Falklands War: 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands

Why did the Falklands War start

From the mid 1970s until the turn of the 1980s, Argentina had been in the grip of civil unrest at the military junta that had effectively run the country. In the spring of 1981, the recent periods of economic stagnation saw a transfer of power between Generals Roberto Viola and Jorge Videla. During December of that same year, another junta was brought into office that was headed by General Leopolo Galtieri – who became acting President – Admiral Jorge Anaya and Air Brigadier Basilio Dozo. Anaya was in full support of the Argentine claim over the Falkland Islands and became the main driving force behind the Argentine efforts to reclaim them from British rule. He gambled that the UK would not respond when the first Argentinean troops landed on the islands on Friday 2nd April 1982.  The Falklands War would result in this miscalculation.

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Map of the Falkland Islands.

Admiral Anaya was wrong to assume that and British forces were despatched to reclaim the Islands. The Argentine Government had hoped that by opting to take matters into their own hands, it would galvanise other Argentines to act. Maybe that did have an effect. A group of Argentine scrap metal merchants were responsible for the first official offensive action in the ten week conflict when they raised the Argentine flag on South Georgia Island. These merchants were not acting alone, as it was said that marines had infiltrated this group and either: took an active role in the operation, or had totally instigated it. The HMS Endurance, an ice patrol vessel under the command of the Royal Navy and the only naval presence in the entire South Atlantic, was ordered to leave Port Stanley and head for Georgia in direct response to this invasion. Several warnings had been issued prior to the original invasion, most notably by RN Captain Nicholas Barker. None of these were taken seriously and when the first incursion actually took place, Britain was surprised that efforts had been launched to reclaim Argentine sovereignty for the Islands. Barker come to the conclusion that an annual review proposed by then Defense Secretary John Nott to withdraw the Endurance might have prompted Argentina to act.

Argentina occupies the Falkland Islands

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The Argentine flag is raised by the Government House in Port Stanley.

Argentine military forces met minimal resistance when they landed on the Island. Governor Rex Hunt delegated command to Royal Marine Mike Norman. Troops engaged in battles at Moody Brook Barracks, Port Stanley and finally at Government House, where a surrender was made and Argentina began an official occupation of the islands. A telex between Hunt and the MoD in London confirmed this. Further confirmation was given by BBC Correspondent Laurie Margolis, who had spoken directly to an islander at Goose Green. The islander also said that a large fleet was off-shore while soldiers had seized key areas of the island.

A task force was quickly set up and despatched to the Falklands under the command of Sir John Fieldhouse. Under the codename Operation Corporate, the idea was to engage in a series of military operations with the sole purpose of regaining control of the islands. Of all the serving personnel in the conflict, Prince Andrew became the last member of the Royal Family to engage in an active conflict when his helicopter squadron was part of the offensive. This task force was not the first military response from the MoD. Two submarines, HMS Splendid and HMS Spartan, were ordered to head towards the newly established exclusion zone around the islands. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Fort Austin was also ordered to head for the Falklands all the way from the Western Mediterranean. A third submarine – HMS Superb – was assumed to be on its way to the conflict when it left Gibraltar. This was likely a tactic on the part of the media to try and instill some panic among the Argentine forces. While the task force headed for action, an emergency meeting was called by Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher and her cabinet set up a War Cabinet to monitor the ongoing situation and provide daily oversight of the campaign. Throughout Operation Corporate, the War Cabinet reviewed the conflict and reported to the Defense and Overseas Policy Committee every day. The Prime Minister was said to have dominated the War Cabinet, but would often consult with the Labour Party and other political parties.

The World Reacts to the Argentinian Invasion of the Falkland Islands

The UK’s United Nations ambassador, Sir Anthony Parson, draft a resolution condemning the invasion and demanding an immediate withdrawal of Argentine forces. This motion was passed the following day with ten votes in support, one against and four nations declining to vote altogether. The UK also received additional support from members of the Commonwealth and the European Economic Community. The EEC went further by imposing sanctions on Argentina. Many Latin American countries came out in support of Argentina. Chile provided some intelligence for the UK Task Force and possible early warnings for Argentine operations. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Robert Muldoon, offered the HMNZS Canterbury to assist in the war effort. In the United States, the Reagan Administration was becoming more and more concerned that Argentina may turn to the Soviet Union for extra support in the growing crisis. When Argentina rebuffed American efforts for a peaceful solution, the USA offered support for British operations. By the time that the Task Force left British waters, the fleet comprised of 127 ships which included 62 merchant ships and the SS Canberra, an ocean liner which doubled as a hospital ship during the engagement.

