The Falklands War
Accounts of this war have filled numerous specialist books, websites and dozens of documentary films have been made on the topic too. I can't and won't attempt to compete with this already rich body of resources. Those interested in the (military) details should consult the relevant specialist sources. One work I can personally recommend in particular is the large-format 625-page tome "The Falklands War Then and Now", edited by Gordon Ramsey and published as part of the "After the Battle" Series by Battle of Britain International Ltd, 2009.
Summary of the main events:
The Argentinian invasion
began on 2 April 1982 (preceded, though, by the landings in South Georgia
) and is generally regarded to have taken the world by surprise. There had been signs of an impending invasion shortly before, though, so when it did happen the British government was already in a position to respond. The Argentinians certainly did not expect the response they then got. They assumed that the islands would be easy prey and that Britain would not make the disproportionate effort to reclaim them militarily. That proved to be a miscalculation.
Initially, though, everything went as planned. The Argentines landed an initial force of just under a thousand troops, supported by armoured vehicles, and then quickly proceeded to head for the islands' capital, Stanley
. Here, the then governor Rex Hunt had only a small contingent of about 70 Royal Marines to summon up to defend the town and Government House. They did exchange some fire with Argentinian soldiers (killing one), but being so vastly outnumbered by enemy forces they soon had to surrender. It is sometimes speculated that images of the humiliating way in which the Marines were then disarmed, forced to lie face-down by the roadside, contributed to the psychological reaction in Britain to support a military revenge. It was to be not the last of the psychological mistakes made on the Argentinian side.
One thing the Argentinian military junta of the time, under the leadership of General Leopoldo Galtieri
, had clearly not reckoned with was the resolve of then British Prime Minister "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher
. And whatever may be thought of her often ruthless politics at home, in the Falklands
she is universally celebrated as the key figure who liberated them from Argentinian rule in 1982.
Thatcher had already sought advice from military leaders and they came to the conclusion that while it would be a daring operation it could be done and be successful. So Thatcher declared that Britain would not stand by and let the Argentinians have the island but would come to the islanders' rescue. Parliament supported this. A naval Task Force was put together within a few days to be sent down to retake the Falklands. Neither side, however, ever actually declared war on the other! So the political-legal status of the conflict always hangs in the air to a degree.
Being so far from home, the prerequisite air power for Britain could only come from aircraft carriers, and thus the two carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes formed the core of the fleet, carrying just 42 Harrier fighter aircraft as well as a number of helicopters. Several destroyers and frigates accompanied these flagships as did a fleet of further support vessels. Two ocean liners were requisitioned (the SS Canberra and the famous Queen Elizabeth 2) and quickly adapted for the purpose and these then acted as the main troop transporters. The whole mission to retake the islands was code-named Operation Corporate (don't ask my why that strange choice of name).
Of course, the long distance of the voyage meant that the fleet wouldn't get to the Falklands for a good three or four weeks. So another plan was hatched in the meantime to deliver long-range air strikes first. This was named Operation Black Buck
and consisted of British Avro Vulcan
bombers striking Argentinian radar as well as Stanley
airfield to prevent it being used to station fighter jets directly on the Falklands
The Vulcan had been developed in the earlier phases of the Cold War
as part of Britain
's nuclear deterrent and was as such ill-suited for the Falklands job. It first had to be adapted to carry suitable conventional weapons and, most importantly, be prepared for in-air refuelling capacity, without which it could never travel the distances required. In fact, the logistics of the multiple in-air refuelling operation was the toughest nut to crack in the operation – some of the tankers themselves required in-air refuelling to get to the last refuelling point for the bombers and return to base on Ascension Island, from which the whole operation was orchestrated.
In the end only minimal damage to the targets was inflicted by these daring raids. One bomb did hit the runway but it was quickly repaired. The more important point of the operation, however, was probably more of a psychological nature anyway – as a sign that Britain was indeed serious about its military involvement and was able to deliver such an impressive operation (indeed Operation Black Buck was at the time the longest-range bombing raid ever flown in anger).
When the task force got closer, the first phases of engagement between Argentine and British military took place out at sea – and at first mainly in the air.
