Falklands War

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

Background

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

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

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

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

Build Up

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

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

Failed diplomacy

From the time of the breaking of formal diplomatic relations, el Peru represented Argentine diplomatic interests in the UK and Switzerland represented UK interests in Argentina. Argentine diplomats in London were credentialed as Peruvian diplomats of Argentine nationality and the UK diplomats in Buenos Aires were credentialed as Swiss diplomats of British nationality. Despite this civility, and although Peru and Switzerland exerted great diplomatic effort to avoid war, they were unable to head off the conflict.

Invasion

On April 2, Argentinian marines landed at Mullet Creek on the coast of East Falkland, advancing on Stanleyandand Goverment House. By 09.30 April 3 the battle was over and the Governor had ordered his seventy Royal Marines (Navy Party 8901) to surrender. The Royal Marines, the Governor and any others who wished it were shipped out to Britain.

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


Argentine President Galtieri

The British were quick to organise diplomatic pressure against Argentina and to assemble a task force to dispatch to the islands, centred around the aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes. Although the public mood in the UK was in support of an attempt to reclaim the islands, international opinion was much more divided. To some Britain was a former colonial power, seeking to reclaim a colony from a local power, and this was a message that the Argentinians initially used to garner support; however to others Britain was seen as the stable democracy that had had its territory invaded by a military dictatorship. The British won the diplomacy game by arguing that the Falkland Islanders were entitled to use the UN principle of self-determination and by appearing to be ready to compromise. The UN Secretary-General said that he was amazed at the compromise that the UK had offered but Argentina rejected it, and based their arguments on rights to territory based on actions before 1945 and the creation of the UN. Many UN members realised that if territorial claims this old could be resurrected, and then invasions of territory allowed unchallenged, that their own borders were not safe and so on April 3 the UN passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of Argentinian troops from the islands and the cessation of hostilities. On April 10 the EEC approved trade sanctions against Argentina. In spite of this Ronald Reagan and the U.S administration remained neutral.

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

Because of the long distance between the Falklands and United Kingdom, the British were reliant on a naval task force. This task force would have be self-reliant and able to project its force across the littoral area of the Islands. The taskforce centred on the two small aircraft carriers, commanded by Rear Admiral J. F. Woodward RN (commonly known as Sandy Woodward). A second component was the amphibious assault shipping, commanded by Commodore M. C. Clapp RN. Contrary to common belief, Admiral Woodward did not command Commodore Clapp's ships. The embarked force was 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines,(with attached units from the Parachute Regiment)under the command of Brigadier J. Thompson RM. MOst of this force was aboard the hastily comandeered cruise liner Canberra. Both Clapp and Woodward reported directly to the Commander in Chief Fleet (CINCFLEET), Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, in Britain, who was the overall commander of the operation. In order to keep neutral shipping out of the way during the war, the UK declared a 'war exclusion zone' of 320 km around the Falklands before commencing operations.

The British called their counter-invasion Operation Corporate. When this task force, sailed from Britain, with The Queen seeing the armada off, the American news magazine NewsWeek cover headline was "The Empire Strikes Back!"

War

By mid-April the Royal Air Force had set-up an airbase at Wideawake on the mid-Atlantic island of Ascension, including a sizable force of Vulcan bombers, Victor refueling aircraft, and F-4 Phantom fighters to protect them. Meanwhile the main British naval task force arrived at Ascension to prepare for war. However a small force had already be sent south to re-capture South Georgia.

The South Georgia force, Operation Paraquat, under the command of Major Guy Sheridan RM, consisted of marines from 42 Commando, a troop of Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS) troops who were intended to land as reconnaissance forces for an invasion by the Royal Marines embarked on the RFA Tidespring. First to arrive was the Churchill-class submarine HMS Conqueror on the 19th, and the island was overflown by a radar-mapping Handley-Page Victor on the 20th. The first landings of SAS troops took place on the 21st, but weather was so bad that their landings and others made the next day were all withdrawn after several helicopters crashed in fog.

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

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

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

On May 2 the World War II-vintage Argentinian cruiser ARA General Belgrano was sunk by the Conqueror (also using WWII vintage torpedoes) outside the exclusion zone, with the loss of 321 lives (the British newspaper The Sun initially greeted this with the headline GOTCHA!). This loss hardened the stance of the Argentinian government. The loss of the Belgrano also became a cause celebre to anti-war campaigners (such as Tam Dalyell), who declared that the ship had been sailing away from the Falklands at the time. However, under international law, the direction that a naval vessel of a belligerent in a war is headed has no bearing on its status. The naval vessels of a belligerent power are liable to be sunk anywhere in international waters and within the territorial waters of the belligerents in the conflict.

Regardless of controversies over the sinking, it had a very important strategic effect. After the loss of the Belgrano, the entire Argentine fleet returned to port and did not leave again for the duration of hostilities. Therefore, the two destroyers supporting the Belgrano and the task force built around the aircraft carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo both withdrew from the area, ending the direct threat to the British fleet that their pincer movement had represented.

