Tuesday, 1 May 2012
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.
Sinking of ARA General Belgrano
Two separate British naval task forces (one of surface vessels and one of submarines) and the Argentine fleet were operating in the neighbourhood of the Falklands, and soon came into conflict. The first naval loss was the World War II-vintage Argentine light cruiser ARA General Belgrano. The nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror sank the Belgrano on 2 May. Three hundred and twenty-three members of Belgrano's crew died in the incident. Over 700 men were rescued from the open ocean despite cold seas and stormy weather. The losses from Belgrano totalled nearly half of the Argentine deaths in the Falklands conflict and the loss of the ARA General Belgrano hardened the stance of the Argentine government.
Regardless of controversies over the sinking, it had a crucial strategic effect: the elimination of the Argentine naval threat. After her loss, the entire Argentine fleet, with the exception of the conventional submarine ARA San Luis, returned to port and did not leave again for the duration of hostilities. The two escorting destroyers and the battle group centred on the aircraft carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo both withdrew from the area, ending the direct threat to the British fleet that their pincer movement had represented.
In a separate incident later that night, British forces engaged an Argentine patrol gunboat, the ARA Alferez Sobral. At the time, the Alferez Sobral was searching for the crew of the Argentine Air Force Canberra light bomber shot down on 1 May. Two Royal Navy Lynx helicopters fired four Sea Skua missiles at her. Badly damaged and with eight crew dead, the Sobral managed to return to Puerto Deseado two days later. The Canberra's crew were never found.
The ARA General Belgrano was an Argentine Navy cruiser. The ship was originally a Brooklyn-class cruiser of the US Navy and was laid down in 1935, and launched in 1938. The ship survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and was decommissioned from the US Navy in 1946.
In 1951, the ship was sold to Argentina for $7.8 million and renamed the ARA 17 de Octubre after a date that was important to President Juan Perón's political party. Perón was overthown in 1955, and in 1956, the ship was renamed ARA General Belgrano after a hero of the Argentine war of independence.
On April 26th, 1982, the General Belgrano, accompanied by two destroyers, left the port of Ushuaia in southern Argentina. On April 29th, the Argentine task group began patrolling South of the Falkland Islands. On the following day, the ship was detected by the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror which gradually closed over the next day.
According to some reports, the Belgrano and her task group, together with another task group to the North of the Falklands centered on the aircraft carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, was preparing a pincer attack on the British task force which the Argentines incorrectly believed was about to imminently launch an amphibious landing in the Falkland Islands as an immediate follow-up to the first Black Buck raid.
On May 2nd, HMS Conqueror fired three Mk 8 mod 4 torpedoes, two of which hit the Belgrano. Although the Conqueror also carried newer Mark 24 Tigerfish torpedoes, these were not used because of concerns about their reliability.
With his ship holed, with no electrical power, and unable to pump out water, the Belgrano soon began to list to port and sink towards the bow. Captain Hector Bonzo therefore ordered the crew to abandon ship. Tragically, the Belgrano's two escorts did not know that something had happened to the Belgrano and continued on a westward course. By the time that the escorts realized something had happened to the Belgrano, it was already dark, the weather had worsened, and the Belgrano's life rafts had been scattered. Consequently, even though Argentine and Chilean ships did rescue 770 men over the next two days, 321 members of the Belgrano's crew, as well as 2 civilians who were on board at the time, died.
In early editions on Tuesday May 4th, 1982, Britain's The Sun newspaper led with the infamous headline "GOTCHA", apparently mixing up the reports about the Alférez Sobral with other reports about the General Belgrano in both the subheadline ("Our lads sink gunboat and hole cruiser") and in the story text (which specifically, but incorrectly said that the Belgrano "was not sunk", but was merely "crippled", and also wrongly identified the torpedoes used as Mark 24 Tigerfish). When news began to emerge that the Belgrano had indeed been sunk, with a large number of casualties, later editions of the Sun led with the more sombre headline "Did 1,200 Argies drown?"
