1982 saw one of the strangest conflicts in imperial history as Britain found itself forced to come to the rescue of 1,800 subjects who were invaded and occupied by a major South American nation. In many ways, this was the last example of old-style gunboat diplomacy and certainly the last imperial war.
The ownership of the Falkland Islands has been in dispute since the 18th Century and even before that. See the Falkland Island entry for details of the early history of this archipelago. It was always hoped that the chain would provide a useful base for the Royal Navy, which indeed proved to be the case in the First and Second World Wars. However in a period of post-war decolonisation, the Argentinians expected and hoped that British interest in the South Atlantic would fade and sovereignty of the islands would be handed in their direction. The British did indeed seem to wish to shake off their responsibility for the islands and the 1,800 settlers (almost all of British stock) who lived there. The strategic necessity for naval bases scattered across the globe was no longer effective and the islands had no dockyard or repair facilities. In fact, they did not even have an airport until the 1970s (and that was constructed by the Argentinians). The island economy was tiny and could not even cover the costs of the 40 man Royal Marine garrison (NP8901) that had been stationed there since 1966.
1965 saw a United Nations resolution passed which requested that Britain and Argentina negotiate a solution to the sovereignty question with a view to finding a peaceful resolution to the problem. The next 17 years saw tortuous diplomatic negotiations as successive governments and negotiators on both sides sought to seek a compromise that suited the Argentinesm the British and, most critically of all, the Falkland Islanders. It did not help the Argentinian cause for a string of military governments to seize control of the country and rule with horrendous human rights' violations. The Argentinian so-called 'Dirty War' saw myriad opponents of the regime 'disappeared'. They were often tortured and some were even thrown from aircraft or helicopters into the South Atlantic. Falkland Islanders naturally assumed that they might expect to end up as victims of these fascist military regimes should the Argentines take control of the islands. These military dictatorships had ruled Argentina on and off since the time of Peron at the end of the Second World War. The British government found it diplomatically difficult to hand over 1,800 people who did not want to leave the protection of their mother country. There were various ideas floated for sharing or transferring elements of sovereignty. Even as late as 1980, the British government under the direction of Nicholas Ridley was trying to push the idea of a 'leaseback', where the islands would be given to Argentina and then leased back by Britain for a 99 year period. Ridley had entered into secret negotiations with his Argentine counterpart to see if they could come to a compromise that would please both sides. But even this idea was too unpalatable to the Falkland Islanders who did not wish to cede any sovereignty to the Argentines under any circumstances and certainly not to one ruled by Fascist military juntas. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, could see that the discussions were polarising opinion in the islands and making a deal less likely rather than more. Besides, he did not wish to put too much pressure on islanders who had access to a sympathetic lobby in Britain and especially amongst the Conservative establishment. Ridley was promoted out of his job and replaced by the more relaxed Richard Luce. Unfortunately, this relaxation in pushing the Falkland Islanders antagonised the Argentinians who were increasingly of the opinion that negotiations with the British were becoming pointless and were not going to result in an eventual transfer of sovereignty. It did not help that Britain sent further confused messages to the Argentines when it came to demonstrating their continued long-term commitment to the islands.
The early 1980s saw a period of deep economic stress in Britain. The newly elected Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was savagely cutting back spending across the board in Britain. Some of these cuts would send very mixed messages to the Argentinians who sensed that perhaps British opinion was moving away from supporting the Falkland Islanders. The British government announced that it was closing down the Antarctic Research station on the nearby island of South Georgia. John Nott, the Minister for Defence, announced sweeping cuts in the Royal Navy including the withdrawal of the Antarctic Research vessel HMS Endurance from service and making it clear that it would not be replaced. Perhaps the most baffling decision was the withdrawal of Full British Citizenship for the islanders. This had actually been introduced to prevent a massive influx from Hong Kong before its return to China, but the rules were applied to all the British dependencies and possibly helped convince the Argentinians that British commitment to the islands was beginning to wear thin. These signals helped the Argentine generals convince themselves that the British might not have the resolve to recover the islands by force should the Argentines be able to seize them.
The British government was not the only government to see economic difficulties in the early 1980s. The Argentinian military government (the Junta) had presided over a collapsing currency, runaway inflation at over 100% and had been forced to introduce savage cuts of their own in Argentina. It was these cuts to services and benefits that saw Argentines take to the streets early in 1982. These demonstrations began to get out of hand, and the Junta sensed that it was losing popularity and even the ability to impose law and order. It was thought that they might be able to restore some of their credibility by playing to their institutional strength and launching an invasion of what they referred to as the 'Malvinas'.
Escalation of Tension over South Georgia
The trigger that would lead to the full scale invasion of the Falkland Islands was actually a tragicomic affair over the nearby island of South Georgia. An Argentinian scrap merchant dealer, Constantino Davidoff, had won a contract to clear up an old whaling station owned by the British company Christian Salvesen. The Argentine navy became aware of the opportunity that this presented and decided to make arrangements to facilitiate Davidoff's movements. They christened their plans 'Project Alpha' and had in mind an excuse to set up a presence in the islands to challenge British sovereignty. But for a British Scientific Detachment, the islands had been uninhabited since the departure of the whaling industries. The Argentines were attempting to replicate their establishment of a 'scientific station' on South Thule which had been manned since 1978. Davidoff was provided the services of an Argentine Naval ice-breaker, the Almirante Irizar to accomplish his task. The voyage provoked suspicion by the British who wondered why they did not receive notification of its journey until after it had departed Buenos Aires, why it refused to return radio calls and why it did not register its arrival at the British science station in Grytviken as was required. When the lead British scientist, who also acted as the island's chief magistrate, went to investigate the activities of Davidoff at Leith Harbour he found a wall painted with 'Las Malvinas son Argentinas' scrawled upon it. The British protested to the Argentines but kept the protests at the diplomatic level.
Davidoff returned to South Georgia on board the Bahia Buen Suceso in March of 1982. Once again, there were irregularities in informing the British, in maintaining radio silence and in failing to inform the British upon their arrival. The British Antarctic Survey went to investigate after hearing gunshots - possibly from hunting the endangered reindeer on the island. They found a substantial party of 50 mixed civilian and military personel barbecuing reindeer and with an Argentine flag flying a hastily erected flagpole. British signs warning against illegal entry had been defaced and scattered upon the floor. A building holding BAS supplies had been broken into and BAS food, stores and equipment had been rummaged through. British scientists reported this fact to the authorities in Port Stanley. Governor Rex Hunt sent an urgent request for the Argentinians to take down the flag and to leave the island. The British also decided to send two dozen Royal Marines on HMS Endurance from the Falkland Islands to ensure that their instructions had been observed. The Foreign Office became involved in warning the Argentinians of the provocation of their actions. They summoned the Argentine Ambassador to 10 Downing Street and instructed their own Ambassador, Anthony Williams, to complain vehemently directly to the Argentine Government.
In response, the Argentine government assured the British that the team would be removed and on the 22nd March the Bahia Buen Suceso indeed departed. What the British did not yet know was that 39 members of the Argentine team remained in place on the island. The Captain of the Endurance, Nicholas Barker, claimed that he heard the Argentine Navy radio congratulations to the Bahia Buen Suceso for a successful operation and noted increased Argentine aerial activity around the island. The BAS team soon discovered that Argentines were still at Leith despite requests for them to leave. The Endurance was ordered once more to sail to Leith to with their Royal Marines to investigate. Meanwhile, the Argentines despatched their own contingent of Marines to South Georgia to 'protect' the 'workers' there. The contingent was originally on its way to South Thule to drop the team on that British controlled island - which in itself was an illegal act designed to challenge British sovereignty over the South Shetlands. The ship carrying them, the ARA Bahia Paraiso, was diverted towards Leith to deposit the Marines there on March 24th. Two Argentine missile carrying corvettes, ARA Drummond and ARA Granville were also ordered to take up a position between South Georgia and the Falklands, presumably to intercept the Endurance in the event of hostilities breaking out. Clearly the situation was escalating.
