What Sank The Belgrano? The USS Phoenix, a light cruiser of the Brooklyn-class cruiser family, was sold to Argentina on the 9th of April, 1951.
She was commissioned in the Argentine Navy as Diecisiete de Octubre on the 17th of October 1951.
Later on, Argentina renamed her the ARA General Belgrano in 1956.
She would receive upgrades in 1967/68 with the installation of a new Dutch radar system, and in addition, British Sea Cat anti-aircraft missiles.
On the 12th of April 1982, as a result of the illegal 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands. Britain declared a Maritime Exclusion Zone (MEZ) 200-nautical-mile around the Falkland Islands. Moreover, if any Argentine warship or naval auxiliary entered the MEZ they might be attacked by British nuclear-powered submarines.
On the 23rd of April, the British Government clarified in a message that was passed via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires to the Argentine government. That any Argentine ship or aircraft that was considered to pose a threat to British forces would be attacked.
Then Britain altered the declaration on the 30th of April.
Now it was a “total exclusion zone”, within which any sea vessel or aircraft from any country entering the zone might be fired upon without further warning.
The Argentine military reinforced the islands to repel the British Task Force heading south. As part of these movements, Argentine Naval units were ordered to take positions around the islands.
On the 30th of April, General Belgrano emerged on the radar screen of British nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine HMS Conqueror.
The submarine approached the ship over the following day.
On the 1st of May 1982, Admiral Juan Lombardo ordered all Argentine naval units to seek out the British task force around the Falklands. And to launch a “massive attack” the following day.
General Belgrano was outside and to the south-west of the exclusion zone, but was ordered to head south-east.
British Intelligence intercepted Lombardo’s signal.
As a result, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her War Cabinet, agreed to a request from Admiral Terence Lewin, the Chief of the Defence Staff. To alter the rules of engagement and allow an attack on General Belgrano outside the exclusion zone.
The British decided that Belgrano was a threat.
After consultation at Cabinet level, Thatcher agreed that Commander Chris Wreford-Brown should attack General Belgrano.
At 15:57 (Falkland Islands Time) on the 2nd of May, Conqueror fired three 21-inch Mk 8 mod 4 torpedoes. Each possessed an 805-pound Torpex warhead.
One of the torpedoes struck 10 to 15 metres aft of the bow, outside the area protected by either the ship’s side armor or the internal anti-torpedo bulge.
This blew off the ship’s bow, but the internal torpedo bulkheads held and the forward powder magazine for the 40 mm gun did not detonate.
It is believed that none of the ship’s sailors were in that part of the ship at the time of the explosion.
The second torpedo struck about three-quarters of the way along the ship, just outside the rear limit of the side armor plating.
The torpedo punched through the side of the ship before exploding in the aft machine room.
The explosion tore upward through two messes and a relaxation area called “the Soda Fountain”. Before finally ripping a 20-metre-long hole in the main deck, the deaths in the area around the explosion were 275 men.
After the explosion, smoke filled every corner of the ship.
The explosion also damaged General Belgrano’s electrical power system, preventing her from putting out a radio distress call.
Though the forward bulkheads held, water was rushing in through the hole created by the second torpedo and could not be pumped out because of the electrical power failure.
In addition, her water-tight doors were left open.
The ship began to list to port and to sink towards the bow.
Twenty minutes after the attack, at 16:24. Captain Bonzo ordered the crew to abandon ship and deploy inflatable life rafts.
The two escort ships were unaware of what was happening to General Belgrano. As they were out of touch with her and had not seen the distress rockets or lamp signals.
Adding to the confusion. The crew of Bouchard felt an impact that was possibly the third torpedo striking at the end of its run. The two ships continued on their course westward. By the time the ships realized that something had happened to General Belgrano. It was already dark and the weather had worsened, scattering the life rafts.
Argentine and Chilean ships rescued 772 men from 3 to 5 May.
In total, the attack took 323 lives:
321 members of the crew and two civilians who were on board at the time.
Following the loss of General Belgrano, the Argentinian fleet returned to its bases and played no major role in the rest of the conflict.
British nuclear submarines continued to operate in the sea areas between Argentina and the Falkland Islands, gathering intelligence, providing early warning of air raids and effectively imposing sea denial.
A further great effect was that the Argentinian Navy’s carrier-borne aircraft had to operate from land bases at the limit of their range.