The Sinking of the General Belgrano (Argentine Cruiser)
Sinking of the General Belgrano (Argentine Cruiser)
Deployment of naval forces on 1–2 May 1982 in the South Atlantic
After the 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands, on 2 April 1982 Britain declared a Maritime Exclusion Zone of 200 nautical miles around the Falkland Islands within which any Argentine warship or naval auxiliary entering the MEZ might be attacked by British nuclear-powered submarines (SSN).
On 23 April, the British Government clarified in a message that was passed via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires to the Argentine government that any Argentine ship or aircraft that was considered to pose a threat to British forces would be attacked.
On 30 April this was upgraded to a Total Exclusion Zone within which any sea vessel or aircraft from any country entering the zone might be fired upon without further warning.The zone was stated to be “…without prejudice to the right of the United Kingdom to take whatever additional measures may be needed in exercise of its right of self-defence, under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.” The concept of a Total Exclusion Zone was a novelty in maritime law; the Law of the Sea Convention had no provision for such an instrument. The purpose of it seems to have been to reduce the amount of time needed to ascertain whether any vessel in the zone was hostile or not. The zone was widely respected by the shipping of neutral nations, possibly more out of prudence than respect for the United Kingdom’s legal position.
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, Argentine Naval units were ordered to take positions around the islands. Two Task Groups, designated 79.1 which included the aircraft carrier, ARA Veinticinco de Mayo plus two Type 42 destroyers, and 79.2 which included three Exocet missile armed Drummond-class corvettes,both sailed to the north. General Belgrano had left Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego on 26 April. Two destroyers, ARA Piedra Buena and ARA Bouchard (both also ex-USN vessels) were detached from Task Group 79.2 and together with the tanker, YPF Puerto Rosales joined General Belgrano to form Task Group 79.3.
By 29 April the ships were patrolling the Burdwood Bank, south of the islands. On 30 April General Belgrano was detected by the British nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine Conqueror. The submarine approached over the following day. On 1 May 1982, Admiral Juan Lombardo ordered all Argentine naval units to seek out the British task force around the Falklands and launch a “massive attack” the following day. General Belgrano, which was outside and to the south-west of the exclusion zone, was ordered south-east.
Lombardo’s signal was intercepted by British Intelligence. As a result, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her War Cabinet, meeting at Chequers the following day, agreed to a request from Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, the Chief of the Defence Staff, to alter the rules of engagement and allow an attack on General Belgrano outside the exclusion zone. Although the group was outside the British-declared Total Exclusion Zone of 370 km (200 nautical miles) radius from the islands, the British decided that it was a threat. After consultation at Cabinet level, Thatcher agreed that Commander Chris Wreford-Brown should attack General Belgrano.
At 15:57 (Falkland Islands Time)[N 1] on 2 May, Conqueror fired three 21 inch Mk 8 mod 4 torpedoes (conventional, non-guided, torpedoes), each with an 805-pound (363 kg) Torpex warhead. While Conqueror was also equipped with the newer Mark 24 Tigerfish homing torpedo, there were doubts about its reliability.Initial reports from Argentina claimed that Conqueror fired two Tigerfish torpedoes on General Belgrano. Two of the three torpedoes hit General Belgrano. According to the Argentine government, General Belgrano’s position was 55°24′S 61°32′WCoordinates: 55°24′S 61°32′W.
One of the torpedoes struck 10 to 15 metres (33 to 49 ft) aft of the bow, outside the area protected by either the ship’s side armour or the internal anti-torpedo bulge. This blew off the ship’s bow, but the internal torpedo bulkheads held and the forward powder magazine for the 40 mm gun did not detonate. It is believed that none of the ship’s company were 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” before finally ripping 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. After the explosion, the ship rapidly filled with smoke.The explosion also damaged General 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 second torpedo and could not be pumped out because of the electrical power failure. In addition, although the ship should have been “at action stations”, she was sailing with the water-tight doors open.
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 General 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 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 realised that something had happened to General Belgrano, it was already dark and the weather had worsened, scattering the life rafts.
Argentine and Chilean ships rescued 772 men in all from 3 to 5 May. In total, 323 were killed in the attack: 321 members of the crew and two civilians who were on board at the time.