The Falklands War Starts

One of the first objectives was to retake South Georgia. Major Guy Sheridan commanded the combined forces of the Royal Marines, Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS) soldiers that were deployed for Operation Paraquet. The SBS troops were mainly utilized for reconnaissance. The SAS first landed on 21 April but had to contend with inclement weather. After two helicopters crashed in thick fog, the decision was taken to delay the mission. Three days later, Paraquet regrouped and prepared to launch the attack. A submarine, the ARA Santa Fe was spotted by a Westland MK3 helicopter on 25th April and attacked it with depth charges. Several other helicopters also assisted in the attack with torpedoes and machine-gun fire. The stricken submarine suffered considerable damage and was not able to dive to safety. The crew abandoned the sub at King Edward Point. Operation Paraquet ground forces used a naval bombardment from two Royal Navy vessels to march on an Argentine outpost and took control with ease. The Argentine troops surrendered without offering resistance. This was the first step in the battle for the Falklands, but more was to follow.

On 1st May, a Vulcan bomber overflew the airport at Port Stanley and dropped conventional bombs on the tarmac. These raids were difficult to determine in terms of effectiveness. While the mission itself was a success, there was some cost in terms of resources. In order to accomplish this mission, the Vulcan bomber had a 9000 mile round trip, which required several refuelling sessions. A few Victor K2 tanker aircraft were needed. This did prevent Argentina from deploying additional air support on the islands and was considered instrumental in forcing a rethink and withdrawing some of Argentina’s Mirage III jets.

Several Argentine Grupo 6 launched an attack on Royal Navy vessels that were actively engaged with other ground forces. All aircraft managed to return safely after the bombing run which gave a much needed boost to Argentine pilots. There was some doubt as to whether or not the Dagger aircraft, which the squad were using, could survive an assault against warships intact. Several other Argentine jets that were engaged in a dogfight with British Harriers were not so fortunate. At least two Argentine pilots were shot down. A pair of Mirages were sent to scout the immediate area and ended up participating in another dogfight. One was struck by a sidewinder missile, while the other managed to escape and headed back to the airbase in Port Stanley. Unfortunately for this pilot, the Mirage encountered friendly fire close to base.

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The ARA Belgrano sinking. Image: Public Domain

The major turning point in the war was the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano. The Belgrano was a light cruiser of World War 2 vintage and was sunk by a nuclear powered submarine called the HMS Conqueror. Argentine losses totalled 320 – almost half of their overall death toll – while more than 700 other sailors were rescued from cold and stormy waters. Back in Buenos Aires, the Government stiffened their resolve and hardened their stance on hostilities. There was some debate as to whether or not the Belgrano was inside the exclusion zone; it has also been commented that the ship was actually heading for port at the time. Controversies like these aside, the sinking itself had a dramatic effect on active naval personnel. With the exception of the ARA San Luis, all Argentine vessels returned to port and remained there throughout the remainder of the conflict. With the withdrawal of the ARA Veinticinco de Mayo – an aircraft carrier – and its support vessels, no direct naval threat to British vessels remained.

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Argentian Super Etendard with Exocet missiles.

One major obstacle might have been removed from service, but others remained. Two days after the loss of the Belgrano, Argentina hit back by sinking the HMS Sheffield with a well aimed Exocet missile. The incoming missile hit the Sheffield in mid-ship and took the lives of 20 crew members. A further 24 were injured and the ship itself was abandoned several hours later. While the damage was severe and fires raged for quite some time, it took almost ten days for the ship to finally sink.

HMS Sheffield fatally damaged by an Argentinian Exocet missile.

The United Kingdom Gains Advantage

On 21st May, approximately six weeks after the original incursion, a new offensive dubbed Operation Sutton began overnight. Led by Commodore Michael Clapp, this was an amphibious landing on the north western coast of Falkland Sound, known locally as Bomb Alley. Several thousand troops took part in Sutton and much of the night was spent trying to wrestle control away from Argentine forces. When dawn broke, a secure beachhead had been established. Having secured a foothold on the island, attention now turned to additional targets. Key targets included Darwin and Goose Green before ultimately liberating Port Stanley. The Argentine Air Force retaliated to this loss by conducting nightly air raids for several more weeks. Having worked so hard to establish a base of operations on the island, British forces were not about to let their South American counterparts gain the upper-hand once more. Two ships – the HMS Coventry and Broadsword, were ordered to act as decoys. Coventry, the sister ship to Sheffield, was also lost. HMS Argonaut and Brilliant were damaged extensively during these air-raids, but many British ships managed to avoid being sunk by Argentina’s own tactics. Many Argentine air-raids took place at low altitudes in order to evade British defences. Because of this, Argentine bombs often had little to no time in order to fuse properly and so did less damage than they were designed for. Some bombs didn’t even detonate on impact.

