For just two and a half months in 1982, a brief but high-intensity war was waged in the South Atlantic over a strategically unimportant and very cold group of islands. Argentina had decided to act on its claim to the Falkland Islands with military force – a move that surprised the world and Britain, of which the Islands were a territorial dependency. Equally surprising was the speed at which Britain decided to act. Many thought the logistical and pragmatic attempt to stop the Argentines would be a bridge too far. But the government created no doubt as to what they intended to do.
The result was a short and very bloody conflict known as the Falklands War.
The Background to the Falklands War
Before the Falklands War, tensions over the ownership of the islands had been brewing for decades. Argentina had laid claim to the Falklands (Islas Malvinas) in the early 19th century after the collapse of the Spanish Empire, but Britain ignored the claim and resettled on the island in the 1830s, thereafter making it a Crown Colony of the British Empire. Nevertheless, the Argentine claim stood, and disagreements over ownership of the island continued into the 20th century.
In 1965, the United Nations called for the two countries to settle their dispute. While the British government considered transferring the islands to Argentine control, given that the islands were a considerable distance away and not pragmatic to maintain, the Falkland population was staunchly opposed to this and expressed their pride that they were British.
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Talks continued, but were inconclusive, with various proposals, including a leaseback scheme, rejected. In 1980, the UK Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Nicholas Ridley, stated, “If we don’t do something, they will invade. And there is nothing we could do.”
The Invasion Begins
On April 2, 1982, the Falklands War began as the Argentines invaded on the orders of president Leopoldo Galtieri. The small garrison of British troops was quickly overwhelmed and surrendered. Back in Britain, there had been an expectation that an invasion might occur. Naval assets had already been diverted the day before.
On April 6, a war cabinet was set up under the direction of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which consulted every day for the remainder of the war. The UN gave Britain the mandate to retake the islands by force, and the British prepared to take on the Argentines. When it became clear to the Argentines that the British would respond with military force, they increased the garrison of the islands to 13,000 troops.
The Argentines had also taken South Georgia island, a considerable distance southeast of the Falklands. This was the first target for liberation for the British.
The Start of the British Counteroffensive
In late April, 240 men from the Royal Marines, the Special Air Service, and the Special Boat Service were tasked with recapturing South Georgia Island. While a small naval battle ensued as several British frigates engaged an Argentine submarine, the land attack was a success, and the 190 Argentines guarding the island surrendered without a fight.
On May 1, the fight for the Falkland Islands proper began with the British bombing runways on the Falklands to impede Argentine resupply missions. The Argentines were forced to launch their air assaults via the mainland, as they wouldn’t be able to station fighter aircraft on the Falklands. Nevertheless, Argentina was able to fly several sorties, hampering the British task force and engaging British air defenses.
Below them, however, a large naval engagement was about to take place. On May 2, the sinking of the Argentine Cruiser, the ARA General Belgrano, by the British submarine HMS conqueror cost 323 Argentinian lives (including two civilians). Two days later, the Argentines struck back, sinking the HMS Sheffield, a British destroyer. The sinking of these two ships brought the reality of the severity of the war to the attention of the public in both countries. They realized that the Falklands War was a serious war, not simply a dispute that would resolve itself with light skirmishes.
Combat Over Sea, Air, & Land
Later in May, the Falklands War intensified again as the British Navy suffered many attacks from the Argentine Air Force. The air offensive was fierce, and the British lost several ships. Two frigates, a destroyer, and a merchant vessel carrying helicopters were sunk, while the Argentines lost 22 aircraft for their efforts. The Argentine attacks were constrained due to the fact that they had to fly at low altitudes to avoid British air defenses. This, in turn, meant that many of the bombs released by the Argentine aircraft did not have time to arm themselves. If the bombs had had shorter fuses, the British would have lost much more than they did in late May.
On May 21, as British ships were sinking and Argentine aircraft were being shot down, the British put ashore 4,000 men of the 3 Commando Brigade, who quickly established a beachhead. The Falklands War now also became a significant ground war. On May 27 and 28, a fierce battle raged at Goose Green, a village located at a strategic point that linked the north and south of East Falkland. The fighting was intense, lasting throughout the night and into the morning of the 28th. Eventually, the British forced the Argentines to surrender, capturing 961 soldiers in the process. This significant battle opened the way for further British operations on the island. Many documentaries have been made about this specific engagement in the war.
The Capital of the Falklands, Stanley, however, was overlooked by Mount Kent, on which the Argentines had increased their defenses. The mountain range ran east-west along the island, and the British understood that it had to be cleared for the safety of operations over the rest of the island. The main fighting took place on May 30 and 31. Elite British soldiers, including the SAS and Gurkhas, took on Argentine commandos in a series of patrol skirmishes. Although the human casualty rate was light, the British lost a Sea Harrier fighter jet to Argentinian ground fire.
The Final Stages of the Falklands War
On June 1, the British landed another 5,000 troops at the San Carlos beachhead. The air attacks continued against the British ships, but Argentine aircraft were too few to stop the British advance. On June 11, the final assault began as the British attacked the Argentine defensive positions around Stanley. With support from naval bombardments coming in from the east, the British assaulted three main positions, which have been recorded as three separate battles.
The Battle of Mount Harriet saw the British able to capture all the heights around Stanley, in the process capturing 300 Argentines. The Battle of the Two Sisters saw 650 British soldiers assault an Argentine shore missile battery guarded by 300 soldiers. Despite being outnumbered almost 2 to 1, the Argentines put up stiff resistance, confusing the British troops who suffered casualties due to friendly fire. Ultimately, however, the outnumbered Argentines surrendered. The biggest battle of the night was the Battle of Mount Longdon, which saw intense hand-to-hand fighting as well as ranged combat. Again, the Argentine defenses were outnumbered and overwhelmed. With the successes around Stanley, the British now completely surrounded the Argentine garrison.
A final attack on Mount Tumbledown on June 13 claimed the lives of 10 British and 30 Argentinians. Afterward, Argentines completely lost morale, abandoning their positions. The following day, Brigade General Mario Menéndez, the commander of the Argentine garrison at Stanley, surrendered, and peace talks began immediately.
The Falklands War was over two months and twelve days after it started.
The Cost & the Aftermath of the Falklands War
In only 74 days of the Falklands War, 907 people were killed. Only three civilians died, which stands in contrast to most wars, where the majority of those killed are civilians. Ironically, the three Falkland Island women in question were killed by British shelling and not by their Argentine enemies, who, for the most part, treated the Falkland islanders relatively well.
The Argentines lost 649 soldiers and two civilians (which included over 300 souls lost when the ARA General Belgrano sank), and the British lost 255 service members.
A factor in mitigating the number of deaths was the actions by both nations, who worked in cooperation in an area off the coast known as the “Red Cross Box,” where both countries had hospital ships. Patients were transferred between ships of both nations as they abided by the Geneva Conventions.
Following the Argentine defeat, Leopoldo Galtieri lost much support and, as a result, lost an election in 1983. In Britain, however, Margaret Thatcher’s popularity skyrocketed.
The diplomatic results of the war were quickly rectified, and Argentina and the UK enjoy good relations today despite the fact that Argentina still retains its claim on the islands. The most long-lasting physical effects of the war are the grave sites and memorials on the islands and in each country. Almost two hundred minefields required decades to clear, and the Falkland Islands were finally declared free of mines in 2020, nearly forty years after the war began.