“War Crime” allegations in the Falklands War
Part Two: the sinking of ARA General Belgrano
The sinking of the Argentine warship ARA General Belgrano remains the single most controversial act of the Falklands War. From a purely military perspective this seems quite bizarre, since following the attack by HMS Conqueror the entire Argentine navy returned to port and never ventured out again. At a stroke a serious threat to the British Task Force was removed.
The controversy over the sinking stems not from whether it met the criteria of a military necessity (that will be examined in this article) but from an accusation that it was a deliberate act to derail ongoing peace negotiations. This article will attempt to discuss all aspects of the sinking and demonstrate that from a legal perspective the sinking was not a war crime and that many of the legal arguments over the attack lack merit. Allegations the attack was an attempt to derail peace negotiations will be explored and as shown by Sir Lawrence Freedman in the Official History of the war they are false.
As timelines are critical, where times are given in this article, they are given in Zulu time. Zulu time has no offset from Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) and so is the same all over the world. This makes understanding the time at which key decisions were made easier.
Events leading up to the attack
On May 1 1982, British military options to retake the Falklands began. In the early hours of the morning a lone B.2 Vulcan bomber dropped a stick of bombs across the Stanley runway. The raid was immediately followed up by a carrier based strike using Sea Harrier FRS.1 against Stanley Airport and Goose Green. In response, the Argentine Air Force launched a major effort with a strike package consisting of A-4 Skyhawk, Canberra and Dagger aircraft escorted by a flight of Mirage III. In air-to-air engagements, the Sea Harriers accounted for a Canberra, a Dagger and a Mirage III, with another Mirage III destroyed by friendly fire.
Although the British Task Force had successfully met the Argentine air attacks without loss a worrying situation began to develop.
To the North of the islands the Argentine Navy had deployed two groups of warships. One led by the Argentine carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo and another led by ARA Drummond. To the South was a third group led by ARA General Belgrano.
Argentine forces launched S-2 Tracker aircraft, which successfully found the British fleet. In return, a Sea Harrier discovered the Argentine fleet north of the islands.
HMS Splendid, a nuclear submarine had been stalking Veinticinco de Mayo but had lost contact on 26 April. Signals intelligence indicated to the British that they faced a pincer movement from the Argentine Navy, backed up with a strike by Super Etendard aircraft armed with the Exocet anti-ship missile. Argentine forces attempted to launch strike at dawn on May 2 but unusually calm conditions meant there was insufficient wind to launch fully bombed-up A-4 Skyhawks. An attempted strike using Super Etendard from Rio Grande air force base was aborted when the in-flight refueling failed. Argentine forces were ordered to move to a holding point with the intention of making a second attempt when the weather conditions were more favourable.
An unknown factor was the Argentine submarine ARA San Luis, a small diesel-electric boat that was very difficult to detect. On May 1, San Luis attempted to torpedo HMS Alacrity.
HMS Conqueror attacks
Although HMS Splendid made a fleeting contact with the carrier group it failed to find the Argentine Carrier, meanwhile HMS Conqueror had located the Belgrano group to the south of the islands. Facing the threat of a pincer attack, the task force commander Admiral Sandy Woodward, ordered Conqueror to attack. This exceeded his authority and rules of engagement (ROE) and the order was immediately countermanded by Northwood. However, recognising the tactical situation the Chiefs of Staff met and Admiral Lewin sought a change in the ROE to authorise an attack on Belgrano. The War Cabinet met and a change in ROE was agreed at 11:45Z time. Due to problems with her VLF antenna, Conqueror could only receive messages at pre-arranged times and so did not receive the new ROE until 17:10Z. This also meant that any further changes in ROE could only be received at set times. It would be another six hours before Conqueror was due to be in contact again.
Having received orders to attack the Belgrano group, Commander Wreford-Brown the captain of Conqueror planned his attack. Wreford-Brown opted for an attack using the old fashioned Mk 8 Torpedo a design dating from 1927, rather than the more modern Tigerfish citing concerns over the reliability of the latter. Tigerfish being of a more modern design was capable of detonating under the keel of the target. It has been speculated that had Tigerfish been used Belgrano’s back would have been broken and the ship would have sank within minutes with greater loss of life. Using the older torpedoes meant that there was a greater potential for the crew to abandon ship after the attack.
Conqueror trailed Belgrano for approximately two hours before achieving a firing position. At 18:57Z a fan of three Mk 8 torpedoes were launched at a range of 1400 yards. The idea behind launching a fan of torpedoes is to ensure at least one hit. As shown in the diagram on the right, a torpedo is not fired directly at a target, rather it is given a lead to compensate for target speed such that the torpedo will intercept the target at a point along its current course. Since the target speed and course is critical then a fan is launched so that if there is an error in the target speed estimate or a change in course at least one of the torpedoes will hit.