Then, on 2 May, the British submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoed and sank the Argentinian cruiser ARA General Belgrano. Well over 300 Argentine seamen perished – almost half of the total of fatalities the country suffered in the whole conflict. What made the sinking so controversial was the fact that she was outside the "total exclusion zone" that the British had imposed ... but the cruiser may have been on the way to move into action ... and the zone may no longer have applied at the time of the sinking in any case. The whole thing remained rather unclear. In Argentina, though, it clearly upped the resolve to fight this through; ceasefire offers made in the diplomatic background were rejected by the junta.
The British Navy in turn suffered its first and most dramatic loss when the destroyer HMS Sheffield
was sunk by an Argentine fighter jet firing a French-built Exocet
missile. It was the first ship the Royal Navy lost since WWII
. 20 seamen perished. Back in Britain it brought home the realization that this was no longer merely a "crisis" or conflict, but a real war and that some of "our lads" would not come back.
More losses followed during the landing operations
of British troops on the islands themselves. These first took place near San Carlos
in Falkland Sound between the two main islands. Argentine jets sank two frigates, another destroyer and a support ship that carried a vital cargo of transport helicopters. Their loss was a major blow to the anticipated logistics of the on-the-ground operations.
After all these setbacks, the famous Battle of Goose Green
of 27 May marked the first major British success on the ground and is generally regarded as a key turning point in the war. See under Goose Green & Darwin
Shortly after, during preparations for more landings at Bluff Cove and Fitzroy
the British incurred yet more severe losses due to Argentine air strikes, but with Goose Green taken, the final push towards Stanley
Part of the preparation for this included a march, literally on foot, of soldiers with full backpack loads making their way across the rough terrain between San Carlos and all the way to the mountains around Stanley. These marches introduced the military slang word "yomp
" to general British English usage at the time. One of the most iconic images of the war was taken during these marches: it shows a "yomper" flying the Union Jack from his backpack en route to Stanley. (The original is owned by the Imperial War Museum
The battle for Stanley had several phases and involved various mountains whose names have since become famous in the context of the Falklands War, including Mt Tumbledown, Mt Kent, Two Sisters, Mt Harriet, Wireless Ridge and Mt Longdon – see under Stanley and environs
. These battles were nasty affairs, often involving hand-to-hand combat and random shelling, all taking place at night.
More than one element of luck – as well as Argentinian mistakes – were involved in the eventual success of the British troops. For instance, the Argentines turned off vital surveillance equipment at night or dug hilltop positions at angles unsuitable for overlooking the slope beneath. On Mt Londgon, the British moved up a mountain slope right through a gap left between two minefields by the Argentinians – had they approached just a few yards further left or right they could all have been blown up. In short, things could have taken a turn for the worse on various occasions for the British. On the other hand: the under-equipped and under-trained Argentinian conscripts were always at a severe disadvantage against their professional British counterparts.
At the final stages of the battle for Stanley
the Argentinian resistance fell apart. Late in the night of 14 June, the Argentine commanding officer General Mario Menendez signed the surrender
, though it wasn't fully unconditional. One condition he managed to push through in the final negotiations was that the officers would be housed separately from the regular soldiers in the POW
holdings – as they were fearing for their own lives .. at the hands of their own former soldiers. These may well have lynched their former superiors for the way they had treated their soldiers had they been given the opportunity. It gives you an idea to what degree the officers of the Argentinians lacked rapport with their own conscript troops, who they even viewed with contempt.
In contrast, the temporary POW accommodation for these soldiers was then actually considered an improvement over what they had had to endure out in the field. Over 11,000 Argentine soldiers were taken prisoner, and they were soon repatriated.
In total the 74-day war had cost just over 900 lives, more than two thirds of them on the Argentinian side. Non-fatal casualties were similarly lower on the British side. However, that was not the end of it. The physical and mental scars were more enduring. Many returning veterans suffered from PTSD due to their traumatic war experiences and suicide rates were high amongst them – and that on both sides too, in similar proportions (i.e. much worse amongst Argentinians).
What makes for a stark contrast to virtually all other wars in modern history, however, is the fact that the number of civilian casualties was infinitely lower than within the military. Internationally, the trend has long been that each war caused more and more civilian suffering than the previous one and always increasingly more than on the military side. In the Falklands War, on the other hand, there were only three civilian fatalities – and these were caused by friendly fire, namely when a British shell accidentally hit a house in Stanley.
After the dead were buried (and in many cases reburied) and the battlefields had been cleared up as far as was possible (though minefields and and other relics remain to this day), peace returned to the Falklands – and eventually prosperity too, in fact much more so than it had ever been before the war ...