Movements of the Argentinian Navy
Movements of the Argentinian Navy from the 27th April to 2nd May
On the 23rd April the British delivered a statement to the Argentinians stating:
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 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 British Forces in the South Atlantic will encounter the appropriate response.
This statement made clear to the Argentinians that any warships, submarines, naval auxiliaries or military aircraft caught inside the Exclusion Zone would be attacked. It also said that any of these vessels or aircraft outside the Exclusion Zone that posed a threat to the British Fleet might be attacked without further warning.
After the initial invasion of the Falkland Islands the Argentine Navy had returned to their base, Puerto Belgrano, and had remained there except for three training days in the middle of April. In response to the above statement the main Argentine ships sailed from Puerto Belgrano and headed for the Falkland Islands. Argentina dispatched the aircraft carrier Veinticinco de Mayo, the cruiser General Belgrano, seven destroyers including Santísima Trinidad and Hércules, three frigates and three or four tankers.
The ships split into three Task Groups, the first Task Group was made up of the three frigates, the second of the Veinticinco de Mayo in company with her escorts and the third of the General Belgrano and her escort of two destroyers. The 3 frigate and the Veinticinco de Mayo Groups stayed north of the Falklands while the General Belgrano headed south to patrol between Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands.
There were two sharp ironies of the war regarding the dispositions of the Argentine fleet. The first was that the Veinticinco de Mayo had originally been HMS Venerable which served in the Pacific during the closing stages of the Second World War. It had then been sold to the Dutch in 1948 and became the Karel Doorman, who then sold it to the Argentinians in 1968. The second was that the Santísima Trinidad and Hércules were both Type 42 destroyers and were the sister ships of HMS Coventry, Glasgow and Sheffield, all of whom were sailing with the British Task Force.
All the Argentine ships were in place on the 29th April two days before the British fleet entered the area. The British did have two submarines in the area north of the Falklands, HMS Splendid and Spartan, of which HMS Splendid detected the Argentine frigates. The British still did not know where the Argentine carrier group was, so Splendid was ordered to leave the frigates and hunt for the carrier as it was a greater threat to the British ships.
On the 1st May Admiral Lombardo was informed the British were within Sea Harrier range of the Islands. In response the Veinticinco de Mayo moved further towards the Falklands and launched a reconnaissance aircraft that detected the British fleet 300 miles south east of the Argentinian ships. Again the carrier was moved closer to the Exclusion Zone, although it never actually entered it, its Skyhawk fighter-bombers were armed with bombs and prepared for a dawn launch on the 2nd May. The British submarines in the area had not found the Argentine carrier group but just after midnight on the 2nd, a Sea Harrier from HMS Invincible, flown by Flt Lt Ian Mortimer, an Air Warfare Instructor on detachment from the RAF, was ordered to undertake a radar patrol of the area to the east and north-east of the British Task Force. During this patrol Flt Lt Mortimer first encountered a Portuguese fishing fleet, lighting up the sea and destroying his night vision. As he turned north to avoid this problem, he found his aircraft being scanned by two Type 909 radars, usually associated with the Sea Dart missile system, and at a range of only 7 miles! As his radar reconnaissance tape later proved, he had found the enemy carrier group. The Harrier patrols were intensified in the area for the next couple of hours. An attack was expected by the British commanders soon after daybreak as the Skyhawk had limited night or all-weather capabilities. However, when dawn arrived there was not enough wind for the heavy Skyhawks to take off so the mission was cancelled and Admiral Lombardo turned back to await a better opportunity.
Another irony of war must be mentioned at this point. When the Argentines had bought the Veinticinco de Mayo they had sailed down the English Channel, during which the ship was given a demonstration of the Harrier and its capabilities. They decided to buy the Skyhawk instead, which were now ship-bound by the weather conditions. However, the Harriers with their short take off capability could still operate.
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.