Two days after the Belgrano sinking, on May 4, the British lost the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield to fire following an Exocet missile strike. The Sheffield had been ordered forward with two other Type 42s in order to provide some sort of radar and missile "picket" far from the British carriers. After the ships were detected by an Argentinian Navy Air Force (CANA) P-2 Neptune patrol aircraft, two CANA Super Etendards were launched, each armed with a single Exocet. Refuelled by a C-130 Hercules shortly after launch, they went in at low altitude, popped up for a radar check and released the missiles from 20 to 30 miles away. One missed HMS Yarmouth, due to her deployment of CHAFF, but the other hit the Sheffield and set her on fire, killing 22 sailors onboard.

Whilst fighting the fire, HMS Yarmouth came under attack from a GUPPY class, Argentinian submarine, who subsequently fired 9 torpedoes at her. None of the 9 made contact due to reactions of her Helicopter crew and Mortar crew. HMS Sheffield was abandoned several hours later and sank on the 10th May, whilst under tow from the Yarmouth. Meanwhile the other Type 42s were withdrawn from their precarious position, leaving the British task force open to attack.

The tempo of operations increased throughout the second half of May. UN attempts to mediate a peace were rejected by the British who felt inter alia that any delay would make a campaign impractical in the South Atlantic storms.

During the night of May 21 the British made an amphibious landing near Port San Carlos, on the northern coast of East Falkland, putting the 4000 men of 3 Commando Brigade ashore from the amphibious ships and the liner Canberra. By dawn the next day they had established a secure bridgehead from which to conduct offensive operations.

From there Brigadier Thompson's plan was to capture Darwin and Goose Green before turning towards Port Stanley.

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

On May 27 2 Para attacked Darwin and Goose Green which was held by the Argentine 12th Inf Regt. After a tough struggle which lasted all night and into the next day; seventeen British and 200 Argentinian soldiers were killed and 1400 Argentinian troops were taken prisoner. Due to a gaffe by the BBC the invasion of Goose Green was announced on the BBC World Service before it actually happened. It was during this attack that Lt Col H Jones, the CO of 2 Para was killed. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

With the sizeable Argentinian force at Goose Green out of the way, British forces are now able to breakout of the San Carlos bridgehead. From May 27th men of 45 Cdo and 3 Para start walking east across the Falklands towards the coastal settlement of Teal Inlet. Meanwhile 42 Cdo and the SAS moved by helicopter to within sight of Stanley when they seized Mt Kent.

By June 1, with the arrival of a further 5000 British troops of 5 Inf Brigade landed at San Carlos from the liner QE2, new British divisional commander, Major Genral JJ Moore RM, had sufficient force to start planning an offensive against Port Stanley.

During this build-up the Argentinian air assaults continued with 48 killed, including 32 Welsh Guards on the RFA Sir Galahad and the RFA Sir Tristram on June 8. Many others suffered serious burns, but they were only on the ships because the loss of the helicopters on the Atlantic Conveyor meant that they had had to be brought around by sea. Unfortunately, and tragically, the commanders on-board ignored the advice of the troops on the ground to get ashore as soon as possible.

On the night of June 11, after several days of painstaking reconnaisance and logistic build-up, British forces launched a brigade-sized night attack against the heavily defended ring of high ground surrounding Port Stanley. Units of 3 Commando Brigade, supported by naval gunfire from several Royal Navy ships, simultaneously assaulted Mount Harriet, Two Sisters, and Mount Longdon. Another thirteen were killed when HMS Glamorgan, which was providing naval gunfiore support, was struck by an Exocet fired from the back of a truck, further displaying the vulnerability of ships to anti-ship missiles. On this day Sgt Ian McKay of 4 Platoon, B Company 3 PARA died in a grenade attack on an Argentine Bunker which was to later earn him a posthumous Victoria Cross.

After a night of fierce fighting all objectives were secured.

On the night of June 13 the second phase of attacks started in which the momentum of the initial assualt was maintained. 2 Para captured Wireless Ridge; 2nd Scots Guards capture Mount Tumbledown at a cost of fifty lives.

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

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

Analysis

Militarily the Falklands War was important because it was one of the few naval battles so far to have occurred after the end of World War II. The Falklands War illustrated the vulnerability of surface ships to both missiles and submarines. It vindicated the UK decision to develop the VTOL Harrier aircraft, that showed its capability of operating from forward bases with no runways.

In addition, the Falklands War illustrates the role of political miscalculation and miscommunication in creating war. Both sides seriously underestimated the importance of the Falklands to the other. Finally, the Falklands War illustrates the role of chance in determining the outcome of the war. Some commentators believe that the war would have ended in an Argentinian victory had one of the Exocets hit an aircraft carrier, or if Argentina had waited a year or two before seizing the islands, by which time several carriers would have been decommissioned. Equally, if the Argentinians had made better preparations to hold the islands, they would have been able to do so, but they did not expect that the British would even attempt to carry out a war 6000 miles from home.

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


See also: History -- Military history -- British military history -- War

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