Belgrano sinking legal – said the International Red Cross

3 May

In a display of Argentina’s traditional ‘blindness’ with regard to international law, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, called the sinking of the ARA Belgrano, during the Falklands War in 1982, a “criminal and cowardly action.” 1982 ARA Belgrano sinking

On the 31st anniversary of the sinking, Fernandez attempted to maintain the fiction that being outside the declared ‘excusion zone’ should have spared the aging Argentine cruiser despite ample evidence that her orders were to attack the British Task Force. Such a claim also flys in the face of the opinion given by the vessels Captain, Héctor Bonzo, when he spoke to the newspaper Clarin in 2007 – “  It was an act of war. The acts of those who are at war, like the submarine’s attack, are not a crime … The crime is the war. We were on the front line and suffered the consequences. On April 30, we were authorised to open fire, and if the submarine had surfaced in front of me I would have opened fire with all our 15 guns until it sank.”

In fact the Argentine Government had been given a warning that if any of its warships presented a danger to the  British fleet then they would be attacked. A warning that the Junta did not take seriously until after the Belgrano was torpedoed on May 2nd, 1982 – one month after Argentina had illegally invaded the British archipelago.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who confirmed the Admiralty’s decision to attack, wrote of the incident some years later – “ Admiral Fieldhouse told us that one of our submarines, HMS Conqueror, had been shadowing the Argentine cruiser, General Belgrano. The Belgrano was escorted by two destroyers. The cruiser itself had substantial fire power provided by 6 inch guns with a range of 13 miles and anti-aircraft missiles.

We were advised that she might have been fitted with Exocet anti-ship missiles, and her two destroyer escorts were known to be carrying them. The whole group was sailing on the edge of the Exclusion Zone. We had received intelligence about the aggressive intentions of the Argentine fleet. There had been extensive air attacks on our ships the previous day and Admiral Woodward , in command of the Task Force, had every reason to believe that a full scale attack was developing. …..

Admiral Woodward had to come to a judgment about what to do with the Belgrano in the light of these circumstances. From all the information available, he concluded that the carrier and the Belgrano group were engaged in a classic pincer movement against the Task Force. It was clear to me what must be done to protect our forces, in the light of Admiral Woodward’s concern and Admiral Fieldhouse’s advice. We therefore decided that British forces should be able to attack any Argentine naval vessel on the same basis as agreed previously for the carrier…. The Belgrano was torpedoed and sunk just before 8 o’clock that evening. Our submarine headed away as quickly as possible. Wrongly believing that they would be the next targets, the Belgrano’s escorts seem to have engaged in anti-submarine activities rather than rescuing its crew, some 321 of whom were lost ….. “

On May 7th, 1982, Argentina complained to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva which ruled that the vessel, though outside the TEZ, was within the security zone of British ships in the area;  was fully armed and engaged in operations and that therefore there was no breach of the Geneva Convention. The action was perfectly legal.


11 Responses to “Belgrano sinking legal – said the International Red Cross”

  1. DEREK ROWE May 3, 2013 at 12:20 pm #


    • Phil Foster May 3, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

      The Argentine armed forces can only operate effectively if their opponents don’t fight back. If their opponents DO fight back then the Argentines consider this an act of cowardly aggression. Go figure.

  2. John Newcomb May 3, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

    And I think revealed recently that Chilean military intelligence shared with Britain indicated that the Belgrano was going to be turning around and taking a belligerent position in the conflict?

    • Zool May 3, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

      Thatcher said one day the truth about the Belgrano would come out. The Argentines lied again. Britain had intercepted the Argentine Navy communications & the Belgrano was under orders to sail north & attack the British fleet in a pincer movement & was not heading home as the Argentine government claimed. Even to this day they still call it a Warcrime despite even her captain, The UN & just about every organisation outside of Argentina confirming her sinking was legitimate.