It was at this point that the Junta decided to bring forward their existing plans to invade the Falkland Islands. What they did not want was for the British to bring military assets to the region to deal with the escalating crisis in South Georgia but which might then be diverted to thwart any Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. In particular, they were apprehensive about suggestions that the British might send a submarine to the area to enforce Argentine evacuation and support the activities of Endurance. The British were indeed contemplating sending the submarines but it would be a while before any could arrive. This made timing a severe issue for the Argentine Navy. The Navy had always been the most hawkish of the three armed services when it came to military intervention over the islands, and that desire was not diminished now. If it was going to launch an invasion, it had to be done whilst the islands were relatively undefended. HMS Endurance was a research vessel with a couple of 20mm cannons - a submarine would be a far more severe threat to an invasion force. With demonstrations breaking out on the streets of Argentina, the military Junta took the gamble to launch an invasion - before any submarine might arrive in the area. They agreed to launch the invasion at a meeting on the 26th of March. Leave was cancelled as soldiers and sailors were told to report to various depots and ports. The invasion was on. Ostensibly, it was claimed that the ships were leaving for a major naval exercise but the fact was that they had taken live ammunition and supplies and had only one goal in mind.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, Margaret Thatcher's government thought that it was still dealing with ownership of South Georgia and not the Falkland Islands in general. After Endurance confirmed the presence of Argentine forces on South Georgia and intelligence reports confirmed the departure of the Argentine Fleet, the Royal Navy was placed on standby and preparations were considered for a Task Force by Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse who was the Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy. The British were fortunate that a large part of their own fleet was already out at sea in the Atlantic Ocean taking part in an exercise not far from Gibraltar under the command of Admiral John 'Sandy' Woodward.
On the 29th March, the British took the decision to send RFA Fort Austin to the South Atlantic to allow Endurance to stay on station longer. They also decided to send two submarines, HMS Spartan and HMS Splendid, but it was going to take a few more days to get them ready for the long voyage south. By a happy coincidence, the new detachment of 8901 was en route to taking up its post in the Falkland Islands. The 1981 detachment was still in post awaiting its relief from the new team. Arrangements were made to get the new 8901 team to Port Stanley without having to use the Argentine Air Service that operated out of Stanley Airport. RSS John Biscoe ferried the new 8901 troop from Montevideo to Stanley arriving on the 25th. The old detachment was ordered to stay in place until a resolution of the situation in South Georgia was satisfactorily achieved. Of course, some soldiers had been despatched to South Georgia under Lieutenant Keith Mills on the Endurance leaving a total of 67 troops on the Falklands themselves. Nevertheless, this was still clearly a tiny force against a fully fledged invasion force. 8901 had only ever been designated as a 'trip wire' force along the prevailing Cold War doctrine of the era. The idea being that they would offer resistance to prove dispute to any forced landing and to trigger an excuse for the despatch of a larger force. No one was under any illusions that the force could in any way prevent an invasion. Its purpose was to demonstrate sovereignty and illustrate a determination to defend the islands and give political justification for a future force to come to the aid of the islands.
The British were still convinced that war was not inevitable at this point. They were under the impression that the Argentines were testing British resolve over the sovereignty of South Georgia and had not anticipated that the Falklands might be the immediate target. The Argentines made it clear that they would resist any forced attempt by the British to arrest or escort any Argentines on the island of South Georgia, but the British assumed this was another attempt along the lines of the South Thule occupation to dispute British sovereignty of this lonely island. The British assumed that if they avoided direct confrontation then the situation could be contained. However, they did order Endurance to land its small 22 man contingent at King Edward's Point but to await further instructions on how to proceed. They did not wish the force to accidentally escalate the situation further. What the British government did not realise was that the situation had already gone beyond any point that could be recovered by peaceful means alone.
The Argentine Invasion
The British did not discover that the Falkland Islands were the intended target for an Argentine invasion until March 31st. British Intelligence discovered that the Argentines had been gathering weather data for the Falkland Islands, an Argentine submarine had been deployed off the coast of Port Stanley, the Argentine 'exercises' had been broken off and the fleet was sailing towards the Falkland Islands, an army commander had been appointed the commander of an amphibious force and most distressing of all, the Argentine Embassy in London had been ordered to destroy all of its documents. Plotting the movements of the ships, British planners predicted that an invasion force could expect to land on the Falkland Islands in the early hours of April 2nd.
There now erupted an enormous political panic in Britain as they realised what faced them. Margaret Thatcher was being advised by the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence that there was little that the British could do to respond to this force. John Nott was telling her how little military capability the British had in the South Atlantic and that any attempt to recover them would be hugely expensive. The Foreign Office argued that Britain should try and negotiate some face-saving deal to offload the expensive and diplomatic liability of the islands. It was at this point that the First Sea Lord, Sir Henry Leach, intervened decisively. He managed to convince the Prime Minister that Britain might not be able to save the islands from invasion now, but that it had the capability of retaking them, but only if the government made the necessary arrangements immediately and to dedicate fully its military assets, and especially naval ones, to the task. Margaret Thatcher was persuaded of the merits of his case despite the scepticism of others in her cabinet. Many were mindful of the legacy of the disaster of the Suez Canal Crisis and wondered if Britain might not be walking into a similar shambles now. For the time being, she gave Leach the necessary authority to formally organise a Task Force designed to recover the islands, even before they had technically lost them!
The Royal Marines on the island came under the command of the newly arriving Major Mike Norman who was slightly senior to the outgoing commander Major Gary Noott. The Royal Marines did not find out about the imminence of an attack until April 1st after Governor Hunt received the following telex at 3pm local time:
"We have apparently reliable evidence that an Argentine task force will gather off Cape Pembroke early tomorrow morning, 2nd April. You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly."
Major Norman had to set about organising a rapid defence of Port Stanley with the small number of Marines at his disposal. The Falkland Islands have a coastline of over 1250 kilometres and so it was clearly impracticable to defend anywhere in depth. As it was, he selected the beaches nearest to Port Stanley that would allow Landing Craft to disembark its troops upon. Unbeknownst to Norman, the Argentines intended using Amtracks which required a different gradient from Landing Craft, Norman therefore concentrated his defences on the wrong beach. His intention was only ever to slow down any invading troops as they retreated towards Government House and the seat of government. The point of this was to give Governor Hunt the maximum amount of time to coordinate a political response to the invasion.
The tiny detachment had to spend the rest of the day and night preparing for an invasion. It was at this point that it began to dawn on them what a 'tripwire' force entailed. They had very little equipment at their disposal, apart from small arms and machine guns, they only had a few anti-tank weapons and a few hundred yards of barbed wire. It also dawned on them that no relieving force could possibly reach them in time. They literally were 'on their own'.
The only help they could expect was from a small contingent of Royal Naval hydrographers who had been left in Stanley to make room for the Royal Marines who had been despatched to South Georgia on the Endurance and the 120 strong Falkland Islands Defence Force which was mustered from volunteers on the island. The FIDF had even more basic equipment than the Marines and relied on bolt action rifles and side arms almost exclusively.
The two contingents of NP8901 melded seamlessly into operation with one another, despite the fact that they had only just met each other. The Royal Marine training and esprit de corps combined with the futile but necessary task before them to produce determined teamwork and preparatory work. They laid barbed wire, set up observation posts, primed their guns and loaded up with ammunition. Annoyingly, the weather on the night of April 1st and morning of April 2nd was calm and provided perfect conditions for a seaborne invasion. The governor declared a State of Emergency and sanctioned the detention of various Argentinians living in Port Stanley as enemy aliens.
