The Falklands War: when was it fought, why did it happen and how was it won?

On 2 April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a remote British colony in the South Atlantic – sparking a short and decisive war that grabbed international headlines, created sizeable politicial drama, and involved great bravery and great tragedy. Explore when and why did the conflict started, how was it won and what it meant for British domestic politics with experts including Sir Max Hastings and Sir Lawrence Freedman

British Royal Navy Type 21 frigate HMS Antelope explodes in San Carlos Water, off East Falkland, after attacks by the Argentine Air Force during the Falklands War, 24 May 1982. (Photo by Martin Cleaver/Pool/Getty Images)

On 2 April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a remote British colony in the South Atlantic. The UK, which had ruled the islands for nearly 150 years (though Argentina had long claimed sovereignty), quickly chose to fight and Britain’s Navy sailed south to retake the Falklands. Writing in BBC History Revealed, Matt Elton explores 9 big questions surrounding the conflict…

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When was the Falklands War, and where did it take place?

The Falklands War saw Britain and Argentina battle for control of the Falkland Islands – a tiny archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean made up of two main islands (dubbed East Falkland and West Falkland) and around 776 smaller outcrops.

 

When was the Falklands War and how long did it last?

The conflict was fought between 2 April and 14 June 1982, lasting for 74 days.

 

How did the Falklands War start?

On 2 April, Argentina invaded and occupied the British dependent territory of the Falkland Islands, and they took the neighbouring island of South Georgia the following day. However, neither Britain nor Argentina declared a state of war at any point, meaning the conflict remained, officially, an ‘undeclared war’.

 

Why did the Falklands War start?

From an Argentine point of view, the war was sparked less by an ‘invasion’ and more by a reclamation of territory that was, by rights, theirs. The history of the Falklands is rather convoluted. France was the first nation to establish a colony on East Falkland in 1764, before the British claimed West Falkland as its own the next year. Five years after that, Spanish troops captured the fort of Port Egmont (Britain’s first settlement on West Falkland).

Fifty years on, a mercenary working for the United Provinces of the River Plate – a forerunner of what would later become Argentina – claimed possession of the islands. In 1833, the British reasserted their sovereignty and requested that the Argentine administration leave. Britain retained possession of the Falklands from that point on – but the issue of the islands’ sovereignty remained controversial.

In the early 1980s, Argentina was ruled by a military dictatorship – called a junta – and rocked by political unrest and economic crises. Its leadership believed that reclaiming the Falklands – the islands were about 300 miles off Argentina’s coastline, but over 8,000 miles from Britain’s shores – would appeal to nationalist sentiment and unite an increasingly fractious public behind the government.

Was the Queen opposed to the Falklands War?

In season 4 of The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II is seen looking distinctly unimpressed by events in the Falkland Islands. What did she really think of the war? Historian Dominic Sandbrook explains…

Queen Elizabeth II at Falkland Islands remembrance service 2007

 

What was the sinking of the Belgrano and why was it controversial?

A Commando unit, SAS troops and members of the Special Boat Squadron retook South Georgia on 25 April. Yet it was the sinking of the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano by British forces on 2 May that has been remembered as the conflict’s first major engagement – and it proved to be one of the most controversial acts of the war. Despite being discovered by the submarine HMS Conqueror outside of the exclusion zone, the decision was made to torpedo the cruiser – leading to the loss of 323 Argentinian lives.

The Sun’s headline in response to the sinking of the General Belgrano – “Gotcha” – remains one of the newspaper’s most famous (or infamous) front pages.

 

How did the Falklands War end?

By 12 June 1982, British forces had reached high ground around the capital, Stanley, and surrounded and blockaded its port. A series of short battles ensued, but it was clear that the town was cut off. Argentina surrendered on 14 June. British rule was restored later that year.

 

How many people died during the Falklands War?

The Falklands War left 650 Argentinian and 253 British people dead. Hundreds more were injured on both sides – the burns suffered by troops such as Simon Weston (a Welsh guardsman serving aboard the RFA Sir Galahad who was left with burns over 46 per cent of his body when his ship was bombed) became some of the most recognisable images of the conflict. Britain also captured around 11,000 Argentine prisoners, all of whom were freed when the fighting finished.

 

What did the Falklands War mean for Margaret Thatcher?

