A World War Two Warship Sunk By A Nuclear Attack Submarine

During the Falklands War of 1982, the Argentinians invaded and took possession of the Falkland Islands. Although a territory of the British Crown since the 1830s, their sovereignty has been a matter of dispute for several centuries. In 1982, Argentina was in the midst of an economic crisis. At that time the country was ruled by a rather stupid military junta. Since they had no bread, the junta gave the Argentinian people a circus, which was the seizure of the Falklands.

These islands have less than 3,000 people, the weather is foul on good days, and the only activity going on is raising sheep – lots of sheep – and presumably drinking since the Falklands are truly so far away from anywhere that even the people who live there don’t know where they are. This absurd dispute over who should rule the Falklands should never have become a war but it did.

After the islands were invaded, the British were very annoyed and sent practically their entire navy to Falklands whereupon they slugged it out with the Argentinians who managed to sink several British warships but soon were beaten black and blue by the Brits and forced to surrender.

It is a measure of the desperation and the stupidity and criminal lack of concern for their sailors that upon learning of the approach of the British fleet, the Argentine Navy ordered its small number of ships to sea including the light cruiser, General Belgrano. This was done in spite of a warning from the British Government delivered to the Argentinians by the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires, on on 23 April 1982, that any Argentine naval forces attempting to interfere with the British fleet would be sunk and that Royal Navy submarines were present in the theater of operations.

Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano in the foreground in the 1970’s at the navy base at Port Belgrano. The other ship is the Neuve de Julio.

On 2 May 1982, HMS Conqueror, a nuclear powered attack submarine, fired three conventional torpedoes at the General Belgrano. Two struck the cruiser and she sank within the hour. This was the first time a nuclear submarine had ever fired weapons in anger and only the second time since World War Two that a ship was sunk by a submarine.

Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano sinks, amid orange life rafts holding survivors, in the South Atlantic Ocean, May 2, 1982, after being torpedoed by the HMS Conqueror, unseen.
HMS Conqueror (S48) on 4 July 1982 returning to the Clyde Submarine base (Faslane) from the Falklands War after sinking the General Belgrano.

So how is World War Two a part of this? In 1938, the US Navy commissioned the light cruiser, USS Phoenix, which was sent to the Pacific Fleet. The Phoenix was anchored in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and was one of the first ships to open fire on the Japanese aircraft attacking the anchorage. The USS Phoenix was not damaged in the attack and spent the rest of the war on combat duty in the Pacific. In 1951, the Phoenix was sold to the Argentine Navy which re-named her General Belgrano. So on the fateful day in May of 1982, a World War Two vintage cruiser, almost 50 years old, was sent against the very modern Royal Navy and sent to the bottom by a nuclear submarine. Three hundred twenty-three Argentinian navy men were killed in action, most in the initial explosion of one of the torpedoes.

USS Phoenix (CL-46) steams down the channel off Ford Island’s “Battleship Row”, past the sunken and burning USS West Virginia (BB-48), at left, and USS Arizona (BB-39), at right, on 7 December 1941.

[Images courtesy of the Department of the Navy – Naval Historical Center and Wikimedia.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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