Sinking the Belgrano – Justified Attack or War Crime?

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They say it took British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher just a few minutes to decide to sink the Argentine Navy cruiser ARA General Belgrano. Yet she would spend the next thirty years up to her death defending that decision. In May 1982 the Royal Navy was on the verge of its first major naval engagement since the Second World War as the British Taskforce sailed to recover the Falkland Islands from Argentina. Facing them was the Argentine Navy who were both professional servicemen and fighting in a conflict they passionately believed in bordering on the fanatical. One thing was certain; regardless of who would win the battle the losses on both sides would be horrendous. At 1557hrs Falklands time on May 2nd two torpedoes slammed in to the hull of the Belgrano having been fired by the British submarine HMS Conqueror. The explosion and subsequent sinking would claim the lives of 323 Argentinians and force the Argentine Navy to retreat from battle altogether.


The Source of the Controversy

Following the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina on April 2nd 1982 the British Government made it clear that military action was guaranteed unless the Argentine occupation forces withdrew back to the mainland. Their first goal was to stem the flow of supplies going to the forces on the islands and to do this they established a 200 mile Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ) around the Falklands. The British Government made it abundantly clear that any Argentine aircraft or vessel in this zone was a threat to the British Taskforce because with the zone in place there would be no reason for any other air or sea traffic to be operating there. This effectively defined the operational area where the bulk of the fighting would take place and also served as a way of keeping vessels from other countries out of the fighting thus avoiding accidentally firing on them.

TEZ Belgrano

There are two key points relating to the TEZ and the sinking of the Belgrano;

  1. The ARA General Belgrano was outside the TEZ when she was attacked.
  2. She was heading away from the TEZ when the attack happened.

Both these points have been used to claim that the sinking was a war crime. These two facts certainly make the sinking appear as illegal however those who are of this opinion ignore key facts surrounding the decision to fire on the ship.

Firstly, as was mentioned earlier the goal of the TEZ was actually to besiege the occupying forces and was not to give the Royal Navy a free hand to wage unrestricted war on the Argentine Navy. British forces were keen to avoid a fight if possible and it was believed the threat of attack alone inside the TEZ might keep the Argentinians away and put Britain in a better position at the negotiating table. This act ultimately failed and as the British Taskforce sailed ever closer it was becoming clear that at some point the Argentine and Royal navies would clash at sea. In preparation for this and as an extension of the previous policy the British passed a message to the Argentine Government via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aries that;

In announcing the establishment of a Maritime Exclusion Zone around the Falkland Islands, Her Majesty’s Government made it clear that this measure was without prejudice to the right of the United Kingdom to take whatever additional measures may be needed in the exercise of its right of self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. In this connection Her Majesty’s Government now wishes to make clear that any approach on the part of Argentine warships, including submarines, naval auxiliaries or military aircraft, which could amount to a threat to interfere with the mission of British Forces in the South Atlantic will encounter the appropriate response. All Argentine aircraft, including civil aircraft engaged in surveillance of these British forces, will be regarded as hostile and are liable to be dealt with accordingly.

This effectively gave the British free reign to take whatever action they felt necessary to protect the British Taskforce regardless of the threat’s location. The Argentinians therefore knew full well on May 2nd that Argentine forces could be attacked outside of the TEZ without warning and while the political leadership in Argentina continues to argue that the ship was not in the combat area when attacked the Argentine Navy itself has always said they considered the attack justified; surely a sign of mutual respect amongst opposing naval officers.

However one factor flies in the face of even this declaration. The Royal Navy has never denied that the Belgrano was sailing away from the TEZ when it was attacked. Had the Belgrano been sailing towards the TEZ or directly towards the Takforce then there would be no doubt that she was intending to commit herself to combat operations. It was this doubt over Belgrano’s intentions that would haunt Margaret Thatcher and her decision for the rest of her life as it appeared she was going against her own policy for prosecuting the war.


May 2nd 1982 – The Bigger Picture

Thatcher has repeatedly protested that her decision to sink the Belgrano was to remove a threat to the British fleet. The counter argument is the Belgrano wasn’t a threat because it was sailing away from the TEZ. In this limited view of the situation on May 2nd 1982 it certainly appears that the decision to sink the Belgrano was questionable in its justification. What this position ignores however is that the Falklands War was not limited to just one ship. Belgrano herself was actually the flotilla leader for an Argentine naval task group that included two Exocet missile-armed destroyers and a support ship.

