How Far Was The Sinking Of The Belgrano Justified? An Introduction to the Falklands First discovered in the 1500 s, the Falkland islands have long been a subject of international dispute. The Islands were first colonized by a French aristocrat, Antoine de Bougainville, in 1764 for the French. The islands were then handed to the Spanish as part of an alliance deal between the two nations. During this period the British first became involved in the claims of sovereignty over the Falklands. At the same time as the French had landed on the eastern island of the Falklands, the British had landed on the western island. They were forcefully ejected from the island by the Spanish in 1769 and as a matter of ‘restoring the kings honour’ the British wished to return.
A small group returned as part of a settlement reached between the British and Spanish government, but the British officially acknowledged Spanish government over the islands. In the early 1800 s, the Spanish empire began to fracture, and in 1810, the Argentine government removed the few Spanish settlers left on the islands and an argentine governor was placed in control. Britain saw her chance and in 1833, steamed to the Falklands with two warships HMS Clio and Tyne and took the islands by force. In April 1982, Argentina attempted to retake the Falklands.
In what is widely regarded as the most unneeded war in Britain’s recent history, The single largest loss of life was caused when the General Belgrano was hit and sunk by the HMS Conqueror with the loss of 368 crew on the 2 nd May. For both the remainder of the war and some time after, this was an issue of great controversy that seemed to sum up the war, pointless and with a tragic loss of life. On the 2 nd May, the Belgrano’s position had been known for several days. She was steaming with her two destroyer escorts approximately 250 miles to the South of the Falklands, followed by the nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror. On the same day, the Argentine aircraft carrier Veinticinco de Mayo was detected on radar to the north of the islands with her destroyer escorts by a harrier patrol early in the morning.
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Admiral Sandy Woodward, the commander of the naval task force, was woken as soon as the aircraft carrier was detected and a meeting was called. This is the first issue in the justification of the order to attack Belgrano. From the positioning of the two ship groups, The commanders of the task force came to the conclusion that a pincer movement against the task force was about to go underway: “it all looked to me very like a classic pincer attack on the British Battle Group. To take the worst possible case, the Belgrano and her escorts could now set off towards us and, steaming through the dark, launch an exocet attack on us from one direction just as we were preparing to receive a missile and bomb strike from the other.” Admiral Sandy Woodward – One Hundred Days – pg 147 It is important to note now that from the task force’s point of view it was very important that action was taken before the perceived pincer attack was instigated, so that one of the ‘claws’ of the attack would be eliminated, thus reducing the uncertainty of which group would make the main attack. It was the Veinticinco de Mayo group that was the major threat, the group’s destroyer escorts had the anti-ship exocet missile, and the carrier itself was a station for ten A-Q 4 Skyhawk combat jets, which could each hold three 500 lb bombs, totalling 15000 lb of explosive that could be hurled at the British task force. On the other hand the Belgrano’s escorts were both armed with exocet anti-ship missiles and the Belgrano herself was armed with fifteen six-inch guns and eight five-inch guns.
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These guns were bigger than any in the entire British navy’s task force, and could pose a serious threat to ground troops if the Belgrano was to get close in to the shore. An alternate threat was also perceived by the commanders of the task force. Directly south of the total exclusion zone is an area of very shallow water that runs two hundred miles east to west and sixty miles north to south. This area named Burdwood bank and is approximately one hundred and fifty feet deep compared to the two mile depth in the rest of the Atlantic ocean.
The perceived threat in this position is that the Belgrano would steam over the shallows of Burdwood bank. Over the bank the depth of the sea is too low for the Conqueror, the nuclear submarine that was following the Belgrano, to follow without compromising herself by leaving a wake. This wake could have been spotted and then the Conqueror would have to retreat or face three vessels all equipped with anti submarine measures, losing the Belgrano in the progress and leaving her a clear path to the shore and the task force. Of both the possible paths the Belgrano could have taken, they were both great threats to the safety of the task force and so the decision to attack was made. Opposers of the decision to sink the Belgrano say that the she was steaming towards home when attacked by Conqueror but this information was not known by the commanders of the task force when the decision to attack was made. By all appearances the Belgrano was preparing for a strike upon the British task force around the island and as such was a threat that must be dealt with.
Opposers of the sinking also make light of the fact that during the war, the TEL (total exclusion zone) controlled whether an argentine vessel or aircraft could be attacked or not. At the beginning of the Falklands conflict, the total exclusion zone was set up as a 200 mile perimeter around the coast of the Falklands. Any argentine ship or aircraft that entered the exclusion zone would be attacked. When the Belgrano was sunk, she was outside of the total exclusion zone, and this is what is pointed out by the opposition of the sinking. Unfortunately, there is a flaw in the reasoning of these people, because on the 23-rd April 1982, the following statement was issued to the Argentinean Junta (Military Government): ‘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 it 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 the British Forces in the South Atlantic will encounter the appropriate response.’ The Falklands War 1982 – Martin Middlebrook – pg 142 The statement was released to the world press the following day.
