General Manuel Belgrano (1770-1820), a lawyer turned military and political leader in the Argentinian war of independence from Spanish rule.

A number of vessels in the Argentinian navy were named after Belgrano, most notably the former USS Phoenix, a 10 000 ton light cruiser of the Boise class launched in 1938 and sold to Argentina in 1951. During the Falklands War of 1982 the Belgrano, an imposing but completely obsolete ship carrying a crew of 1200 men, was torpedoed and sunk by the British nuclear attack submarine HMS Conqueror whilst sailing (as it emerged) away from the "exclusion zone" announced by the British. The circumstances of the sinking, which was explicitly authorised by the British government, were concealed for some time but revealed after much badgering by the obsessive/maverick Scottish MP Tam Dalyell.

The most famous ship named the General Belgrano began life in the ship yards of New York Shipbuilding in Camden, New Jersey, being named the USS Phoenix in 1938 and a member of the Brooklyn Class of Light Cruiser. As the Phoenix, she was anchored at Pearl Harbour at the time of the Japanese attack in 1941. Having survived the war, Phoenix was sold to Argentina in 1951, being comissioned on October 17 with the name 17 dec Octubre. The ship was re-christened in 1956 with the name General Belgrano.

Whilst many World War II era US Navy ships have been updated and recomissioned over their lifetime, it is generally accepted that the General Belgrano was approaching the end of its service life in the 1980s. Some sources in America were actually interested in buying the ship back to form part of a Pearl Harbour museum. Fate, in the form of the Falklands Conflict had a different future in store.

Within ten days of the invasion on 2 April 1982, Britain declared a 200 mile exclusion zone around the islands they no longer held and informed Argentina that this would be enforced by nuclear powered submarines. They could have been bluffing*. The British task force reached the exclusion zone at the end of April and was attacked by Argentine fighter planes on 1 May. They also detected the General Belgrano and two destroyers which appeared to be forming up for a pincer attack. The General Belgrano was outside the exclusion zone and potentially heading away but was being shadowed by the British submarine HMS Conqueror. The ship was approaching waters unsuitable for subsurface activity. The submarine was in stealth mode, making contact with Command only on an intermittent, prearranged schedule. The decision was taken to torpedo the General Belgrano to ensure that its feared attack could not be carried out. The ship, with a crew of 1200, sank with 323 casualties.

Few of these facts were available at the time. At the first news of the torpedo, The Sun jubilantly proclaimed Gotcha! At news that the ship had actually sunk with significant loss of life, later editions of that day's paper were toned down.

The information that the ship had been sailing away and/or was outside the exclusion zone combined with the number of casualties, the explicit authorisation to attack by the British Government and the unpopularity in Britain of the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. There was uproar. Tam Dalyell, an opposition Labour MP, was a significant thorn in the side of government, accusing them of undermining a last ditch peace initiative by Peru. Thatcher herself was quizzed on live TV by a member of the public and was unable to completely defend the action as much of what she could have said was top secret at the time. Controversy still surrounds the subject 20 years later.

The General Belgrano was the first ship to be sunk by a nuclear submarine.

* "the only way to know for sure that there is a submarine is when you start losing ships" a British submariner quoted in Tom Clancy's factual account Submarine.

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