The sinking of the Belgrano became a cause célèbre for anti-war campaigners in Britain. This was for a variety of reasons, including because the ship was outside the 200 mile (320 kilometre) Total Exclusion Zone that the British had declared around the Falkland Islands, because the ship was on a westerly heading at the time it was attacked, and because a Peruvian peace proposal was still on the table at the time of the attack.
However, the sinking of the Belgrano was justified under international law, as the heading of a belligerent naval vessel has no bearing on its status. Furthermore, the Hector Bonzo, the captain of the Belgrano, has himself testified that the attack was legitimate for this reason. The fact that the ship was outside the British declared Total Exclusion Zone does not affect this analysis, especially since the British had informed Argentina on April 23rd, that Argentine ships and aircraft outside the Exclusion Zone could be attacked if they posed a threat to the British task force, and senior figures in the Argentine Navy have made clear that they understood this message; for example, Argentine Rear-Admiral Allara who commanded the Belgrano's task group 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.". Finally, in 1994, the Argentine government conceded that the sinking of the Belgrano was a "legal act of war."
In any event, the sinking of the General Belgrano had a significant (arguably decisive given the narrow margin of British victory) effect on the outcome of the war. The Argentine Navy realized it had no defence to British hunter-killer nuclear submarines, and consequently withdrew to port, playing no further role in the fighting.
(Click to Enlarge)
1. 'Black Buck 1' - Vulcan raid on Stanley (1st)
2. Argentine aircraft losses at Goose Green - [a2,a3,a4] Pucara (1st)
3. FR Brilliant, Yarmouth with ASW Sea Kings hunt for San Luis (1st)
4. DD Glamorgan, FR Alacrity, Arrow carry out shore bombardment. All slightly damaged by air attack (1st)
5. Argentine aircraft losses off North Falklands (1st) - [a5,a6] Mirage, [a7] Dagger, [a8] Canberra
6. Super Etendards abort Exocet mission (2nd)
7. Argentine Task Group 79 to North of Falklands: TG's 79.1 & 2 - CV 25 de Mayo and escorts. Prepared to launch Skyhawk attack Sunday morning. Aircraft loss - [a9] Lynx (2nd); TG 79.4 - 3 frigates
8. Argentine Task Group 79 South of Falklands: TG 79.3 - Cruiser Belgrano, DD Hipolito Bouchard, Piedra Bueno
9. SSN Conqueror from South Georgia
10. Sinking of GENERAL BELGRANO (2nd), aircraft loss - [a10] Alouette
As Admiral Woodward's Carrier Battle Group entered the TEZ on Saturday 1st May, a lone Vulcan bomber piloted by Flt Lt Withers (below) approached the Falklands for "Black Buck 1". Leaving Ascension late on Friday with a second Vulcan and eleven Victor tankers, some of which refuelled each other, the first air-raid on Stanley was about to be made. Intended to deny the airfield to fast jets, 21x1,000lb bombs were dropped from 10,000 feet early that morning. Only one hit the runway, but the attack signalled the RAF's ability to strike in the South Atlantic and against mainland targets. The Vulcan returned safely from its nearly 16 hour, 8,000 mile round trip, and one of the Victor captains - Sqdn Ldr Tuxford, was decorated for his part in the operation. ("Black Buck 2" on Tuesday morning was made from 16,000 feet but failed to hit the runway).
As the first "Black Buck" raid took place on the 1st, the carriers with just twenty Sea Harriers between them prepared to go into action. Keeping to the east of the Falklands to reduce the chance of air attack and screened by their anti-submarine Sea King's (picture below), "Invincible" flew off Sea Harriers for combat air patrols as "Hermes" aircraft followed up the Vulcan raid with ground strikes. Soon after 8.00 am, nine of them hit Stanley airfield, destroying installations and stores and damaging a civilian Islander aircraft with CBU's. The other three went in at Goose Green, wrecking one Pucara [a2] and badly damaging two more [a3,a4].