One week after securing Falkland Sound, 2 Para marched on Darwin and Goose Green. Ground hostilities began early on 27th May and lasted over a day in total. A tough fight was eventually won by 2 Para but with the loss of 64 lives on either side. Over 900 Argentine troops were taken prisoner. News of this victory was actually released prematurely. The BBC reported that Goose Green had been taken back while fighting was still taking place. The commanding officer of 2 Para was Lieutenant Colonel H. Jones and during this engagement, he was killed while charging at Argentine defensive positions. This action earned him a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions in the Falklands War.

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Infantry deployment on the Falkland Islands. Image: Eric Gaba

5000 British reinforcements arrived on 1st June and plans were immediately drawn up to converge on Port Stanley and win the war outright. Air attacks continued on British vessels unabated. Attacks made on 8th June were particularly notorious. Scores of sailors were killed in bombing raids on HMS Sir Galahad and RFA Sir Tristram. Many others were injured, including Simon Weston. Once the war was over, Weston would go on to become a national celebrity for several years after – owing to the state of his injuries.

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The landings at San Carlos. Soldiers of 5 Infantry Brigade disembark at a jetty from one of HMS INTREPID’s LCVP Landing Craft. © Crown copyright. IWM (FKD 931)

When a small advanced party of 2 Para were helicoptered towards Port Stanley, it was reported that no Argentine forces were visible. Taking the initiative, 2 Para commandeered an additional helicopter to ferry additional members of 2 Para ahead towards Bluff Cove. This ad-hoc operation proved a real headache for 2 Para’s commanding officers, who had to think and act fast when they realised that there was a 30 mile indefensible position along the southern flank. Air support was not possible as the only viable Chinook helicopter was massively oversubscribed with the war effort. Soldier’s equipment and supplies could only reach them by sea. Effectively, they were stranded. The troops refused to continue on without their equipment and were forced to head to Bluff Cove.

Commandos from 40 Commando Anti-Tank Troop march towards Port Stanley. Royal Marine Peter Robinson, carrying the Union Flag attached to the aerial of the radio he is carrying, brings up the rear. © Crown copyright. IWM (FKD 2028)

On board the Sir Galahad, there was a stern debate over what to do. Officers insisted that it wasn’t possible to sail to Bluff Cove that day and could best do so under cover of night. Infantry had the choice of disembarking and marching for seven miles, but that would have to be done in double quick time, as it left the Galahad and other vessels open to attack. Eventually the order was given to send the battalion ashore. The time taken for this order to be issued, coupled with the time it would take for the landing craft to reach Bluff Cove had dire consequences for the troops. Without escorts or an established air defense, the soldiers were sitting ducks for the occupying forces. Footage of the survivors being winched onto helicopters within the thickening black smoke flashed around the world and became some of the most enduring images of the entire war. The plans for Port Stanley had to postpone for a couple of days.

Final Assault and Argentinian Surrender

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Lieutenant Commander Dante Camilette of the Argentine Marines under arrest on 27 May 1982 having been found observing British warship movements from a concealed position above San Carlos Water. © Crown copyright. IWM (FKD 2024)

Britain’s final assault on Port Stanley began on 11th June after several days of planning, reconnaissance and logistics. Night time raids on heavily defended high grounds overlooking Port Stanley were supported by naval gunfire from several ships anchored off-shore. At the same time, other attacks were launched on Mount Harriet, Two Sisters and Mount Longdon. All of these locations were fiercely contested, none more so than Longdon. Every objective was won back and the British advanced continued. However, both sides did suffer heavy losses. The second phase of the offensive took place two nights later when Mount Tumbledown was also liberated. Argentine forces were now firmly on the back foot. On 14th June, Brigade General Mario Menéndez formally surrendered. Within the span of one week, the South Sandwich Islands had also been retaken. The end of the short war was now sight and a British victory was all but assured.

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Argentinian prisoners of war. Image: Public Domain.

Immediate Effects of the War

Back in London, the popularity of Margaret Thatcher surely increased on the back of this victory. As leader of the Conservatives, she managed to turn a possible defeat in a general election and turned it into a major landslide victory the following year. In that same year, the Falkland Islanders had full British citizenship restored and investments made by Britain improved their lifestyle considerably. The Falklands War had helped Argentina to avoid another conflict with neighbors Chile and also perhaps had a hand in bringing the country a democratically elected Government for the first time in a decade.

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Les Hewitt

Les currently resides in London and contributes to several online magazines on a regular basis. When not writing or working, Les is studying web development.