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Operation Corporate   >   Battles   >   Belgrano



The ARA General Belgrano was an Argentine Navy cruiser. The ship was originally a Brooklyn-class cruiser of the US Navy and was laid down in 1935, and launched in 1938. The ship survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and was decommissioned from the US Navy in 1946.

In 1951, the ship was sold to Argentina for $7.8 million and renamed the ARA 17 de Octubre after a date that was important to President Juan Perón's political party. Perón was overthown in 1955, and in 1956, the ship was renamed ARA General Belgrano after a hero of the Argentine war of independence.

On April 26th, 1982, the General Belgrano, accompanied by two destroyers, left the port of Ushuaia in southern Argentina. On April 29th, the Argentine task group began patrolling South of the Falkland Islands. On the following day, the ship was detected by the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror which gradually closed over the next day.

According to some reports, the Belgrano and her task group, together with another task group to the North of the Falklands centered on the aircraft carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, was preparing a pincer attack on the British task force which the Argentines incorrectly believed was about to imminently launch an amphibious landing in the Falkland Islands as an immediate follow-up to the first Black Buck raid.

On May 2nd, HMS Conqueror fired three Mk 8 mod 4 torpedoes, two of which hit the Belgrano. Although the Conqueror also carried newer Mark 24 Tigerfish torpedoes, these were not used because of concerns about their reliability.

With his ship holed, with no electrical power, and unable to pump out water, the Belgrano soon began to list to port and sink towards the bow. Captain Hector Bonzo therefore ordered the crew to abandon ship. Tragically, the Belgrano's two escorts did not know that something had happened to the Belgrano and continued on a westward course. By the time that the escorts realized something had happened to the Belgrano, it was already dark, the weather had worsened, and the Belgrano's life rafts had been scattered. Consequently, even though Argentine and Chilean ships did rescue 770 men over the next two days, 321 members of the Belgrano's crew, as well as 2 civilians who were on board at the time, died.

In early editions on Tuesday May 4th, 1982, Britain's The Sun newspaper led with the infamous headline "GOTCHA", apparently mixing up the reports about the Alférez Sobral with other reports about the General Belgrano in both the subheadline ("Our lads sink gunboat and hole cruiser") and in the story text (which specifically, but incorrectly said that the Belgrano "was not sunk", but was merely "crippled", and also wrongly identified the torpedoes used as Mark 24 Tigerfish). When news began to emerge that the Belgrano had indeed been sunk, with a large number of casualties, later editions of the Sun led with the more sombre headline "Did 1,200 Argies drown?"

The sinking of the Belgrano became a cause célèbre for anti-war campaigners in Britain. This was for a variety of reasons, including because the ship was outside the 200 mile (320 kilometre) Total Exclusion Zone that the British had declared around the Falkland Islands, because the ship was on a westerly heading at the time it was attacked, and because a Peruvian peace proposal was still on the table at the time of the attack.

However, the sinking of the Belgrano was justified under international law, as the heading of a belligerent naval vessel has no bearing on its status. Furthermore, the Hector Bonzo, the captain of the Belgrano, has himself testified that the attack was legitimate for this reason. The fact that the ship was outside the British declared Total Exclusion Zone does not affect this analysis, especially since the British had informed Argentina on April 23rd, that Argentine ships and aircraft outside the Exclusion Zone could be attacked if they posed a threat to the British task force, and senior figures in the Argentine Navy have made clear that they understood this message; for example, Argentine Rear-Admiral Allara who commanded the Belgrano's task group said "After that message of 23 April, the entire South Atlantic was an operational theatre for both sides. We, as professionals, said it was just too bad that we lost the Belgrano.". Finally, in 1994, the Argentine government conceded that the sinking of the Belgrano was a "legal act of war."

In any event, the sinking of the General Belgrano had a significant (arguably decisive given the narrow margin of British victory) effect on the outcome of the war. The Argentine Navy realized it had no defence to British hunter-killer nuclear submarines, and consequently withdrew to port, playing no further role in the fighting.

A detailed account of the sinking, and the events leading up to it, can be found in Mike Rossiter's book, Sink the Belgrano.

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