General Belgrano sank

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General Belgrano sank

The 2nd of May 1982 AD

The political and military reasoning behind the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano in the early stages of the Falklands conflict has been debated extensively ever since she was attacked by the nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror. Much controversy remains, though it has become obvious that both militarily and under international law the sinking was justified.

The British task force carrying troops and materiel to retake the Falklands was heading for the islands as rapidly as possible. The Argentine navy had positioned three naval battle groups in readiness to attack these ships, and although none were within the 200 mile exclusion zone around the Falklands declared by the British, this was not a gesture of peace, merely preparation for further action. Indeed, the pincer movement feared by the British naval authorities was precisely what the Argentineans had in mind.

The Belgrano was part of the southernmost battle group, accompanied by two destroyers armed with feared Exocet missiles. She was a formidably armed vessel, though ancient, with large guns and even some British made missiles. HMS Conqueror found the ship in its area. The task force commander, Admiral Woodward, wished to have it attacked, but he did not control the submarine task force. As the ship was outside the exclusion zone an attack would inevitably be controversial. Thus in England senior naval figures requested a meeting with PM Margaret Thatcher to request permission to attack. Her view was seemingly the very reasonable one that politicians should defer to military professionals on operational matters. Permission was granted.

The Conqueror, after sorting out the mixed messages received while shadowing the enemy vessel, at just after 4pm on May 2nd fired three conventional non-homing torpedoes with 800lb warheads at the ship. One hit the bows but did little damage. The other hit near the rear of the vessel, penetrating the hull before exploding. It is thought 275 of the eventual 323 dead were killed in the initial explosion. The situation for the ship rapidly became impossible, and the order was given to abandon her. The survivors took to boats and inflatable rafts, and the vast majority were picked up by Argentine and Chilean ships over the next three days. When the Conqueror eventually returned to port, she flew the skull and crossbones, the traditional British submarine signal she had made a kill.

When news of the hitting of the ship came through The Sun used the infamous headline Gotcha, though only briefly. As the scale of the death toll became clear The Sun saw that this was not a matter for jingoistic levity.

In 1983 on the generally rather bland BBC TV magazine programme Nationwide Margaret Thatcher was for once given a mauling on this very matter. Not by a professional interviewer, but by Diana Gould from the genteel town of Cheltenham . Thatcher was taken aback by the preparedness and determination of Gould, and she seemed to find it difficult to admit the facts regarding the heading of the vessel Defence Secretary John Nott got it wrong in his speech to the Commons announcing the action just after the event, and the government appeared incapable of accepting it had made a mistake in the detail if not in the act itself. The heading was of far less significance than the capability of the Argentine battle group, and a heading is quickly changed. Having won a war and with few in her cabinet willing to gainsay her at this period, and a weak opposition, Thatcher had perhaps become used to an easy ride, and to having her pronouncements accepted with little questioning. She was also evidently shocked that what was a fully justified act against an enemy in time of war should be questioned.

The sinking was in military terms justifiable. The Belgrano, though temporarily heading away from the task force was not heading for port, as her Captain has subsequently acknowledged. This was a war, although at the time politicians preferred to use other nouns to describe the action. The remaining controversy concerns whether there was any intent in the attack to destroy the chances of a Peruvian brokered peace deal, but whether that deal could have ever been agreed given the desperate need of the junta for success, the complexity of the arguments, and the entrenched positions of both sides, is highly debatable. The two countries were at war, and the sinking of the Belgrano was an opportunity to gain a major advantage in that war. Indeed, the rest of the Argentine navy headed back to port, denying her land forces the cover needed. But it should not be forgotten that it also meant the violent deaths of more than 300 men.

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