We suggest listening to Tam Dalyell on Audio
As Paul Rogers explained, the ship was an old WW2 battleship due to be mothballed, a survivor of Pearl Harbour, ‘Armed with 6-inch guns which had a maximum range some seven miles less than the Excocet missiles which equipped fifteen ships of the task force:’
The one piece of equipment of significance which the Belgrano did carry was a long-range surveillance radar, the Dutch-build LWO8 system, and this explains why it was at seas south-west of the Falklands. It was there, on a regular patrol, and with no orders to enter the exclusion zone, so as to act as a sea-borne early warning system, particularly important in view of Argentine expectations of a British action against the Rio Grande and Ushuaia bases on Tierra del Fuego, and fears of a possible Chilean involvement in the crisis. (Thatcher’s Torpedo, p. 11).
‘On Saturday afternoon – when battle began – the Belgrano was detected moving ‘towards’ the task force – the military did nothing: ‘They didn’t even bother to tell the chief of Defence Staff in London that they had detected the Belgrano and were following it… Sandy Woodward the Commander of the Task Force on the spot in the South Atlantic also knew the Belgrano had been detected …and he did nothing. He did not ask for permission to sink the Belgrano.’ (Clive Ponting, The Unnecessary War, p.54).
‘So as a minimum the Belgrano at all times would have been about 200 miles from the Task Force, at the time it was sunk it was probably nearer 300 miles. ..In fact one of the officers on the Conqueror recorded in his diary that they found it rather frustrating that the Belgrano was carefully keeping away from the Exclusion zone, not going in any way towards the area where it might be perceived as a threat. If it was to become a threat, the orders were here to sink it. PR 108.
Clive Ponting: On board HMS Conqueror, upon receiving the signal to fire, ‘…in March 1984 when we looked through the log book of the Conqueror, not the one that has subsequently gone missing, he [the Captain] wrote in the book that he did not understand the order when it was given. What he did do was immediately signal Northwood that the Belgrano had turned away from the task Force some six to seven hours before and was now consistently sailing back towards the Argentine mainland. I would suggest that that is probably the nearest an officer in the Royal Navy would actually get to saying “Do you really want me to sink this ship?” And he waited; twice in the period after that he again received the disturbing signal that he could now sink the Belgrano, and he didn’t do so.
‘Now what happens in Northwood when for the first time they find out that the Belgrano is not actually sailing towards the Task Force but away from it and has been for the last six or seven hours? The answer is, absolutely nothing. They get the signal, simply copy it to London, to the military end of London, and nothing else happens. Ministers were never told at that stage that the Belgrano had turned round. The military didn’t tell them because of course the military had obtained the one decision that they wanted from the politicians, which was authority to sink Argentine warships wherever they were. Of course they would argue that it was now irrelevant which way the Belgrano was now sailing because the decision by ministers allowed them to sink it whatever it was doing.’ U.W., pp.54-6.
‘One thing is clear, is that the Belgrano itself was not at ‘Action Stations’ since it was outside the Exclusion Zone and heading towards home waters; it was not expecting to be attacked. It was not even using its sonar at the time. This again is recorded from crew on the Conqueror. The Belgrano had a crew of 1100, most of whom were young conscripts, because it was the main training ship of the Argentine Navy.
‘After the sinking, Conqueror was instructed late evening 2 May to continue its anti-shipping patrol and to ‘attack any Argentine surface ships inside or outside the Exclusion Zone. And this was a signal which had been sent to all ships in the Task force. The key point is that this signal was not countermanded even when the details of the Peruvian peace plan were known. …It sank within an hour, but in London it was believed that it had not sunk, (as London had intercepted a signal from a destroyer accompanying the Belgrano suggesting this) so ‘on the 3rd of May the Conqueror retuned to the spot’, at least 12 hours after the British Government had received details of the Peruvian peace plan: ‘there was no rescinding of the order to sink Argentine shipping outside the Exclusion Zone even when we knew of the peace initiative.’ (Paul Rogers, U.W., p.100)
Paul Rogers came by this information from an officer on the Conqueror. It directly contradicts testimony from John Nott, Heseltine and Lewin, given to the Foreign Affairs committee, eg ‘Oh I expect it (the Conqueror) returned in order to try and pick up survivors.’
