...it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there...

May 02, 2007

Belgrano Anniversary

Today is the 25th anniversary of the sinking of ARA General Belgrano* by HMS Conqueror.

The General Belgrano group was now sailing between Tierra del Fuego and the Falklands. The British submarine HMS Conqueror had made a long range sonar contact on the 30th April, when it had arrived in the area fresh from the operation to recapture South Georgia and as there were no regular trade routes in the area the submarine closed in on the contact. On the 1st May HMS Conqueror came up to periscope depth but could not see the Argentine ships, so dived again and increased speed. On approaching the surface again an hour later HMS Conqueror found itself in sight of four Argentine ships, the General Belgrano, its two destroyer escorts and a tanker which was replenishing the cruiser.


HMS Conqueror followed the General Belgrano group for the whole of the next day as it moved south-eastwards, although, like the Groups to the north of the islands it never entered the Exclusion Zone. On the 2nd May the Group abruptly changed course and headed west, continuing to zigzag on an apparently aimless course. This worried the British commanders as it looked like a typical pincer movement was developing, with the Argentine carrier Group to the north and the General Belgrano Group to the south. All the ships in the General Belgrano Group were equipped with Exocet missiles giving the whole Group tremendous firepower at long range. It was realised that if the group split up, HMS Conqueror would not be able to follow all three ships, during the cover of darkness the Argentines would be able to steam hard towards the British fleet and attack the vital aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and Invincible with their missiles, consequently posing a great threat to the British ships.

At this point no British submarine was permitted to fire on any Argentine ship, so a request for action to be taken was put through to the Government. After a short 20-minute meeting in a side room of Chequers the go ahead was given to attack the General Belgrano. The Captain of HMS Conqueror, Commander Wreford-Brown, recieved his orders and immediately set about the final stages of his attack. He decided to attack the cruiser as the primary threat and chose to use the older Mk 8 torpedoes for this mission, as they had a bigger warhead to penetrate the hull and the anti-torpedo bulges. If he could not get in close enough to use these weapons he could still use the newer wire-guided Tigerfish. The Captain then spent 2 hours working his way into a good firing position. He regularly came up to periscope depth but this kept on losing the submarine ground so each time they would have to dive and run at high speed to catch up. At this point the Argentine ships were not using their sonar systems, so the Captain managed to position the submarine on the cruiser's port beam with the destroyers on her starboard bow and beam. HMS Conqueror fired 3 torpedoes at 18:57 Zulu, from a range of 1,400 yards, 2 of which hit the cruiser. Six minutes after the first torpedo struck the cruiser the escorting destroyers switched on their sonars and released depth charges. The submarine dived and evaded them, but when the depth charge attacks ecame closer they decided it was time to leave the scene


One of the torpedoes hit the General Belgrano near the middle of the ship and the other one hit near the stern. The second torpedo caused the most damage internally, and most of the sailors who lost their lives were killed in the stern engineering spaces. Thirty minutes after the first torpedo struck the order to abandon ship was given, 15 minutes after this order being passed, the ship sank. The Argentinians who escaped into the rubber life-rafts had to spend another 24 hours at sea before they were rescued. Of the 1,042 crew 368 lost their lives in this one incident, the single greatest loss of life in the whole conflict.

There was a lot of criticism regarding the sinking of General Belgrano, an old cruiser sunk by a nuclear submarine outside the Exclusion Zone, but the Royal Navy had no such qualms about taking out a real threat to the British fleet. As Admiral Fieldhouse said:

I have no doubt that it was the best thing we ever did. It cut the heart out of the Argentinian Navy and we only had their Air Force to deal with then. That was a very considerable advantage.
The simple fact remains that it was a war ship, in a war zone. The Group was well-armed and powerful, their intervention at this time could have very well prevented the success of Operation Corporate. Due to the sinking of the General Belgrano the Argentinian warships did not venture away from the continental shelf of South America again, the water here being too shallow for the British submarines to operate. This meant that not only did HMS Conqueror sink the second largest ship in the Argentinian Navy, but they also neutralized their only aircraft carrier and many of the smaller ships, in fact, the Argentine Navy as a whole.


This battle was the first (and so far only) time a warship was sunk by a nuclear powered submarine. The Belgrano did not even have sonar and was taken completely by surprise. When the Conqueror arrived back home in Scotland, she flew the Jolly Roger from her conning tower, following Royal Navy submariner tradition.

While the sinking of the General Belgrano was the most spectacular of the naval engagements during the Falklands War, by the end the Argentine Navy had outscored the British 5 ships to 2. The quote above states that the Belgrano carried Exocets, although I read elsewhere that she did not. The old Mark 8 torpedoes which sunk the Belgrano were designed in the 1920's.

HMS Conqueror was the ninth and most recent vessel by that name in British naval history.** She was decommisioned in 1990 and her periscope is now on display at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, Hampshire.

* ARA General Belgrano is the answer to a favorite trivia question. If you've read this far, you probably know the answer. Here's another: What does the "ARA" stand for?

** The fourth HMS Conqueror was a 74 gun ship of the line, whose captain of the marines accepted Admiral Villeneuve's sword at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Posted by annika, May. 2, 2007 | TrackBack (0)
Rubric: History


Armada Republica Argentina

It was just recently ANZAC day too!

Posted by: Col Steve on May. 2, 2007

Hey, Annie, speaking of this sort of thing, did you receive that F4 reminiscence that I sent?

Posted by: Matt on May. 2, 2007

great post, you still amaze me with your military knowledge! Most people don't realize the Falklands/Malvinas fight could have gone either way, I am amazed watching video of those Daggers and Scooters zipping around the Fleet inside the sound.

But the best ever story of the battle (which most have never heard of) is the one where an Argentinian AF C-130 flew out and they rolled a bomb out the back of the Herc and hit a Brit ship! The bomb didn't fuse but what balls is that!??

Posted by: Otto on May. 2, 2007

Col Steve is correct as usual.
I did recieve that, Matt. Which was the inpiration for that recent F-4 post I did.
Thanks Otto. I never heard that story either.

Posted by: annika on May. 2, 2007

Ah, sorry. I missed that one until just now.

I bet you're a Dogfights geek, aren't you? Best.Series.Ever.On.The.History.Channel.

Posted by: Matt on May. 3, 2007

Good article, but a couple of comments if I may:

a. Just as you later say, the Belgrano did not have Exocets. The escorting destroyers did.

b. The Belgrano was not hit at the stern - the first weapon hit midships and the second removed her bow

c. Final death toll was subsequently reduced from 368 to 323

Posted by: Narendra on May. 4, 2007