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General Belgrano: The Only Warship Sunk by a Nuclear Attack Submarine

General Belgrano
General Belgrano sinking. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

General Belgrano, a casualty of the Falklands War: On April 14, 2022, the Russian Navy’s guided-missile cruiser Moskva, the lead ship of the Project 1164 Antant-class and flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, was sunk a day after the Ukrainian Navy reportedly hit her with two anti-ship cruise missiles. The Russian Ministry of Defense has claimed that the warship sank after a fire broke out on board and detonated the munitions, which cause an explosion.

Moskva, which was the most powerful surface vessel in the region, was the largest warship to be sunk in combat since World War II. Her sinking occurred just shy of forty years since the last maritime casualty in wartime.

It was on May 2, 1982, during the Falklands War, when the Argentine Navy cruiser ARA General Belgrano (C-4) was torpedoed and sunk by the British nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror (S48), a Churchill-class nuclear-powered fleet submarine that served with the Royal Navy from 1971 to 1990. She was the third submarine of her class of boats, which were designed to face the Soviet threat at sea.

The Royal Navy’s boat was the only nuclear-powered submarine to have engaged an enemy warship with torpedoes, and was only the second submarine to sink any type of warship since World War II – with the first being the  Indian frigate INS Khukri, which was sunk by the Pakistani submarine PNS Hangor during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War.

The sinking of the General Belgrano quickly became infamous for the British media’s reaction. The Sun newspaper offered the seemingly cold-blooded headline “Gotcha,” yet at the time it was believed that an Argentine gun boat was sunk and the cruiser damaged. The incident has been compared to the yellow journalism that was rampant in the American press during the Spanish-American War.

While HMS Conqueror has been retired, her periscopes, captain’s cabin and the main control panel from the boat’s control room are now on display in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport in South East England.

Similarities Between General Belgrano and Moskva

In addition to sharing a similar fate, General Belgrano and Moskva were of similar size as each was about 600 feet in length and displaced 12,000 tons.  Each was among the largest warships in service in their respective fleets.

However, the crew of the General Belgrano – which was the former World War II era United States Navy Brooklyn-class cruiser USS Phoenix (CL-46) and sold to Argentina and renamed to honor the founding father of the nation Manuel Belgrano – had a crew of some 1,138 officers and men. When she was sunk by the Royal Navy, 323 of her crew lost their lives – and that accounted for just under half of Argentine military deaths in the war. Most of the sailors were conscripts and many were under 20-years of age.

The loss of the General Belgrano has now been eclipsed by the sinking of the Moskva, which is larger in size yet only had a crew of 500. According to Russian reports most of the crew was safely removed from the guided-missile cruiser.

Though the Ukrainian press hasn’t gone as extreme as the British tabloid, news of the sinking of the Moskva quickly spread on social media and videos of the cruiser on fire have gone viral. This incident has been just the latest public relations disaster for Moscow – either Ukraine scored a huge victory or Russian sailors showed utter incompetence.

“Both explanations for the sinking of the Moskva indicate possible Russian deficiencies – either poor air defenses or incredibly lax safety procedures and damage control on the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship,” analysts Mason Clark, Kateryna Stepanenko, and George Barros at the Institute for the Study of War wrote in their daily war briefing, CNN reported.

Finally, while the sinking of a cruiser may be only a minor blow to the Russian campaign in Ukraine, it does highlight the vulnerability of a modern warship operating near a warzone.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.