Thirty years on: an Argentine view

Ruben Moro is author of ‘The History of the south Atlantic conflict The War for the Malvinas, 1989.

Dear Mr. Moro,

Now we reach the 30th anniversary of May 2nd , 1982. Here are a few questions you may like to elucidate, I would like to put your answers up on my website (NB if you put in ‘Belgrano’ my site comes up 2 nd after Wiki).

1. Did the Belgrano at any time receive instructions, in any conditional sense, to enter the Exclusion zone – as several British books have averred? (notably, Lawrence Freedman’s Official History, this alleged order to attack being sent on May 1 st . 

No, not at any time.
That was precisely the order to the whole fleet: Do not enter the TEZ (except for rescue ship ARA “Sobral”, that was attacked by Sea Harriers); do not get involved in a direct attack except in favorable situation (as for example in a landing, damaged ships, etc.). I have read the plans of the ARA (Argentine Navy) (also statements by the rear admiral Allara in charge of the Argentine Task Force), and the mission of the Belgrano Task Group was just a presence in the South: very modest compared with the power of Task Force 317, except for logistics or isolated ships. The Belgrano had no sonar or proper ammunitions, low speed, buffeting, etc. 
 I have read their plans, and declarations to the Rattenbach Commission made by public correspondents and newsmen. In addition, I contacted captain Bonzo and his second-in-command, also to captain Bárcena (captain of the Bouchard, a destroyer of the Belgrano group).

 Lawrence Freedman is the writer of “The Official History.” Official histories are true, only if they contribute to official objectives. .. In addition, before this official duty, he had different opinions.
[Rattenbach Commission was something similar to the Frank Report, with one main difference: The last was promulgated by the Prime Minister with a main goal: to justify the government decisions during war. The Rattenbach Commissions was committed to the opposite: to determine the responsibilities of the conductors of the government and the military operations. It was a secret report, that has just been cleared for public viewing a few weeks ago. You should read the Final Report (it’s a book about 200 pages, the whole report has 17 books), let me know if you like to. I have a copy. I was a member of the commission, in charge of its redaction].

1a. Thus, Wiki quotes the 2011 book The Silent Listener, which supposedly detailed the role of intelligence in the Falklands War. This quite uninteresting book would have been unlikely to find a publisher, except that in a last chapter it allegedly ‘revealed that despite the fact that the Belgrano was observed by the Conqueror sailing away from the Falklands at the time of the attack, it had actually been ordered to proceed to a rendezvous point within the Exclusion Zone, to engage in a pincer attack.’ Thirty years later, secret intercepted data is released to sell a book endorsing the UK Government’s view!  

The pincer attack was an invention of Navy admirals and British authorities when trying to justify the sinking, supported by Intelligence services. The “menace” was a tall tale. I didn´t read this book, but we all know what ”true” means for intelligence services. And you should know that real truth cannot be concealed after so many years and to so many people, and especially if we talk about “British people”. This is your responsibility …
Cap. Bonzo´s declaration to Gavshon and Rice in their 1984 book is true. He reiterated to Conqueror’s officials in an interview at BA, years later. In conclusion, The Silent Listener is lying.

 2. It´s been said that the purpose of the Belgrano and its two escorts around the beginning of May was to patrol the southern border outside the Exclusion Zone in case Chile tried to enter the conflict. Does that make sense? 

Yes, its presence on the Southern area of TEZ had this purpose too, as stated by Admiral Lombardo to Rattenbach commission because of the Chilean question. They had information about a  declaration of admiral Merino, Commander in Chief of Chilean navy, confirming that question.

3. There is a story that the Belgrano, built in the 1930s, was due to be turned into a floating museum ship, had it survived the Falklands war; also that it would have hardly been able to fire its guns for structural reasons. Are these true at all? 

Yes. It may have been hard for its crew to recognized this, but so it was. And I can assert that the ship had not the proper ammunition. That was for the same reason our bombs did not explode, our torpedoes failed, our soldiers did not know how to use their rifles, most of whom had fired only five shots in their lives.

