The warship was built as USS Phoenix, the sixth of the Brooklyn-class light cruiser class, in Camden, New Jersey by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation starting in 1935, and launched in March 1938. She survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 undamaged, and went on to earn nine battle stars for World War II service. At the end of the war, she was placed in reserve at Philadelphia on 28 February 1946, decommissioned on 3rd July that year and remained laid up at Philadelphia.
Phoenix was sold to Argentina in October 1951 with another of her class, (USS Boise, which was renamed ARA Nueve de Julio), for US$7.8 million (Nueve de Julio was scrapped in 1978). She was renamed 17 de Octubre after the "People's Loyalty day", an important symbol for the political party of the then-president Juan Perón.
She was one of the main naval units that joined the 1955 coup in which Perón was overthrown, and the ship was renamed General Belgrano after General Manuel Belgrano, who had fought for Argentine independence from 1811 to 1819 and founded the Escuela de Náutica (School of Navigation) in 1799. The cruiser accidentally rammed her sister Nueve de Julio on exercises in 1956, which resulted in damage to both cruisers. General Belgrano was outfitted with the Sea Cat anti-aircraft missile system between 1967 and 1968.
After the 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands, on 2 April 1982 Britain declared a Maritime Exclusion Zone of 200 nautical miles around the Falkland Islands within which any Argentine warship or naval auxiliary entering the MEZ might be attacked by British nuclear-powered submarines (SSN).
On 23 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.
On 30 April this was upgraded to 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 zone was stated to be "...without prejudice to the right of the United Kingdom to take whatever additional measures may be needed in exercise of its right of self-defence, under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter." The concept of a Total Exclusion Zone was a novelty in maritime law; the Law of the Sea Convention had no provision for such an instrument. The purpose of it seems to have been to reduce the amount of time needed to ascertain whether any vessel in the zone was hostile or not. The zone was widely respected by the shipping of neutral nations, possibly more out of prudence than respect for the United Kingdom's legal position.
The Argentine military junta began to reinforce the islands in late April when it was realised that the British Task Force was heading south. As part of these movements, Argentine Naval units were ordered to take positions around the islands. Two Task Groups, designated 79.1 which included the aircraft carrier, ARA Veinticinco de Mayo plus two Type 42 destroyers, and 79.2 which included three Exocet missile armed Drummond-class corvettes, both sailed to the north. General Belgrano had left Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego on 26 April. Two destroyers, ARA Piedra Buena and ARA Bouchard (both also ex-USN vessels) were detached from Task Group 79.2 and together with the tanker, YPF Puerto Rosales joined General Belgrano to form Task Group 79.3.
By 29 April the ships were patrolling the Burdwood Bank, south of the islands. On 30 April General Belgrano was detected by the British nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine Conqueror. The submarine approached over the following day. On 1 May 1982, Admiral Juan Lombardo ordered all Argentine naval units to seek out the British task force around the Falklands and launch a "massive attack" the following day. General Belgrano, which was outside and to the south-west of the exclusion zone, was ordered south-east.
Lombardo's signal was intercepted by British Intelligence. As a result, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her War Cabinet, meeting at Chequers the following day, agreed to a request from Admiral Sir 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. Although the group was outside the British-declared Total Exclusion Zone of 370 km (200 nautical miles) radius from the islands, the British decided that it 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 2 May, Conqueror fired three 21 inch Mk 8 mod 4 torpedoes (conventional, non-guided, torpedoes), each with an 805-pound (363 kg) Torpex warhead. While Conqueror was also equipped with the newer Mark 24 Tigerfish homing torpedo, there were doubts about its reliability. Initial reports from Argentina claimed that Conqueror fired two Tigerfish torpedoes on General Belgrano. Two of the three torpedoes hit General Belgrano. According to the Argentine government, General Belgrano's position was 55°24′S 61°32′W.
One of the torpedoes struck 10 to 15 metres (33 to 49 ft) aft of the bow, outside the area protected by either the ship's side armour 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 company 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 armour 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. Later reports put the number of deaths in the area around the explosion at 275 men. After the explosion, the ship rapidly filled with smoke. 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, although the ship should have been "at action stations", she was sailing with the water-tight doors 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. Inflatable life rafts were deployed, and the evacuation began without panic.
The two escort ships were unaware of what was happening to General Belgrano, as they were out of touch with her in the gloom 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 (an examination of the ship later showed an impact mark consistent with a torpedo). The two ships continued on their course westward and began dropping depth charges. By the time the ships realised 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 in all from 3 to 5 May. In total, 323 were killed in the attack: 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 posing a considerable threat in being. A further effect was that the Argentinian Navy's carrier-borne aircraft had to operate from land bases at the limit of their range, rather than from an aircraft carrier at sea. The minimal role of the Navy in the rest of the campaign led to a considerable loss of credibility and influence within the Junta.