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Going through the release, two points can be picked up on. Firstly, looking at the sentence ‘In this connection, Her Majesty’s Government wish to make it 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 the British Forces in the South Atlantic will encounter the appropriate response.’ The emphasis on any approach is important. The statement is saying that no longer will Argentinean military be attacked only in the total exclusion zone, but also outside of it, if they ‘amount to a threat to interfere with the mission of the British Forces in the South Atlantic’. It is safe to say that a 13, 500 ton cruiser with 23 guns and two exocet carrying destroyer escorts in the position for an attack was sufficient a threat to be targeted by the British.
This determination of the war zone is the most important factor in deciding to sink the Belgrano, as most anti-sinking supporters point to the fact that she was sunk outside of the total exclusion zone. With the above statement, released by the government, there should be no doubt that the Belgrano was a legitimate target for the British forces. With the knowledge they had, that she appeared to be steaming into a position to attack, and that fact that this meant she was a threat that must be countered, they made a tactical decision to attack and it was taken. Morally, it becomes harder to justify, because of the huge loss of life involved. With the loss of 368 crew, the loss of life was huge not only in the war as a whole but that it was a single incident. There are a number of reasons for the tragic loss of so many, and they point to poor discipline and preparation on the side of the Argentinean rather than the ruthlessness of the British.
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On the 2 nd May the order was sent to the Conqueror, following the Belgrano, to engage. Conqueror had been following the Belgrano and her two escort ships since the previous night, and had not found it particularly hard to stay undetected. The Argentine vessels were in poor formation to protect themselves from submarines and did not even have their sonar switched on, the group was also steaming on a very steady course, rather than using anti-submarine tactics. Anti-submarine methods that should have been in use range from the hi-tech to the simple. Firstly, the sonar should have been switched on as an early warning system so the argentine group could detect the Conqueror before it was in attack range. Secondly, the group should have been weaving, and varying their speed often, which makes it very hard to predict where a vessel is heading and therefore predict where to aim a torpedo so it will hit the hull of the ship.
The fact that none of these measures were in place made the Belgrano a sitting duck, ripe for attack by the Conqueror. For this reason there was no doubt that when the Conqueror struck, it would strike with full force. Even the captain of the submarine, Commander Christopher Wre ford-Brown, was amazed by the destruction his attack caused. A salvo of three mark 8 torpedoes was launched into the Belgrano’s path and two hit, causing severe damage.
The third torpedo hit one of the escorts, the Bouchard, a glancing blow but did not go off. The explosion upon impact with the Belgrano almost ripped off the Bow (front) of the ship and caused a huge amount of damage. Most of this damage was due to the poor preparation of the crew and the ignorance of the captain, Hector Bonzo. Bonzo had failed to follow effective anti-submarine measures, allowing the Conqueror an easy shot in, which did exactly what was intended, and had not prepared the crew for the possibility of a submarine attack, which was quite likely considering his country was on the offensive and his ship was completely unprepared for such an event. Actual reasons for the loss of life stem from the safety precautions taken on board. General Belgrano was built and commissioned in the United States of America for the U.
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S Navy under the name U. S. S Phoenix in 1930. As the phoenix she saw active service in the Pacific and was a survivor of the 1941 attack on Pearl harbour by the Japanese. Over 50 years on, the Belgrano as she was then known, was soon to become obsolete. For example her multitude of guns for ship to ship combat had been replaced on other vessels by ship to ship missiles such as the exocet, which plays an important part in naval warfare and was a major threat to both navies during the Falklands, yet she was still outfitted with guns.
Her resilience to damage was also lower than modern warships, and her damage defences inside were also of a lower standard. Inside the ship are many compartments which have each their own blast doors to contain water, explosions, or fire to a small section of the ship. In the Belgrano, these doors were left unlocked, and through Argentine reports of the incident a fireball spread through the ship killing almost 320 of the 368 total. If the crew had these doors locked down there may not have been such a loss of life.
Once the torpedoes had hit home, the Conqueror left the scene as is submarine practice so that she would not become vulnerable to attack from the destroyer escorts of the Belgrano and to allow the escorts to pick up survivors. Unfortunately, the escorts headed back to the Argentine coastline after a half-hearted attempt at engaging the Conqueror. Now the surviving crew of the Belgrano had no way of rescue and had to wait for rescue. This rescue did not come until the next day, and over the night, which was ice cold due to its far south position more of the crew died.
In the morning the rescue effort went underway and the remainder of the crew was rescued from the sea and taken home. Death tolls from the sinking of a cruiser such as the Belgrano would undoubtedly have been high, it was old and therefore had a larger crew than the more automated modern warships and was a large ship anyway so would have had a large crew even if modern. Unfortunately, the ill preparation of the crew to deal with such an attack, the foolishness of Captain Bonzo in his ignorance of the submarine threat, and the delayed rescue attempt all made the sinking much worse than it should have been. In the end it has to be said that the decision to attack the Belgrano was taken in a war.
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In a war not all the facts are known, the commanders of the British task force did not know that the Belgrano was steaming for home, just that she appeared to be preparing for an attack and needed to be dealt with. Neither did they know that the attack would be so devastating due to the ill preparation of the crew and the rescue effort. So the attack appears to be justified. In fact, after the sinking of the Belgrano, the whole of the Argentine Navy returned to port and stayed there for the duration of the war. How many more lives would have been lost had a sea war been fought as well? More than the 368 lost on the Belgrano that can be said for certain.