diversion to explain the liferafts. Big white fibreglass containers that you heave over the side and their painters pull the inflation firing pins as they take the weight. Now what no one had realised in the fitting of them is that they were designed for warships with a comparatively low freeboard. When they were chucked over from the AC that had about a 50 foot main deck to sea height, they hung from their painters at about a 45 degree angle all on top of one another like a line of dominos. This made boarding them a nightmare for those climbing and jumping from the ship. It must have been getting hot as the APU of the parked and rotorless Chinook on the after deck started up all on its own!
It was now getting dark, and having passed the word to everyone around to go, it was time for me. The soles of my very smart Clarks desert boots having started to melt, it seemed a good time. I climbed down a rope ladder but about halfway down discovered that it had been cut off, probably by Alacrity nudging alongside during her valiant efforts at fire suppression. It was not a time to hang around thinking clever thoughts of survival tactics as the ships side where I was was starting to glow red and bits of hot stuff were pinging straight through the hull all around me. Discretion being the better part of valour, I let go! I arrived in the water alongside a liferaft that was tipped up at an angle and was helped aboard by one of my Royal Marine aircrewmen. I then got out my aircrew knife and cut the painter tying it to the next raft in line. I then hopped around a few rafts doing the same thing and reminding people where the survival knives were stowed in their rafts. After a while we had a few rafts in the water at the correct angle and some drifting off astern. One small problem at this stage was the shape of AC’s hull down aft. Being a greyhound of the seas she was beautifully streamlined with a “cruiser” stern. In the swells she was pitching up and down, and on the upstroke was sucking the rafts in underneath her and on the down stroke………well you can guess! Not a pleasant place to be.
Alacrity was at this stage firing gunlines over the rafts to enable them to be dragged across and emptied of survivors. Gunlines are very thin nylon lines and bloody difficult to hang on to especially with cold hands. I was quite warm at this stage as I had my goon suit on and had been hopping about a bit. The time came to cut free from AC and get pulled over to Alacrity. (other liferafts were drifting off to other ships astern and I cannot recount their stories). I was tugging like mad to get us away from AC and by the time we eventually got along side Alacrity I could not feel my hands having been clinging to this tiny wet gunline as though it was life itself. Alacrity had scrambling nets down all along her midships section of her port side and in turn we were trying to climb up. We had one or two bodies bobbing about which was not much fun. When it came to my turn to climb up, I got halfway and realised that with my feelingless hands I was going to get no further. No problem I thought – do it like they do in the movies and think of the wife and family. I fell off. I landed in the water alongside one of Alacrity’s ships divers who very calmly said “Good evening Sir, may I help you?” Oh what joy!! I looked up at the deck above and standing there was an old chum , a Jungly pilot doing time as First Lieutenant of Alacrity. They then threw scrambling nets down from the flight deck – much lower freeboard – and used the flight deck crane to help hoist the tired and incapable to safety.
We stayed in Alacrity for a few days, my goodness they were kind to us, keeping out of the way whilst they dashed about fighting the war, and were eventually transferred to the BP tanker The British Tay, to take us back to Ascension. We were no use in theatre as we had no aircraft, no kit and would have been a drag on the rations.
Fly home to Brize Norton from Ascension………………and that’s it.
An interesting footnote – when we were married in 1966 an old friend who had given us a very nice present for our wedding thought that it was insufficient and took me into his attic to rummage through the junk to find something else. He did and in 1982 the only picture of a ship that had hung in our house for all those years was a picture that he found in the attic – HMS Alacrity, an old watercolour of her when she was an Admirals yacht in the Far East’.
Veteran David Baston