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Falklands War

The Falklands War (in Spanish: Guerra de las Malvinas) was a conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands between March and June 1982. Though surprised by an Argentinian attack on the islands, Britain eventually prevailed and the islands remained in British hands, in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants. In Argentina, the conclusion of the war led to the downfall of the military junta and the restoration of a system of democracy.

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Ownership of the islands had long been disputed. In the 16th Century, the French were first to establish a claim by right of occupation, only to be expelled by Spain, which then ceded the Falklands to England. The islands remained unoccupied, however, and the English claim lapsed.

Argentina gained independence from Spain in 1816 and moved to occupy the Falklands (Islas Malvinas) in 1820, but that settlement did not endure and the Argentinian claim similarly fell into abeyance. Finally, in 1833 the islands were settled by the British. Argentina nevertheless continued to argue that the Malvinas were Argentinian territory. (For more details on the origin of the dispute see History of the Falkland Islands.)

With the late 20th Century absorption of the British Colonial Office into the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, successive British governments had come to see the dispute with Argentina as a minor problem which they would have been happy to relieve themselves of. Despite this, the 1,800 or so inhabitants (Kelpers) steadfastly refused to become part of Argentina, citing Article 73 of the United Nations charter to support their position. In 1965, under UN Resolution 2065, Britain and Argentina started negotiations on the islands' future, but seventeen years later little had changed.

Argentina had become a military dictatorship in 1976, and faced severe economic problems and civil disunity, in particular from leftist guerrillas (the Montoneros). A bloody victory over the guerrillas was achieved in 1981 but the economy was in an appalling state with inflation running at 140% when General Galtieri came to power in December 1981.

Build Up

Galtieri aimed to counterbalance public concern over economic and human rights issues with a speedy nationalist 'win' over the Falklands. Pressure was exerted in the UN with a subtle hint of invasion raised: the British missed this threat and continued to waste time (it is worth noting, British positions are not expressed centrally and monolithically but rather emerge from the operations of special interests and departments without always being uniform and consistent; this has often misled outside observers). The Argentinians interpreted the British position as disengagement, being willing to step away if the islands were invaded - a viewpoint encouraged by the withdrawal of the last Royal Navy presence in 1981 (together with a general down-sizing of the fleet) and the British Nationality Bill of 1981 which withdrew full citizenship rights from the Kelpers. The British also helped by being unwilling to believe that the Argentinians would invade.

The invasion plan was developed by Admiral Jorge Anaya[?], the passionately anti-British head of the Argentinian navy. Following the failure of further talks in January 1982, the plans were finalised and the invasion set for April. The attack was pre-empted by the 'invasion' of the island of South Georgia (800 miles east of the Falklands) on March 19, 1982 by a group of patriotic Argentinian civilians. The Royal Navy's Antarctic patrol vessel HMS Endurance was ordered to remove the civilians on March 25, but was blocked by three Argentinian warships and wisely retreated. However on March 30 despite the further evidence of the Argentinian navy loading troops in Puerto Belgrano[?] the UK Joint Intelligence Committee's Latin American group stated that "invasion was not imminent".


On April 2, Argentinian marines landed at Mullet Creek on the coast of East Falkland, advancing on Stanley[?]. By 08.30 the battle was over and the Governor had ordered his ten Royal Marines (Navy Party 8901) to surrender. The Royal Marines, the Governor and any others who wished it were shipped out to Britain.

In Buenos Aires huge flag-waving crowds flooded the Plaza de Mayo[?] on hearing the news. In London the government was in more of a state of shock on what became known as "Black Friday". The next day Argentinian forces seized the island of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, 1500 km to the east of the Falklands.

Argentine President Galtieri

The British were quick to organise diplomatic pressure against Argentina and to assemble a task force to dispatch to the islands, centred around the aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes. Although the public mood in the UK was in support of an attempt to reclaim the islands, international opinion was much more divided. Britain was a colonial power, seeking to reclaim a colony from a local power, and this was a message that the Argentinians initially used to garner support. However, the British won the diplomacy game by using the UN principle of self-determination and by appearing to be ready to compromise. The UN Secretary-General said that he was amazed at the compromise that the UK had offered but Argentina rejected it, and based their arguments on rights to territory based on actions before 1945 and the creation of the UN. Many UN members realised that if territorial claims this old could be resurrected, their own borders were not safe and so on April 3 the UN passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of Argentinian troops from the islands and the cessation of hostilities. On April 10 the EEC approved trade sanctions against Argentina.

