Do Unto Others: The 1982 South Atlantic Crisis
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In Part 1 of this series we reviewed the circumstances which led to the beginning of the 1982 South Atlantic crisis and the international response to the standoff between Great Britain and Argentina. In this chapter, we’ll see how the tensions between the Thatcher government and the Galtieri junta nearly erupted into open war after the Belgrano incident.
Just as the death of a U-2 pilot during the Cuban missile crisis nearly triggered nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, the loss of a dozen sailors aboard the cruiser General Belgrano during the South Atlantic crisis pushed Great Britain and Argentina to the brink of armed conflict. While some of the details of the Belgrano incident remain shrouded in what Clausewitz called "the fog of war", the overall sequence of events is duly recorded in both the British and Argentinian naval archives. On March 3rd, 1982, nearly two months into the standoff between Great Britain and Argentina, the General Belgrano was sent to test British naval defenses on the outer ring of the "Total Exclusion Zone"1 the Royal Navy task force had established around the Falklands.
At 1:30 PM local time that afternoon Belgrano was spotted and hailed by the British warship HMS Sheffield; when Sheffield directed Belgrano’s captain to reverse course and return to his home port at once, he replied that the Falklands-- or las Malvinas as the islands were known in Argentina --were Argentine territory and the British presence in the area was illegal. Sheffield’s own captain tersely informed the Belgrano skipper the Argentine cruiser’s actions were in violation of international law, and any further incursion by the cruiser into the Total Exclusion Zone would be deemed a hostile act by Argentina against Great Britain and answered accordingly.
The Sheffield had been assigned to the Operation Thunderbolt task force at the start of planning for the British military response to Argentina’s invasion threat against the Falklands;2 otherwise, it’s doubtful whether it could have reached the South Atlantic in time to play a significant role in the Falklands crisis. As it was, she would end up being one of the crucial factors in the chain of events leading up to the deaths of a dozen men aboard the Belgrano.
When told they were in violation of international law, the General Belgrano’s crew repeated their assertion that the British were in the Falklands illegally and the Operation Thunderbolt task force should leave the South Atlantic at once. To hammer home the point, Belgrano’s captain ordered his forward gun batteries to lock on Sheffield’s bow; in response, one of the Royal Navy carriers which was assigned to the Thunderbolt task force launched three flights of of Harriers to provide air support for the Sheffield should she need it. It was at this point one of Belgrano’s petty seamen-- whether he did it on his own initiative or on orders from his superiors has never been adequately explained --fired a surface-to air missile at one of the Harriers.
The Harrier managed to evade the Argentine SAM, but that made little difference to the British; in their eyes Belgrano had committed an act of aggression against Great Britain which could not be ignored. Just seconds after the Argentine SAM was launched, the Harrier which it had tried to take out deployed two Exocet missiles against General Belgrano.3 The first missile hit the Argentine warship’s bow but failed to detonate; the second Exocet, striking Belgrano’s port stern just behind her main engines, detonated on impact and tore a massive gash in her hull. Eight Argentine sailors were killed immediately; four more would succumb to their injuries in the ship’s sickbay. On both sides there was concern that this might be the moment when the tension which had simmered between Buenos Aires and London for months finally mushroomed into bona fide armed conflict.
Like Wild West cowboys helping a comrade off the floor after a saloon fight, the Belgrano’s escorts gathered around her to shepherd her out of the Total Exclusion Zone while Sheffield’s own escorts moved to form a mobile shield around the British destroyer. For the next few hours British and Argentine captains warily gazed at each other’s vessels, awaiting further orders from their admirals back in London and Buenos Aires.
Those orders came just after 6:00 PM. The high commands for both the Argentine and British navies directed all their respective ships to stand down from combat alert pending further instructions. War had, at least temporarily, been averted-- but for how long no one on either side of the Atlantic could say with any degree of certainty.
The residents of the Falklands themselves, meanwhile, found the standoff between Britain and Argentina increasingly hard to cope with. They were stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place; if and when a shooting war finally did break out in the South Atlantic, their homes would be directly in the line of fire. Many of the people on the islands were sheepherders, and they were understandably worried their flocks might become casualties of war.
On the Argentine mainland, there was growing impatience among the Argentine people for some sort of final resolution to the clash of wills between the ruling junta in Buenos Aires and the "Iron Lady" in London. The standoff over the Falklands had been dragging on for weeks and weeks; regardless of what they thought of the Galtieri regime as individuals, collectively Argentine citizens were reaching a growing consensus that the country’s military rulers were not doing enough to defuse the Falklands crisis before it spiraled out of control.