To try and ascertain the location and intended direction of attack of Argentine the invasion fleet, Mike Norman sent out the MV Forrest to try and identify the invasion fleet which it was able to pick up on its radar system.
The first that most Royal Marines and indeed Falkland Islanders became aware of the invasion was when the Royal Marine barracks at Moody Brook was systematically attacked by grenades and raked by gunfire at 6am by an Argentine special forces team that had come ashore at Mullet Creek. Another special forces team had been given the task of going directly to Government House and 'snatching' the governor in a decapitation manoeuvre. Gunfire started from the high ground overlooking Government House at about 6:10. Mike Norman quickly realised that his plan for a steady fallback to Government House from Yorke Bay had been compromised. There were Argentine troops already behind them as evidenced by the gunfire from the barracks and on Government House itself. He quickly decided to fall back to help the small team defending Government House and ordered his other detachments to make their way back towards Government House. It was becoming light and the journey was made more complicated by more and more Argentinians coming ashore. The Marines had to run through gardens and back alleys to keep from being spotted. Mike Norman made it back to Government House only to find it heavily under fire and being attacked by grenades - which meant that the Argentinians were close. The wooden top floor of the building was riddled with bullets but the stronger stone groundfloor was faring better. The defenders managed to repulse this initial attack and the Argentine special forces withdrew back to the high ground overlooking the building. The 'snatch' team had failed in its mission and decided to wait for reinforcements. Shouts to surrender were met with expletives from the defenders.
The special forces were waiting for the Amtracks with their contingents of Argentine Marines to arrive. These came ashore near the airport and rumbled along the roads towards Stanley and Government House. At 7:15, an RM contingent armed with anti-tank weapons engaged the advancing column. At least five missiles were fired, two of which found their targets. The Amtrack was totally destroyed with an unknown number of casualties. The following Amtracks stopped and disgorged their contingents of Marines to engage the attackers. The RM team fired back for a while before withdrawing through a white phosphorus smoke screen once they had come under mortar fire. Unfortunately, the team had exhausted its supply of anti-tank weapons and so headed back towards Government House. This attack slowed the Argentine advance but it was not able to stop it.
Strangely, the governor was able to keep the islanders abreast of events through the radio station. He was broadcast live as gunshots whistled pass Government House often talking to the presenter on a telephone from underneath a table. The Marines were able to stabilise their defensive perimeter as the black-clad and often silhouetted Argentines made easy targets for the defenders. They also managed to capture three Argentine special forces who had somehow managed to enter the building during the initial assault. This victory was short-lived as it became clear to all that the Argentines were just waiting for the Amtracks and their 30mm cannons to arrive and finish them off. By this time, the airport had also been taken and troops were landing by Hercules. Governor Hunt agreed to meet the Argentine commander in charge of the invasion, Admiral Busser to discuss the situation at 9:15. Hunt was dressed in his full governor's regalia with peacock hat and all. He refused to shake the hand of the invading command and starkly reminded the Admiral:
"This is British territory. You are not invited here. We don't want you heare. I want you to go, and to take all your men with you now!"
Admiral Busser replied:
"I've got 800 men ashore, another 2,000 on the way. We don't want to kill any of these Marines. We thought that if we came in such numbers they would not fight. I want you to stop the action now before Marines are killed and civilians of Stanley are killed."
"In that case, you don't give me any option." and ordered Mike Norman to tell his troops to "lay down their arms."
Governor Hunt though, had come to the conclusion that their point in resisting invasion had been made and he did not wish to see any further casualties. Therefore, he ordered the Marines to stand down from offering any further resistance. All but six did. These six were chosen to hightail it to the mountains to provide reconnaissance, intelligence and offer further resistance if necessary. The remaining prisoners were made to lie down and have their pictures taken which were then beamed around the world. This was a grave error on the part of the Argentine invaders. This public humiliation of the Marines would make it more difficult for the British government to back down and not react to the naked aggression.
Rex Hunt, civil servants and the Royal Marines were flown out of the island and returned to Montevideo, Uruguay from whence they returned to Britain for a debriefing. Confusingly, American intelligence reports had claimed that the Falkland Islands had been taken without a fight and this had been repeated on broadcasts around the world. It was only when Hunt, Norman and the rest of the Marines returned that they could clarify the extent of their armed resistance. They had done what was required of them and had demonstrated dispute with the arrival of the Argentinians. Members of the 8901 were invited to form a new 'J Company' as part of 42 Commando in the 3rd Commando Assault Brigade which was being assembled to retake the islands. Many of the defenders flew back to Ascension and rejoined the fight for the Falklands and would ultimately be permitted to re-raise the Union Jack at the termination of the war.
Despite news of the British surrender on the Falkland Islands, the far smaller Royal Marine contingent on South Georgia under the command of Lieutenant Keith Mills decided to resist Argentine attempts to take the island. This was despite the fact that Lt Mills had far from clear orders from Britain about the level of resistance that he should offer. On the 3rd April, the Argentine commander called upon the magistrate to surrender by radio. The BAS commander had already decided to pass his authority over to the military command of Lt Mills. The Argentines had requested that the British assemble on the beach to surrender and set down a section of men by helicopter 40 yards from the Marines with more being set up across the bay. One of the Argentine soldiers aimed their guns at the British who immediately took up defensive positions. The Argentines opened up and a firefight ensued. When the Argentine helicopters tried to reinforce their foothold they became the target of concentrated fire from the Royal Marines. It was severely damaged, barely making it back across the bay to do a forced landing. Another helicopter was also damaged and pulled out of the combat but a third continued to ferry troops across from the ships to the point but being a far smaller machine it could only carry a few at a time. At this point the ARA Guerrico decided to approach to try and land more troops to reinforce their toehold. The Royal Marines delivered a hail of bullets and anti-tank weapons at the approaching ship causing severe damage to the ship and forcing it to pull back across the bay.
The troops landed on the opposite side of the bay had started working their way around the cove and through the whaling station. The Guerrico also started using her 100mm front gun on the defenders althgouh from a safe distance this time. With all hope of withdrawal to the heights being lost and with ammunition becoming perilously low, Lt Mills decided to surrender. He had achieved the goal of making it clear that the invasion was resisted and helped provide yet more evidence of Argentine aggression for the diplomats at home and in the United Nations.
The Argentine Garrisoning of the Islands
The original plan for the Argentinians was to establish a garrison of 500 troops in the islands. As such an army battalion was flown into Port Stanley on April 2nd and most of the Marines were withdrawn. Most of the warships withdrew whilst the transport ships unloaded heavy equipment and vehicles. Stanley airport was renamed as as Base Aerea Militar Malvinas and Pucaras were flown into the island. General Menendez was flown into the islands to act as governor as Admiral Busser and General Garcia returned to the mainland. Menendez was in the process of setting up a 40 strong administration for the government of the islands when news started to trickle across the airwaves that Britain was assembling a Task Force for the reconquering of the islands. A garrison of 500 was not going to be enough to withstand a determined invasion by the British. Plans had to be hastily adjusted to bring in far more defenders to the island. By the time the British landed at San Carlos Bay, there would be 10,000 Argentinian soldiers garrisoning the islands outnumbering the native population by over 5 to 1 and putting real strain on the resources and infrastructure of the islands.
If anything, the Argentines invaded the islands too early. It may have been politically imperative for them to invade when they did, but it was not great timing from a strategic point of view. Their original plans were for an invasion in October, after the harsh winter. As it was they were to invade in April, just before the bad weather set in. As has already been mentioned, the timing for the British was fortuitous due to the fleet already being at sea in a major exercise off the coast of Gibraltar. It would not take much time for them to be despatched further south if called upon. If the Argentinians had waited a little longer, they might not have had to face either of the British Aircraft Carriers. The savage defence cuts had seen one carrier being earmarked for sale to the Australians and the other carrier being sold to the Indian Navy. As it was, both could now be rushed back into emergency service.