The conflict had received widespread popular support in Britain, possibly because the opening years of the 1980s had been characterised by bad news: economic recession, decline in industry, and – arguably – declining influence on the world stage. But the victory became a defining moment in British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s tenure.

As she put it in a speech in Cheltenham: “We have ceased to be a nation in retreat … we rejoice that Britain has rekindled that spirit which has fired her for generations past and which today has begun to burn as brightly as before.” It was a victory that was to translate into personal success for Thatcher: in the general election of the next year, her Conservative government won by the most decisive landslide since 1945.

 

Did the Falklands War resolve the issue of sovereignty?

In a word: no. Although the two nations re-established relations in a joint statement in 1989, Argentina still maintains its claim to the Falklands islands, even adding it to its constitution in 1994. In a 2013 referendum, all but three islanders voted to remain a UK overseas territory – a result dismissed by the Argentine government as a “publicity stunt”.

Matt Elton is the deputy editor of BBC History Magazine

Falklands War timeline: Sir Max Hastings picks 10 key dates in the conflict

19 March 1982 | A group of Argentines (purportedly scrap metal workers) land on South Georgia

2 April | Argentine forces invade the Falklands, capturing the islands after a brief fight

3 April | The UN Security Council calls unsuccessfully for an end to hostilities and an Argentine withdrawal

5 April | The British task force sets sail for the south Atlantic

25 April | South Georgia is recaptured by British commandos. Meanwhile the main task force has reached the vicinity of the Falkland Islands

2 May | Argentine cruiser General Belgrano is torpedoed by British submarine HMS Conqueror, resulting in the deaths of 323. Aerial and naval combat is stepped up

21 May | After the failure of several international attempts to mediate, British troops land on the Falklands at San Carlos and establish a bridgehead

29 May | British troops attack the Argentine positions at Darwin and Goose Green, inflicting heavy losses

8 June | Argentine aircraft raid the British supply ships Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad, killing 48 and injuring dozens more

14 June | Having captured important defensive positions, British troops arrive in Port Stanley, compelling the Argentine garrison to surrender

Sir Max Hastings is a journalist, author and historian, who became a household name reporting on the 1982 battle for the Falkland Islands. Here he shares his memories of what he describes as Britain’s “last really popular war

The politics of the Falklands War

Sir Lawrence Freedman, official historian of the Falklands War, examines the build up to open warfare

Britain’s first surprise at the start of April 1982 was that it was at war; the second that it was able to respond at all to the Argentine seizure of the Falkland Islands.

Argentina believed the British had taken the islands illegally from them in January 1833. In December 1981 a new military junta, led by General Leopoldo Galtieri, determined that the islands should be retaken, if necessary by force, by the 150th anniversary of this event. The British government had shown little interest in the islands, but stood by a commitment to the islanders, made first in 1968, that gave them the final say over whether sovereignty should be transferred to Argentina.

The population was tiny, barely 1,800 and declining. The British government saw little long term future, and was reluctant to invest in making the Falklands prosperous and secure. Yet it could not persuade the islanders to join Argentina, even under a lease-back arrangement that would leave them under Argentine sovereignty but British administration. By 1982 it had no policy other than procrastination, hoping the islanders might one day change their minds.

In March the dispute blew up in unexpected fashion. The island of South Georgia, uninhabited other than by the British Antarctic Survey, was administratively linked to the Falklands and also claimed by Argentina, although its constitutional history was quite different. An Argentine scrap metal merchant had a legitimate contract to clear up an old whaling station. His men were taken to the island by the Argentine Navy avoiding any formalities that would have acknowledged Britain’s sovereignty.

Their aim was to establish a long-term presence as a means of asserting Argentina’s sovereignty. From this a crisis developed that got out of hand. The junta became convinced that the British would use the crisis to reinforce their naval presence in the South Atlantic, thwarting any later attempts to take the Falklands. They decided to implement their occupation plans at once. On 2 April the Falklands was taken and a couple of days later so was South Georgia, after spirited resistance from the small Royal Marines garrison.

A plea by US President Ronald Reagan to General Galtieri not to go ahead was ignored. This was a critical moment for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She had gained a reputation for being tough yet was about to preside over the loss of sovereign territory. The Royal Navy came to her rescue. The First Sea Lord, Sir Henry Leach, insisted it would be possible to send a task force to retrieve the islands and that it could leave within days.