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To the north of the TEZ was an even greater threat however in the form of the Venticinco De Mayo aircraft carrier and her escorts of two guided missile destroyers. Her aircraft had the capacity to inflict a heavy blow on the British fleet and it was actually this ship that the British feared far more than the Belgrano so much so that a great deal of effort was put in to finding her with HMS Conqueror’s sister submarine, HMS Splendid, marked to sink her if necessary. Unfortunately for the British the Argentine Navy displayed their excellent seamanship and set up a feint that hoodwinked the Splendid in to losing contact permanently. Had the Splendid found the carrier however then the decision would probably have been taken to sink it instead of Belgrano. This would almost certainly have resulted in a far higher death toll on the Argentine side and this could have soured world opinion over support for the British. Therefore from a purely political standpoint it was fortunate for the British that Belgrano was found first.

In the view of the British Admiralty, Venticinco De Mayo’s flotilla in the north and Belgrano’s flotilla in the south constituted a classic pincer attack with which to strike the British fleet; dividing the British defences so that the troop ships could be attacked by the Belgrano’s guns. If successfully executed this would have seen an appallingly high casualty rate amongst the British Army packed aboard the requisitioned cruise liners (see image below) and certainly end the war with an Argentine victory. It was a terrifying prospect for the British.

belgrano-ctusies

This is where losing sight of the carrier confused matters for the British. Had HMS Splendid been able to track the carrier then the British Admiralty would have seen that Belgrano was in a position to close more directly on to the British fleet’s position, which at that time was engaged in action against the occupation forces on the island, and would therefore encounter them before the carrier could get in to position. This is why Belgrano was turning south away from the TEZ. It was not retreating from battle as the current Argentine leader Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has tried claiming in order to vilify the Royal Navy but rather it was stalling in order for the carrier to get in to position before the two flotillas converged on the British for their attack.

The British Admiralty on the other hand believed that the Argentines were turning away suspecting they were being shadowed by a submarine as the Belgrano appeared to be heading for shallower water where Conqueror could not follow. This added an element of urgency in making the decision to attack as there was now the possibility that they could lose sight of Belgrano and any hope of taking her out before meeting the British fleet.

The war of words on just why Belgrano turned south raged for years after the war ended. It should have been laid to rest however when in 2003 the captain of the Belgrano, Hector Bonzo, said in an interview that his change of direction was only temporary before turning towards the British and that he had orders to attack any British ship he encountered. Interestingly his orders did not specify if the British ship needed to be in or out of the TEZ when he attacked.


Belgrano’s Lethality

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One often overlooked aspect of this story is just how lethal Belgrano would have been to the British Taskforce in a fight. Some have argued that the Belgrano was such an old vessel that she was no real threat to the modern Royal Navy and its missile armed warships. It is true Belgrano was an old ship; she was in fact the former USS Phoenix which was a Brooklyn-class cruiser of the United States Navy. She was laid down in 1935, launched in 1938 and was at Pearl Harbour when the Japanese attacked in 1941. Upon the completion of the war she was decommissioned and then sold to Argentina initially as the 17 De Octobre but then renamed General Belgrano following the fall of the Peron era.

As a World War II era vessel she was armed with guns which in this case were fifteen six inch guns supported by eight five inch guns. The six inch guns could hurl a 105lb high explosive shell out to a range of 23 miles with targeting information provided by a fire control radar for a high degree of accuracy. These shells could decimate one of the Royal Navy’s frigates many of which were compact designs meaning large quantities of fuel and weapons were stored close together and it would not take a very large explosion to ignite them as was the case when HMS Antelope was sunk by Argentine aircraft.

belgrano-abtelipe sinki

By comparison the Royal Navy’s main weapon was the MM.38 Exocet missile which equipped the Type-22 destroyer and upgraded Leander-class frigates. This weapon was also equipped aboard the destroyers operating with Belgrano and the Venticinco De Mayo thus increasing the two flotillas firepower. The surface launched version of this weapon such as that carried by both the Argentinians and the British had an operational range of around 26 miles. That is just three miles further than the range of the Belgrano’s guns; a distance that could be closed in a rather short period of time thus negating this advantage. This meant that while they were weapons of an earlier era they were still very viable and very deadly in 1982. Questions have also been raised over whether or not an Exocet fired from a British ship would be able to penetrate the armour belt of Belgrano at all which was designed to defend against a volley of enemy gunfire. Even if the missile could get through the size of the ship meant that several hits would be needed to sink it or at least take the Belgrano out of the fight.