Considering the distances involved, and various communication difficulties, it was surprising that the British responded as quickly as they did. Although it was not up to the Royal Navy to decide the response to the Argentine invasion, they were keen to demonstrate that their service did still have a role to play on the modern battlefield and had taken the initiative in preparing for the eventuality of a Task Force. As it was, it was clear that the existing despatched submarines had not deterred the Argentinians from invading - in fact the first of those did not arrive in the theatre until April 12th - nor had it encouraged the Argentines to withdraw from the islands. It was further argued that only the despatch of a Task Force would lead to the kind of diplomatic leverage that would show the Argentinians that the British did indeed mean business. Furthermore, it was clear that the Conservative government had to be seen to do something, anything after the humiliation of the invasion. The political imperative to respond was just too great to resist. The fleet was ordered to rendezvous at Ascension Island where the RAF could airlift supplies, weapons and equipment ready for the possibility of open conflict. Meanwhile the 3rd Commando brigade was ordered to assemble the Royal Marines and Paras that were to make up the formation and prepare themselves for a campaign. At this stage it was still regarded as just being a contingency and to provide a stick for the diplomats, but it was clear that warfare was a very real possibility.
The Diplomatic Battlefield
Diplomacy was given a chance as the Task Force sailed. The initial battlefield being the United Nations building in New York as both sides sought to gain international backing for their actions and reactions. The British diplomatic machine efficiently swung into action. Sir Anthony Parsons, the British UN Ambassador, managed to use all of his diplomatic leverage to force through an emergency vote condemning the Argentine action and demanding an 'Immediate withdrawal' from the islands. This was United Nations Resolution 502 and gave formidable backing for the British position. All of this was achieved in just 48 hours which is lightening speed in the field of diplomacy.
The British were able to move equally swiftly in the EEC and got a comprehensive set of sanctions against the aggressor nation. Perhaps most surprising of all, was the way that the British even got diplomatic support from the Organisation of American States where it was assumed the Argentinians would get the most sympathetic hearing. Even here, the Argentinians were asked to honour UN Resolution 502 and to withdraw. It was clear that the Junta had been out manouevered on just about every diplomatic front. The only exception being the stance of the United States.
The US was dismayed to find that two of its allies were at each others' throats. There was a real split in the American corridors of power between the Atlantacists who wished to support a key NATO member and the Latin Americanists who were keen to support Anti-Communist regimes in America's backyard. The result of this split was for the Secretary of State General Haig to embark on shuttle diplomacy to try and bring the two sides back from the brink. He embarked on an arduous inter-continental schedule as he pleaded with one side and then the other to make concessions. His first stop was the UK, where he was firmly impressed by the resolve of Margaret Thatcher and her resolve to go to war over an issue of principle. On his arrival, he attempted to convince General Galtieri of the determination of the British, the general was convinced that it was all just a front and that they would back down eventually. Haig returned to the UK and then Argentina once more but to no avail. He found it difficult negotiating with the military Junta who would drag their feet and change their diplomatic stance frequently. Finally, he issued them an ultimatum - Argentina must honour UN Resolution 502 or the USA would support the UK. The Argentine Naval commander Admiral Anaya said to Haig's face "You are lying!". Haig duly informed Reagan that any further negotiations with the Argentines were useless and to support Britain! The diplomatic battle had been well and truly won - There were now no diplomatic hurdles in the place of any British military retaliation. But there was still a military war to fight!
Life under the Argentine regime was full of anxiety for many of the islanders. They had no desire to be ruled by the Argentines and found that many of their basic staples were under threat from blockade and requisitioning by the Argentines. Most Land rovers and many tractors were requisitioned by the military and high power radios were supposed to be handed over, although not all were. There were further deportations of authority figures and 14 suspected trouble makers were moved to Fox Bay along with their families. Major Patricio Dowling took control of the intelligence gathering arm of the Argentine military and soon gathered a reputation for harshness and threatening behaviour. Most of the military administration strained to maintain good relations with the Falkland Islanders and tried to treat them well although cold and hungry conscript soldiers did take to stealing food and equipment more and more as the conflict went on and as the weather worsened. Comodoro Carlos Bloomer-Reeve was given the job of acting as liaison between the local population and the military authorities. He had lived in the islands previously and was respected for the fair-mindedness and respect he showed to the locals.
The population at Goose Green had a particularly tough time when they were confined en masse within a meeting hall to make way for a new military garrison and air strip. The conditions steadily deteriorated as the area braced itself for conflict once it was clear that the British had landed at the nearby San Carlos Bay. They were fortunate that the building was not hit during the battle at Goose Green.
The government authority did attempt to enforce a change in the road traffic code which had chaotic consequences. The authorities wanted everyone to drive on the right hand side of the road as in Argentina. It was thought that the Argentine military traffic would find this easier than remembering to drive on the left. Merely informing the local population was not enough to change the habits of a lifetime and the end result was chaos. Initial signs in Spanish did not help matters and in the end the authorities had to paint signs in English and write continued reminders in white paint on the roads themselves. It became a permanent reminder that the islands were occupied territory.
Other reminders of occupation included the laying of minefields and barbed wire in and around Port Stanley and large areas deemed out of bounds to civilian traffic. Children were taken out of school and sent to the Camp for comparative safety. Local radio was forced to play Argentine accounts of the news and propaganda. Fortunately, many in the island were able to pick up the BBC world service and were encouraged by news of a Task Force being assembled. One unexpected benefit was the introduction of TV onto the islands by the Argentine regime who also made TV sets available. Again, it was only Argentine programming that was made available.
There was some discussion of evacuation of the islands. The British government did not wish the islanders to evacuate as that would make their main argument of self-determination moot if there were no islanders left. It was only a small portion of the population who considered leaving but it was enough to concern the British government. They made it clear that the British would help anyone temporarily but that the expectation was that they would return once the war was over. As it transpired, few Falkland Islanders took this option and most stuck it out. Tragically, three islanders would be killed when a stray shell hit their house.
Ascension Island was to be the assembly point for the Task Force. The tiny volcanic island exploded into a hive of activity. It had been leased to the Americans during the Cold War as a useful listening point in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. However, Britain reserved the rights to use the military facilities on the island in the event of any military need.
Ships ditched their training torpedoes and blank rounds and armed themselves fully as they prepared themselves for the warzone. Food, medical supplies and equipment was moved, reordered and shuffled between ships and shore. Last minute personnel were flown to and from their ships. The RAF worked around the clock to ensure that all equipment that was necessary was made available. The warships needed to be ready to go - the politicians had received the diplomatic backing, but were conscious that it could be lost equally quickly. They wanted to keep the momentum and pressure going. Within days, April 12th, a small flotilla of ships was despatched to head for South Georgia. HMS Plymouth, HMS Antrim and the tanker RFA Tidespring carried elements of the SAS, SBS and a company of 42 Royal Marine Commandoes with orders to retake the island.
The main bulk of the Task Force needed a little longer to prepare, but even these were despatched with remarkable speed. The majority of the ships were on their way by April 18th. The main Task Force headed South with the objective of clearing the seas around the Falkland Islands of Argentinian naval and air power in order to enable an invasion to take place. A 200 mile Exclusion Zone was announced in which all Argentine forces were regarded as potential targets. There were already submarines in the area to gather information about Argentinian ship movements and to stalk likely prey.
The Commando Brigade was to be the last flotilla to leave Ascension Island. They had needed extra time to commandeer various civilian ships to help the Navy with its logistic and troop movements. The troop transport and RFA ships had required more time to be fitted out with extra sandbags and machine guns to give them at least some opportunity to defend themselves. The Passenger liner Uganda was converted into a hospital ship. The Canberra was converted into a troop ship complete with assault courses, helicopter pads and running tracks around the deck. The Commandoes were given their last opportunity to practice using the Landing Craft for the expected amphibious assault on the considerably warmer beaches of Ascension Island. They were given orders to await developments in the South Atlantic and particularly to wait until the main Task Force had achieved air and naval superiority.