Alexander Haig, the US Secretary of State, briefly (April 8-April 30) headed a "shuttle diplomacy" mission before President Ronald Reagan declared US support for Britain and instituted sanctions against Argentina. The support of the USA was not assured, and is reported to be the result of urging by Caspar Weinberger, who pushed the President to support the UK. Reagan famously declared at the time that he could not understand why two allies were arguing over a 'bunch of icy rocks'. However, American non-interference was vital: Ascension Island, a UK possession, was on lease to the Americans and the British needed to resume its use as a relay point. The USA also provided anti-aircraft missiles (although obsolete) and, so Weinberger later claimed, would have lent an aircraft carrier, although this was not public knowledge at the time.

The British were going to be reliant on a naval task force. This was in a number of parts. One was the taskforce centred on the aircraft carriers, commanded by Rear Admiral J. F. Woodward (commonly known as Sandy Woodward). A second was the amphibious assault force, command by Commodore M. C. Clapp. Contrary to common belief, Admiral Woodward did not command Commodore Clapp's ships. Both Clapp and Woodward reported directly to the Commander in Chief Fleet (CINCFLEET), Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, in Britain, who was the overall commander of the operation. In order to keep neutral shipping out of the way during the war, the UK declared a 'war exclusion zone' of 320 km around the Falklands before commencing operations.


By mid-April large air forces had been built up on Ascension, including a sizable force of refueling aircraft, and F-4 Phantom fighters to protect them. Meanwhile the main British naval task force steamed south from England, with a small force breaking off to assault South Georgia.

The South Georgia force, Operation Paraquat, consisted of a number of Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS) troops who were intended to land as reconnaissance forces for an invasion by the Royal Marines embarked on the RFA Tidespring[?]. First to arrive was the Trafalgar-class submarine[?] HMS Conqueror[?] on the 19th, and the island was overflown by a radar-mapping Handley-Page Victor[?] on the 20th. The first landings of SAS troops took place on the 21st, but weather was so bad that their landings and others made the next day were all withdrawn after several helicopters crashed in fog.

British Prime Minister Thatcher

On the 23rd a submarine alert was sounded and operations were halted, with the Tidespring being turned about to deep sea to avoid interception. On the 24th the British forces regrouped and headed in to attack the submarine, the ARA Santa Fe, locating it on the 25th and damaging it enough that the crew decided to abandon it. With the Tidespring now far out to sea and an additional defending force of the submarine's crew now landed, the force commander decided to gather the 75 men he had and make a direct assault that day. After a short forced march the Argentinian forces surrendered, making it official the next day. Prime Minister (Margaret Thatcher) broke the news to the media asking them to "rejoice, rejoice!".

On May 1st, operations against the Falklands opened with the Black Buck 1 attack by RAF Avro Vulcan V bombers on the airfield at Port Stanley. The Vulcan was designed for medium-range missions in Europe and did not have the range to fly to the South Atlantic, requiring several in-flight refueling missions. However the RAF's refueling planes were mostly converted Victors with similar range, so they too had to be refueled in air. A force of 11 refueling planes was required for only two Vulcans, a massive logistical effort. In the end only a single bomb hit the runway at Port Stanley, but the Argentinian Air Force (FAA) realized that the British were likewise capable of hitting targets on the mainland, and immediately recalled all jet fighters to the mainland to protect against this possibility. Thus the attack was a failure in a tactical sense, but a huge success strategically, denying any close support and requiring Argentinian aircraft to overfly British forces in any attempt to attack the islands.

Only minutes after Black Buck, nine Sea Harriers from the Hermes followed up the raid by dropping cluster bombs on Port Stanley and the smaller grass airfield at Goose Green. Both missions scored aircraft kills on the ground, as well as causing some damage to the airfield infrastructure. Meanwhile the FAA had already launched an attack of their own with Grupo 6, on information that landings had already taken place. Four of these planes were lost to Sea Harriers operating from the Invincible, while combat broke out between other Harriers and Mirage fighters of Grupo 8, both sides refusing to fight at the other's best altitude, until the Mirages finally descended to engage. One was shot down, and another was damaged and made for Port Stanley, where the now twitchy Argentinian defenders immediately shot it down.

On May 2 the World War II-vintage Argentinian cruiser ARA General Belgrano was sunk by the Conqueror (ironically also using WWII vintage torpedoes) outside the exclusion zone, with the loss of 321 lives (the British newspaper The Sun initially greeted this with the headline GOTCHA!). This loss hardened the stance of the Argentinian government. The loss of the Belgrano also became a cause-celebre to anti-war campaigners (such as Tam Dalyell), who declared that the ship had been sailing away from the Falklands at the time. To the Royal Navy though, the action was important because the two destroyers supporting the Belgrano returned to base, where they remained for the rest of the war.

