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The ARA General Belgrano was an Argentine Navy cruiser sunk during the Falklands War ( ) by the Royal Navy submarine HMS Conqueror with the loss of 323 lives. Losses from the Belgrano totalled just over half of Argentine deaths in the Falklands conflict.

Formerly the , she saw action in World War II before being sold to Argentina in 1951.

She is the only ship ever to have been sunk by a nuclear-powered submarine and only the second sunk by any type of submarine since World War II.

This was the second warship to bear the name General Belgrano, named after Manuel Belgrano. The name had earlier been used for a 7,069-ton armoured cruiser completed in 1899.

Early career

The warship was built as , the sixth of the s, in New Jersey by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation starting in 1935, and launched in March 1938. She survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and was decommissioned from the US Navy (USN) after World War II in July 1946. Phoenix earned nine battle stars for World War II service. The former USS Phoenix was sold, with another of her class ( renamed ARA Nueve de Julio (C-5)), to Argentina in October 1951, for $7.8 million. (Nueve de Julio was scrapped in 1978). She was renamed Diecisiete de Octubre after the so-called People's Loyalty day, an important milestone for the political party of the then president Juan Perón. Ironically, she was one of the main units which joined the coup in which Perón was subsequently overthrown in 1955, and the ship was renamed General Belgrano (C-4) after General Manuel Belgrano, who had fought for Argentine independence from 1811 to 1819. Several years before becoming General, as a colonial officer, he founded the Escuela de Náutica (School of Navigation) in 1799. She accidentally rammed her sister Nueve de Julio on exercises in 1956, which resulted in slight damage to both cruisers. The Belgrano was outfitted with Sea Cat missiles between 1967 and 1968.

Sinking of ARA Belgrano

After the 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands, the Argentine military junta began to reinforce the islands in late April when it was realised that the British Task Force was heading south. As part of these movements, the Argentine Navy fleet was ordered to take positions around the islands. The General Belgrano had left Ushuaiamarker in Tierra del Fuegomarker on April 26, 1982, with two destroyers, the ARA Piedra Buena and the Bouchard (both also ex-USN vessels), as Task Group 79.3.

By April 29, the ships were patrolling the Burdwood Bank, south of the islands. On April 30, the Belgrano was detected by the British nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine HMS Conqueror. The submarine approached over the following day. Although outside the British-declared Total Exclusion Zone of 370 km (200 nautical miles) radius from the islands, the British decided that the group was a threat. After consultation at Cabinet level, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, agreed that Commander Chris Wreford-Brown should attack the Belgrano.

According to the Argentine government, Belgrano's position was .

At 15:57 on May 2, Conqueror fired three conventional Mk 8 mod 4 torpedoes, each with an 800-pound (363 kg) Torpex warhead, two of which hit the General Belgrano. The Conqueror was also equipped with the newer Mark 24 Tigerfish homing torpedo, but there were doubts about its reliability. The Mk 8 dated back to 1925 and was not a homing design.

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. The effect of this was to blow off the bow of the ship, but the internal bulkheads held, and the forward powder magazine for the 40-mm gun did not detonate. There was no one 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" and finally ripped a 20-metre-long hole in the main deck. Later reports put the number of deaths in the area around the explosion at 275 men. There was no fire after the explosion, but the ship rapidly filled with smoke. The explosion also damaged the Belgrano's electrical power system, preventing her from putting out a radio distress call.

The Belgrano sinking after being struck by torpedoes fired by HMS Conqueror
Though the forward bulkheads held, water was rushing in through the hole created by the torpedo and could not be pumped out because of the electrical power failure. The ship began to list to port and to sink towards the bow. Twenty minutes after the attack, at 16:24, 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 the Belgrano, as they were out of touch with her in the gloom and had not seen the distress rockets or lamp signals. Adding to the confusion, the crew of the ARA Bouchard felt an impact that was possibly the third torpedo striking at the end of its run (an examination of the ship later showed an impact mark consistent with a torpedo). The two ships continued on their course westward and began dropping depth charges. By the time the ships realized that something had happened to the Belgrano, it was already dark and the weather had worsened, scattering the life rafts.

Argentine and Chilean ships rescued 770 men in all from May 3 to May 5. In total 323 were killed in the attack: 321 members of the crew and two civilians who were on board at the time.

Controversy over the sinking

There was some controversy surrounding the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano. The sinking also became a cause célèbre for anti-war campaigners (such as Labour MP Tam Dalyell). Part of the reason for the controversy was that early reports claimed or suggested that approximately 1,000 Argentine sailors had been killed in the sinking.

