Sinking the Belgrano: the Pinochet connection

No incident in the Falklands War divided opinion so bitterly. Some even called it a war crime. Now a member of the War Cabinet has revealed how Argentine orders intercepted by Chile convinced the British that their enemies' prize cruiser had to be sunk

It was the moment which came to define the Falklands conflict, immediately claiming more than 300 lives and setting in chain events which would lead to the invasion of the disputed islands by British troops. Now, as services are held to mark the 30th anniversary of the start of the war, a member of Margaret Thatcher's War Cabinet has revealed details of how intelligence received from the Chilean regime of fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet led to the decision to sink the Argentine warship General Belgrano.

The sinking of the former US warship was controversial because at the time it was outside a British 200-mile Total Exclusion Zone around the Falklands and was steaming away from the UK Task Force. The cruiser went down with the loss of 323 lives – more than half of the total Argentine losses in the war.

In an exclusive interview for a forthcoming book on the history of Britain, Real Britannia, Lord Parkinson discloses that the War Cabinet took the decision after receiving secret intercepts from Chilean intelligence services revealing the orders from the Argentine junta to the warship's captain, Hector Bonzo.

Lord Parkinson, one of Lady Thatcher's closest allies, said: "They [Chile] had intercepted the Argentinian command's instructions... We had been discussing what we would do if we found it [the Belgrano] because we knew the Belgrano was out to sink a carrier. The fact that it was going one way or the other, it was manoeuvring to avoid a torpedo."

The Independent has learned from defence sources that the Chilean information also showed the staff of Admiral Jorge Anaya, the head of the Argentine Navy, had been directing orders to the Belgrano and a destroyer, the Hipólito Bouchard, to continue engaging in combat while taking all measures necessary to avoid coming under attack. This was interpreted by the British high command as signifying that movement towards her home port by the two ships may well have been acts of subterfuge.

The sinking took place 14 hours after the President of Peru, Fernando Belaúnde, proposed a peace plan which included regional states playing a role. After the sinking, Argentina rejected the plan but the UK indicated its acceptance on 5 May. It is not well known that the British continued to offer ceasefire terms until 1 June.

The War Cabinet took the decision to sink the Belgrano on 2 May 1982, after being briefed at a meeting at Chequers with Mrs Thatcher and Sir Terence Lewin, Admiral of the Fleet. Lewin told the Cabinet that Commander Chris Wreford-Brown, the captain of British nuclear submarine Conqueror, had the Belgrano in his sights and was seeking permission to attack. The ship was part of a small battle group, flanked by two Argentinian destroyers.

The War Cabinet authorised Lewin to proceed. The order was sent through Northwood, the Navy's command centre in west London, to the Conqueror. Wreford-Brown fired two non-guided torpedoes, which blew off the ship's bow.

Lord Parkinson said: "We discussed the Belgrano ad nauseam and what it was up to. Then up comes the Captain and says the Belgrano is going into shallower water and I can't follow it. Something as big as a nuclear submarine in shallow water was easy to hit. You couldn't allow that risk."

Pictures taken by survivors of the warship listing to port, before sinking, with orange rafts floating nearby, became one of the lasting images of the war, prompting the Sun headline: "Gotcha!"

Protests about the action were led by Tam Dalyell, the former Labour MP, who claimed the sinking had been ordered for political reasons by Lady Thatcher to destroy the last hopes of a peace plan being pursued in Peru by Perez de Cuellar, the Peruvian Secretary General of the UN, and Al Haig, the US Secretary of State.

Lord Parkinson denied this. "It was nothing to do with that. It was unanimous that if we had let the Belgrano go and it had sunk a carrier, we would all have been finished. We would all have had to stand down, if we had presided over the death of hundreds of British sailors and had the chance to avert it.

"What we didn't realise [was] the Argentinian destroyers took off immediately and they didn't search for survivors. They thought they would all get sunk... When we finally got the satellite pictures, we had pictures showing all the Argentine fleet in port."

Lord Parkinson also dispelled one of the myths of the war, that Britain relied heavily on surveillance from US satellites. The system was so slow that the US only supplied the photographs of the Argentine navy back in port the day after the conflict ended.

His disclosure that Britain received vital intelligence reports directly from Chile explains why Lady Thatcher supported General Pinochet when he was arrested in Britain for alleged war crimes, when he later came for treatment in a private London clinic. She said at the time that Britain owed a debt of gratitude to the Chilean leader for helping it win the war.

It became known later that General Pinochet had permitted a secret SAS surveillance team to use a long-range radar facility in Chile to monitor movements by the Argentine air force from its Comodoro Rivadavia air base – but until now, it was not known that Lady Thatcher was also supplied by the Pinochet regime with more vital raw intercept data revealing the orders to the Argentine commanders in action around the Falklands. The Cabinet records, which may confirm these details, are not due to be released under the 30-year secrecy rule until December.

 

Real Britannia, Britain's Proudest Years – The Glory and the Spin, by Colin Brown, will be published in October by Oneworld

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game