  3. Don Alberto May 3, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

    In an interview in the Argentine newspaper La Nación May 8th, 2005, the captain of cruiser ARA Belgrano, Héctor Bonzo said:

    I do not like when they talk about the [sinking of] Belgrano as a war crime. If I had sighted an English vessel at the time of withdrawal I have no doubt that we would have attacked. We were not innocent inoffensive. The Belgrano was equipped with 15 152 mm cannons and Exocet missiles.

    The aircraft carrier 25 de Mayo was part of a formation that was to enter the Falklands zone from north. Meanwhile, the Belgrano, along with two destroyers, were going to move from the South to form a pincer movement on the British ships. At five-thirty in the morning of May 2nd I received the order from the naval operational commander due back west and go into a standby position. At that the moment when the ship, with its bow pointing toward the mainland, was hit by the torpedoes from Conqueror

    The change in rules of engagement, ordered on the 1st of May, gave the British force permission to attack Argentine warships anywhere south of the 35° latitude and east of 48° longitude, in order to protect the supply lines of the British fleet, which was assumed to be a profitable target for the Argentine Navy.


    “No me gusta cuando se habla del Belgrano como un crimen de guerra. Si yo hubiese avistado un barco inglés en el momento del repliegue no tenga duda alguna de que hubiésemos atacado. No éramos un blanco inofensivo. El Belgrano tenía 15 cañones de 152 mm, estaba equipado con misiles Exocet”

    “El portaaviones 25 de Mayo integraba una formación que iba a ingresar en la zona de Malvinas por el Norte. En tanto, el Belgrano, junto con dos destructores, íbamos a avanzar desde el Sur para conformar un movimiento de pinzas sobre los buques británicos. A las 5 y media de la mañana del 2 de mayo recibo la orden del comandante de operaciones navales de retroceder con rumbo sudoeste y tomar posición de espera. Es en ese momento cuando el buque, con su proa apuntando hacia el continente, es alcanzado por los torpedos del Conqueror”

    “El cambio de reglas de empeñamiento, ordenado el 1º de mayo, significó para la fuerza británica el permiso de atacar a buques de guerra argentinos en cualquier lugar al sur de de los 35º de latitud y al este de los 48º de longitud, con la intención de resguardar las líneas de abastecimiento de la flota británica, que se suponía un blanco redituable para la Armada argentina.”

    Capitano Héctor Bonzo repeated this in an interview with the Argentino newspaper Clarin on May 2nd, 2007

    Admiral Enrique Molina Pico, head of the Argentine Navy in the 1990s, wrote in a letter to La Nación, published in the 2 May 2005:

    “I am under the obligation to make my total disagreement public. It was not a war crime, but a combat action; …

    The naval force which took part in the operation was deployed for an attack on the British fleet in a coordinated operation with other naval groups, the course momentarily made them head away from the enemy fleet because the commanding admiral estimated it was best to wait for a more advantageous time. The Belgrano and the other ships were a threat and a danger to the British.

    Its location outside the exclusion zone did not imply a withdrawal from the war. All commanders at sea had received the British communication about the establishment of the said area. The message stated in its final part: “The government of His Majesty reserves the right to attack any ship or aircraft, inside or outside the exclusion zone, which it considers a threat to its forces.” To leave the exclusion zone was not equal to leave the combat zone and enter a protected area.

    It was not a violation of international law, it was an act of war and that was the position as head of the Navy in 1995 …”


    “Tengo la obligación de hacer público mi total desacuerdo. No fue un crimen de guerra, sino una acción de combate; …

    La fuerza naval que integraba se había desplegado para realizar un ataque a la flota británica conformando una operación coordinada con otros grupos navales; el rumbo que tenía los alejaba momentáneamente de la flota enemiga, pues el almirante comandante estimó conveniente esperar un momento más adecuado. El Belgrano y los otros buques eran una amenaza y un peligro para los británicos.

    Su ubicación fuera de la zona de exclusión no implicaba retirarse de la guerra. Todos los comandantes en el mar habíamos recibido la comunicación británica del establecimiento de dicha área. El mensaje establecía en su parte final: «El gobierno de Su Majestad se reserva el derecho de atacar a cualquier nave o aeronave, dentro o fuera de la zona de exclusión, que considere un peligro para sus fuerzas». Dejar la zona de exclusión no era dejar la zona de combate para entrar en un área protegida.