In the case of Belgrano, the first torpedo struck 10 m aft of the bow, blowing off the ships bow. As Belgrano slowed a second torpedo hit the aft part of the ship outside of the armour plating, penetrated into the aft engine room where it detonated. The explosion tore upwards through two messes before finally ripping a 20 m hole in the main deck. After the initial explosion the ship rapidly filled with smoke and as the explosion had disabled Belgano’s electrical power system she was unable to send out a distress call. Water rushing in through the hole created by the second torpedo could not be pumped out because of the electrical failure and the ship began to sink rapidly. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that Belgrano had been sailing with water tight doors open. Twenty minutes after the attack Captain Bonzo ordered the crew to abandon ship.
As Belgrano had not been able to send out a distress signal, it was not until 19:35Z, nearly half an hour after the attack that the Argentine escort ARA Bouchard reported that Belgrano was adrift without communications. It wasn’t until midnight local time that the Argentine command was aware that Belgrano had been sunk. By the time the Argentines were aware of the situation it was dark, the weather had worsened and the life rafts were scattered.
Over the next few days, a major rescue effort launched by Argentina with assistance from Chilean ships rescued 772 men. In total, 323 men were killed in the attack.
During the rescue, the British ROE were changed to prohibit attacks on Argentine forces engaged in the rescue effort. The British allowed Argentine Neptune maritime patrol aircraft to be used to search for survivors. One consequence of this was the Argentines used the cover of the rescue effort to locate the British task force using the Neptune’s signal intelligence capabilities. The reconnaissance was used to launch an attack by Super Etendard aircraft using the Exocet missile on 4 May.
After the loss of Belgrano, the entire Argentine fleet returned to base and played no further role in the rest of the conflict. Argentina’s carrier-borne aircraft (which represented the greatest threat to British ships) had to operate from land bases at the limit of their range, rather than from their aircraft carrier at sea. British nuclear submarines operated in the area between Argentina and the Falkland Islands, gathering intelligence, providing early warning of air raids.
On 12 April 1982, the British declared a Maritime Exclusion Zone (MEZ) around the Falkland Islands. Any Argentine warship or naval auxilliary entering the MEZ was liable to be attacked without warning by British nuclear submarines operating in the area.
Worries about the Task Force being tracked by Argentine Air Force 707 aircraft and signals intelligence about Argentine Navy movements lead the British to issue a futher statement on April 23:
“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.”
This message clarified that any Argentine ship or aircraft that was considered to pose a threat to British forces, no matter what the position, would be attacked. The message was passed via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires to the Argentine government.
The Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ) was declared by the United Kingdom on 30 April 1982. This was defined as a circle of 200 nautical miles from the centre of the Falkland Islands. Any sea vessel or aircraft from any country entering the zone could have been fired upon without further warning.
There is a great deal of misunderstanding about the purpose and legal standing of the declaration of the TEZ. Zones of this nature have historically been declared mainly for the benefit of neutral vessels. It did not as many presume defined the limit of the conflict zone, rather it is an example of the application of Rules of Engagement. Under the Law of Armed Conflict a hostile naval vessel could be attacked at any location.
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.
Argentine Navy View
Author Martin Middlebrook conducted a series of interviews of Senior Argentine officers for his book, Argentine Fight For The Falklands. It is clear from these interviews that Argentine naval officers fully understood the intent of the April 23 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 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’’
The captain of Belgrano, Captain Bonzo, also told Middlebrook that he was not angry about the attack on his ship and said:
“The limit 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”
In August 1994, the Argentine Defence Ministry commissioned a report written by armed forces auditor Eugenio Miari, This described the sinking of Belgrano as “a legal act of war” and 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”.
Captain, Héctor Bonzo, when he spoke to the newspaper Clarin in 2007 said:
“ 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.”
What is clear from these discussions is that the Argentine navy was fully aware of the risk it was taking in deploying Belgrano as they did. Their warships were engaged in the middle of an offensive action and had not been ordered back to base as many now claim. Much of this was known to the British thanks to excellent signals intelligence and many of those criticising the British action were aware that this was highly classified and the British Government would not compromise that capability.
Peace Negotiations and the Belaunde Plan
As noted above, many critics seized upon the Belaunde plan to assert the Belgrano sinking was deliberate to stall peace initiatives. Sir Lawrence Freedman in the The Official History of the Falklands Campaign deals with this in detail. Its clear this is incorrect, the diplomatic attempts to achieve a peace deal were as intensive in May as they were in April. The Belaunde Plan was abandoned by Argentina as soon as news of Belgrano was received, in contrast the British were seen to be desperate to continue with it.
The reasons for the failure of diplomacy can be laid at the door of the Argentine junta. During the negotiations lead by Al Haig it became clear that whilst the British had a clear organisational structure and were able to make and stick with decisions, this was not the case with Argentina. Lengthy negotiations took place with the Junta only for hard won agreements to be torn up at the last minute by another military committee not involved in the negotiations. In one incident, as Haig was boarding the plane to return to London with what he had thought was the basis of an agreement, he was handed a note by Costa Mendez which reiterated their original position.
The reasons for the rejection of the Belaunde plan by the Junta were not based on the sinking of Belgrano. Following the sinking, the Junta had felt that world opinion was swinging behind them, British support in the EU was cracking and they were later emboldened by the sinking of HMS Sheffield. The Junta deluded themselves that they would triumph militarily and diplomatically.
