Following the Second World War, Great Britain has inserted itself into numerous conflicts. Many of these have been fought on vast scales, waged for grand causes and clear geopolitical advantages. Korea was fought to help curb communism, Suez to control the artery of Mediterranean trade and even the Gulf Wars were waged for influence in a vital region of the world. It is perhaps strange then that the conflict which Britain remembers most fondly, the Falklands War, has been called a “fight between two bald men over a comb.” In the UK today, few know of the series of the strategic blunders and errors, made by both sides, which led to and determined the course of the struggle. Yet the Falklands War has still cast a long shadow, and has had a large, arguably disproportionate, impact on British and South American politics since the fateful summer days of 1982.
The saga began in 1690, when English seafarer John Strong made the first documentation of an archipelago 300 miles off the southern tip of modern-day Argentina. Naming the strait of water between the two islands the Falkland Sound, after one of his patrons, Strong moved on, giving the archipelago little further thought. Three-quarters of a century later, the French set up Port Louis on East Falkland in 1764, while the British set up Port Egmont on Saunders Island two years later. France would eventually cede their territory to the Spanish, who would then successfully invade Port Egmont, before ultimately handing the settlement back to Britain in order to avoid a larger war. Over the next few years, the two colonies co-existed. Eventually, the British, incapacitated by pressures from the American Revolutionary War, withdrew from the islands, leaving behind a plaque claiming ownership. During the Napoleonic wars, Spain also withdrew their colonists, such that the only inhabitants remaining were fishermen and gauchos, South American cow-herders. In 1823, the newly created state of Argentina laid claim to the islands, on the grounds that Spain’s claim had transferred to it upon independence. A decade later, the British returned to the scene and established a crown colony with a capital at Port Stanley. For almost a century and a half, both Britain and Argentina continued to lay claim to the islands but, aside from occasional sabre-rattling, neither side took serious steps to force the other to recognise their claim. By the 20th Century, Britain was the de facto master of the Falklands.
Then, on 2 April 1982, Argentina invaded the islands. This ultimately misguided decision was the result of the precarious political climate in Buenos Aires. Four months before, Leopoldo Galtieri had overthrown the previous regime and established yet another military junta. He was facing significant domestic unrest, particularly from pro-democracy protestors. Desperate to unite his people, Galtieri thought he had found the perfect glue: a full-scale invasion of the Falklands. This would be what political scientists call a ‘diversionary’ tactic, a war used as a quick victory to appease the people. Ironically, the war would be just that – but not for Galtieri. The Falklands, or ‘Las Malvinas’, were a symbol of British domination and Argentina’s powerlessness on the international stage. Accordingly, a successful invasion mere months into Galtieri’s reign would have immense political significance. Indeed, if the conflict had been intended to rouse popular support, the Argentinian public’s rapturous response to the junta’s initial success proved that Galtieri’s assessment had been accurate. The rewards seemed great, while the risk of failure seemed low: as the archipelago was defended by a mere eighty Royal Marines. Most importantly, the islanders seemed to have been neglected by the British, and Galtieri assumed his actions would meet with little resistance. As such, 4,000 Argentine soldiers were dispatched to secure ‘Las Malvinas’.
In hindsight, choosing to face off against a major world power may be sign of bad judgement. This certainly is true, but the idea that the British government would launch a serious response seems to have never crossed the Argentine generals’ minds. The British government had failed to send a coherent signal to the world about its stance on the Falklands. There had been attempts to negotiate with Argentina by proposing a ‘leaseback’ agreement, which would have involved nominal Argentinian sovereignty while the islands were leased to the British for an indefinite period of time. The Ministry of Defence had hoped to sell Argentina military hardware, and some parts of the Cabinet had pushed for the removal of the H.M.S. Endurance from active patrolling in the South Atlantic in order to balance the government budget. Although there was some heavy resistance, including a petition from 150 MPs, the H.M.S. Endurance was scheduled to be retired. Moreover, the British government did not grant the inhabitants of the Falkland islands automatic access to citizenship, which gave the impression that it did not feel that this archipelago was truly one of its overseas territories. Even when the government uncovered the plans for invasion, there were no serious attempts at negotiation or even an ultimatum.
From these clues, the junta inferred that the British government had abandoned their position in the South Atlantic. Britain was over 8,000 miles from the Falkland Islands, Margaret Thatcher was cutting government defence spending and the archipelago had little strategic significance to the British. There were several elements to the decision to wage war, but the most evident is Margaret Thatcher’s personal convictions. The British Prime Minister believed she was living through a repeat of the 1930s and was determined not to make the errors of the appeasers; compromise was a dirty word. Thatcher also recognised that the public would not tolerate ceding the islands to Argentina, and believed that she had morality and political reality behind her. While the opposition Labour party pushed for UN mediation, the government made cursory attempts to negotiate while launching troops from Portsmouth and Southampton on 8 April.
