Belgrano: Enemy ship posed threat to forces

Fifteen years after the battle in the south Atlantic the order to sink the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano remains the most controversial decision of the Falklands War.

In 1982 the 10,650 ton ship was already aged. As the USS Phoenix she had survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour forty years before.

  'The comradeship was wonderful. We knew there would be loss of life but morale was high.'

But with her 15.6 inch long-range guns and Sea Cat anti-aircraft missiles, she was believed to be a threat to Britain's task force.

Ask Cmdr Jeff Tall to justify the attack and he is adamant it had to be done.

He went to the South Atlantic in 1982 as submarine staff officer to the Task Group Commander. He was on the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes.

`I was part of waterspace management, rather like air traffic control. It was my job to be part of the link between the admiral and headquarters in Northwood.'

Submarines in the task force included HMS Conqueror, the nuclear-powered sub that torpedoed and sank the Belgrano. Of her 1,000-plus crew, 368 perished, many of them new recruits.

Cmdr Tall, 59, said: `Conditions on Hermes were cold, uncomfortable and packed. The decision had been made that we were not going to risk losing people if we were torpedoed.

  'The Argentinians have since said Belgrano was a legitimate target, that they would have done the same. '

`Therefore we were living high up on the ship, sharing cabins. Sleep became an irrelevance. You found a space someone had vacated and rested where you could.

`The comradeship was wonderful. We knew there would be loss of life but morale was high. We expected things were not going to be easy. We had no airborne early warning and we were in unknown territory.


The sinking of the General Belgrano was a controversial act

`We were there with a Royal Navy equipped to fight the Soviets. We believed in what we were doing. It was the right thing in the face of aggression.'

`The Argentinians have since said Belgrano was a legitimate target, that they would have done the same.

`Imagine it is dark and you have no night vision. You hear the enemy creeping towards you. For some reason he sneaks away. You see nothing. Then he comes back. It is your one chance to catch him. That is why Belgrano was sunk.

`It was war. Of course there was sadness at the number of Argentinian sailors killed. We did not want that. Belgrano was old. She was totally incapable of taking any kind of hit.

`She was not taking even the most simple anti-submarine measures. But she was part of an aggressive act by the Argentinians. She was going about her legitimate war function of trying to hit the task group.'

Steaming homeward after the battle of the south Atlantic was a time of mixed emotions, he said.

`We had demonstrated the capability to operate independently, miles from home and do the job. But we had lost friends and comrades.

`My overwhelming feelings were sadness, pride in the way things went, pride in being British - and of being more than ever in love with my wife.'

Cmdr Tall left the Royal Navy in 1994 after 30 years service. He was awarded the OBE and is now director of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport.

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