Conclusion  

The trouble with writing an article on such an emotive topic like this is that as a British citizen I am going to be open to accusations of bias when I argue that the sinking of the Belgrano was a necessity of war. The truth is that she was a very real threat to the British Taskforce that was on its way to attack the British fleet as part of a pincer movement. The best way to nullify an enemy pincer movement is to cut off one of the pincers before the enemy can converge and that’s exactly what happened. I am no Thatcher-ist in any way I assure you but on this subject she was right to act in defence of the British forces she had committed to the campaign. She would later famously say;

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.

The problem now is that the story has become such a propaganda tool for successive Argentine Governments to distract their people from the economical problems the country has suffered that even with Captain Bonzo’s confession there is still a myth of ‘piracy’ surrounding the sinking. The Argentine Navy has never rescinded its opinion that the sinking of their ship was justified which again shows the real debate is politically motivated.

As cold as it may seem to say it but the sinking of the Belgrano probably saved more lives than it cost. Had the Argentine and British fleets met in a naval engagement both sides would have suffered losses and it is likely more than one Argentine ship would be sunk. If both the Belgrano and the Venticinco De Mayo were damaged or sunk in a battle, regardless of the damage they could have inflicted on the British, then the death toll would be in the thousands.


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31 responses to “Sinking the Belgrano – Justified Attack or War Crime?

  1. This one will go on for ever. It goes much deeper than just a ‘war’ the politics see to that. It always make me cringe when phrases like ‘illegal in war’ are used as if war is justifiable and legal to do. It’s almost a way to say we are allowed to go and invade your country and kill your citizens. You have carried the debate very well and I’m sure if you have readers from Argentina, or her allies, you may well get an interesting response.

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. I think there will always be those who object to almost any act of war. There’s obviously a strong emotional issue involved with any such loss of life.
    But bottom line to me is, I can’t imagine a much more legitimate target than an enemy warship during a time of war. And as you point out, the Belgrano’s apparent obsolescence is deceptive. It was an armored warship in an unarmored age, which made it an asymmetrical threat worthy of special attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your response Dave. As always it is appreciated. When I was researching this there seemed to be very little mention of how capable Belgrano would have been so that became my focus and the results were surprising.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ask any soldier,navy and airforce, She made the right move..you don’t go to war with another country and try to save live of the attacking force..so please if you’ve not been to war been shot at,blown up, and shit coming at you from all directions you would then thank the decision she made. If that ship had got in close a lot of British lives would have been lost and this post would be reading..Why did she let it get so close that it destroyed so many ships and cost so many British lives..

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  6. A excellent piece. I remember as a teenager arguing with my friend about the sinking of the GB and the front page of the Sun. I’m glad history has proved the decision to be right. I didn’t have much time for the PM but she was right about the Falklands. I wish todays PM would make the offer to the Falkland people to make them full part of the UK as this would end once and for all the Argentinean claims, which are nothing more than a deflection from their internal economic problems.

    M

    Liked by 1 person

    • Precisely. If you enjoyed this then you may also like another article on DotR about a group of Argentinians who hijacked an airliner and tried to use it to “liberate” the islands. You can find it in the Worldwide section

      Thanks for reading and commenting

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  7. But again if you proclaim that there is this “200 mile Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ) around the Falklands” and if you don’t follow your own rules doest it make it criminal? Whats the point of having this explosion zone? I doubt killing 323 Argentinians onboard an obsolete warship outside the “200 mile Total Exclusion Zone” is morally acceptable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The point however was that the British did declare that they would take appropriate action to protect their fleet. Also the Argentinian navy admitted they would do the same.

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    • You are thinking of the zone incorrectly. The zone was “we will attack you if you go here” and “vessals of other nations don’t enter”. Not “we will only attack you in here”. That becomes quite clear when combined with the message sent via the Swiss.

      Is it moral to invade places without warning? We can’t forget that without said invasion there would have been no sinking. The responsibility for all the deaths in the war rest with the Junta.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. The TEZ was intended for the protection of neutrals or freindlies and not for the protection of the Argentinan War Fleet. The Argentinans were fully aware that their ships and aircraft could/would be intercepted anywhere. If there is a decision to be regretted it was not sinking the Venticino De Mayo when the opportunity was there. The aircraft that it carried would have all been lost and therefore not available to attck the British Fleet. I do not know how many British lives this ommision cost but, in all probability, too many.