The small flotilla travelled at remarkable speed in horrendous weather conditions to reach the island of South Georgia on April 21st. They rendezvoused with HMS Endurance whose captain, Nicholas Barker, had been trying to avoid Argentine naval and air forces until reinfrocements arrived. The submarine HMS Conqueror was already in the area reporting Argentine naval and air movements. She reported that there appeared to be no Argentine surface ships in the area and that it was safe for the flotilla to approach the island and commence operations.
In horrific flying conditions, a Wessex helicopter flew an SAS squadron onto the Fortuna Glacier. They successfully landed, but the weather conditions did not let up in the slightest. Even the SAS had to concede defeat to the 100mph winds and subzero temperatures. They requested to be picked up the following day. A helicopter was despatched but the weather caused its engine to freeze and it crashed as it came in to land. Fortunately the pilot and crew survived. A second helicopter was sent to retrieve the crew and the squadron but it too suffered from a whiteout and so also fell back down to earth. An hour later, a third and final helicopter was despatched from Antrim. In a feat of miraculous aviational skills, the pilot landed the helicopter and picked up all the personnel from the previous helicopters and the original SAS team. A disaster had been averted by the narrowest of margins.
The following day, they tried a different tack for getting to the island. The SBS attempted to approach the island by five inflatable boats. Again, the harsh weather conditions affected the engines and two of the boats suffered complete failure. One boat drifted for hours, the other boat had seemed to be lost completely and was considered lost. By a miracle, they had managed to paddle ashore at the very Southern tip of the island - had they not done so, the next stop was Antarctica! They were later picked up by helicopter. Even the three boats that got ashore did not prosper much more. Ice shards cut their inflatables to ribbons and they found the terrain in front of them impassable. They had to be retrieved by helicopter.
Two days later saw a new threat to the flotilla. An Argentine submarine had been picked up on radar by a Wessex helicopter. Three helicopters were quickly despatched to remove this threat. They came across the submarine as it was leaving Cumberland Bay. The Santa Fe had been delivering reinforcements to the island garrison. The helicopters dropped depth charges, launched missiles, unleashed torpedoes and fired machine guns. The submarine took a battering but remarkably managed to stay afloat. It limped back into port where the crew quickly abandoned her.
There was now a force of 140 Argentinians on the island, but it was thought that their morale was probably suffering terribly by witnessing the submarine limp back into port. A hastily assembled attack was planned despite the fact that the bulk of the Royal Marines in the force were over 200 miles away. It was HMS Antrim that was closest to the island at that time and she could only muster a force of 75 assorted SAS, SBS and Marines. However, it was felt that these might be enough and would allow the British to take and hold the initiative. The attack was not to be unsupported though, helicopters were used as spotters to call in bombardments from the ships' guns. Other helicopters then ferried the troops to the outskirts of the settlement's defences. They opened fire when they quickly noticed that the defenders were already flying white flags and sheets from the windows of the buildings. South Georgia, the scene of the start of the entire fiasco, was to fall to the British relatively painlessly - in fact, despite the mechanical and weather problems, not a single British soldier or sailor had died in the retaking of this remote island.
One of the most famous signals of the War was made by the British Landing Forces' commander Major Guy Sheridan RM:
"Be pleased to inform Her Majesty that the White Ensign flies alongside the Union Jack in South Georgia. God save the Queen"
By the time South Georgia had been retaken, the Task Force was underway to the Falklands itself. A 200 mile Exclusion was announced around the islands. Any ships or planes found to be in this area were regarded as 'fair game' by the British. Admiral Woodward was intent on winning sea and air superiority in order to allow the Amphibious Assault force to be able to land their troops with minimal disruption. The British felt confident of their naval superiority, but could the Argentinians be relied upon to commit their naval and air forces.
May 1st saw the British try to provoke some kind of response. With some remarkable long range flying and major refuelling efforts, a Vulcan bomber dropped 21 1,000lb bombs in and around the airport at Port Stanley. This attack was then followed up by a dozen Harriers swooping in to hit radar and anti-aircraft defences at Port Stanley and Goose Green. Then, three ships were brought in close enough to bombard the coastline and Argentinian positions. It was at this point that the Argentinians finally took the bait. Four Mirage IIIs came swooping in to attack these British ships. However, another flight of Harriers was waiting to intercept any air assets. The Mirage IIIs did get to drop their bombs with minimal damage, but as they rose after the attack, the Harriers swooped down on them. On paper, the Mirages were far faster than the Harriers, but the manoueverability, pilot skill and the height advantage was more than enough to compensate. Two Mirages were shot down immediately, a third was actually shot down by the Argentinians' own defences. A fourth plane, a Canberra, was shot down en route to the combat zone. First blood had gone to the Royal Navy.
The following day saw one of the most controversial incidents of the war. The Argentinian's largest Battleship, the General Belgrano, was spotted by HMS Conqueror. It was being accompanied by two exocet armed destroyers. This small Task Force lay some 40 miles outside of the Exclusion Zone, but it appeared that it could well pose a major threat to the Task Force. After the Argentinian Aircraft Carrier, the Belgrano represented the next most important target for Admiral Woodward in his battle for supremacy of the seas. The Captain of HMS Conqueror asked for further instructions. The Royal Navy deferred to the politicians, but making it clear that they would like this threat removed. They were convinced that the Argentinians were making an elaborate pincer move with another task force of ships to the north of the exclusion zone. (see map) Margaret Thatcher and her war cabinet agreed. At 3pm, a pattern of Mark 8 torpedoes was launched at the Belgrano. The ship was still 35 miles away from the Exclusion Zone. She was hit by two torpedoes and started to sink. Remarkably, the two escort vessels left the battleship to its own fate. Possibly they tried to pursue Conqueror, or perhaps they were concerned that they would be the next targets. This fact, combined with poor weather and ice cold waters meant that some 368 sailors were left to die. This was a crushing blow for the Argentine Navy, but the sinking did cost Britain some international sympathy. The death of so many people outside the Exclusion Zone dramatically raised the stakes. Strategically, it actually achieved the primary goal of removing the Argentinian surface fleet from the war zone. The Argentinian admirals would not dare lose any more of their precious fleet. Their ships were to spend the remainder of the war in their ports. This would allow the British submarines to redeploy as they would no longer be required to shadow Argentinian ships. Instead, they lay off the coast of the Argentinian Airbases and relayed important information about waves of Argentinian attack formations leaving and numbers of planes returning to base.
Although the naval threat had effectively been removed, this did not end the threat to the Task Force. There was still the Argentinian Air Force and a sizeable Naval Air Arm to worry about. And there were still Argentinian submarines to be concerned about. It was still not safe to bring the Amphibious Assault force to the islands. Events over the next couple of days would confirm that the Argentinians had plenty of fight in them yet.
May 4th saw the first British Harrier to be shot down over Goose Green by Anti-aircraft fire. This was a blow, but not a totally unexpected one. However the attack on the fleet later that same day was to be far more shocking to the British. HMS Sheffield was to be struck by an exocet missile. HMS Sheffield was thought to be one of the more modern battleships in the Royal Navy and was supposed to be responsible for dealing with the threat of air and missile attacks. And yet, the speed with which it was attacked and sunk surprised everyone. It is believed that the explosives in the missile did not actually go off, but the speed that the it was travelling at and the fuel it was carrying was enough to cause severe damage on the ship. Furthermore, the plastic cabling, deep fat fryers, and other flammable equipment on board in order to make life easier for the crew all compounded to turn the ship into a burning hulk. This was to be the first Royal Naval ship to be sunk in battle since the Second World War.