In later years, some sources asserted that the information on the position of the ARA General Belgrano came from a Soviet spy satellite which was tapped by the Norwegian intelligence service station at Fauske, Norway and then handed over to the British. However, Conqueror had been shadowing the Belgrano for some days, so this extra information would have been unnecessary.

The sinking occurred 14 hours after President of Peru Fernando Belaúnde proposed a comprehensive peace plan and called for regional unity, although Thatcher and diplomats in London did not see this document until after the sinking of the Belgrano. Diplomatic efforts to that point had failed completely. After the sinking Argentina rejected the plan but the UK indicated its acceptance on 5 May. The news was subsequently dominated by military action and it is not well known that the British continued to offer ceasefire terms until 1 June.

Legal situation

The Belgrano was sunk outside the total exclusion zone around the Falklands. However, exclusion zones are historically declared for the benefit of neutral vessels; during war, under international law, the heading and location of a belligerent naval vessel has no bearing on its status. In addition, the captain of the Belgrano, Hector Bonzo, has testified that the attack was legitimate (as did the Argentine government in 1994).



The ship was outside the 200-mile (370 km) exclusion zone

Though the ship was outside of the 200-mile (370 km) exclusion zone, both sides understood that this was no longer the limit of British action—on 23 April a message was passed via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires to the Argentine government, it read:

Interviews conducted by Martin Middlebrook for his book, The Fight For The Malvinas, indicated that Argentine Naval officers understood the intent of the message was to indicate that any ships operating near the exclusion zone could be attacked. Argentine Rear-Admiral Allara who was in charge of the task force that the Belgrano was part of said, "After that message of 23 April, the entire South Atlantic was an operational theatre for both sides. We, as professionals, said it was just too bad that we lost the Belgrano".

The rules of engagement were changed specifically to permit the engagement of the Belgrano outside the exclusion zone before the sinking.

Key decisions

According to the British historian Sir Lawrence Freedman, in a new book written in 2005, neither Margaret Thatcher nor the Cabinet was aware of the Belgrano's change of course before the cruiser was attacked, as information from HMS Conqueror was not passed on to the Ministry of Defence or Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward (commander of the RN task force). In his book, One Hundred Days, Admiral Woodward makes it clear that he regarded the Belgrano as part of the southern part of a pincer movement aimed at the task force, and had to be sunk quickly. He wrote:

It is highly unlikely that a situation report briefing to senior politicians would have included tactical information such as current headings or speeds of enemy units. As Woodward says, strategic decisions are taken on position and capability. The intention of the Belgrano unit in approaching from the south was, indeed, as the Argentine Navy said afterwards, to apply a pincer movement, so a defensive move was very appropriate.

Later political controversy

Some details of the action were later leaked to a British Member of Parliament, Tam Dalyell, by the senior civil servant Clive Ponting, resulting in the unsuccessful prosecution of the latter under the Official Secrets Act.

In May 1983, Margaret Thatcher appeared on Nationwide, a live television show on BBC One, where Diana Gould questioned her about the sinking, claiming that the ship was already west of the Falklands and heading towards the Argentinian mainland to the west. Gould also claimed that the Peruvian peace proposal must have reached London in the 14 hours between its publication and the sinking of the Belgrano, and the escalation of the war could have thus been prevented. In the following, emotional exchange, Thatcher answered that the vessel was a threat to British ships and lives and denied that the peace proposal had reached her. After the show, Thatcher's husband Denis lashed out at the producer of the show in the entertainment suite, saying that his wife had been "stitched up by bloody BBC poofs and Trots." Thatcher herself commented during the interview "I think it could only be in Britain that a prime minister was accused of sinking an enemy ship that was a danger to our navy, when my main motive was to protect the boys in our navy".

In 1994 the Argentine government conceded that the sinking of the Belgrano was "a legal act of war".

Admiral Enrique Molina Pico, head of the Argentine Navy in the 1990s, wrote in a letter to La Nacion, published in the 2 May 2005 edition, that the Belgrano was part of an operation that posed a real threat to the British task force, that it was holding off for tactical reasons, and that being outside of the exclusion zone was unimportant as it was a warship on tactical mission.

"Gotcha"



The Sun s headline "Gotcha" is probably the most notable (and notorious) headline in a British newspaper about the incident. Editor Kelvin MacKenzie is reported to have used an impromptu exclamation by The Sun s Features Editor, Wendy Henry, as the inspiration for the headline. However, after early editions went to press further reports suggested a massive loss of life and Mackenzie toned down the headline in later editions to read "Did 1,200 Argies drown?". Despite its notoriety few readers in the UK saw the headline at first hand as it was only used on copies of the first northern editions; southern editions and later editions in the north carried the toned down headline.

Notes

Bibliography

  • (in Spanish)


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