The Royal Navy Has A Crazy New Idea To Build Aircraft Carriers In A Hurry

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: Desperate times call for desperate measures.

The Royal Navy in 1982 faced a galling problem as it prepared to take back the Falkland Islands from Argentinian forces that had seized it that March: not enough aircraft carriers.

These were needed to launch air strikes on Argentinian forces on the islands, to deploy helicopters to patrol for Argentinian submarines and land troops and supplies, and launch jets to intercept attack by the Argentinian land-based fighters certain to swarm the British task force.

The Royal Navy could muster only eight Sea Harrier jump jets and twelve Sea King helicopters on the carrier Invincible—which had been on the verge of being sold to Australia!—and another twelve Sea Harriers and twenty Sea Kings on the larger Hermes. 

As hostilities broke out late in April, the Harriers rapidly proved immensely valuable, shooting down twenty Argentine attack jets, but also sustained losses from ground fire and accidents.

However, on April 14 the Royal Navy had commandeered a fifteen-thousand-ton G2-class roll-on-roll-off container ship named Atlantic Conveyor that measured longer than two football field as a Ships-Taken-Up-From-Trade (STUFT). Just as early U.S. and British escort carriers during World War II were converted from civilian ships, the Conveyor was to be converted into impromptu aircraft carriers laden with helicopters and Harrier jump jets that didn’t require a long carrier deck.

The Conveyor received only limited modifications, as she was intended more for delivery rather than sustained flight operation. Just as World War II carriers were often employed to transport land-based fighters across oceans, the Conveyor’s main job was to ferry Royal Air Force ground-based Harriers for delivery to the Hermes and Invincible.

In any case, after undergoing nine days of conversion at Devonport, Atlantic Conveyor put out to sea on April 25 under her snowy-bearded Captain Ian North. From Ascension Island she took on eight Royal Navy Sea Harriers from 809 Squadron and six usually ground-based Royal Air Force Harrier GR.3s hastily modified to carry Sidewinder air-to-air missiles to serve in air defense roles.

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