The legality of the sinking of General Belgrano has been disputed due to disagreement on the exact nature of the Maritime Exclusion Zone and whether General Belgrano had been returning to port at the time of the sinking. Through a message passed via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires to the Argentine government nine days before the sinking, the UK made clear that it no longer considered the 200-mile (370 km) exclusion zone as the limit of its military action. On 1 May 1982, Admiral Juan Lombardo ordered all Argentine naval units to seek out the British task force around the Falklands and launch a "massive attack" the following day. The sinking also became a cause célèbre for anti-war campaigners such as Labour MP Tam Dalyell. Early reports wrongly claimed or suggested that more than 1,000 Argentine sailors may have been killed in the sinking; it was in fact a little less than a third of that total.
The sinking occurred 14 hours after President of Peru Fernando Belaúnde proposed a comprehensive peace plan and called for regional unity, although Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and diplomats in London did not see this document until after the sinking of General Belgrano. Diplomatic efforts to that point had failed completely. After the sinking, Argentina rejected the plan but the UK indicated its acceptance on 5 May. The news was subsequently dominated by military action and it is not well known that the British continued to offer ceasefire terms until 1 June that were rejected by the Junta.
On 3 May 1982, Argentina's Chancellery released a statement in the name of the Argentinian government that read:
The Government of Argentina, broadening what was reported by the Joint Staff in its statement No. 15, states:
- That at 17 hours on 2 May, the cruiser ARA General Belgrano was attacked and sunk by a British submarine in a point at 55° 24′ south latitude and 61° 32′ west longitude. There are 1,042 men aboard the ship. Rescue operations for survivors are being carried out.
- That this point is located 36 miles outside the maritime exclusion zone set by the UK government in the statement by its Ministry of Defence on 28 April 1982, confirming the provisions on 12 April 1982. That area is marked by a "circle with a radius of 200 nautical miles from the 51° 40′ South latitude and 59° 30′ west longitude", as stated in the declaration.
- That such an attack is a treacherous act of armed aggression perpetrated by the British government in violation of the UN Charter and the ceasefire ordered by United Nations Security Council Resolution 502.
- That, in the face of this new attack, Argentina reiterates to the national and global public its adherence to the ceasefire mandated by the Security Council on the mentioned resolution. It has only limited to respond to Britain's attacks, without using force beyond what is necessary to ensure the defense of their territories.
At no time during the Falklands conflict did either the United Kingdom or Argentina declare war against the other country. Combat was confined to the area around and on the islands themselves. General Belgrano was sunk outside the 200-nautical-mile (370 km) total exclusion zone around the Falklands, delimited by the UK. Through a message passed via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires to the Argentine government on 23 April, the UK made clear that it no longer considered the 200-mile (370 km) exclusion zone as the limit of its military action. The message read:
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. All Argentine aircraft, including civil aircraft engaged in surveillance of these British forces, will be regarded as hostile and are liable to be dealt with accordingly.
Interviews conducted by Martin Middlebrook for his book, Argentine Fight For The Falklands, indicated that Argentine naval officers understood the intent of the message was to indicate that any ships operating near the exclusion zone could be attacked. Argentine Rear Admiral Allara, who was in charge of the task force of which General Belgrano was part, said, "After that message of 23 April, the entire South Atlantic was an operational theatre for both sides. We, as professionals, said it was just too bad that we lost the Belgrano". Captain Bonzo also told Middlebrook that he was not angry about the attack on his ship and "The limit [exclusion zone] did not exclude danger or risks; it was all the same in or out. I would like to be quite precise that, as far as I was concerned, the 200-mile limit was valid until 1 May, that is while diplomatic negotiations were taking place and/or until a real act of war took place, and that had happened on 1 May".
Admiral Sandy Woodward, who commanded the British task force during the war, wrote in his 1997 book One Hundred Days that HMS Conqueror received a signal changing the rules of engagement and that "The change said quite clearly he may now attack the Belgrano, outside the TEZ".
Some details of the action were leaked to a British Member of Parliament, Tam Dalyell, in 1985 by the senior civil servant Clive Ponting, resulting in the unsuccessful prosecution of the latter under the Official Secrets Act 1911. The documents revealed that the Belgrano was sailing away from the exclusion zone when she was attacked and sunk.
In May 1983, Mrs Thatcher appeared on Nationwide, a live television show on BBC1, where a teacher, Diana Gould questioned her about the sinking, saying that the ship was already west of the Falklands and heading towards the Argentinian mainland to the west. Gould also said that the Peruvian peace proposal must have reached London in the 14 hours between its publication and the sinking of General Belgrano, and the escalation of the war could have thus been prevented. In the emotional exchange that followed, Thatcher answered that the vessel was a threat to British ships and lives and denied that the peace proposal had reached her. She added that "One day, all of the facts, in about 30 years time, will be published", apparently a reference to a classified report prepared by intelligence officer Major David Thorp for Thatcher after the incident. Diana Gould died in December 2011, just a few weeks before the existence of the report was made public.