Two days later saw another setback for the British as two of its precious Harriers collided with one another in poor weather. The British had too few of these aircraft to lose in such a wasteful manner.
The next couple of days saw the Royal Navy reassert itself after the troubling few days. Sea Dart and Sea Wolf would prove that they could shoot down planes if they were picked up at the right height and with enough warning. In fact, it was found to be useful to join a Sea Dart armed ship with a Sea Wolf armed one as they compensated for the other's weaknesses. Sea Dart was good at medium and high altitudes, Sea Wolf was good at low ones. However, Sea Wolf did have the annoying habit of being 'confused' if there were too many targets coming at it at the same time. HMS Brilliant was to find this out on May 10th, as it picketed alongside HMS Glasgow. Due to Brilliant's Sea Wolf confusion, Glasgow was hit by multiple bombs, fortunately, they did not detonate. They were lucky to survive.
Some Argentinian coastal defence vessels, supply ships and trawlers that were lying in Falkland waters were attacked and put out of action. HMS Alacrity destroyed the 3,900 tone ARA Isla de los Estados with shots from its 4.5inch gun on May 10th. The ship had been carrying jet fuel and ammunition and exploded outright.
An SAS team was put ashore on Pebble Island that had had a small airfield built on it. The British were worried that the small Pucara airplanes could disrupt their intended invasion fleet as it approached the Falklands Sound. The team destroyed or damaged all the aircraft on the island and so removed the threat.
By now, it was clear that the British could not fully achieve its goal of definitively drawing out and defeating the Argentine Naval and Air Forces. They simply would not commit themselves fully to complete that task. The British had to make the unenviable decision to launch an Amphibious Assault without Air and Naval superiority. The Amphibious Assault vessels were ordered to leave Ascension Island for the Falklands, but Air defence became a priority as they approached the war zone.
After much agonising, the British decided that to land on the West Coast of the Eastern island was the best option. It would allow them the time to establish a beachhead away from the main Argentine formations at Port Stanley. San Carlos seemed to be deep enough allow the Assault ships to get close enough and yet still have beaches that their landing craft could dispense their cargoes and soldiers upon.
On May 21st the British launched their invasion. They had achieved strategic surprise, there were no Argentines waiting to repel them - although sightings of the British were radioed back to the Argentine command. The first wave of British soldiers got ashore safely and secured the bridgehead. Landing Craft and Mexeflote's shuttled the forces to and fro between the ships and shore. However, by 10am, the Argentine Air Force began its response and it was a furious one. Realising that there was a high density of targets in a tight formation, the Argentine Air Force descended upon it in full fury. Wave after wave of Argentine planes screamed down the valleys and bays and dropped their ordinance on whatever was in their sights. The Royal Navy found that it was having to fight off a determined and highly skilled enemy. The planes came in low and fast - possibly too low as many of the bombs they had dropped failed to go off even when they hit their target. It was going to take a while to set up the land based Rapier Anti-Aircraft systems, until that was done, the Royal Navy had to fend for itself. It was found that the humble machine gun was still an invaluable tool on the modern battlefield. The volume of lead and tracers unnerved many of the pilots and frequently made them drop their bombs too early just to get out of the danger zone.
Fortunately for the British, the pilots were aiming for the escort ships rather than the troop carriers. This was not much comfort for those Royal Naval sailors who were finding themselves to be the targets, but it would at least allow the Royal Marines and Paratroopers of the Commando Brigade to get ashore relatively unmolested. The Harriers were called upon to provide air cover and were found to be proficient in fighting against the much faster Argentine planes. The acceleration of the Harriers more than made up for the deficiency in its top speed. However, there were just not enough Harriers to meet the demand required. Also, the Harriers had little time to spend over the landing zone. The British wanted to ensure that their Carriers were not in danger of being hit by Exocet missiles and so were a long way out to sea. This meant that the Harriers had to travel to and from the landing zone and so did not have much time to keep guard over the invasion fleet.
Bombs rained down on the picket ships of the Royal Navy. HMS Argonaut was on the receiving end of many of these bombs. It was crippled but still afloat. Many of its sailors had to be evacuated to nearby ships. However, it was HMS Ardent that was to be the first major casualty of the landing force as it was hit by 1,000 pound bombs. HMS Yarmouth came to her aid and was at least able to get the majority of the crew to safety. HMS Antelope would be another casualty. Yet again, it was hit by a series of bombs, not all of which exploded. Bomb disposal officers were sent to the ship but they caused a catastrophic explosion that would see the ship ripped apart.
May 25th was another tough day for the British when another Exocet missile hit the 'Atlantic Conveyor'. This was a huge merchant cargo ship which was bringing important supplies and the large Chinook helicopters for the British forces to help them cross the Falklands. It was to prove a costly casualty and meant that the British were going to have to cross the islands by foot. It also meant that the transport ships had to remain in the dangerous San Carlos waters that much longer as the heavy lift capability to unload them was just not available in sufficient quantities to allow the ships to turn around rapidly. The British were fortunate that they had already moved the incoming RAF Harriers off the ship and they would supplement the Royal Navy's Sea Harriers in the all important battle for air superiority. The picket ship HMS Coventry was also hit and sunk on the same day thanks to two direct hits from two A-4 seahawks leaving 19 dead.
Despite all these setbacks, the Commando Brigade moved ashore and diligently set about preparing for their first encounters. They set up Rapier missiles on the hillsides and established a field hospital and supply depots. The Harriers were finally able to demonstrate their Vertical Take Off and Landing Capabilities as hasty airfields were put together in order use them as refuelling and rearming areas and allowing the Harriers to be recycled back into combat more rapidly.
Those troops who had made it ashore became spectators of the aerial assault on the ships in the bay below them and in the skies above. The Argentine jets flew in incredibly low, hugging the land in order to provide cover from British missiles and machineguns. The downside to the Argentinians with this tactic is that often their bombs failed to explode due to their being dropped at too low a height to allow them to be armed correctly. Many ships that were hit were relieved to find that the bombs had not detonated correctly and so avoided the full potential impact of them. Despite this issue, no one could doubt the bravery and skill of the Argentine Air Force and the intensity of the assault on the ships in the bay. Fortunately for those ashore, few of the Argentine planes directed their firepower at them or their equipment and supplies so they could continue to prepare for the inland march and assaults. The landings had achieved what they wanted to achieve by getting the vast majority of the soldiers ashore with few casualties to them. It was the first substantial success of the campaign.
The original plan had been to march towards Port Stanley directly, but political pressure from the government in Britain wanted to see a decisive engagement to provide British public opinion with a quick land victory after a constant stream of bad news from the many naval ships sunk or damaged. A good news story was required. Besides, the loss of the heavy-lift Chinook helicopters on the Atlantic Conveyor had severely reduced the capacity of the British to move their troops and supplies around the islands. More time was going to be needed as the soldiers had to 'yomp' to their destinations by foot and carry much of their equipment with them. There was also evidence that the Argentines had built up an airfield in the area which might be used to attack the advancing British soldiers or ships waiting in San Carlos Bay. The Parachute Regiment was sent southwards towards Darwin and Goose Green to provide a first clash and what was hoped to be a quick victory.
Unbeknownst to the British, the Argentine commander had realised that the British were coming ashore at San Carlos and had decided to reinforce his troops at Goose Green and Darwin; airlifting them in rapidly by helicopter. Instead of an airbase with an expected force of 500 aircrew and technicians there was now a garrison of 1,400 men who were dug-in and expecting to be attacked. The Paras had just 600 men committed to their attack. Poor intelligence meant that they did not fully realise the size of the force that they were to face. Military doctrine usually states that the attacker should outnumber the defender. That was not going to be the case at Goose Green.