    No fue una violación al derecho internacional; fue un acto de guerra y ésa fue la posición que como jefe de la Armada sostuve en 1995 ante presentaciones en distintos tribunales. …

    Enrique Molina Pico
    Almirante, ex jefe del Estado
    Mayor General de la Armada”

  4. lornefirth May 3, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    If the Belgrano was based in Port Stanley harbour , with its 6 inch guns and a 13 mile range it could have changed the whole out-come of the War. I wish they would remember who started breaking International Law.

  5. Bloke May 4, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

    “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”

    – Article 51 of the UN Charter.

    The TEZ declared around the Falklands was not legally restrictive upon the British Forces where argentine assets were concerned.

    Besides, if the sinking of the Belgrano was a war crime, then surely the argentine attempts to sink RN vessels in Gibraltar comes under the same heading, no?

    I mean Gibraltar is a lot further from the action than the Belgrano ever was, right?

    Argentine lies and hypocrisy on this is quite funny to watch, so meh, carry on 🙂

    • Biguggy May 5, 2013 at 9:25 am #

      Francis Baylies the US Chargé d’ affaires in B.A. in July 1832 wrote to Edward Livingstone, the US Secretary of State:

      “for we should abide by it, and they would consider the violation of a treaty no greater offence than a lie told by schoolboy. With the Bey of Tripoli or the Emperor of Morocco we might for a time maintain unviolated the provisions of a Treaty but with these people if a temporary advantage could be gained they would violate a treaty on the day of its ratification.”

      I do not think much has changed, he did not trust them then and I do not think much has changed since.

  6. nigelpwsmith May 5, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

    It’s important to review the facts as they were known at the time in question.

    Belgrano & her escorts were located south of the Falklands, shadowed by Conqueror and advancing towards the task force 200 miles away. Chris Wreford-Brown found the Belgrano’s refuelling tanker on 1 May and waited by it for the Belgrano to show up. When it did he shadowed the task group.

    Admiral Woodward was well aware that they carried Exocet and concerned that his Task Force might come under a sudden ‘swarm’ attack, whereby a dozen or more Exocets appeared simultaneously and proceeded to sink not only the pickets, but also the carriers.

    The 25 Mayo task group had been located by a Sea Harrier reconnaissance planned by 801 NAS (on their own initiative) and carried out by Flt Lt Ian Mortimer (‘Morts’) during the night of 2 to 3 May 1982. He flew out 200 miles radar-silent, then dropped to 200 feet for another 40 miles and then switched on his Blue Fox radar. When he did, “All hell broke loose!” He was suddenly illuminated by loads of different radars, including the 909 Sea Dart fire-control radar of a Type 42 and counted 4 ship contacts, 25 miles away. He quickly switched his radar off, descended and sped back to Invincible as fast as he could.

    Woodward was in his cabin (middle of night) when he was told, but his feet hit the floor before they finished briefing him. Woodward informed Northwood that they were now aware that a pincer attack was under way.

    At 0745 Zulu he requested that Conqueror sink the southern group. This request was passed to Northwood, then to Whitehall, then to No.10 for a decision. Hours passed without a reply, but it was agreed by No.10 (at the 10:00 Zulu) war cabinet meeting, that Conqueror should sink Belgrano and that said action was within the rules, regardless of where she was, because the ROE had been changed on 23 April 1982.

    Conqueror already had authority to sink the Belgrano if they were inside the TEZ, but they were shadowing her just outside the TEZ.

    Incidentally, the ROE were changed because the Task Force were being shadowed by Argentine civilian reconnaissance aircraft. The precise position of the Task Force could have aided the Argentine diesel submarines to carry out a planned attack on the fleet. So it was agreed that the ROE would change so that any Argentine vessel or aircraft more than 12 miles from their coast would be a legitimate target and this was transmitted to the Argentines through the Swiss. If it did reappear, the Sea Harriers would have shot it down immediately.The Argentine reconnaissance aircraft stopped coming after that.

