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18 September 2014
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Falklands Conflict Gallery

By Major General Julian Thompson
The stricken ‘Belgrano’
The stricken 'Belgrano' ©
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One of the most serious threats to the British task force was the Argentinean navy. The Royal Navy had already scored a success by crippling the submarine 'Santa Fé' off South Georgia, leaving one submarine operational, but the Argentinean surface fleet was still a significant danger. If it was able to sink one or both British carriers, the British task force would almost certainly be forced to withdraw.

Early on 2 May, two battle groups under Rear Admiral Jorge Allara began a pincer attack on the British aircraft carriers to the east of the Falklands. One group was led by the cruiser 'Belgrano' (originally the USS 'Phoenix' – a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour) to the south, while to the other to the north was spearheaded by the aircraft carrier '25 de Mayo' .

Unfavourable wind conditions had restricted the ability of '25 de Mayo's ability to launch its Skyhawk fighter-bombers against the British. The Argentinean fleet was at the same time vulnerable to detection and attack by the Royal Navy’s fearsome new acquisition, the Sea Harrier fighter and strike aircraft. Admiral Allara responded by ordering both groups into shallower water, where they would be less vulnerable to submarine attack.

Anticipating the danger represented by the two Argentinean groups, the Royal Navy was trailing the 'Belgrano' with the submarine HMS 'Conqueror', while the submarines HMS 'Splendid' and HMS 'Spartan' searched unsuccessfully for '25 de Mayo'.

Unwilling to lose track of 'Belgrano', and wishing to close the Falklands to insert special forces, the commander of the British task force, Admiral Sandy Woodward, asked for, and was given, permission to engage the Argentinean ship with 'Conqueror'. At 14.57 local time, 'Conqueror' attacked, hitting with two torpedoes, and 'Belgrano' sank soon afterwards. Many of her 321 casualties died because doors and hatches that would have contained the blast were open, and it took 24 hours for the Argentineans to rescue their survivors.

Controversy persists over the fact that 'Belgrano' was outside what was termed the 'total exclusion zone' – an area of 200-nautical mile radius from the Falklands, inside which the British had declared any Argentinean ships would be sunk. But the position of the 'Belgrano' is irrelevant, given that on 23 April Britain had told Argentina that any ships that posed a potential threat would be sunk.

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