The battle which followed lasted throughout the
day and night of the 28th of May. It was fought over very
open ground, and against an enemy who withdrew
slowly through fixed positions prepared in depth. Furthermore, the Argentines had significant artillery and anti-aircraft guns at their disposal. British support, on the other hand, was becoming problematical. The promised Harriers had been delayed due to fog and poor flying conditions and HMS Arrow was supposed to be providing support but her gun had jammed after firing its first shot. Worse was to occur when the BBC broadcast British intentions of attacking at Goose Green before the attack had even started. Despite all these comedies of error, the Paras launched their attack against the much larger defending force.
When the Argentine defences appeared to hold up the Paras attack, Lt. Col. H.
Jones, CO of 2 Para, helped assault the position with his HQ unit but was hit and later died of his wounds. He would later receive the Victoria Cross for his bravery.
The paras were finding that they had to improvise their tactics by using mortars to soften up the Argentines before assaulting them and by using Anti-Tank missiles as portable artillery to take out strong points in the trenches. More artillery had to be brought in to help maintain the attack. Darwin was taken by mid-morning on the 28th. Goose Green airfield was in British hands by the afternoon, but the majority of the Argentine force were still functioning and following orders.
The final surrender of Argentines at Goose Green was
achieved through a remarkable piece of diplomacy
by Major Chris Keeble, acting CO after the death of 'H' Hones, and the
Spanish-speaking Captain Rod Bell RM. Keeble sent
two captured Argentine NCOs forward under a
flag of truce with an appeal to Air Commodoro Wilson
Pedrozo, the enemy commander, that as a Catholic
he should spare the lives of his men. Additionally Keeble wished to secure the liberation of the Falkland Islanders kept in poor conditions in a hut nearby. Pedrozo made it clear that wished to have an
opportunity to have a full parade and to be allowed to address his men formally. During this parade he praised his men for their bravery before ordering them to lay down their arms and surrender. The paras were amazed to see just how many Argentines surrendered. It was only now that they discovered that they had fought and won a battle at odds of two to one against. To the relief of the Falkland Islanders kept cooped up in terrible conditions, they were freed and welcomed their liberators. The casualty figures showed
how the training and motivation of 2 Para had paid
off: they had lost 13 killed and 34 wounded, against
250 enemy dead and missing and about 150
wounded. This was despite the fact that they were attacking a numerically larger force with significantly more equipment and assets at their disposal. The government was happy to have received their 'good news story' and the remaining Argentinian defending forces came to realise what they were up against.
45 Commando and 3 Para yomped across the island as per the original plan. 42 Commando was quickly airlifted by helicopter to Mount Kent after the reconoittering 22 SAS Squadron recognised a hole developing in the Argentine defensive line as the unit there was part of the same unit which had just surrendered at Goose Green. 42 Commando reinforced the SAS unit and helped secure one of the key heights in the approach to Port Stanley in a rapid firefight.
The rest of 3 Commando Brigade moved up via the Teal Inlet to get closer to the heights. There was extensive patrolling and reconnaissance as the units sought to establish the location and dispositions of the Argentine defenders. Ammunition and guns were brought up but were slow in coming due to the lack of lift ability. The weather was deteriorating as winter began to set in with earnest. Bizarrely, the British did not have any tents with them. They were expected to form shelters with improvised bivvy bags and sheets. It was uncomfortable to say the least.
One attempt to circumvent the lack of helicopter transportation ended in tragedy for 5th Brigade. 5th Brigade was an army formation and lacked the same level of appreciation for the difficulties of amphibious operations that the Royal Marines instinctively held. Two troop transport ships, the RFA Sir Galahad and RFA Sir Tristram were loaded up with troops and moved around the south of East Falkland to be landed at Fitzroy. The journey was long and there were many opportunities for the Argentinians to spot the two ships which lacked suitable escorting ships. It was probably an Argentine observer in the heights above Bluff Cove or Fitzroy who ordered in an air strike on the ships which appeared as sitting ducks. Sure enough, despite warnings from a Royal Marine officer, the ships had not yet been unloaded when A-4 Skyhawks screamed in and dropped bombs on Sir Tristram and 20 minutes later Mirage planes came in and hit Sir Galahad. The latter was particularly lethal as one of the bombs hit the ship's ammunition hold and caused a massive explosion. There were over 50 deaths and many more injuries with the Welsh Guards taking the brunt of the casualties. It was the worst single incident for the British throughout the war.
It also illustrated that the addition of 5th Brigade to the original plan was problematical in that it diverted already scarce resources from the primary thrust by 3rd Commando Brigade and it revealed that 5th Brigade was trained for conventional battlefields of the Cold War in Northern Europe rather than operating in such harsh conditions with so little support. Furthermore, 5th Brigade had been sent to attack from the South which had been the direction that the Argentinians had been encouraged to believe was indeed Britain's plan for the liberation of Stanley. The actual route was North and Central but 5th Brigade was now being shoe-horned into the direction that the Argentinians had prepared the most effectively for.
By June 11th, 3rd Commando Brigade was in place to begin the assaults to capture the heights around Port Stanley. Three night attacks were launched on Mount Longden, Two Sisters and Mount Harriet. These were some of the fiercest battles of the war. However, it was discovered that the Argentinians were also suffering from the terrible weather conditions and had a poor supply of food and ammunition themselves. They were unnerved by the night time fighting and the heavy bombardments from the ships and British artillery.
The bloodiest of the assaults was by 3 Para on Mount Longden with support from 29 Commando Artillery and HMS Avenger's guns. It lasted for most of the night as 450 paras fought their way through the well prepared trenches of the defenders. The artillery and naval support was brought in to help neutralise machine gun posts and heavily defended sections, but most of it had to be cleared by the paras themselves, trench by trench. The paras lost the element of surprise as they advanced towards the Argentines when one soldier stood on a mine. There followed a 10 hour fight in appalling weather and sub zero temperatures. For long periods of time, 3 Para was pinned down by accurate enemy fire and their advance up the slopes of Mount Longdon was halted. It was during one of these halts, that Sergeant Ian McKay led an attack on a heavy machine gun emplacement. The attack was a success and the advance regained its momentum. But McKay was killed. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his gallantry. By the end of the battle, 3 Para had lost 23 men killed and 47 wounded. The Argentine force lost 31 killed, 120 wounded and 50 men captured.
The battle for Two Sisters was efficiently coordinated by 45 Commando under the command of Lieutenant Colonel A Whitehead with support from 29 Commando Artillery and HMS Glamorgan's guns. Three companies made the attack although it was slightly delayed due to difficulties in approaching the target from the terrain and the weather conditions. Achieving excellent coordination with the artillery and ship based fire, 45 Commando made excellent progress and achieved control of the summit in just three and a half hours. In all 45 Commando lost four men. Seventeen men were wounded. The 4th Infantry Regiment lost twenty killed and 54 men were taken prisoner. The only setback was out to sea. Whilst giving excellent covering fire to the Royal Marines, HMS Glamorgan was attacked and hit be a land based exocet missile. Thirteen sailors were killed as a result of this attack.
The taking of Mount Harriet fell to 42 Commando under Nick Vaux who had already seized Mount Kent a week earlier. They had support from 29 Commando Artillery and HMS Yarmouth. The defences on Harriet were formidable so Nick Vaux decided to institute an outflanking march and attack from the rear rather than plough through the prepared defences and minefields in front of them. 'J' company was kept to attack from the front to engage the enemy and lock them in position whilst the rest attacked from the rear. This meant that the battle of Mount Harriet started out as a 'noisy' battle to unnerve and occupy the defenders and allow time for the flank marches. There were some delays as the flanking companies failed to keep to their timetable in the dark and poor conditions. K Company finally started its attack at 2200 hours and got to within 100 meters of the first dugouts before being seen. L Company attacked through more difficult terrain and found the going more difficult and had to use Anti-tank weapons to take out sniper nests and heavy machine gun posts. With all the units engaged J Company could start its own advance. Morale from the defenders quickly disintegrated from the multi-pronged attack especially when combined with the accurate and deadly artillery fire from 29 Commando which fired over 3,000 rounds in the attack. 42 Commando captured 300 prisoners in the attack and suffered 2 fatalities themselves.