    Woodward expected both task groups to attack by dawn on 3 May 1982. He expected 10 Skyhawks (30 bombs) from the 25 Mayo (not to mention possible Super Etendard Exocets) from the north, with 16 Exocets from the Belgrano group to the south. He was 80 miles east of Port Stanley and prepared his ships/CAP to defend against the anticipated attack.

    GCHQ had broken the Argentine naval codes, so they were aware of the orders to each group and that 25 Mayo could not launch her aircraft in the light winds. Both task groups were ordered back to their standby point (the start point for the attack), not to their home port as the Argentine Government later claimed. The reason being they intended to try again (the next morning) when the winds improved. Woodward was told late in the morning that the Argentine air attack was off for the day.

    Woodward had sent a flash message by satellite to Conqueror to attack the Belgrano group. However, as the SSN were controlled by Northwood and this order was outside the proper command & control procedure, Northwood removed it from the satellite to await proper confirmation by CinC. In fact, Woodward intended that CinC see the original Flash message and realise the urgency of the situation, which they did.

    By the time that the permission to engage had been sent back to the Task Force, Belgrano was returning (at 08:10 Zulu) to her standby point & Conqueror had gone silent on one of her sprint legs. So the one vessel that needed to know that they could sink the Belgano could not be contacted.

    It took a few more hours before Wreford-Brown accessed the satellite at 13:30 Zulu, but when he did, he could not read the signal fully. Rather than hang around with masts up to confirm the message & lose the Belgrano Wreford-Brown opted to do another sprint and access the satellite again at 1730 Z. In the meantime, the crew had Sunday lunch.

    At 17:30 he received the complete message and started to plan the attack. At 18:30 he judged that he was ready for the attack, did another quick sprint at 200 feet to come up at 2,000 yards 90 degrees to the Belgrano. At 1857 he rose to periscope depth, but was actually 1,380 yards to target. He fired 3 x Mk.8s at 7 second intervals.

    The first torpedo blew the bow off, but killed no-one.

    The second hit the engineering space, produced a massive secondary explosion, shorted the generators & created a fireball that sped through the ship at amazing speed. Most of the Argentine dead were killed because Captain Bonzo had failed to carry out standard tactical procedure of sealing all water-tight hatches whilst in the operational area. If the hatches had been sealed, the number of casualties would have been significantly fewer. Moreover, they might not have lost the ship. Because once the power was out, there was no way they could pump the water out and the lack of closed hatches allowed the ship to flood rapidly. The crew were bumping into each other in the dark, blinded by the flash, burnt and stunned, there was no way they could save the ship.

    The third torpedo did hit the Bouchard, but did not go off. It’s been said that the torpedo hit the sonar and knocked it off. So Bouchard was not only unable to track Conqueror, but also suspected that they were the next target. So they went to full speed and ran from the scene as fast as they could, dropping depth charges in their wake.

    In truth, Wreford-Brown did have permission to sink the task group and this included the escorts. However, he did consider how it might seem later on (to posterity) if they’d sunk all the ships and left no-one behind to pick up survivors.

    Conqueror escaped and evaded back down to 200 feet and manoeuvred around to the north to get a different view. By then, the escorts had returned and were starting to pick up survivors, so he left them to get on with that, even though their Exocets were still a threat to the Task Force, because the Royal Navy does not engage ships that are engaged in rescue missions (unless they are fired upon by these ships).

    All the participants to this event later recalled collecting together their notes, even though they were unaware that there would be an enquiry in the House of Commons months later as to the legality of the sinking.

    Everyone from No.10 to the CTF to the lowest sailor in the Task Force knew that Belgrano had to go. Spartan & Splendid had not located 25 Mayo and her task group, but if they had, then these ships would have been sunk too. It was unfortunate for Argentina that her sailors & officers had never fought a war before and understood the practise of maintaining your vessel in a posture that prevented further damage in the event of an attack. If they had, then many more of Belgrano’s crew would be alive today.

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