4. In February 1982, to what extent was the Argentine military junta intending or planning for war, or even just planning to retake the Falkland Islands, that spring?

The Junta’s main idea was a diplomatic solution, but with serious negotiation. Before and after that date, it was the main plan, right up to the end. Many facts prove this. Remember that Mrs. Thatcher instructed her Cabinet in 1980-81, to bring an end to British colonies around the world, including the Falklands (Rhodesia was the first case to get Independence). The Foreign Office asked for unofficial meetings with members of our embassy in London (Dr. Carlos Ortiz de Rosas) to study a way to convince the kelpers to accept a transfer of sovereignty.

 Despite that, the Junta ordered in February 1982 that a contingency plan should be available just in case (somewhat as Prime Minister Thatcher ordered in 1981 to the Royal Navy); we never had a plan or war hypothesis to fight the UK. That contingency plan was very simple, a few pages manuscript by only three officers which concluded that taking over the Islands would be feasible if done as a complete surprise, in spring or summer and with anticipation at least of 45 days to prepare the Armed Forces. They stated that to take Port Stanley and change governor was easy, but to maintain the objective was another question. 

 5.  Some say that Britain won the war mainly because America started providing it with Sidewinder missiles, these being air-to-air supersonic heat-seeking missiles, whereby the British could win their aerial battles?

In my opinion the main US help to the British was providing the fuel for planes and ships, needed to operate in the South Atlantic. Without this logistic, no Task Force could have existed. The question of the sidewinders AIM9-L was determinative in the fight for Air Superiority, which was not obtained by either side. Our planes could attack and did damage a lot of Royal Navy ships in despite of this splendid missile.

I reckon that, had this type of air-to-air missile been on our planes, the British would have probably been defeated, because they had a very few Harriers to dispute the air superiority.  

6. Argentine Rear Admiral Allara, who was in charge of the task force that the Belgrano was part of, is quoted as saying: “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 “. Does that quote imply that General Allara accepted that a state of war existed, and that the sinking was therefore legitimate? 

The words “operational theatre” do not necessary mean war operations, or if so, it does not mean that these operations were “legitimate”.  The real “war zone” was the TEZ, as declared by the UK. The operational area was the South Atlantic.

The real war began at 5.40 hs. May 1 st, with the attack of a Vulcan bomber to the Stanley Airport. Before this act, the Argentinians were not authorized to use force, because the priority of our government, was to negotiate. I think real admiral Allara has forgot what he said to Rattenbach Comission, when he gave a signed statement under oath in an investigation to determine his responsibilities, as a commander of forces in a war. I think it is rather a social answer, an elegant one, or maybe to save the face of a Navy which was not prepared to confront a real war and was committed to port at the beginning of shooting.

Though this may sound anecdotal, I can assure you that that the members of the Argentine Subs Force, today retired, were not happy with this type of statement .
And in no way can Allara´s words legitimise an act of war which has  to be ruled by the protocols of War at Sea (which would be applicable to any Argentine authority, bar one side, or to the ethics of side at fault, the UK): rules which stated that an exclusion zone may not to be infringed by the side which enforced it, at least without previous communication to the other side. This was stated by Mr. Francis Pym, Foreign Minister of the UK, to Cabinet of War on the night of May 1st , before  taking the Concorde plane which transported him to Washington DC.
Let me try to say what rear admiral Allara declared to Rattenbach commission: “Our fleet had no defenses against enemy subs”; “Our mission was a modest one, since we have no power to confront with the enemy naval power, especially against Nuclear subs”; “we had no orders to attack unless we were attacked.. Because there were diplomatic negotiations not to be disturbed” , or (after April 30 th ) “to attack only under favorable situation..” (As a TF landing operation).
About the Belgrano group (FT 79.3) “…my only pretension was to force the enemy to divide its ships… ” (from April 15 to 29).
Before and after the Total Exclusion Zone was established, the ARA Rules of Engagement were to avoid entering it and avoid any confrontation because of the submarines’ capability (30 knots submerged, Tiger Fish torpedoes), which they had no capacity to neutralize. On April 30, he saw the possibility to attack if Task Force 317 were engaged in a landing operation, because that was contemplated in his mission (“under favorable situation..”).

