- In April 1982, Argentina seized the Falkland Islands from Britain, sparking a war in the South Atlantic.
- Royal Navy ships steamed south to retake the islands, and the Argentine Navy sailed to meet them.
- The naval clash involved aircraft carriers from both countries and almost ended in the sinking of one of them.
On May 2, 1982, shortly before 3 a.m., the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano was hit by two torpedoes fired by the British nuclear attack submarine HMS Conqueror.
The cruiser’s electrical system was damaged and she was unable to send a distress signal. In 45 minutes, she sank to the bottom of the South Atlantic, taking 323 of her crew with her.
At the time, Britain was at war with Argentina. In April, Argentina had seized the Falkland Islands, prompting the British to send a naval force to retake the islands it had controlled since 1833.
The sinking of the Belgrano was only the second time since World War II that a submarine had sunk an enemy warship, and it is one of the most memorable moments of the war.
As Conqueror fired on Belgrano, another major naval encounter unfolded a few hundred miles to the north. The sole Argentine carrier, ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, was attempting to find the British carriers accompanying the incoming task force.
The Argentinians were unaware that they themselves were being chased by two other British nuclear-powered attack submarines.
A former carrier
Named after the date of the Argentine Revolution of 1810, Veinticinco de Mayo was a British-built Colossus-class aircraft carrier commissioned in 1945 as HMS Venerable.
She served in the British Pacific Fleet until 1947 and was sold to the Netherlands in 1948. In the 1950s she was refitted with an angled deck and a steam catapult. After a mostly uneventful tenure with the Dutch Navy, the carrier was disabled by a fire in the boiler room in 1968.
She was later sold to Argentina, which repaired and modernized the carrier, commissioning her as ARA Veinticinco de Mayo in 1969. Measuring 630 feet long and 80 feet wide, she could carry up to 24 aircraft and had a crew of 1,300.
Veinticinco de Mayo supported the Argentine invasion of the Falklands on 2 April 1982, with an air wing of eight A-4Q Skyhawk fighter aircraft, four S-2E Tracker anti-submarine aircraft and two SH-3 Sea King helicopters.
Shortly after Britain announced its intention to retake the Falklands, the Argentine Navy made plans to intercept the Royal Navy as it arrived in the South Atlantic.
The Argentine ships were deployed in a pincer movement, swinging 200 miles north and south of the Falklands.
Veinticinco de Mayo, along with the two Type 42 destroyers ARA Hércules and ARA Santísima Trinidad (also built in Britain), and the Gearing-class destroyer ARA Comodoro Py formed the northern part of the pincer. ARA General Belgrano and his two escorts formed the southern one.
A third Argentine task force consisting of three Drummond-class corvettes, armed with Exocet anti-ship missiles, also operated in the north, although farther from Veinticinco de Mayo and her escorts.
On the night of May 1, aircraft from Veinticinco de Mayo detected the British fleet and prepared for an attack.
The most important targets were the two British aircraft carriers leading the flotilla, HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes, which together carried about 20 Sea Harrier jump jets which were essential to the British operation.
But Veinticinco de Mayo’s Skyhawks couldn’t attack. When fully loaded with fuel and weapons, they needed wind to take off from the carrier, and there would be no wind for at least 12 hours – a rarity in this part of the Atlantic.
The Argentinians could not afford to wait and called off their attack. At midnight, a British Sea Harrier found Veinticinco de Mayo and his escorts. A few hours later, Belgrano was sunk.
With the sinking of the Belgrano, Argentine commanders realized how vulnerable their ships were, especially their aircraft carrier. They ordered their ships to return to port. Unbeknownst to them, the British were already in pursuit.
9 days of cat and mouse on the high seas
The British made this a top priority to eliminate the Argentine Navy, especially Veinticinco de Mayo, from combat. Three nuclear-powered attack submarines from Task Force 324 followed the Argentines as the rest of the British fleet sailed south.
The task force consisted of HMS Conqueror, a Churchill-class attack submarine, which was assigned to patrol south of the Falklands, and the Swiftsure-class attack submarines HMS Splendid and HMS Spartan, who were assigned to the northwest and northeast sectors respectively.
The British, now aware of Veinticinco de Mayo’s location, sent HMS Splendid after him, beginning a nine-day pursuit.
Due to her continuing boiler problems, Veinticinco de Mayo was slower than the submarine’s maximum speed, but the carrier’s zigzag course through shallower water forced Splendid to slow down.
Argentine ships also kicked their anti-submarine operations into high gear.
The carrier’s escorts took up positions 5 miles to port, bow and starboard. The four S-2E Trackers flew six-hour missions, flying up to 100 miles from the carrier to drop sonobuoys and use their surface search radars. They also used electromagnetic sensors to listen for radio signals going to or coming from the Splendid.
The two Sea King helicopters patrolled closer to the carrier, using dipping sonars capable of detecting submarines within 3 miles.
When the Argentinians detected what they thought was a submarine, they attacked with Mark 44 torpedoes or Mk 54 depth charges dropped by the Trackers.
Despite the Argentinian defences, the Splendid got closer. On May 3, he was close enough to make visual contact with Veinticinco de Mayo’s escorts. A day later, although he had to dive deep to avoid the Trackers, his sonar had acquired the carrier and her escorts.
By the time Splendid was within torpedo range, however, the carrier and her escorts had entered Argentine waters and continued to sail north.
The British wanted to present their actions as purely defensive and decided not to attack the Argentine forces in their own waters. Splendid broke off pursuit and headed south, leaving HMS Spartan to follow the carrier.
On May 5, one of Veinticinco de Mayo’s Trackers detected signs of a submarine. A number of Mark 44s were fired but made no hits. Neither Splendid nor Spartan were in the area at the time, suggesting that the Argentines had misidentified their contact or that they may have detected an American, Soviet or Chilean submarine.
The hunt for Veinticinco de Mayo finally ended on May 9, when the carrier entered the port of Viedma. He never went out again during the war, but his Skyhawks, flying from land, helped sink the British frigate HMS Ardent.
The naval clashes of the Falklands War were a glimpse into modern warfare on the high seas and its record.
Two days after the sinking of the Belgrano, the British destroyer HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Exocet missile, becoming the first Royal Navy ship sunk in combat since World War II. While the main aircraft carriers escaped unscathed, a freighter the British converted to carry aircraft was sunk, also by Argentine anti-ship missiles.