Two days after the Belgrano sinking, on May 4, the British lost the Type 42 destroyer[?] HMS Sheffield[?] to fire following an Exocet missile strike. The Sheffield had been ordered forward with two other Type 42s in order to provide some sort of radar and missile "picket" far from the British carriers. After the ships were detected by an Argentinian Navy Air Force (CANA) P-3 Neptune[?] patrol aircraft, two CANA Super Etendards[?] were launched, armed with a single Exocet each. Refuelled by a C-130 Hercules shortly after launch, they went in at low altitude, popped up for a radar check and released the missiles from 20 to 30 miles out. One missed the HMS Yarmouth[?], but the other hit the Sheffield and set her on fire. She was abandoned several hours later and sank the next day. Meanwhile the other Type 42s were withdrawn from their precarious position, leaving the British task force open to attack.

The tempo of operations increased throughout the second half of May. UN attempts to mediate a peace were rejected by the British who felt inter alia that any delay would make a campaign impractical in the South Atlantic storms. On May 21 British forces made an amphibious landing near Port San Carlos[?], on the northern coast of East Falkland, putting 4000 men ashore. From there the plan was to advance southward to capture Darwin and Goose Green before turning towards Port Stanley.

At sea the paucity of British ships' anti-aircraft defences was demonstrated in the sinking of HMS Ardent[?] on the 21st, HMS Antelope on the 23rd, and MV Atlantic Conveyor[?], with a vital cargo of helicopters, runway building equipment and tents on the 25th. HMS Coventry[?], HMS Argonaut[?] and HMS Brilliant[?] were badly damaged. The Argentinians lost over thirty aircraft in these assaults. Reports after the war indicated that many British lives had been saved by SAS/SBS teams destroying aircraft on the ground.

On May 28 British forces took Darwin and Goose Green after a tough struggle, seventeen British and 200 Argentinian soldiers were killed and 1400 Argentinian troops were made prisoners. Due to a gaffe by the BBC the invasion of Goose Green was announced on the BBC World Service before it actually happened. By June 1 with a further 5000 British troops landed at San Carlos, Port Stanley was surrounded. The Argentinian air assaults continued with fifty Welsh Guards killed on RFA Sir Galahad and RFA Sir Tristram[?] on June 8. Many others suffered serious burns, but they were only on the ships because the loss of the helicopters on the MV Atlantic Conveyor[?] meant that they had had to be brought around by sea and the loss of the tents meant that they did not want to be unprotected ashore in the terrible Falklands weather.

June 12 was another day of bloody combat - on Mount Longdon thirty British and fifty Argentinian troops died; Mount Tumbledown was captured at the cost of fifty lives. Another thirteen were killed when HMS Glamorgan[?] was struck by an Exocet fired from the back of a truck, further displaying the vulnerability of ships to comparatively low-tech attacks. On this day Sgt Ian McKay of 4 Platoon, B Company 3 PARA died in a grenade attack on an Argentine Bunker which was to later earn him a posthumous Victoria Cross.

On June 14 the Argentinian garrison in Port Stanley was defeated. The commander Mario Menendez agreed to surrender and 9800 troops were made POWs. On June 20 the British retook the South Sandwich Islands and declared the hostilities were at an end.

The conflict lasted 72 days, with 236 British and around 700 Argentinian troops killed.


Militarily the Falklands War was important because it was one of the few naval battles so far to have occurred after the end of World War II. The Falklands War illustrated the vulnerability of surface ships to both missiles and submarines. In addition, the Falklands War illustrates the role of political miscalculation and miscommunication in creating war. Both sides seriously underestimated the importance of the Falklands to the other. Finally, the Falklands War illustrates the role of chance in determining the outcome of the war. Most commentators believe that the war would have ended in an Argentinian victory had one of the Exocets hit an aircraft carrier or if Argentina had waited a year or two before seizing the islands, by which time several carriers would have been decommissioned. Equally, if the Argentinians had made better preparations to hold the islands, they would have been able to do so, but they did not expect that the British would even attempt to prosecute a war 6000 miles from home.

Politically, the war was a massive boost to the popularity of Margaret Thatcher and played a role in ensuring her re-election in 1983, although several members of her government resigned, including John Nott, the former defence minister. It has also been said by diplomats at the UN that following the British victory there was an increase in international respect for Britain, formerly regarded as a fading colonial power. The war also had postive effects on Argentina, and the country's humilating loss forced military President Galtieri to resign, paving the way for the restoration of democracy.

See also: History -- Military history -- War

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