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.
There are two key points relating to the TEZ and the sinking of the Belgrano;
- The ARA General Belgrano was outside the TEZ when she was attacked.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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