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The Sinking of the ARA General Belgrano

The Sinking of the ARA General Belgrano

The Falklands War, lasting from April to June of 1982, was a conflict fought between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the sovereignty of a group of islands off the coast of Argentina. After about a month the war had started, the British submarine HMS Conqueror succeeded in sinking  the Argentinian light cruiser the ARA General Belgrano. This resulted in the deaths of over 300 Argentine sailors, along with much political controversy surrounding the legality of the sinking itself. 

Following the opening of the war, the British declared a 200 miles radius around the Falkland islands a Maritime Exclusion Zone, which was eventually bumped up into a Total Exclusion Zone. This meant that the United Kingdom would be within its legal bounds to fire upon any vessel or aircraft that entered the zone.

On the 29th of April, the ARA General Belgrano along with two destroyers and a tanker were patrolling the waters South of the islands and just outside of the exclusion zone. They were spotted and subsequently tailed a day later by the British submarine HMS Conqueror. On the first of May British intelligence intercepted a message from then Argentinian Admiral Juan Lombardo that read that Argentinian vessels were to seek out the British in preparation for a massive attack the following day. With this news, then British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher made the decision for the HMS Conqueror to proceed to sink the ARA General Belgrano.

On May 2nd, the HMS Conqueror deployed three torpedoes towards its target, with two of them making contact with the ARA General Belgrano. Despite having more modern and advanced Mark 24 Tigerfish homing torpedoes, the HMS Conqueror decided to launch Mk 8 mod 4 non-guided torpedoes due to concerns with the Mark 24’s reliability. The first torpedo struck the thick of the ship’s side armor and blew off the bow, but luckily for the ship the frontal guns and the powder magazine did not detonate. The second torpedo, however, hit just outside of the ship’s side armor and punched a hole into the hull before detonating. This initial explosion killed around 275 men, and it wasn’t before long before it was obvious that the ship was doomed. Since the second torpedo had taken out electrical systems on the ship it was impossible to signal for assistance and the captain quickly ordered to abandon ship. The third torpedo missed the target, but coincidentally struck one of the ARA General Belgrano’s escort ships. Since the torpedo was nearing its maximum operational distance, it bounced harmlessly off the side of the escort ship’s hull. Official reports state that both of the ARA General Belgrano’s escort ships were oblivious to what had happened to the ARA General Belgrano due to the dark dusk skies and radio silence. This combined with worsening weather meant that rescue operations for the crew of the ARA General Belgrano were delayed until around a day after it had sunk. 772 men from the ARA General Belgrano were rescued from May 3-5 in the surrounding waters, the rest of the crew which were not found most likely succumbing to exposure. After the sinking, Argentine Navy operations ceased, and all vessels were called back to port. The Argentine Navy played no major role in the Falklands war following this incident. 

Although the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano seems to share many similarities to an unethical surprise attack, it is important to note the important circumstances surrounding the situation. Shortly after the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano, controversy arose around whether or not the sinking of the vessel was legal. Proponents of the belief that it was illegal often state that the ship had been clearly sailing outside of the 200 mile radius exclusion zone, and since a formal war had not been declared on either side there were no legal bounds of which the HMS Conqueror should have fired. Furthermore, when consulting a naval movements map the ARA General Belgrano was sailing Southeast away from the islands, not towards any British ships or interests. The former of these two arguments is usually addressed by a message broadcasted by the British government on the 23rd of April which made it clear that they had intentions of military operation outside the 200 mile radius exclusion zone. Additionally, in 2003, the captain of the ARA General Belgrano stated that the ship appeared to be sailing away from the islands because they were maneuvering, not actually sailing away.  Captain Hector Bonzo continued in saying that the submarine’s actions were a fully legal act of war, a statement he stood by until his passing in 2009.

The Falklands War concluded a couple months later, with a British victory and maintained sovereignty over the islands. A total of 907 men were killed in action over the course of the conflict, more than a third of them were sailors of the ARA General Belgrano.

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