Part 1 of the series is here.
2 May, 1982- The Sinking of the ARA General Belgrano
The Argentinian failure to improve the runway at Stanley Airfield meant other means would be necessary to secure the waters around the Falklands and prevent British reoccupation of the islands. We saw in the last entry that anti-shipping strikes by Argentinian fighters operating from mainland air bases against the British task force began on the 1st of May.
Even prior to that, the Argentinian navy (the ARA) had sortied two task forces into waters just outside the 200 nm Total Exclusion Zone declared by Britain. The first, northern task force consisted of Argentina’s sole aircraft carrier, the ARA 25 de Mayo (herself a surplus British ship) escorted by the only two modern surface ships in the ARA, two British built Type 42 destroyers. These Type 42 were almost identical to the Type 42’s serving as escorts to the carriers of the British fleet. The ARA 25 de Mayo’s airwing consisted of A-4Q Skyhawks and S-2E Trackers. The Trackers could be used to find the British task force, which could then be attacked by the Skyhawks. In fact, on 1 May, she tried to launch strikes, but unfavorable winds left her Skyhawks unable to fly.
The other task force, patrolling outside the southern boundary of the TEZ, consisted of the ARA General Belgrano, and two destroyers. The ARA General Belgrano was formerly the USS Phoenix, a Brooklyn class light cruiser. Built in 1938, and serving successfully throughout World War II, she had been sold as surplus to Argentina in 1951. She retained her battery of fifteen 6” guns, and had been modernized and armed with MM38 Exocet anti-ship missiles. Her escorts were both former US Sumner/Gearing class destroyers, which the US Navy had modernized under the 1960s Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization Program, or FRAM. The ARA General Belgrano had no antisubmarine capability. The two FRAM destroyers, despite being modernized in the 1960s, had only the most marginal ability to detect or defeat modern nuclear submarines.
These two task forces might not have been the most formidable ever sent to sea, but they did represent a genuine threat to the British task force. The Brits were operating on a shoestring. If either force were able to close with the British, they could wreak considerable havoc.
Accordingly, orders were sent from the Admiralty for the advance screen of nuclear subs to locate and track these two task forces. HMS Spartan was assigned to locate the carrier group to the north. HMS Conqueror drew the southern assignment. HMS Spartan never definitively located the ARA 25 de Mayo. But on 1 May, HMS Conqueror detected and began tracking ARA General Belgrano and her escorts.
The British government’s declaration of the TEZ said that all shipping and air traffic inside the TEZ was liable to attack, including Argentinian and neutral shipping. But the British government had also made clear that any Argentinian warships and military aircraft were liable to attack if they posed a threat to British operations. After the events of 1 May, the decision was made by the Admiralty to attack the Argentinian task groups despite their being outside the TEZ. The mere possibility of the cruiser closing in and firing volleys of Exocets and following up with a cascade of 6” gunfire didn’t bear thinking about. Accordingly, on 2 May, 1982, HMS Conqueror stalked, closed with and engaged the ARA General Belgrano. Because of concerns about the reliability of the advanced MK24 Tigerfish torpedo in the anti-ship role, Conqueror closed to within a mile of General Belgrano, and fired three Mk8 torpedoes. These World War II vintage torpedoes were the old fashioned, straight running kind, and would be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen “Run Silent, Run Deep.” Two of the three torpedoes struck General Belgrano, and she quickly began to sink. Incredibly, neither of her escorts at first noticed that she had been mortally wounded.
While 770 survivors were eventually rescued, three hundred twenty three lives were lost in this bloodiest single day of the Falklands War. Rescue and recovery operations went on for two days. The British made no attempt to interfere. The Argentinian surface fleet, stunned by the loss of this major unit, sailed for home. The ARA 25 de Mayo, and the rest of the ARAs major surface units, would spend the rest of the war in port.
In the face of a nuclear submarine threat, the technologically inferior units of the ARA would have been well advised to spend the entire war safely at port. Had HMS Spartan located the Argentinian carrier force, she too would likely have received orders to attack, almost certainly with greater loss of life.
Rather than trying to perform barrier operations in the vicinity of the Falklands, the Argentinian fleet, weaker in numbers and in technology, might have been better employed trying to interdict the fragile logistical line running from the task force to Ascension Island. The British task force needed a regular shuttle service of oilers for fuel and other logistical support to stay at sea for any reasonable period of time. Locating and severing this link would have hamstrung the British fleet and might possibly have allowed the ARA to operate away from the British efforts to track and attack them in turn.
For the expenditure of three thoroughly obsolete torpedoes, the Royal Navy had denied the Argentinians the ability to operate at sea. If the Argentinians couldn’t use their land based airpower to defeat the Royal Navy, the Falklands were bound to be restored to the Union Jack.