The HMS Conquerer is the only nuclear-powered submarine to engage an enemy with torpedoes. In a sea engagement during the Falklands War in the 1980s, two of the three shots fired at an Argentine cruiser hit home. Her hull pierces, the General Belgrano began listing and her captain called for the crew to abandon ship within 20 minutes.
In line with Royal Navy tradition, the Conquerer flew a Jolly Roger – a pirate flag – to note her victory at sea.
Submarines were considered “underhand, unfair and damned un-English,” by Sir Arthur Wilson, who was First Sea Lord when subs were introduced to the Royal Navy. Hs even threatened to hang all sub crews as pirates during wartime.
The insult stuck. When the HMS E9 sunk a German cruiser during WWI — the Royal Navy’s first submarine victory — its commander had a Jolly Roger made and it flew from the periscope as the sub sailed back to port.
The pirate flag soon became the official emblem of Britain’s silent service.
The 1982 sinking of the Argentine General Belgrano was only the second instance of a submarine sinking a surface ship since the end of World War II.
Argentinian sailors reported a “fireball” shooting up through the ship, which means it was not cleared for action. If the crew was ready for a fight, ideally, the ship’s doors and hatches would have been sealed to keep out fire and water, author Larry Bond wrote in his book “Crash Dive,” which covers the incident.
The Royal Navy’s Cmdr. Chris Wreford-Brown, the captain of the Conqueror, later said of the sinking:
“The Royal Navy spent 13 years preparing me for such an occasion. It would have been regarded as extremely dreary if I had fouled it up.”
Ships from Argentina and neighboring Chile rescued 772 men over the next two days. The attack killed 321 sailors and two civilians.
The Argentine Navy returned to port and was largely out of the rest of the war.