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 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. 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.
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 sinking of the Belgrano
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)
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)
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 professor of war studies at King’s College, London.
This article was first published in the April 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine
Writing the ‘official history’
The origins of the Falklands War can be traced back to the colonial conquests of the 18th century and 15 years of tortuous and inconclusive negotiations, but the war itself was short and decisive. Packed into two and a half months was an isolated rural community at the heart of international attention, political drama, crisis diplomacy, epic journeys on the high seas, and land, sea and air battles that involved great bravery and great tragedy.
From the start I found the story fascinating (I had taken up my post as professor of war studies at King’s College, London, the day before the Argentine invasion) and the chance to write the Official History was irresistible. Of course at one level there was nothing new to say. Most of the key actors had written their memoirs and numerous books had been published covering every aspect of the war. My time with the government archives did allow me to throw light on some of the important controversies – notably the sinking of the General Belgrano, but also the fact that nuclear depth charges were carried to the south Atlantic and the sequence of events that led to the loss of Sir Galahad. In some ways the most interesting part of the research lay in discovering how the armed services, officials, diplomats and politicians adapted to the crisis, as they faced decisions on which lives and reputations depended for which they were barely prepared.