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ARA General Belgrano (C-4) Light Cruiser (1951)

Authored By JR Potts, AUS 173d AB and Dan Alex | Last Updated: 1/10/2013

The Argentine Navy General Belgrano cruiser - lost in the Falklands War - began life as the American Navy World War 2-era USS Phoenix.

The Argentine Navy ARA General Belgrano (C-4) warship was originally built as the American USS Phoenix (CL-46), the fifth of the Brooklyn-class cruisers, built in the United States and launched in March of 1938. She survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 and had a valiant career with nine Battle Stars to her name. She was formally decommissioned from US Navy service in 1946.

The US Navy sold two of the Brooklyn class cruisers to Argentina - the USS Phoenix CL-46 and her sister ship, the USS Boise CL-47 - on April 9th, 1951. The Argentine Navy (ARA) renamed the Phoenix the "ARA 17 de Octubre (C-4)" while the Boise was renamed "ARA Nueve de Julio (C-5)". After the Peron revolution, the ARA 17 de Octubre C-4 was again renamed to the "ARA General Belgrano (C-4)" after the father of the Argentine Navy. The Belgrano performed normal sea patrols and training duties in the South Atlantic, protecting the Argentine homeland and islands that Argentina felt was its undisputed territory.

For some time, Argentina and the United Kingdom were at odds with each other over the rightful ownership of the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. On April 2nd, 1982, an undeclared war with Britain began through an Argentine invasion, and subsequent occupation, of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia which led to British civilians and military forces being taken prisoner. The initial invasion was considered lawful by Argentina as the islands in dispute have been under Argentine control since 1833. Conversely, Britain viewed the landings and the taking of prisoners as an invasion of legally-held British overseas sovereign territory.

Britain, not having a large naval force in the area, launched a naval task force to engage the Argentine Navy and Air Force to retake the islands. The Argentine Naval forces were outgunned numerically and outmoded by the then-current technology of the day when compared to the British. The UK had a modern first-world navy with nuclear submarines, large numbers of combat troops and a land airbase within striking distance. The ARA Navy was mostly of World War 2-era equipment though her aircraft were comparable to Britain's with full access to air-to-air and air-to-ship missiles. The Argentine Army had sufficient numbers but were not as well-trained as the UK Special Forces and general army personnel.

The cruiser Belgrano, though upgraded in some areas, was essentially the same ship as when commissioned in 1938, capable of speeds up to 32.5 knots. She retained her massive firepower with 15 x Mk 16 6-inch /47 cal (152mm) main guns able to fire a 130lb shell some 14.5 miles out. This was backed by 8 x 5-inch /54 cal (127 mm) guns and 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns for close-in work. A British Sea Cat anti-aircraft missile system had been upgraded with two ready-to-fire missiles in 1967/68 though no test-firing had been done to this point. For supply and reconnaissance sorties, the Belgrano managed a pair of French Aerospatiale Alouette III helicopters. Her normal complement included 1,138 officers and sailors.

The General Belgrano left port from Tierra del Fuego on April 26th, 1982, with Task Force 79.3 consisting of two destroyers - the ARA Piedra Buena (D-29) and the Bouchard (D-26). Both vessels were also ex-American World War 2-era warships. The purpose of the sortie was to counter the British task force that was reported heading south to land more troops in the islands. The Argentine military decided to counter this and reinforce the islands with more Argentine troops in turn. As part of these maneuvers, the Belgrano and her task force, along with the aircraft carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, was ordered to take positions around the islands.

By April 29th, the ships were patrolling the Burdwood Bank south of the islands. On the 30th, the Belgrano was detected by the British nuclear-powered fleet submarine HMS Conqueror. The submarine shadowed the cruiser over the following days and requested permission to fire. After consultation at the British Cabinet level, the decision was made that the Belgrano proved a definitive threat to British shipping and Conqueror should proceed to attack the Belgrano. On May 2nd, Conqueror closed in and fired three conventional Mk 8 mod 4 torpedoes, each with a 800lb (363 kg) Torpex warhead. Two hit the Belgrano - the first striking foward at the bow with the internal bulkheads holding. As such, the forward powder magazine did not detonate.

The second torpedo exploded behind the second smoke stack outside the coverage of the side armor plating, exploding in the rear machine room. The explosion blew through heavily trafficked areas before killing some 275 sailors, revealing a sixty foot long hole in the main deck. While the explosion did not set off an onboard fire, the resulting detonation produced heavy smoke which limited communications and rescue. Furthermore, the vessel began to take in water while her electrical system was damaged, restricting any communications to be sent to the destroyer screen for assistance. During the chaos, the Conqueror quietly retired to a safe position to observe.

Having taken on water, the Belgrano then began to list to port and sink by the head. Just twenty minutes after the attack, Captain Bonzo of the Belgrano ordered the abandon ship. While orderly, the evacuation was complicated by the increasingly uneven seas.

The two escort destroyers were unaware of the sinking due to the lack of a distress call and went about their business laying depth charges. When it was finally revealed that the Belgrano was badly damaged and in need of assistance, night had fallen and the sea swells rose, making rescue of the crew in rafts a dangerous affair. It was not until May 5th that all the crew were rescued by a combined Argentine-Chilean endeavor and some 770 men were located and brought aboard. The attack on the Belgrano had claimed 321 of her personnel.

After a land engagement, Argentina formally surrendered control of the islands to the UK on June 14th, 1982 but showed no sign of relinquishing her political claims to the islands (a stance continued to this day). In 1994, the Argentine government and Captain Bonzo indicated the sinking of the Belgrano was a legal act under the rules of engagement of the day.

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Specifications for the
ARA General Belgrano (C-4)
Light Cruiser


Country of Origin: Argentina
Initial Year of Service: 1951
Operators: Argentina


Crew: 1,138


Length: 608.4ft (185.44m)
Beam: 61.9ft (18.87m)
Draught: 19.5ft (5.94m)
Displacement: 12,242tons


Machinery: 2 x oil-fired steam boilers powering 4 x shafts producing 100,000 shaft horsepower.

Surface Speed: 32kts (37mph)
Range: 11,507miles (18,519km)


Armament:
15 x 6" (5x3) 47 caliber (152mm) MK 16 dual-purpose guns in triple mount turrets.
8 x 5" (8x1) 54 caliber (127mm) Eight guns in single mounts.
28 x 40mm (4x4) (6x2) AA guns
20 x 20mm (10x2) AA guns
8 12mm (8x1) 50 caliber machine guns
2 x Sea Cat missile Anti-Aircraft system (purchased from Britain)


Air Arm: 2 x Aerospatiale Alouette III navy helicopters


Ship Class: Brooklyn-class
Number-in-Class: 2
Ships-in-Class: ARA General Belgrano (C-4); ARA Nueve de Julio C-5 (renamed from USS Boise (CL-47))