After the show, Thatcher's husband Denis lashed out at the producer of the show in the entertainment suite, saying that his wife had been "stitched up by bloody BBC poofs and Trots." Thatcher herself commented during the interview "I think it could only be in Britain that a prime minister was accused of sinking an enemy ship that was a danger to our navy, when my main motive was to protect the boys in our navy."
According to the British historian Sir Lawrence Freedman, neither Thatcher nor the Cabinet was aware of General Belgrano's change of course before the cruiser was attacked. In his book, One Hundred Days, Admiral Woodward claims that General Belgrano was part of the southern part of a pincer movement aimed at the task force, and had to be sunk quickly. He wrote:
The speed and direction of an enemy ship can be irrelevant, because both can change quickly. What counts is his position, his capability and what I believe to be his intention.
The Sun's headline "Gotcha" is probably the most notorious headline in a British newspaper about the incident. Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of the popular tabloid, is reported to have used an impromptu exclamation by The Sun's Features Editor, Wendy Henry, as the inspiration for the headline. The accompanying text reported that General Belgrano had only been hit and damaged, not sunk. After early editions went to press further reports suggested a major loss of life and Mackenzie toned down the headline in later editions to read "Did 1,200 Argies drown?" Despite its notoriety, few readers in the UK saw the headline at first hand as it was only used on copies of the first northern editions; southern editions and later editions in the north carried the toned-down headline.
The area where General Belgrano sank is classified as a War Grave under Argentine Congress Law 25.546.
In August 1994, an official Argentine Defence Ministry report written by armed forces auditor Eugenio Miari was released which described the sinking of the Belgrano as "a legal act of war", explaining that "acts of war can be carried out in all of the enemy's territory" and "they can also take place in those areas over which no state can claim sovereignty, in international waters". Argentinian veterans were said to be dismayed at the conclusion about General Belgrano and the President of the Federation of Argentine War Veterans Luis Ibáñez hoped to produce more witnesses to show that the sinking was a war crime.
In 1999, Sir Michael Boyce, First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, visited the Puerto Belgrano naval base and paid tribute to those who died. In 2003 a search team aboard Seacor Lenga, crewed by Argentine and British veterans, was sponsored by National Geographic to find the sunken cruiser but failed to locate the ship.
In 2000, lawyers representing the families of the sailors killed onboard General Belgrano attempted to sue the British Government in the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that the attack took place outside the exclusion zone. It was an attempt to pressure the Argentine government to lodge an action against the UK in the International Court of Justice, but was ruled inadmissible by the Court of Human Rights on the grounds that it had been submitted too late.
La Nación published a reader's letter from Admiral Enrique Molina Pico (head of the Argentine Navy in the 1990s) in 2005 in which Pico wrote that General Belgrano was part of an operation that posed a real threat to the British task force, but was holding off for tactical reasons. Pico added that "To leave the exclusion zone was not to leave the combat zone to enter a protected area". Pico explicitly stated that the sinking was not a war crime, but a combat action.
General Belgrano's captain, Héctor Bonzo, died on 22 April 2009, aged 76. He had spent his last years working for an association called Amigos del Crucero General Belgrano (Friends of the Cruiser General Belgrano) whose purpose was to help those affected by the sinking. Captain Bonzo also wrote his memories about the sinking in the book 1093 Tripulantes del Crucero ARA General Belgrano, published in 1992. In this book he wrote that it is "improper to accept that (...) the attack by HMS Conqueror was a betrayal". During an interview in 2003 he had stated that General Belgrano was only temporarily sailing to the west at the time of the attack, and his orders were to attack any British ships which came within range of the cruiser's armament.
In late 2011, Major David Thorp, a former British military intelligence officer who led the signals intercept team aboard HMS Intrepid, released the book The Silent Listener detailing the role of intelligence in the Falklands War. In the book he stated that despite the fact that General Belgrano was observed by Conqueror sailing away from the Falklands at the time of the attack, she had actually been ordered to proceed to a rendezvous point within the Exclusion Zone. A report prepared by Thorp for Thatcher several months after the incident stated the destination of the vessel was not to her home port as the Argentine Junta stated; the report was not released because the Prime Minister did not want to compromise British signals intelligence capabilities.
In 2012 the President of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, referred to the sinking of General Belgrano as a "war crime". However, the Argentine Navy has historically held the view that the sinking was a legitimate act of war, a position that was asserted by the Argentine Navy before various courts in 1995.