The ARA General Belgrano was an Argentine Navy cruiser sunk in a controversial incident during the Falklands War with the loss of 323 lives. Losses from the Belgrano totalled just over half of Argentine deaths in the Falklands conflict.
It 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 the end of World War II. The Royal Navy submarine used three Mk 8 mod 4 torpedoes.
This was the second warship to bear the name General Belgrano. The name had earlier been used for a 7,069-ton armoured cruiser completed in 1899.
By April 29, the ships were patrolling the Burdwood Bank, south of the islands. On the 30th, 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 lb (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 after machine room. The explosion tore upward through two messes and a relaxation area called "the Soda Fountain" and finally ripped a twenty 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 MoD 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, in any case, highly unlikely that a situation report (sitrep) 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.
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.
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.
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