The sinking of the ARA Belgrano and the defeat of the Argentine Navy

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

On 2nd May 1982 the Argentine Light Cruiser ARA General Belgrano was sunk by two torpedoes fired by the Royal Navy submarine SSN HMS Conqueror with the loss of 323 lives. Losses from General Belgrano totalled just over half of Argentine military deaths in the war. She is the only ship ever to have been sunk during military operations by a nuclear-powered submarine. Here’s what our nation’s friends at the BBC had to say about the event:

The Belgrano sinking was the most controversial event of the Falklands War. Many people, both inside and outside the British Parliament said it was an unnecessary use of force – the ship was outside the exclusion zone and apparently sailing away from the Falklands. The Argentinians retaliated by sinking HMS Sheffield killing 20 men.

Far be it from me to question the journalistic output of the nation’s broadcasting treasure, but I would have thought that the most controversial event of the Falklands War was the Argentine invasion in the first place. And I’m loathe to correct the accuracy of the BBC, but the Sheffield was gutted but not sunk by an Exocet that was fired at the British Carriers, a stated intent of the Argentine forces before the British Task Force set sail. But don’t let’s let journalistic integrity get in the way of the BBC’s denigration of our country, its Armed Forces and its Government.

The ARA General Belgrano

The ARA General Belgrano was built and launched as the USS Phoenix a Brooklyn-class light cruiser in 1935. She was in Pearl Harbour when the Japanese attacked in 1941, but survived unscathed. The ship earned nine battle stars for action in the Pacific and was decommissioned in July 1946. The Phoenix was sold to the Argentines in 1951 with another of the Brooklyn-class, the USS Boise. The Argentine navy scrapped the Boise in 1978, but the Phoenix, now General Belgrano received several refits. By 1982, the ship’s armaments consisted of:

15 × 6” main guns
8 × 5” DP AA
40 mm and 20 mm anti-aircraft guns
2 British Sea Cat missile AA systems (added 1968)

Following the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, on 2nd April the British Government declared a maritime exclusion zone (MEZ) of 200 nautical miles around the Falkland Islands. Any Argentine ship entering the MEZ would be attacked. This was caveated in a message passed to the Argentine Junta via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires, that any ship or aircraft that was considered a threat to British Forces, be they inside or outside the MEZ would be attacked. On 30th April this was escalated to a total exclusion zone (TEZ). Any ship or aircraft of any nationality would now be considered a threat.

“…without prejudice to the right of the United Kingdom to take whatever additional measures may be needed in exercise of its right of self-defence, under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.”

The Americans and Russians wisely withdrew their “intelligence gathering” submarines. Unfortunately, the rest of the world’s media missed this crucial declaration of British intent, choosing instead to concentrate on the recapture of South Georgia.

As the British Task Force set sail, the Argentines began to reinforce their forces on the Falkland Islands. Argentine Naval Units were ordered to stations around the Islands and two Task Groups, designated 79.1 and 79.2 took station at the North. These comprised the Carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo plus two Type 42 destroyers, and 79.2 which included three Exocet missile armed Drummond-class corvettes. ARA General Belgrano had left Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego on 26 April. Two destroyers, ARA Piedra Buena and ARA Bouchard (both also ex-USN vessels) were detached from Task Group 79.2 and together with the tanker, YPF Puerto Rosales joined General Belgrano to form Task Group 79.3.

By 29th April Task Group 79.3 was patrolling the Burdwood Bank south of the Falkland Islands. The SSN HMS Conqueror detected the General Belgrano on 30th April and the submarine took most of the following day to stealthily approach its contact. On 1st May 1982, Admiral Juan Lombardo ordered all Argentine naval units to seek out the British task force around the Falklands and launch a “massive attack.” Lombardo’s signal was intercepted by British Intelligence. As a result, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her War Cabinet, meeting at Chequers the following day, agreed to a request from Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, the Chief of the Defence Staff, to alter the rules of engagement and allow an attack on General Belgrano outside the exclusion zone. This was because the Admiral considered the threat posed by this Task Group to be unacceptable. The order to attack the ARA General Belgrano was issued.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

At 1557 Local the Conqueror fired three 21” unguided Mk 8 torpedoes, of which two hit the Argentine cruiser. One of the torpedoes struck 10 to 15 metres aft of the bow, outside the area protected by either the ship’s side armour or the internal anti-torpedo bulge. This blew off the ship’s bow, but the internal torpedo bulkheads held and the forward powder magazine for the 40 mm gun did not detonate. It is believed that none of the ship’s company were in that part of the ship at the time of the explosion. The second torpedo struck about three-quarters of the way along the ship, just outside the rear limit of the side armour plating. The torpedo punched through the side of the ship before exploding in the aft machine room. The explosion tore upward through two messes and a relaxation area called “the Soda Fountain” before finally ripping a 20-metre-long hole in the main deck. Later reports put the number of deaths in the area around the explosion at 275. After the explosion, the ship rapidly filled with smoke. The ship began to list to port and to sink towards the bow. Twenty minutes after the attack, at 1624, Captain Bonzo ordered the crew to abandon ship. Inflatable life rafts were deployed, and the evacuation began without panic.

The two escort ships were unaware of what was happening to General Belgrano, as they had not seen the distress rockets or lamp signals. The two ships continued on their course westward and began dropping depth charges. By the time the ships realised that something had happened to General Belgrano, it was already dark and the weather had worsened, scattering the life rafts. The Argentine and Chilean ships rescued 772 men in all from 3 to 5 May. In total, 323 were killed in the attack: 321 members of the crew and two civilians who were on board at the time.

Following the sinking, the Argentine Navy returned to port and played no further significant role in the conflict. From now on, the Argentine forces on the Falkland Islands would have to be supplied and reinforced entirely by air. The political repercussions continued to rumble like irritable bowel syndrome. The Labour MP (naturally) Tam Dalyell received leaked documents to the effect that the Belgrano had been steaming west away from the TEZ when sunk. And? So what? What is it, I often wonder that makes the liberal left think that dead British Service personnel are far more acceptable to their conscience than the dead of the enemy? Even the Argentine government has accepted that the sinking of the ship was a “legal act of war,” explaining that “acts of war can be carried out in all of the enemy’s territory” and “they can also take place in those areas over which no state can claim sovereignty, in international waters.” I extend my sympathies to all of the Argentine families who lost loved ones on the General Belgrano.
 

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