Since the Suez Crisis, American support had been a necessary condition for any British military action, and the Falklands War was no exception. Ronald Reagan attempted to mediate talks between the two parties but, when they broke down, sided firmly with the British. The US Secretary of Defence, Caspar Weinberger, offered help in the form of Sidewinder missiles, military intelligence and the use of the American airforce base on Ascension Island, which allowed the British war effort to proceed relatively smoothly. Moreover, the Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, feared that Galtieri would target his country next and thus provided military intelligence to help Britain curb the Argentine threat.
Argentina’s army consisted of poorly trained conscripts, as the invasion had been pushed ahead of schedule due to a dispute on nearby South Georgia. Argentine scrap metal workers had taken charge of an abandoned whaling station and raised their national flag. The H.M.S. Endurance had been sent to remove the workers by force, and the Buenos Aires regime sent marines to take over South Georgia. The Falklands War had begun by accident, forcing Galtieri to repossess the islands, before he realised too late in the day that he had overcommitted. Thus, the 13,000 soldiers that trickled into the Falklands were poorly motivated and did not have appropriate food, clothing and shelter. Meanwhile, the British force was hindered by its numerical inferiority, as it was only 6,000 strong. However, those 6,000 were well-prepared, having been stationed in Norway due to Britain’s NATO commitments, and were filled with patriotic furore.
On 30 April, Britain established an exclusion zone 200 miles around the islands. Within these waters any ship, of any country, would be struck without warning. The A.R.A. Belgrano appeared to be preparing to engage the Royal Navy. With considerable firepower from its six inch guns, the Belgrano was a serious threat. On 2 May, the H.M.S. Conqueror torpedoed the Belgrano, killing 323 sailors and deterring the Argentine Navy from playing a further role in the Falklands War. Controversially, the sinking occurred outside the exclusion zone, leading some to suggest it was illegal. The Argentinian Air Force proved to be a greater challenge for the British. The main force consisted of old Allied bombers, armed with little more than conventional explosives, which harassed and targeted British supply ships and frigates. These tactics proved surprisingly successful, however, the real threats were the Super Etendard fighter jets that were armed with Exocet anti-ship missiles. One of these sunk the H.M.S. Sheffield on 4 May, marking the first naval loss the British faced. The British only had 21 Harrier jets with which to face the 150 Argentinian planes, making them especially vulnerable to aerial assaults, since many of the battleships lacked the anti-aircraft systems they needed to defend themselves. Throughout the war, the skies would remain a tense battleground, but the Harriers proved extremely effective, taking down twenty-one enemy aircraft with no air-to-air losses. Still, the Exocet missiles remained a constant threat. The S.A.S. even developed plans for a daring, arguably suicide, mission (codenamed Operation Mikado) onto the Argentine mainland to storm the warehouses the missiles were held in, though this plan was shelved.
On 21 May, the British made an amphibious landing at San Carlos along the north of East Falkland. A week later, a regiment of soldiers engaged some defenders at the Battle of Goose Green. The Argentinians were camped on Darwin Hill, giving them a strategic advantage, but the British flanked them with a pincer attack. The commanding officer, Major John Keeble, sent a request for surrender and 961 Argentine soldiers were taken as prisoners of war. Before long, the order was given to move towards Stanley, the archipelago’s capital, and the men made their way across the islands. An Argentinian bomber raid had taken out most of the transport helicopters, forcing the British to travel by foot. This proved somewhat difficult, as the Falklands had very challenging and mountainous terrain. After an attack on the nearby encampments that cost ten British lives and thirty Argentine lives, the local Argentinian commander, General Mario Menéndez, surrendered to the incoming forces. On 14 June, Stanley was finally liberated.
Although the Falklands War was relatively brief, its consequences were long-lasting. The military junta in Argentina crumbled, its last effort to cling to power dashed, and a free general election was held the following year. The defeat also helped stabilise geopolitical tensions in South America, calming the jingoism of the previous Argentine military dictatorships. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher, who had been facing plummeting support due to her controversial economic policies, was able to regain popularity and won a landslide election victory in 1983, largely on the back of British victory in the Falklands War. Anglo-American relations were strengthened, and both President Reagan and Defence Secretary Weinberger were made Knights of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of their help. There was some controversy about the sinking of the A.R.A. Belgrano, but the Argentinian navy has since admitted that it was a legitimate act of war. To this day, the Falklands War is a sensitive topic – a subject of immense chagrin for Argentines, and a flicker of past glories for Britons. Argentina, however, still lays claim to the islands, and in 2013 its president penned an open letter requesting their return. Yet that year also saw a referendum which saw 99.8% of Falklanders reject joining Argentina, suggesting Las Malvinas will remain British for the foreseeable future.
Hastings, M., and Jenkins, S., 2010. The Battle for the Falklands. Pen and Sword Books.
Middlebrook, M., 2009. The Argentine fight for the Falklands. Pan Books
Woodward, S., 2012. One Hundred Days. Harper Press