Vice-Admiral Sir Tim McClement casts his mind back 30 years. ‘When the hits happened everyone cheered because we’d done our job right,’ he says. ‘But within seconds you could hear a pin drop as everyone thought “it’s a long way from home, there were over a 1,000 people onboard that ship, the sea is cold, people have died”.’
His submarine HMS Conqueror had just blown two huge holes in the hull of the Argentinian warship the General Belgrano, sinking the former US Navy cruiser and killing 323 sailors.
Four weeks earlier, the 30-year-old officer had been happily driving along on the motorway and looking forward to Easter leave at his parents’ house in Bath with his wife and eight-month-old son.
But after a 12-hour journey from his base in Faslane, Scotland, a call was waiting for him to come back.
He said: ‘I got my head down for a few hours then got back in the car.
‘We were the duty submarine, which in those days meant if a Soviet submarine came down into the North Atlantic and it was detected we had to go. So my wife assumed I was going out to the North Atlantic.
‘She said “I’m not going with you. I’ll go to see my parents for a few days and you let me know when you get back”.’
At that point, little did he know he would not see his family again until July 3 when the Conqueror returned home flying the Jolly Roger to signal its kill.
As Executive Officer, then Acting Lieutenant Commander Tim McClement was co-ordinating the control room as the Conqueror fired three missiles on May 2, 1982.
He said: ‘We didn’t have the mindset of going to war. We were the Cold War warriors, so we were either going to have peace or the third World War with the Russians.’
After rapidly storing up enough food and supplies to last three months, Conqueror slipped out of Faslane on April 4 for a fast passage south that took 12 days.
Argentina had invaded a little-known territory 8,000 miles away from home. The Falklands War had begun.
‘All the way down we didn’t know if we were going to war or not because the peace negotiations were going on,’ said Sir Tim.
‘My job as second-in-command was to make sure everyone was trained up for whatever the captain wanted them to do. I worked the ship’s company for 18 hours a day to get them ready.
‘It was a very hard schedule. I remember one of the officers came to me privately and complained. He said “you are inciting this ship’s company to blood lust.”’
Just days later, Conqueror made an impact in the South Atlantic which would stun people in both Argentina and Britain. On April 30, the submarine had been told to find the cruiser General Belgrano and two destroyers which were thought to be one of three Argentine naval groups about to launch an attack against the Royal Navy’s task force which had recently arrived just off the Falklands.
‘They announced the Belgrano was outside the 200-mile exclusion zone and our rules of engagement meant that we couldn’t engage her,’ said Sir Tim.
By the following morning, the three ships could be clearly identified in the periscope. What followed was a tense 30-hour cat-and-mouse game as Conqueror silently followed the warship on the fringes the war zone.
Just before lunchtime on Sunday May 2, Lt Cdr McClement was summoned to the captain’s cabin.
He said: ‘The captain got me in. I sat there and he said “I’ve got the signal. It says sink the Belgrano.”
‘I think I was relieved. It felt like a logical thing to do.’
They discussed tactics and decided to use three Mark 8 torpedoes. Rather than their modern Tigerfish weapons, the Second World War Mark 8s were more likely to penetrate the Belgrano’s 8-inch thick armour plating.
‘It was a Second World War ship, so it made perfect sense,’ explained Sir Tim.
He added: ‘It was just before lunch.
‘I remember I made a broadcast to the ship’s company on the main tannoy system. I said “this is the First Lieutenant speaking.
The submarine will go to action stations at 1400 to conduct a Mark 8 attack against the cruiser Belgrano. Hands to dinner.”
‘I will always remember that we had roast pork with all the trimmings and then apple crumble and custard.’
After the sumptuous Sunday lunch, Sir Tim said he lay on his bunk for half an hour. He recalled: ‘I was just thinking “what have I got to do to do this right.”’
Then the time came. The control room was silent, steady and focused.
He said: ‘The captain goes to the periscope and just before he raises it he says “stand-by, final target set up.”’
With his heart pounding, Sir Tim said he busied himself co-ordinating the room. Then came the order.
‘The captain said “fire”, then the weapons electrical officer pressed the button and I started my stopwatch,’ he said.
Fifty-four seconds later, explosions rocked the Belgrano. Then the cheers rang out, followed by silence.
Fearing reprisals from the destroyers, Conqueror made a quick getaway.
Sir Tim is convinced the destroyers fired depth charges, but admits it could have been more explosions as the Belgrano went down.
The sinking was highly controversial back home because it happened outside the exclusion zone.
But 30 years on, the memory of the attack does not haunt the 60-year-old.
He said: ‘We were protecting the carriers and if we had lost them we would never have won the war.
‘It was the right thing to do and I believe it saved more lives being lost because their ships never came out again.
‘It had a very aggressive psychological impact on the Argentinians.’
THE sinking of the Belgrano was a defining moment in the Falklands War in 1982.
Two out of the three Mark 8 torpedoes fired from HMS Conqueror struck the warship at 4pm on May 2, sinking her and killing 323 of the 1,138 sailors onboard.
The stakes had been raised at 4am the day before when the Fleet Air Arm raided Port Stanley airfield with Sea Harriers.
It was feared Argentina would retaliate with an all-out assault and UK ministers decided they should land the first blow.
With HMS Conqueror on the tail of the Argentine battle cruiser General Belgrano, the order was given to sink her.
The incident spawned the notorious ‘Gotcha’ headline in The Sun. This was changed to ‘Did 1,200 Argies drown?’ for later editions as initial reports suggested hundreds more Argentine sailors had been killed in the icy South Atlantic.
The attack sparked a huge controversy after it emerged the 13,645-ton ship had been sunk 40 miles south-west of the Total Exclusion Zone – where forces from both sides were meant to be safe from enemy fire.
The sinking occurred 14 hours after President of Peru Fernando Belaúnde proposed a peace plan and called for regional unity, although Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and diplomats in London said they did not see the document until after the sinking.
Opposition MPs called for the resignation of Thatcher and there have been calls for an independent inquiry for many years.