Tam Dalyell was most vocal in trying to link the sinking of Belgrano with the failure of the Belaunde plan. Most of the thrust of his comments were his allegations of a cover up citing discrepancies with initial statements made at the time of the sinking compared with later statements. The initial statements made at the time of the sinking were inaccurate being based on the early position reports from HMS Conqueror. As noted above, communication with Conqueror was not in real time, it was intermittent and only much later that these facts became known. The Government was intent on fighting the campaign and paid little attention to correcting its initial statements. This was seized upon by Dalyell and other anti-war campaigners as evidence of a cover up.
In an attempt to draw a line under the controversy Michael Heseltine asked for a document to be drawn up with a clear timeline, the ROE and details of the intelligence available. The main concern over replying to Dalyell was how to do so without compromising intelligence. It was at this time that a civil servant Clive Ponting became involved in preparing the responses to Dalyell. In one of the internal memorandum on responding to Dalyell, Ponting notes:
“…in general the arguments put forward by Dalyell and his supporters can be refuted”
Ponting’s view was that the materials necessary for a detailed reply to Dalyell were not classified. However, John Stanley the Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence disagreed for the purely political reason that this differed with the line agreed with the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. As a result Heseltine replied to Dalyell on purely general lines. Disagreeing with this approach Ponting wrote anonymously to Dalyell hinting at questions that would elicit the answers he sought. He then later sent three documents anonymously to Dalyell.
Dalyell passed these documents to Sir Anthony Kershaw MP, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. From there they passed into the hands of the MOD police who quickly identified Ponting as the source of the leak. He was arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act. The decision to prosecute was heavily criticised. Ponting had leaked low level documents and, as he did at his subsequent trial and acquittal, Ponting could cite a public interest defence.
The Ponting trial and his subsequent acquittal lead to much of the intelligence material that the MOD had been anxious to protect to become available to the Foreign Affairs Committee. This was a cross-party group containing members of the opposition not inclined to give the Government an easy ride. Nevertheless its report pretty much cleared the Government of any conspiracy to torpedo the Belaunde plan. It was at this point further controversy was to erupt over Conqueror’s missing log.
Although a number of logs had not been properly filed and the log itself did not contain much of interest (operational incidents were logged in a separate file that was available to the Foreign Affairs Committee), the missing log fed the conspiracy theories. Stories appeared in both the Daily Mirror and the Observer, with the latter creating further controversy by confusing the missing document with the diary Lt Narendra Sethia had kept whilst on board Conqueror. The diary came became public knowledge after a friend Sethia had asked to review the manuscript leaked it to Dalyell. Subsequently Sethia was to successfully sue the Mail on Sunday, the Daily Mirror and the Observer for libel and breach of copyright.
Years later an explanation for the missing log book became apparent. Conqueror had previously been involved in a clandestine intelligence mission involving Soviet SONAR equipment.
In 2000, lawyers representing the families of the sailors killed onboard 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. This 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. It could not have succeeded in any case, since the TEZ had no bearing on whether it was legal to attack Belgrano.
Never one to let the facts get in the way of a piece of propaganda, President Cristina Kirchner chose to use the Belgrano as part of her escalating campaign of rhetoric against the British. In 2012 she referred to the sinking of Belgrano as a “war crime” and a pressure group demanded the Government prepare papers to bring the British Government before the International Court of Justice. Other than political posturing this came to nothing.
Whether the incident could be classified as a War Crime would depend upon whether the sinking could be classified as a military necessity. Clearly even a cursory examination of the facts would show that this criteria had been met. Contrary to what has subsequently been claimed, the Argentine junta had directed offensive military action and was fully intent upon a major naval and air attack against British forces. After the sinking Belgrano, the Argentine surface fleet returned to port and took no further part in the conflict.
Sir Lawrence Freedman has examined the controversy in great detail. With an Argentine colleague Virgina Gamba-Stonehouse he reconstructed the circumstances and concluded that the conspiracy theories simply do not hold up. These hinged upon the contention that the Argentines had ordered a withdrawal and the British knew of it via signals intelligence. This is simply incorrect an Argentine withdrawal had not been ordered and the Argentine Navy was still intent on offensive operations.
What is also apparent is that the British Government’s reluctance to issue corrections regarding earlier inaccurate statements allowed the conspiracy theories to fester and grow. The advice from civil servants to release material was denied for reasons of political expediency, leading to leaks of material that should have been made public away. The steady drip of leaked information further feeding suspicion that a dark secret was being covered up.
The Government of Cristina Kirchner cynically exploited the controversy over the sinking as part of its ongoing campaign against the British. What is interesting from that perspective, is that the only violation of the Geneva Conventions in this incident was the Argentine use of Neptune aircraft in the search for survivors to also use Signals Intelligence to locate the British fleet. The loss of HMS Sheffield to an attack using Exocet missiles was a direct consequence. The Geneva Conventions prohibit aircraft engaged in such missions to take part in offensive operations.