The 3rd Commando Brigade had achieved its objectives, on the night of 13th and 14th June it was to be the turn of 5th Brigade to follow up on those success and capture the remaining high points to the south and west of Stanley. Their objectives were Mount Tumbledown, Wireless Ridge, Mount William and Sapper Hill.
The Scots Guards had the toughest of these engagements on Tumbledown who were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Mike Scott. He had light armoured support from the Blues and Royals with their Scimitars and Scorpions. They also had mortars from 42 Commando at their disposal and HMS Avenger and HMS Active assigned to provide covering fire. The Argentine 5th Marine division fought hard for seven hours before the mountain was finally taken. The Scots Guards lost 8 men killed while the Royal Engineers lost 1 man. Overall, there were 43 British soldiers wounded in the battle. The 5th Marine Infantry Brigade lost 30 men killed and had another 30 taken prisoner. Argentinian morale was already fragile at this point but the defeat of one of the most experienced units left defending Stanley was even more demoralising. Reports began to trickle back that positions were being abandoned across the board.
As this was happening, 2 Para still had the job of taking Wireless Ridge before them. They were helped by 29 Commando Artillery and the Blues and Royals. Originally Wireless Ridge was going to be attacked by 3 Para. However, accurate Argentine artillery fire kept 3 Para pinned down. Therefore, 2 Para, at Fitzroy Bay, were airlifted to the battle area and ordered to attack Wireless Ridge. 3 Para were to help out 2 Para by providing mortar cover as 2 Para advanced. Lieutenant Colonel D Chaundler commanded 2 Para. He wanted a 'noisy' attack on Wireless Ridge as he felt Argentine morale was already at a low point and would be further intimidated by a show of force. Therefore, while 2 Para moved to their Start Line, 105mm guns from 29 Commando, Royal Artillery, pounded Argentine positions on the Ridge. The attack by 2 Para started at 21.45, thirty minutes after the artillery bombardment had started. The artillery fire was accurate and must have thoroughly demoralised the men of the 7th Infantry Regiment tasked with defending the ridge. By the time A, B, C and D companies had moved past their start line, the Argentineans were already leaving their positions. However, the further the Paras advanced, the tougher became the resistance. There was even a brief counterattack on the morning of the 14th which was only halted due to accurate artillery fire from 29 Commando. By the morning though, the position had been taken.
The Gurkhas were tasked with taking Mount William, but by the time they arrived the enemy had gone. Likewise with the Welsh Guards who were to take Sapper Hill. Argentine morale had collapsed and white flags were seen flying from buildings in Stanley. General Menendez formally surrendered to General Moore on 14th June. 'J' Company, the original 8901 defenders, were invited to raise the flag over Government House. The war had ended and the professionalism of the British armed forces, despite severe setbacks, had triumphed in defeating an enemy 8,000 miles away in the severest of operating conditions. Indeed, the task force was to endure one more mighty test as an enormous weather system brought a Force 10 gale upon the ships at sea. They took a battering and had to cease flying for the first time in the campaign.
The Task Force returned home to a heroes' welcome. The war transformed the fortunes of the two participating governments. For Margaret Thatcher, it was nothing less than a triumph and a vindication for her stalwart position. Doubts about the reasons for the invasion in the first place and intended cuts to the armed services were swept aside as people rejoiced in the victory. She was to win the next general election comfortably as she was catapulted from the most reviled to the most revered British Prime Minister.
Matters were different for the Argentinian military government. The cheering crowds from April returned to their jeering status. The military had demonstrated their incompetence for all to see in Argentina. General Galtieri was pushed from power within a month of the end of the war. Democratic government for Argentina would eventually return as one of the unexpected benefits of the conflict. The Argentine military would never again hold such political power again. Indeed, she has been downsized considerably since 1982 and has not had any new ships, tanks or planes bought for it since the war. Her military capabilities have been severely reduced since 1982.
For the Falkland Islanders, it was unalloyed joy. They met their liberators with open arms and with heartfelt thanks. All the uncertainty of British commitment to their way of life had been dis-spelled overnight. Britain had made so much commitment that it would be inconceivable for future governments to negotiate away the freedoms that had been purchased so costly in human and military terms. Freed from the shackles of having to 'appease' Argentina, the islands could fully develop their natural resources. They set about selling the marine and fishing rights off the seas around the islands and began to explore for oil and gas. The islands have become self-sufficient in budgetary terms in everything except defence.
The British have since decided not to rely on a 'trip wire' defence system for the islands and now have a far more sophisticated defensive set up. Mount Pleasant is a tri-arms base which has port facilities for the Royal Navy, barracks for the Army or Marines and a major runway for the RAF. There are about 800 men dedicated to the defence of the islands not including the significantly updated and trained Falkland Islands Defence Force. There are also far more surveillance systems in place to forewarn of any future attacks. Troops would no longer need to be shipped to the island, they could be flown directly in from Ascension Island. It is important that these defences are significant in their own right as the Royal Navy has been downsized considerably since the 1982 war and has lost most of its aerial capabilities. Many wonder if Britain still has the capability to conduct a similar operation as it did in 1982. Hopefully, the defences are robust enough and the Argentinian capabilities are reduced enough to not have to test this out any time soon.
BBC Witness The BBC Witness Series recalls the last day of the Falklands' War.
March 19th, 1982
Argentine scrap merchants land on South Georgia and raise flag
March 22nd, 1982
Argentine ship leaves South Georgia, but team of Argentines remains on island
March 24th, 1982
Argentines land 10 Marines on South Georgia
March 26th, 1982
Argentine Junta makes decision to invade Falkland Islands
British learn of Argentine invasion fleet. They decide to prepare their own Task Force to recover the islands
Governor Hunt informed of Invasion
Argentine forces invade East
Falkland. After three-hour fight, Royal Marine garrison ordered to
surrender by Governor Hunt
United Nations Security Council passes
Resolution 502, calling on Argentina to
withdraw its troops. Argentine Marines
force surrender of 22-man garrison of
South Georgia, after two Argentine
helicopters shot down and a frigate
First warships of British Task Force sail
from UK. Lord Carrington and two
junior Foreign Office ministers resign.
Zone announced around Falklands
Exclusion Zone enforced
Argentine submarine Santa Fe damaged
by RN helicopters and forced to beach at
Grytviken, South Georgia.
South Georgia recaptured by SAS and RM
US diplomatic mediation abandoned;
US government announces unequivocal
support of Britain.
RAF Vulcan and Task Force Harriers
attack Stanley airport in first of many
General Belgrano sunk by RN
HMS Sheffield hit by
Extension of Total
Exclusion Zone to within 12 miles of
SAS raid Argentine airfield on
Task Force establishes beachhead at San
Carlos Bay. HMS Ardent
sunk by Argentine air attack. At least 14
Argentine aircraft shot down.
HMS Antelope crippled by air attack,
sinks next day. At least six aircraft shot
Air attacks continue; eight aircraft shot
HMS Coventry and Atlantic Conveyor sunk
Several Argentine aircraft shot down.
British troops move out of beachhead on
Goose Green attacked by Paratroopers.
Argentine garrison at Goose Green surrenders.
Royal Marines arrive at
British troops in sight of Stanley.
and Sir Galahad attacked at Fitzroy
Night attacks on high ground west of Stanley; Mt. Longdon, Two
Sisters and Mt. Harriet captured. Land launched
Exocet missile strikes HMS
Glamorgan but damage controlled.
Tumbledown, Mt. William and Wireless
Ridge captured in night attacks.
Unconditional surrender of Argentine
troops on Falklands at 2O59hrs local