On May 1st he received a communication to change his ROE by means of the order from Adm. Lombardo of “…free initiative” and decided to attack with Sky Hawks of the carrier “25 de Mayo” (which was far away from the TEZ); but, when he saw that to cover the distance of more than 250 miles from the nearest ships of the Task Force, and because there was no wind in the whole area (which the planes need to take off from the carrier at maxim take-off weight), he decided not to send the planes owing to the limits of the operation (only one 500 pound bomb by plane, or something like that) . 

6a. Likewise, according to Wikipedia,  “Admiral Enrique Molina Pico, head of the Argentine Navy in the 1990s, wrote in a letter to La Nación , published in the 2 May 2005 edition, [26] that the Belgrano was part of an operation that posed a real threat to the British task force, that it was holding off for tactical reasons, and that being outside of the exclusion zone was unimportant as it was a warship on tactical mission. This is the official position of the Argentine Navy” Is this indeed the official position of the Argentine Navy, and if so what was the alleged operation or ‘tactical mission’ of the Belgrano?

I’ve explained the Belgrano Group mission extensively. Admiral Pico´s declaration is maybe understandable as being in deference to Vice-Admiral Allara, or rather a convenient and a political answer to protect an Institution (ARA) under attack from hostile politicians. The “official position” of ARA was the one stated, written, signed, understood and accomplished by his commanders at war. The rest are just words.   I say again: the Belgrano and his escorts were coming back home, accomplishing orders of Vice-Admiral Lombardo for the whole fleet, including an order sent in clear text, non-coded, to make clear to the Task Force that all Argentine Navy ships were returning to the continent. The Belgrano was sunk not for being in a pincer movement, but for the opposite, because she was getting away, and the British Admiralty was in a hurry needing to convince the Prime Minister the ship was “a menace for the Task Force”. It was the most perverse act of the war. And the reasons of this behavior, I explained extensively in my book.

6b. According to the BBC, in 1994 “ Even the Argentine Defence Ministry, in a report in 1994, concluded that the Belgrano’s fate was `a legal act of war ” Is that true at all? 

 Our ministers normally have no time to investigate or need to know what happened. It is easy for them to ask for a report to the officer in charge and that means in this case, the chief of the Argentine Navy. For comparison Mr. Heseltine, when just arrived as defense minister, did the same when Parliament asked for the circumstances in which the Belgrano was sunk: he asked to Clive Ponting to make the report, because he didn´t know. But Mr. Ponting did know… and he had to flee away from home looking for safer horizons.

7. That 23 April declaration while the Task force was sailing south applied primarily to Argentine planes that might try to attack, and was surely superceded by the announcement made on 28 April, once the Task Force had arrived? The 200-mile radius Total Exclusion Zone was announced on the 28 th April (reinforcing the earlier 200-mile Maritime Exclusion zone declared at the start of April) , and then Britain’s Foreign Secretary Pym spoke on May 1 st about making it ‘secure’. The whole Task Force expedition was done under Resolution 502 of the United Nations Security Council, which implied a minimal use of force.  

I was flying in and out of the TEZ from April 2 to Jun 13. Only after May 1st we felt we were at war, after the Vulcan bombing on May 1st . Also the Army and the Navy were expecting the diplomatic solution that was feasible, until the Conqueror dropped the torpedoes.

8. Can you imagine some way in which joint sovereignty of the islands would be feasible, in such a way that the present occupants could remain there?

Kelpers are from the islands and they must stay there, if they want to. Also if they want to be British, Argentinians or from both, if they want, or if their children or grand children want. But as they are now British citizens, they cannot have the option to be a sovereign country. Not only because the UN Resolutions, if for Argentina’s rights over the Islands. Of course Argentina is ready to collaborate with them, but the real solution should come from the UK. They took the islands by force in 1833, and implanted the kelpers there, and they have the main responsibility to solve the question. A fact that should be understood (and is impossible to be changed for diplomacy, kelpers wishes or UK or FIC interests), because you can´t change an historical fact: the Islands were part of Argentina, were administrated by Buenos Aires since 1810 and were sized by an illegal act of force in 1833.

