The ARA General Belgrano was a Brooklyn Class Cruiser, originally built for the US Navy as USS Phoenix. In that guise she served throughout the Second World War, before being sold to Argentina and renamed in 1955. In 1982 she had an armament of 15 6-inch guns, 5 5-inch anti-aircraft guns, as well as 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns. In 1968 she was retro-fitted with Sea Cat missile systems, which we obsolescent in 1982. As a WW2 vintage ship she had relatively thick armour compared to other Falklands-ear ships, her main belt of armour being 5.5 inches thick, and her deck armour 2 inches. The Belgrano did not actually take part in the operations to invade the Islands – Operation Rosario – but eventually put to see from Ushaia in southern Argentina on 26 April, accompanied by her two destroyer escorts, ARA Piedra Buena and ARA ARA Bouchard (both also ex-US Navy ships).
The British battle group had entered the north east of the exclusion zone around the islands on 1 May. The Task Force Commander, Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward, feared that the Belgrano and her escorts would form the southern part of a pincer attack by the Argentine fleet, with the northern pincer formed of the aircraft carrier Vienticino de Mayo. The de Mayo had actually been preparing to launch a Skyhawk strike on the British fleet on 2 May, when light winds made it impossible to launch aircraft. She was also escorted by two Type 42 Destroyers, Santissima Trinidad and Hercules. HMS Spartan had been assigned to track down the de Mayo, and although she never located the carrier, Woodward’s memoirs suggest that if she had, she would have been sunk.
There seems to have been a lot of controversy in recent years about the sinking of the Belgrano. It has been painted as a monstrous, heavy-handed or even illegal act by left-wingers, anti-war activits and Argentines alike. Nobody in Argentina – in particular men on the Belgrano – seems to have been aggrieved that the Conqueror attacked the Belgrano whilst she was outside the exclusion zone. Hovering around the edge of a war zone, with clearly hostile intent, is asking to be sunk. On 23 April a message was passed to the Argentine government via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires, to inform that although the British Government had announced a maritime exclusion zone, it would not limit its actions to within this zone if hostile threats occured outside of the zone. This is an important point to make. Essentially, any Argentine ship leaving port was liable to be attacked.
Sandy Woodward later said that “the speed and direction of an enemy ship can be irrelevant, because both can change quickly. What counts is his position, his capability and what I believe to be his intention”. The decision to torpedo the Belgrano was taken after much deliberation, though the military chain of command and at war cabinet level. It was not a decision that seems to have been taken lightly. Indeed, Conqueror seems to have been tracking the Belgrano for three days before she attacked – hardly ideal, militarily, as it placed the Conqueror at much risk, but it does show that due diligence was taken. We also need to recognise that the sinking of the Belgrano did represent a fine feat of arms by the Conqueror’s crew and her Captain Christopher Wreford-Brown. It certainly suggests that British submarine’s were very effective, not surprising given that they had spent years practising their craft in the North Atlantic shadow-boxing with the Soviet submarine fleet.
Interestingly, a book published in 2011 suggested that signals intelligence showed that the Belgrano was actually steaming towards a rendevouz inside the exclusion zone, which clearly would signal hostile intent. Accounts from survivors suggest that the ship was not in a high state of defence – neither the Belgrano nor her two destroyers were zig-zagging. Compare this lax state to some of the vigorous anti-submarine actions taken by the British task force during the war. It is absolutely tragic that over three hundred young men died when the Belgrano was sunk. But it is even more tragic that they were condemmed to their deaths by a Government and a Navy that sent young, poorly trained conscripts sea in an obsolete ship, with inadequate anti-submarine defences, lifejackets or liferafts.
What might have happened had the Belgrano not been sunk? Certainly, her 6-inch guns outranged and outgunned anything that the British fleet had. They were almost certainly outranged by surface missiles such as Exocet, but none the less the Belgrano and her task force, could, potentially, have caused some damage to the task force. In particular, if the de Mayo had managed to launch air strikes, and the Belgrano had appeared from the south, a double threat might have been a bit of a problem. Add into that mix the potential for Super Etendard Exocet strikes, then we can see that it was important for the British to remove whatever threats they could, however they could.
The sinking of the Belgrano not only removed the Argentine Navy‘s second most dangerous ship from the war, it also had a serious morale effect – not only did it provide a boost early in the war, but it also compelled the Argentine Navy – agitators in starting the war in the first place – to scurry back into port and not sail out again for the rest of the conflict. This superiority of the waves made the British Task Force’s job that little less difficult when it came to gaining a degree of air superiority, and then eventually landing on the Falklands.
- Argentina marks Belgrano sinking (bbc.co.uk)
- AUDIO: Why we sank the Belgrano (news.bbc.co.uk)
- ‘No regrets’ over sinking the Belgrano (scotsman.com)
- Falklands commander: sinking the Belgrano was right thing to do (telegraph.co.uk)
- AFA Questioned by FIFA Over ‘Belgrano’ Championship (nytimes.com)