Guardian defence correspondent David Fairhall: ‘The decision to let conqueror loose on the Belgrano was made by the Prime minister and members of her inner war cabinet, who were lunching at Chequers on May 2nd.’ Thatcher’s Torpedo, p.20.
Wade Tidbury, sailor on HMS Alacrity:
‘Up to the point when the Belgrano was sunk the mood within the Alacrity had been that a massive naval presence plus the diplomatic effort would be successful and the Argentine would come to some agreement over the islands with the British diplomats involved. After the Belgrano I can honestly say that everyone seemed to feel that the fighting had begun and all diplomatic negotiations, along with the Belgrano, had been sunk… The horror of the Belgrano is that it seems our submarine the Conqueror did not leave the area immediately and the two escort ships were unable to return to the area to rescue people for almost 24 hours.’ U.W., pp.120, 122.
‘I am told that for hours there had been no imposition of radio silence between the Belgrano and her escorts before the sinking as they imagined they were going home and that peace was breaking out.’ (Dalyell, Thatcher’s Torpedo, p.39)
Admiral Sandy Woodward’s book ‘One Hundred Days’ conveys an impression of great integrity as one would expect from the Commander of the Fleet. It describes his pre-dawn decision on Sunday morning with the Belgrano’s presence near the edge of the TEZ, because of how dangerous he believed it was: threatening a ‘pincer movement’ of the British fleet with the risk of its sailing across the ‘Burdwood Bank’ where HMS Conqueror might lose the trail – for which reasons, he requested a change in the Rules of Engagement so he could give permission to Wrenford-Brown on the Conqueror to sink it. The Burdwood bank was to a large extent inside the TEZ, which he does not make altogether clear to his readers, and Conqueror already had instructions to sink it should it stray within that circle. It had been monitored for at least a day, carefully skirting round the outside of the TEZ. The Belgrano was at the time of his decision hours before dawn (at 07.45 SAT) some forty miles away from that Bank and steaming directly away from it, although he was not informed of this until somewhat later. Thus his book describes an imaginary threat.
Some Modern Fiction
Three books published of late have averred that the Belgrano received an order to enter the TEZ and seek to attack the Task Force: see reviews of Freedman’s Official History (2005) and Thorpe’s ‘Silent Listener’ (2011), plus Mike Rossiter’s Sink The Belgrano (2007). At 20.30 hours, on May 1st, Rossiter has an urgent message arrive for the captain of the Belgrano, an ‘order which would take them into the exclusion zone:’ Hector Bonzo announced over the loudspeaker system to the ship’s crew, that he had received an order to attack the British fleet.’ (p.214)
Mr Rossiter’s 300-page book lacks any map of the final course followed by the Belgrano – because, I suggest, it would be awkward for him to try and explain to his readers, why its course remained unaltered over the next twelve hours, after that statling announcement, it just continbued going slightly South of East, outside the TEZ – until 4 am, when it turned around.
Does Rossiter explain why no mention was ever made of this instruction in the great British debates 1982-4 on this topic? No. Does his book provide any reference or source for this startling statement? No. Can he explain why Captain Hector Bonzo’s authentic statements have not ever alluded to this startling but mysteriously unimplemented command? No. Meanwhile, back in the real world, an order was intercepted at 4 pm South Atlantic time for the North and central groups of Argentine ships to go on the attack – but, that did not include the Belgrano (‘Belgrano codes cracked’ David Leigh 6.1.83 The Observer).
We are told that Wreford-Brown, Commander of the Conqueror, received a decoded signal that the Belgrano would move to a point 54 South, 60 East (the same as alleged in Freedmans’ Official History) ‘with the aim of attacking Royal Navy units.’ In that case, would not the info have been relayed back to Sandy Woodward, Commander of the South Atlantic fleet, and have gone into his book One Hundred Days? But, it’s not there. After being relayed to the Conqueror, it would also very likely have got into the diary of Narenda Sethia on board the Conqueror, who seemed to hear of most of what was going on.
Then, Mr Rossiter has a counter-command intercepted, at 9 am on May 2nd, that the Belgrano should withdraw and should not after all enter the Exclusioin Zone. That is five hours after it has reversed course and is steaming Eastwards! There is no need to go on: this story is just the stuff that empty dreams are made of.