Falklands War anniversary: Why did Britain enter armed conflict with Argentina over these windswept islands?

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Today marks 36 years since Argentina seized control of the Falkland Islands from Britain, drawing the UK into an armed conflict that would prove to be one of the defining events of the 1980s for both countries.

The disputed territories off the southern Patagonian coast had been part of the British Empire since 1833, but the Latin American nation had long felt bitterly that the “Islas Malvinas” were illegally occupied and truly belonged to Buenos Aires.

In the early 1980s, Argentina was ruled by an unpopular military junta under General Leopoldo Galtieri, then facing civil unrest over the country’s tanking economy.

It needed an easy victory to win back public favour, a populist gesture to appease the people and unite the nation.

It found it in claiming back the rocky, windswept Falklands, then mostly used for sheep farming or the occasional military training exercise.

Admiral Jorge Anaya spearheaded the invasion, believing Britain would be unlikely to respond militarily. Defence Secretary John Nott had announced plans to withdraw the HMS Endurance from the region a year earlier, at that point the UK’s only naval presence in the southern Atlantic due to Cold War commitments elsewhere. 

Following a preliminary provocation on 19 March 1982 in which a group of Argentine mariners raised their national flag on South Georgia Island, commandos swept into the islands in a surprise attack on 2 April, easily overwhelming the small garrison of 80 Royal Marines stationed there in just three hours and forcing a surrender.

In response, prime minister Margaret Thatcher assembled a War Cabinet and a task force duly set out from Southampton on 5 April after Argentina ignored a United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution ordering it to withdraw immediately.

This “ad hoc armada” was hastily put together, with the ocean liners SS Canberra and the Queen Elizabeth II requestioned to ferry troops alongside the aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and Hermes and the nuclear submarine Conqueror. Servicemen have since recalled the wrong equipment being stowed in the wrong vessels in the rush to set sail, but the fleet nevertheless made for an impressive demonstration of naval might.

At home, tabloid newspapers helped whip up national fervour and a mood of “Rule Britannia” jingoism.

As the task force met up with RAF commanders at Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic, the complexity of the upcoming operation became clear. In addition to the difficult terrain and turbulent weather conditions of the Falklands, Argentina’s Air Force vastly outnumbered British Harriers.

Britain’s first foray, Operation Paraquet, saw SAS troops quickly reclaim South Georgia on 21 April. The Argentine submarine the Santa Fe was engaged and disabled four days later.

A jubilant Ms Thatcher appeared on the steps of Downing Street beside Mr Nott to report the victory and told the world: “Just rejoice at that news and congratulate our forces and the Marines.”

Air operations followed on 1 May. The Black Buck 1 raids by Vulcan bombers took out the runway at a key airfield outside Stanley (the Falklands’ capital), preventing Argentina from stationing Mirage III jets on the ground – an encouraging sign for British troops about to enter the fray.

As the war in the air escalated, with Argentina’s planes now pinned back to the mainland, the Conqueror carried out one of the most controversial acts of the conflict, sinking the light cruiser General Belgrano on 2 May. The attack killed 323 mariners, left 700 men in need of rescue from the freezing waves and effectively ended Argentina’s threat by sea.

Argentina claimed the warship had been returning to its home port, causing international condemnation and accusations that its sinking amounted to a war crime, although The Sun gleefully ran the word “Gotcha” as a banner headline across its front page. Ms Thatcher’s popularity soared, although she is remembered for losing her temper over the issue in an interview on the BBC’s Nationwide during the 1983 election campaign when voter Diana Gould grilled her on whether or not the doomed Argentinian vessel had in fact been fleeing the scene. 

The pivotal sinking was avenged two days later when the HMS Sheffield was set ablaze by an Exocet missile strike. Twenty crew were killed and a further 24 injured. The horrific burns many suffered were blamed on cost-cutting initiatives, which had left service personnel wearing flammable polyester uniforms.

