The General Belgrano, an Argentine cruiser, was sunk during the Falklands War on May 2nd 1982. The Belgrano was sunk by the hunter-killer submarine HMS Conqueror with considerable loss of life.
The Belgrano was launched in 1938 as an American light cruiser – then named the USS Phoenix. The Phoenix was based at Pearl Harbour when the naval base was attacked by the Japanese in December 1941, thus bringing America into World War Two. The Phoenix was decommissioned in 1946 and sold to the Argentine Navy in 1951. In 1956, the ship was re-christened ‘General Belgrano’ after General Manuel Belgrano, a leading military figure in Argentina’s fight for independence.
On April 29th, 1982, the Belgrano and two destroyers were patrolling to the south of the Falkland Islands. All three ships were detected by HMS Conqueror and on April 30th, the Conqueror started her approach to them. The Belgrano was outside of the Total Exclusion Zone established by the British government around the Falkland Islands. However, at 12,000 tons fully loaded and with a decent array of weapons (including British Sea Cat missiles), the Belgrano was considered to be a threat to the Task Force even if she was outside of the Exclusion Zone. The commander of Conqueror, Chris Wreford-Brown was given the go-ahead to attack.
On May 2nd, the Conqueror fired three conventional torpedoes at the Belgrano. The first one hit the bow but internal bulkheads held and the damage done at this end of the Belgrano, though substantial, was not critical and there were no deaths or injuries from this torpedo.
The second torpedo hit the Belgrano towards the stern. Here, the explosion from the hit resulted in massive damage and caused an estimated 275 deaths from this single torpedo. The explosion caused a 20-metre gash in the Belgrano’s deck and so damaged the ship’s electrical system that the captain did not have sufficient power to put out a distress call to the nearby destroyers. The lack of power also meant that the ship’s pumps could not work and the hull quickly filled with water and smoke.
Twenty minutes after the first torpedo hit the Belgrano, Captain Hector Bonzo ordered the evacuation of the cruiser. Bad weather caused the scattering of lifeboats. Many of the crew were picked up and over the next two days 770 men were rescued. In total, 323 men were killed – by far the largest number in any single event during the Falklands War.
Questions were asked about the legitimacy of the attack especially as the Belgrano was outside of the Exclusion Zone. The British government maintained that the Belgrano still represented a threat to the Task Force and in this they were, to an extent, supported by the Belgrano’s captain. Hector Bonzo later made the point that though the Belgrano was sailing away from the Exclusion Zone, it was not sailing to its port in Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, It was simply moving to another unspecified position to await further orders – that could have included attacking the Task Force. The naval commander of the Task Force, Admiral Sandy Woodward, made the point that the Belgrano and its escorts were more than capable of turning about at speed and thus returning to a course towards the Task Force.
Also on April 23rd, the Argentine government was handed a message from the British government (via the Swiss Embassy) that it held the right to take whatever action was required to defend itself if any Argentine “warship, including submarines, naval auxiliaries or military aircraft” seemed to threaten the naval Task Force. Clearly as the Belgrano was considered to be a threat, it was attacked and sunk. After the war, Argentinean Rear- Admiral Allara admitted that the whole of the South Atlantic became an operational theatre during the conflict and that the Belgrano was a casualty of war.
The sinking of the ‘General Belgrano’ sent a salient message to the military junta that ruled Argentina. The Argentinean Navy after the sinking was effectively confined to port, especially their aircraft carrier, ‘Veinticinco de Mayo’. That meant their only means of attacking the Task Force was via its air force which, though it had its successes during the war, had to face an array of weaponry both at sea, and after the landings at San Carlos Bay, on land.