9. Disappointingly, the Peruvian government has not released any details it claimed to have about the phone calls and telegrams over the weekend of May 1 st -2nd during its peace-plan negotiations. Do you see any hope here? That is a crucial missing piece of the jigsaw.

The Belaunde Terry initiative were ready to be signed by the parts (included the nice leather portfolios had been selected) when the Belgrano was sunk. If the Conqueror torpedo was the peace treaty, it also got the target. But that could be obtained also by negotiations, as the UK diplomacy did spoil all the negotiations that failed during the war, meanwhile soldiers were fighting and dying in the front for the rest of conflict… There was another reason Nicholas, which I explained in my books.

10. To a question you earlier replied: ‘In 1994 the then President Carlos Menem said that Thatcher should be extradited if it is proved that the sinking of the Belgrano was a war crime, the Ministry of Defence concluded in a brief statement it was “a lawful act of war.” But it was an isolated statement, no an official and national one.’)

Yes, it might be possible in Wonderland, the question is that most Argentinians did not know the truth, and the British prefer not to know it. Remember: two great institutions are involved in the Belgrano affair; the Royal Navy and the Conservative Party: they both lied to Parliament and to the British people. Also the ARA is involved in the affair, but not to avoid a war crime, if for a prestigious question. The Belgrano sailors who died in the sinking, won’t come back to life.

But many more died until the conflict ended, which could have been avoided by Admirals and the Prime Minister.  As an historian, I assume the problem looking for true, and in addition with a sense of justice.  Both principles are deep in human spirit.

One Response to “Thirty years on: an Argentine view”

  1. FOARP says:

    “After that message of 23 April [i.e., a message saying that any Argentine forces threatening the British fleet could be attacked], 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” – Read Admiral Allara, commander of the Argentine fleet during the war.

    “it is improper to accept that (…) the attack by HMS Conqueror was a treason” – Hector Bonzo, commanding officer of the Belgrano.

    “Mrs. Pierini framed the sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano as a war crime unpunished and unacknowledged by our country.

    I have an obligation to make public my total disagreement. It was not a war crime, but a combat action, the 323 crew members who gave their lives were not killed: they died fighting for our country, which is the highest sacrifice that the military can make.

    The integrated naval force was deployed for an attack on the British fleet, forming a coordinated operation with other naval groups, the course that had them away momentarily from the enemy fleet, was one that the commanding Admiral estimated as appropriate to wait a more convenient time. The Belgrano and the other ships were a threat and a danger to the British.

    Its location outside the exclusion zone did not mean withdrawl from the war. All commanders at sea had seen the British media establishing that area. The message stated in its final part:” The government of His Majesty reserves the right to attack any ship or aircraft, within or outside the exclusion zone, which it considers a threat to its forces.” To leave the exclusion zone was not to leave the combat zone to enter a protected area.

    It was not a violation of international law, but was an act of war and that was the position taken as head of the Navy in 1995 in the presentations held in various courts.” – Admiral Molina Pico, former commanding officer of the Argentine Navy

    So either the Argentine Navy commanders are all lying for no reason, or this was not a war crime, but instead a legitimate act of war against a ship involved in “co-ordinated attack” on the British fleet that had temporarily been cancelled to await a better opportunity. Maybe it’s time you guys finally accepted that for the last 30 years you’ve been trying to smear Margaret Thatcher with the claim that she committed a war crime in being part of the command apparatus that sank the Belgrano, and that this claim is now broadly acknowledged to have been totally without substance because of the statements of Argentine officials.

    Thatcher could have been justly and effectively criticised for the failings in readiness that led to the Argentines assuming that we could not defend the Falklands. Her government could – and should – have been criticised for signalling to the Junta that we no longer wanted to defend the Falklands. Instead you guys, prompted by a perverse desire to find actual wrong-doing rather than mere incompetence, decided to concentrate on something that was a non-scandal.