Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Falklands+30: The Royal Navy Draws Blood

The Argentinian Navy's cruiser ARA General Belgrano began her life as the USS Phoenix (CL-46). Phoenix, herself a Pearl Harbor survivor, served the United States Navy throughout World War II and was sold to Argentina in 1951.

The Belgrano was one of two major naval combatants that concerned the British. The second was Argentina's aircraft carrier, the ARA Veinticinco de Mayo. Unbeknownst at the time to the Royal Navy, the carrier suffered an engine casualty on April 18th and had returned to port for repairs.

One of the first Royal Navy warships to arrive at the Falklands war zone, the nuclear-powered fast attack submarine HMS Conqueror (S48), was shadowing the Belgrano and her escorts some distance outside the Total Exclusion Zone surrounding the Falklands. Conqueror and her Captain, Commander Christopher Wreford-Brown, found the Belgrano and her two escorting destroyers on May 1.

After Northwood (the Royal Navy's headquarters) received Conqueror's sighting report, discussions began between Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, the Commander-in-Chief Fleet back in the UK, and Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward, commanding the Falklands task force. Their recommendation was that the Belgrano should be sent to the bottom.

Apart from the aircraft carriers on either side, the ARA General Belgrano was the most formidable warship in the theater. Unlike most new warships of the era, she was armored and possessed a strong main battery of fifteen 6-inch quick-firing guns in five triple-turrets. If she would be allowed to come within gun range of Woodward's ships, the outcome could be disastrous.

Admiral Fieldhouse represented the Navy at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's war cabinet with the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Terence Lewin, to present the opinion that the Belgrano should be attacked as soon as possible. There was a problem: the Argentine cruiser was still outside the TEZ. Thatcher's ministers had concerns about the attack occurring outside the TEZ. Ultimately, the risk that the cruiser could evade Conqueror in the deteriorating weather conditions of the South Atlantic was the deciding factor.

Around lunchtime on Sunday, May 2, 1982, Conqueror received her order: attack!

Wreford-Brown maneuvered Conqueror to a firing position about 2,000 yards away from the Belgrano. She fired a pattern of three Mark VIII unguided torpedoes, each with a 805-pound high-explosive warhead. The time was 15:57 local.

Conqueror's first warshot struck the cruiser about 50 feet aft of the bow, severing it from the rest of the ship. The watertight bulkheads in this section more or less held. The submarine's second torpedo dealt the fatal blow.

It struck about three-quarters of the Belgrano's length, behind the side armor plating. The torpedo split through the side and exploded in the aft machine room. The Belgrano's crew was completely unprepared for an attack. The Argentine sailors, largely conscripts, weren't able to perform effective damage control and the ship quickly started to list to port and settle at the bow. She was doomed.

At 16:24, the Belgrano's captain realized that the situation was hopeless and gave the order to abandon ship. The ARA General Belgrano sank with the loss of 323 of her 1,093 crew members.

Conqueror made her escape from Belgrano's escorts. The destroyers tried to find the submarine and sink her with depth charges, but were unsuccessful. After the war, an interesting discovery was made on one of the escorts when she was dry docked. The Argentinians found a torpedo-sized dent in one side, likely from Conqueror's third torpedo which wound up being a dud.

The Royal Navy had dealt a major blow to the combat capability of the Argentinians, so much so that the Argentine Navy afloat wasn't a factor for most of the rest of the war.

However, just two days later, the Argentinians would avenge their sunken cruiser...


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