For that matter, the junta leaders themselves were fed up with the continuing impasse in the South Atlantic and decided it was high time to force a conclusion....
....and on March 9th, six days after the General Belgrano affair, they tried to do precisely that with an air strike on the Operation Thunderbolt naval task force. The Argentines aimed to take out the HMS Bristol, a Type 82-class destroyer assigned to help defend the task force’s aircraft carriers; the carriers themselves; the two County-class destroyers aiding Bristol in her guard duties; and the Type 42- class destroyers in the task force including HMS Sheffield.4
But the British weren’t going to simply roll over and play dead for the Argentine strike force. As soon as the first wave of Argentine jets was picked up on British radar, the Thunderbolt task force’s air element immediately moved to intercept the attackers. What happened next was an air battle which ended in a grisly stalemate and forced both sides to rethink their respective strategies regarding the South Atlantic crisis. Just as the Argentine jets were moving into attack position, they found themselves confronted with a hail of Sea Dart and Sea Slug SAMs along with air-to-air missiles from the Harrier jets in the British task force; a half-dozen A4 Skyhawks were shot down within less than a minute after the attack began.
This was assuredly not what the Argentine general staff had been envisioning when they planned the attack. They’d expected to achieve a swift surprise victory over the British task force, a jet age Pearl Harbor. But instead the British were matching the Argentine strike force missile for missile, shell for shell; for every wound that the Argentine jets managed to inflict on the British, they sustained quite a few wounds themselves.
Tactically, the Argentine air force’s performance that day was highly impressive. The strike force sank four British warships and substantially damaged three others; at the height of the attack an Argentine Super Etenard succeeded in knocking out several of the HMS Sheffield’s forward weapons batteries. And at least three Argentine fighter pilots became full-fledged aces as a result of the March 9th air strike on the Thunderbolt flotilla. But in strategic terms the attack was at best a stalemate for the Galtieri regime; half the jets in the strike force were lost to British fighters or SAM batteries.
Three hours after the attack commenced, the surviving planes were recalled to their home airfields in Argentina. The Galtieri regime’s hopes of handing the British a crushing defeat had been thwarted, but on the other side of the coin the British naval presence in the South Atlantic had lost some of its punch. If London were to prevail in the South Atlantic crisis, Prime Minister Thatcher’s advisors told her, it stood a better chance of doing so by political and diplomatic methods than by military ones. But Thatcher didn’t abandon the military option entirely...
Back in Buenos Aires recriminations were flying thick and fast among the Argentine general staff over who was responsible for the failure of the March 9th air strike to cripple the Thunderbolt task force. However, the Galtieri regime’s press spokesmen were working overtime to sell Argentina’s citizens on the ideas that the air strike had been a total success and the Argentine general staff was working as a united front. Problem was, the Argentine public wasn’t buying--within hours after the last jets from the strike force touched down at their home bases, a massive crowd of opponents of the Galtieri government gathered at Parque Centenario for a rally demanding a full account of the truth about the air strike. Even some of the regime’s supporters were beginning to wonder about the wisdom of the air strike.
The military and political clash between Britain and Argentina might have been at an impasse, but the Galtieri regime was starting to lose the battle for public opinion decisively. The ruling clique in Buenos Aires had a figurative gun to their heads; the main question at that point was where and when the trigger would finally be pulled...
To Be Continued
 The official British Ministry of Defence designation for the patrol area to which the ships in the Operation Thunderbolt task force were assigned.
 In fact, when the Thunderbolt task force first departed British waters, HMS Sheffield was in the vanguard of the main flotilla; it would retain that position for most of the task force’s journey to the Falklands.
 Early in the planning stages of Operation Thunderbolt British strategic planners, anticipating the possibility of an incident like the confrontation between the Sheffield and the General Belgrano, had recommended to Prime Minister Thatcher that a certain portion of the Harrier jets assigned to the Thunderbolt task force be outfitted with the air-launched version of the Exocet in order to enhance the task force’s defensive capabilities. Thatcher, looking for any edge she could get against the Argentines, was quick to accept the recommendation.
 Some have suggested that the Sheffield was placed on the Argentine air strike targets list in retaliation for what happened with General Belgrano, but declassified Argentinian defense ministry papers made public after the Galtieri regime’s collapse prove that plans for an air attack against the Sheffield were in place long before the Belgrano incident.