All this time, type 22 "Brilliant" and Rothesay class "Yarmouth" with three ASW Sea Kings from "Hermes" searched all day for the suspected Argentine submarine "San Luis", but failed to find her. Also detached were "Glamorgan", and type 21's "Alacrity" and "Arrow" for the first of many bombardments of the Stanley area. "Alacrity's" Lynx took off that afternoon to provide naval gunfire spotting, but stumbled on Argentine patrol craft "Islas Malvinas" sheltering near Kidney Island just to the north of Stanley. Going into attack with GPMG, she damaged the vessel, but was hit by the return fire, and "Arrow's" Lynx later took over the spotting duties. Just before 5.00 pm, as the warships continued their bombardment, they were attacked without warning by three Grupo 6 Daggers, and all received minor damage from cannon fire or near misses.
The Grupo 6 attack was part of Argentina's response that Saturday the 1st to what was believed to be a full scale landing. Sorties were launched from the mainland by Skyhawks, Canberras and Daggers, and with some Mirage flying cover, and also by Falklands-based aircraft. Around the time of this strike, four Argentine FAA aircraft were lost towards the north of the Falklands to Sea Harriers and their Sidewinders. "Glamorgan" vectored two No.801 aircraft to two Grupo 8 Mirage, one of which exploded over Pebble Island in the first air-to-air kill of the war, and the other, damaged by a missile and approaching Stanley was shot down by Argentine AA [a5,a6]. Next, two Sea Harriers of No.800 NAS claimed the Squadron's first victim in combat by downing one of two Grupo 6 Daggers flying escort [a7]. Then further to the north, two more No.801 Harriers accounted for one of three Grupo 2 Canberras looking for British ships [a8]. Next day, two CANA Super Etendards flew from the mainland for an Exocet attack on the Task Force, but turned back with refuelling problems.
Earlier in the week before the British arrival, ships of the Argentine Navy sailed from the north and south of the Falklands as Task Force 79. By early Sunday morning (the 2nd), carrier "25 de Mayo" to the north was preparing to launch a Skyhawk attack which was aborted because of light winds, and that same day both escorting type 42's were involved in separate incidents. "Hercules" readied but fails to fire a Sea Dart against an approaching No.801 Sea Harrier, and "Santisima Trinidad" lost her Lynx in a flying accident [a9]. By then, submarine "San Luis" may have carried out the first of a number of unsuccessful attacks before she returned to port around the end of the month. To the south, Sunday also saw one of the most controversial incidents of the war - the loss of cruiser "General Belgrano" and over 300 men.
Not used during "Operation Rosario", the "General Belgrano" put to sea from Ushuaia on Monday 26th April escorted by two Exocet-armed destroyers, and three days later was ordered to patrol south of the shallow Burdwood Bank. On Friday, nuclear submarine "Conqueror" made first contact at long range, and on Saturday closed in to shadow. Although just outside the TEZ, "GENERAL BELGRANO", as the southern arm of TF.79 was a potential threat to the carriers and her destruction was ordered. Attacked and hit at 4.00 pm on Sunday 2nd May by two conventional Mark 8 torpedoes she was soon abandoned, and went down with heavy casualties and her helicopter [a10]. A third torpedo hit "Hipolito Bouchard" without exploding but possibly caused some damage, and "Conqueror" was therefore presumably counter-attacked by "Piedra Bueno", which later returned with other Argentine ships to search for the cruiser's survivors. Shortly after the sinking, the main units of the Argentine Navy returned to port or stayed in coastal waters for the rest of the war.
Although British special forces may already have landed from the nuclear subs, the SBS and G Sqdn SAS now went ashore on the Falklands to check out landing sites and to target aircraft, troops and stores for naval bombardment and Harrier strikes. Some of the teams stayed in position, close to the Argentines and in bad weather for many days at a time. Areas of operation on East Falkland were believed to include Bluff Cove, Stanley, Berkeley Sound, Cow Bay, Port Salvador, San Carlos Water, Goose Green and Lafonia, and over on West Falkland, Pebble Island, Port Howard and Fox Bay. The first patrols started flying in Saturday night in "Hermes'" four remaining No.846 Sea King HC.4's, which equipped with PNG for night flying, played such an important role over the next six weeks.