An Evening Standard headline on a London newspaper stand during the Falklands War reads 'British Troops Go In', May 1982. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
An Evening Standard headline on a London newspaper stand during the Falklands War reads ‘British Troops Go In’, May 1982. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The fact that this proved to be the case was testament to an extraordinary effort by the armed forces to pull together people and equipment at great speed. It also reflected poor Argentine timing, because they had picked a moment before British naval cuts agreed in 1981 had taken effect, and when one chunk of the fleet was gathered close to Gibraltar for exercises while the rest was back at port.

The fact that the Prime Minister could announce that a task force was sailing meant that political attention soon moved on from the humiliation of being caught out (helped by the resignation of foreign secretary Lord Carrington) and on to the campaign. The initial assumption was that sending a task force would create conditions for a diplomatic settlement. The US Secretary of State Alexander Haig shuttled between London and Buenos Aires trying to get a deal. Later, even after serious fighting had begun, the UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar also tried. The British agreed to substantial concessions, including a measure of Argentine influence over an interim administration while talks over the long-term future of the islands went ahead. The junta, however, could not bring itself in the end to concede that the talks might not end with a transfer of sovereignty. Diplomatic activity filled the weeks as the British task force sailed south.


How the British won the Falklands War

Sir Lawrence Freedman, official historian of the Falklands War, recounts what happened when the British task force reached the Falkland Islands

If an amphibious landing was going to be undertaken then first it would be vital to reduce the naval and air threat. The reduction of the naval threat was the result of one of the most controversial encounters of the war. As soon as the carrier battle group reached the Falklands area the commander, Admiral Sandy Woodward, managed to draw out the Argentine navy and air force by giving the impression of attempting a landing. The British Sea Harriers demonstrated their superiority in dogfights to the Argentine Mirage and Skyhawk aircraft.

Meanwhile the Argentine navy sought to catch the British fleet in a pincer movement. Woodward’s hope had been that a British submarine would be able to attack the sole Argentine aircraft carrier, but it had not been found. Meanwhile the old Argentine cruiser, the General Belgrano, had been found by a submarine, HMS Conqueror.

As this was outside the “exclusion zone” around the Falklands, within which the British had warned that any Argentine vessel could be sunk, a change in the rules of engagement was needed to permit an attack. This was agreed and the Belgrano was torpedoed by Conqueror on 2 May even though the Argentine pincer movement had by then been called off and the cruiser had turned away. This, and the loss of 323 lives in the attack, led to later controversy, including erroneous claims that the torpedo strike was really about scuppering a new peace initiative. The military effect was exactly as intended, as the Argentine navy never again ventured out.

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher leaving Downing Street following the announcement that British forces had landed on the Falkland Islands, May 1982. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
British prime minister Margaret Thatcher leaving Downing Street following the announcement that British forces had landed on the Falkland Islands, May 1982. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Argentina gained revenge on 4 May when Super-Etendard aircraft executed an exocet missile attack on HMS Sheffield. The next most deadly bout of fighting came on 21 May, when 5 Commando Brigade was landed at Port San Carlos. The initial landing was unopposed, but soon waves of Argentine aircraft came in. Over the next few days the ships of the task force took a battering, four being sunk and many others damaged. By the end of the month men and equipment were ashore and the fighting switched to land. The first battle, for Darwin and Goose Green settlements, was extremely hard fought, and led to the death of the commanding officer of 2 Para, Colonel “H” Jones.

By 12 June British forces had reached the perimeter defences of the Argentine garrison in Stanley, the Falklands’ capital – achieved with a considerable physical effort by the troops and the use of the limited supply of helicopters and ships, with only one major mishap when Sir Galahad was caught as it was unloading troops at Bluff Cove, with the loss of 47 lives.

A line of British soldiers in camouflage advancing across East Falkland island for the final attack on Port Stanley during the Falklands War, June 1982. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A line of British soldiers in camouflage advancing across East Falkland island for the final attack on Port Stanley during the Falklands War, June 1982. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The British launched their final push in a series of short but intense battles until finally the Argentine will collapsed. On 14 June 1982 the Argentine garrison surrendered.

The war cost some 650 Argentine and 253 British dead and did not settle the dispute: Argentina still claims the Falklands. If it had left well alone in 1982, depopulation would eventually have left the Falklands unviable. Instead the victory led to firmer British commitment, and so the Falklands is more prosperous and secure than ever before.

Sir Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College, London

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This content was first published in the July 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed and the April 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine