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The Sinking of the General Belgrano

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The General Belgrano.

The General Belgrano.

More than 300 Argentinean sailors died when their ship was torpedoed during the Falklands War of 1982. Ever since, there have been accusations the attack was underhanded and broke the rules of engagement in warfare.

Belgrano: The Numbers

The ARA General Belgrano was an old vessel, having first seen service in 1938 as the USS Pheonix. She survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and went on to see action throughout the war in the Pacific.

In 1951, she was sold to Argentina and renamed the General Belgrano after Manuel Belgrano (1770–1820) who had been a military leader, economist, and politician.

She was a light cruiser of 12,242 tons fully loaded and had a crew complement of 1,138. The vessel was bristling with five- and six-inch guns and a couple of British-made surface-to-air missiles.

The Falklands War

The BBC describes the Falkland Islands as “Windswept and almost-treeless territory . . . made up of two main islands, East Falkland and West Falkland, as well as hundreds of smaller islands and islets.” The islands lie deep in the southern Atlantic about 300 miles (483 kilometres) east of Argentina.

Its 3,400 inhabitants are mostly of British descent, reflecting the United Kingdom’s settlement and administration of the colony, which is now self-governing. However, Argentina also claims sovereignty of the islands it calls the Malvinas.

In 1982, a military government under the leadership of General Leopoldo Galtieri had an unpopular and shaky grip on power in Argentina. So, Galtieri did what many leaders do when in trouble with their people―he created a distraction by ordering the invasion and occupation of the Malvinas (Falkland Islands).

8,000 miles (12,800 km) away, Britain’s conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher was also out of favour with the public. She ordered a task force to set sail and retake the Falkland Islands. However, the British government had spent several years trying to find a way of withdrawing from the South Atlantic; it had become too costly to support the faraway territory.

International relations expert Alexander Liffiton notes that “Both governments would have lost support and legitimacy if they had backed down.” Two unpopular leaders were asking their people to rally around the flag.

A map showing the Falkland Islands

A map showing the Falkland Islands

Total Exclusion Zone

The British task force arrived at the Falkland Islands at the end of April and established a total exclusion zone (TEZ). This meant that an area extending 200 nautical miles (230 miles, 370 km) from the centre of the Falklands was considered by the Royal Navy to be part of the war zone. Vessels and aircraft of all nations were warned that if they were detected inside the TEZ they could be fired upon without warning.

On April 2, 1982, the General Belgrano and two escorting destroyers were known to be outside the TEZ and travelling westward, away from the Falklands. The vessels were being shadowed by the British nuclear submarine the HMS Conqueror.

Back in London, the war cabinet under Prime Minister Thatcher was discussing what to do. The General Belgrano and her destroyer escorts were a significant threat to the British forces now landing on the Falklands and fighting their way towards the capital, Port Stanley. The order from Thatcher and her colleagues was clear and unambiguous: “Sink the Belgrano.”

Torpedoes Launched

In the late afternoon of May 2, 1982, Captain Chris Wreford-Brown, skipper of the HMS Conqueror gave the order for his crew to load three torpedoes into the firing tubes. Fifty minutes later, they were fired.

The first torpedo hit the Belgrano’s bow, essentially blowing it off. The second one hit farther aft, destroying the machine room and two mess areas where the crew was changing watches. The massive blast is reckoned to have killed 275 sailors and knocked out the ship’s electrical supply. There wasn’t enough power to send out an SOS.

The vessel rapidly took on water, and 20 minutes after the torpedoes struck, Captain Hector Bonzo ordered his crew to abandon ship. As night fell, the sailors launched life rafts into seas with 18-foot swells and winds of 75 mph. The air temperature was well below freezing. Over the following two days, about 750 men were pulled from the sea, but for some, rescue came too late; they had died of exposure.

Life rafts surround the sinking "Belgrano"

Life rafts surround the sinking "Belgrano"

Was It a War Crime?

The issue of whether or not the sinking of the General Belgrano constituted a war crime continues to this day. The basis of the accusation is that the Belgrano was outside of the TEZ and was steaming away from the Falklands.

Relatives of the sailors killed in the action made a claim to the European Court of Human Rights that Margaret Thatcher should be tried as a war criminal. The court rejected the claim because it had not been lodged in a timely fashion. Opponents of Margaret Thatcher’s uncompromising right-wing policies, of which there were many, also joined the chorus demanding she be held to account.

According to the Associated Press, “Critics say it (the Belgrano) posed no threat to British forces and was attacked to thwart a Peruvian peace initiative and allow Mrs. Thatcher to wage all-out war against the Argentines . . .” UK Defence Journal comments that “Many British critics of the action . . . [see it as] a disgraceful act of provocation by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher designed to escalate the conflict.”

However, those schooled in the arcane rules of war say Thatcher has no case to answer. The General Belgrano was fair game because the entire South Atlantic was considered a war zone by both sides.

Let’s give the last word to the captain of the stricken vessel. Captain Hector Bonzo told the Argentinean newspaper Clarin that “It was an act of war. The acts of those who are at war, like the submarine’s attack, are not a crime . . . The crime is the war. We were on the front line and suffered the consequences. On April 30, we were authorised to open fire, and if the submarine had surfaced in front of me I would have opened fire with all our 15 guns until it sank.”

The Royal Navy spent 13 years preparing me for such an occasion. It would have been regarded as extremely dreary if I had fouled it up.

— Captain Chris Wreford-Brown on sinking the "General Belgrano"

Postscript

Argentina surrendered on June 14, 1982, and Britain remained in control of the Falkland Islands. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rode a wave of patriotic fervor to a crushing election victory a year later.

Within days of the defeat, Leopoldo Galtieri was removed from power. In 1986, he was found guilty of mismanaging the war and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was given a pardon in 1989. The conflict took the lives of 649 Argentinean military personnel, 255 British, and three civilian Falkland Islanders.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 2007, Falkland Islander Tim Miller told The Guardian that he questioned “if we were worth all this” killing.
  • In 1770, England and Spain got into a squabble over the Falkland Islands. A few shots were fired before Spain backed down and England gained sovereignty over the islands.
  • In 2013, a referendum was held in the Falklands and 99.8% of the people who voted chose to remain a British overseas territory.

Sources

  • “Falkland Islands Profile.” BBC, May 14, 2018,
  • “The Falklands War: Differing Causes of Conflict.” Alexander Liffiton, Arizona State University, September 2012.
  • “Belgrano Crew ‘Trigger Happy.’ ” Peter Beaumont, The Guardian, May 23, 2003.
  • “Belgrano’s Captain Recounts Sinking.” New York Times, May 8, 1982.
  • “Spotlight: Secrets Are now Surfacing over Sinking of the Belgrano.” Ron McKay, The Herald, August 8, 2020.
  • “Britain Was Right to Sink the Belgrano.” George Allison, U.K. Defence Journal, January 27, 2017.
  • “Jury Clears Civil Servant in Falklands War Secrets Leak.” Graham Heathcote, Associated Press, February 11, 1985.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

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