When the ship finally went down on 10 May, it represented Britain’s first naval loss since the Second World War, a fact that brought the seriousness of the endeavour home to viewers watching events unfold on the nightly news.

Britain would lose further vessels, notably the HMS Ardent and Antelope, the MC Atlantic Conveyor and the HMS Coventry, but victory was slowly but surely becoming inevitable.

On land, troops took Pebble Island and San Carlos, where 4,000 men were landed in the bay known as “Bomb Alley” to secure the beachhead on 22 May in dense fog, an important tactical victory that enabled commandos to move in on Darwin and Goose Green before arriving in Port Stanley, their final destination.

The Battle of Goose Green, taking place overnight after the Antarctic sun sank on 27 May, saw 17 British soldiers killed including commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel H Jones, posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. On the Argentine side, 47 were killed and 961 taken prisoner. Conditions were tough for paratroopers crouching in the long grass, with ammunition scarce and covering fire from the HMS Arrow not forthcoming due to a jammed gun.

Corporal Stuart Russell of the Second Battalion, Parachute Regiment, recalled liberating local Falklanders from imprisonment in the town’s civic centre that morning:

“Up until [then], I couldn’t help thinking that, you know, why are we here, fighting over this godforsaken bit of country? Until we released the civilians from the community hall in Goose Green and we saw how grateful and appreciative they were and they spoke with Cornish or West Country accents and we realised that, hey, these are British people and they want to be British and as long as they want to be British, it’s up to us to help protect them.”

Special forces secured Mount Kent while the Welsh and Scots Guard and Gurkas fought at Bluff Cove. It was here that Simon Weston, who would become one of the war’s most famous faces, sustained the disfiguring burns that covered 46 per cent of his body when Argentine Skyhawks bombed RAF Sir Galahad on 8 June. Weston was just one of 150 Welsh Guards injured that day.

Stanley finally fell on 14 June and hostilities were officially declared over with the surrender of the South Sandwich Islands on 20 June.

In total, the Falklands War lasted 10 weeks and saw 255 Brits, 649 Argentinians and three native Falklanders killed.

In its aftermath, Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives stormed the 1983 general election with an increased majority while the Argentine government’s defeat led to rioting and the eventual collapse of the junta. Its grand gesture had spectacularly backfired.

Britons had watched the war play out on television in unprecedented detail and a significant proportion enjoyed the temporary boost to national pride, treating returning ships to a hero’s welcome in Portsmouth.

Deeper reflection about Britain’s place in the post-colonial world would follow, however.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges would memorably dismiss the conflict as “two bald men fighting over a comb”, but one of the most sensitive responses came from Elvis Costello.

His song “Shipbuilding”, best known in Robert Wyatt’s version, reflected on the tragic irony of war reviving the dockside industry of once-prosperous port towns only for those same newly-built ships to be used in sending local youth away to battle.

No such qualms were evident at The Sun throughout the war. The Rupert Murdoch-owned red top revelled in the conflict, decking out Page Three girls in Union Jack bikinis and selling T-shirts bearing the headline “Stick It Up Your Junta” in order to effectively crowdfund the purchase of a Sidewinder missile on behalf of the RAF with which to kill enemy soldiers.

A revival of that newspaper’s xenophobic hatred of “Argies” followed England’s exit from the France ’98 World Cup, when Argentina captain Diego Simeone was accused of feigning injury after being kicked in the calf by David Beckham, leading to the latter’s ignominious sending-off and England’s inevitable defeat on penalties.

Tensions continue to surround the sovereignty of the Falklands today, despite the UK and Argentina agreeing to collaborate on commercialising the chain’s oil and gas and shipping interests.

Previous Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was outspoken about her country’s claims to the turf despite the islands’ 3,000-strong population voting overwhelmingly in favour of remaining a British overseas territory in a 2013 referendum.

The UN ruled that the islands lie in Argentine waters in 2016 and the country has since warned Britain off carrying out “illegitimate” military drills on what still remains its own territory, seemingly dashing hopes that new president Mauricio Macri might prove an easier ally in the region.