    It is also worth noting that the SSN Conqueror could have taken the two Argentinian destroyers also. In WW2 the Germans certainly would have. The fact that the destroyers were left to pick up survivors speaks volumes.

    I take no pleasure in the lives lost and wish more could have got off and survived to be rescued, however, the decision to sink the Belgrano was absolutely correct.

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  9. Excellent article. Now i aint so sure that the sinking of the GB was a war crime. Frankly speaking, i donno what to say, although im gonna always have more tendency to think it was.
    Bytheway, did the argentinian govt. send an official declaration of war to the UK? And vice versa.

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  12. Excellent article. I have never, and will never understand the claims that sinking an enemy war ship is a war crime, sinking a passenger liner full of civilians is a war crime. The belief that an “exclusion” zone is a “limit of war” zone is false and naïve, there existed ( as far an I am aware ?) no agreement with the Argentines to restrict warfare to the Falkland Islands. This was not a limited or restricted campaign and even if it had been sunk just off the coast of Hawaii it would still have been a legitimate military action against a hostile vessel of a country we were technically at war with.

    The claim that it was “old” and “outdated” you have answered beautifully, her guns where lethal, and if the Argentines believed her to be outdated they should not have deployed her. She was however outclassed by a modern nuclear submarine. The irony being she was a Second World War era ship, sunk by a mark 8 torpedo, designed in 1925 and used in the Second World War.

    Loss of life is inevitable in any conflict, but simply put, if you invade another country and start a war, don’t expect the other side to be nice about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The Falkland’s war was instigated by Argentina and as I see it the British had the right to attack any weaponry in the hands of the Argentinians, be they at sea or on Argentinian soil, which had the potential to be brought to bear against British forces no matter their location in relation to the Falklands. To suggest the British should not have attacked a vessel outside the 200 nautical mile exclusion zone, a ship capable of firing at British vessels 20 miles or more within the exclusion zone, is asinine. During an interview in 2003 the Captain of the Belgrano stated that the General Belgrano was only temporarily sailing to the west at the time of the attack, and his orders were to attack any British ships which came within range of the cruiser’s armament. Also, in his book published in 1993, “1093 Tripulantes del Crucero ARA General Belgrano” he stated it is, “improper to accept that the attack by HMS Conqueror was a betrayal”. The Argentine rewspaper La Nación published a reader’s letter from Admiral Enrique Molina Pico (head of the Argentine Navy in the 1990s) in 2005 in which Pico wrote that General Belgrano was part of an operation that posed a real threat to the British task force, but was holding off for tactical reasons. Pico added that “To leave the exclusion zone was not to leave the combat zone to enter a protected area”. Pico explicitly stated that the sinking was not a war crime, but a combat action. In 2012 the President of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, referred to the sinking of General Belgrano as a “war crime”. However, the Argentine Navy has historically held the view that the sinking was a legitimate act of war, a position that was asserted by the Argentine Navy before various courts in 1995. What with coups d’etat and a string of lousy and self serving politicians, Argentinian folk have seen their country wallow in corruption and mismanagement for a good many years, though once the jewel of South America. Their politicians like to drag up the Falklands issue from time to time to divert attention from their failings.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. The Belgrano was an ancient ship, albeit with some useful guns, which was soaking up Argentine resources in terms of crew, fuel, and escort. ……………….. By sinking both Exocet-armed destroyers, ARA Hipolito Bouchard (D26), and ARA Piedrabuena ( D29 ), it would have removed their Exocet threat, plus left Belgrano afloat to continue to consume resources, but an unviable naval asset without proper escorts. ………………… My late father was a WW2 submarine officer ( HMS Torbay ), who gained a DSC, and commanded submarines after the war to 1956.

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  15. The Belgrano was in the position she was for only one reason, and it wasn’t fisheries protection. She was armed to do serious damage, and to take many lives. She could have and we must presume she would have had she been given the chance. No one can say for sure how effective she would have been. She may have been very effective, or very ineffective. It would have been a hell of a gamble to take to find out. Right decision unfortunately. If Argentina didn’t want to lose the warships they should not have been anywhere near a potential striking position. This was war, not a game of cricket. The rules are “stay away from us or suffer the consequences”, because people are going to die on one side or the other.

    Liked by 1 person

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