There was tension in the air when the Atlantic Conveyor quietly slipped its moorings at Liverpool docks this week in 1982.
Long-serving Captain Ian North, with his trademark bushy white beard, was at the helm as the Cunard container ship slowly navigated the River Mersey to reach open sea.
This was to be no ordinary voyage. The Atlantic Conveyor, along with its sister ship Atlantic Causeway, had been requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence.
Its destination was the war-torn Falkland Islands, deep in the South Atlantic. Its cargo was vitally needed helicopters and Harrier jets.
On board were six Wessex helicopters from 848 Naval Air Squadron and five RAF Chinooks from No. 18 Squadron.
At Ascension Island, south of the equator, the Atlantic Conveyor took on eight Fleet Air Arm Sea Harriers from 809 Squadron and six RAF Harrier GR3 jump jets.
The helicopters would be used to transport troops in the battle to retake the Falklands after their occupation by Argentina.
Little wonder the Liverpool-registered ship became a prime target for the Argentinian air force.
Military conflict was never envisaged for the 14,950 ton roll-on, roll-off container ship when it was launched by Cunard in August 1969.
The Atlantic Conveyor had no defence system – and none was fitted before it set sail on its perilous mission.
In spite of this, all the Harriers were safely off-loaded to the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible when the Atlantic Conveyor reached the Falklands in May.
But then, on May 25th, came two deadly bolts from the blue. Exocet missiles fired by Super Etendard jets from the Argentinian navy struck the port quarter of the ship.
Prince Andrew, who flew helicopters in the thick of battle in the Falklands, said he saw debris fall into the water nearly a quarter of a mile away.
The missiles caused an uncontrollable fire, fed by the fuel and ammunition stored in the ship’s hold. Only one helicopter was salvaged.
This meant British troops were forced to march on foot to recapture the islands’ capital Stanley. The Marines called it ‘yomping’ – a term that became well known from all the press reports of the conflict.
The Atlantic Conveyor sunk in the early hours of May 28th while it was being towed by the tug Irishman. Twelve members of the Atlantic Conveyor’s 33 crew, including Captain North, died in the attack.
Survivors were rescued by the Sea King helicopter from 820 Naval Air Squadron piloted by Prince Andrew.
He described the incident as ‘horrific’ – an experience he would never forget.
The Argentinian commander of the Super Etendard squadron paid a moving tribute to Captain North.
He said: ‘Captain North was a real sea-dog with his snowy beard. He was a great and brave man.’
His country thought so too. Captain North was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his outstanding devotion to duty.
In June, survivors from the Atlantic Conveyor were welcomed home by thankful members of their families.
Those who did not return were mourned at a service of remembrance attended by seamen and Merseysiders alike at Liverpool’s Pierhead.
The wreck of the Atlantic Conveyor, the last resting place for many of its crew, was preserved under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.
And the officers’ bar on the new Atlantic Conveyor, launched in 1984, was named ‘The North Bar’ in memory of its illustrious former captain.
Somehow, the old sea-dog would have approved of that.