Forty years ago this year, the United Kingdom and Argentina went to war over the possession of the Falkland Islands, off the coast of South America.
The islands had been contested for decades prior to the conflict. In 1965 the United Nations called upon Argentina and the UK to reach a settlement of the sovereignty dispute. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) regarded the islands as a nuisance and barrier to UK trade in South America. Therefore, while confident of British sovereignty, the FCO was prepared to cede the islands to Argentina. The FCO also sought to make the islands dependent on Argentina, hoping this would make the islanders more amenable to Argentine sovereignty.
In 1977, British prime minister James Callaghan, in response to heightened tensions in the region, secretly sent a force of two frigates and the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Dreadnought to the South Atlantic, codenamed Operation Journeyman.
In 1980, the new UK Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Nicholas Ridley, went to the Falklands trying to sell the islanders the benefits of a "leaseback" scheme, which met with strong opposition from the islanders. On returning to London in December 1980, he reported to parliament but was viciously attacked at what was seen as a sellout. At a private committee meeting that evening, it was reported that Ridley said: "If we don't do something, they will invade. And there is nothing we could do."
Meanwhile Argentina was going through a tumultuous period in its history. It had been in the midst of devastating economic stagnation and large-scale civil unrest against the military junta that had been governing the country since 1976. In December 1981 there was a further change in the Argentine military regime, bringing to office a new junta headed by General Leopoldo Galtieri, Air Brigadier Basilio Lami Dozo and Admiral Jorge Anaya.
By opting for military action, the Galtieri government hoped to mobilise the long-standing patriotic feelings of Argentines towards the islands, diverting public attention from the chronic economic problems and the ongoing human rights violations of its Dirty War, and bolstering the junta's dwindling legitimacy.
The ongoing tension between the two countries over the islands increased on 19th March 1982, when a group of Argentine scrap metal merchants (which had been infiltrated by Argentine Marines) raised the Argentine flag at South Georgia Island, an act that would later be seen as the first offensive action in the war. The RN ice patrol vessel HMS Endurance was dispatched from Stanley to South Georgia on the 25th in response. The Argentine military junta, suspecting that the UK would reinforce its South Atlantic forces, decided to act fast.
On April 2nd 1982, Argentine forces mounted amphibious landings (known as Operation Rosario) on the Falkland Islands. The invasion started with the landing of the Amphibious Commandos group, who attacked the empty Moody Brook barracks and then moved on Government House in Stanley. The assault was met with a fierce but brief defence by the local detachment of the Royal Marines. When the 2nd Marine Infantry Battalion (with Assault Amphibious Vehicles) arrived, the governor ordered a cease fire and surrendered.
The Argentine junta had good reason to calculate that the UK government would be neither willing nor able to intervene. The UK had been downsizing its military throughout the 1970s as a response to unbearable financial pressures, including retiring its last big aircraft carrier and early-scrapping or selling off warships (including, ironically, a pair of Type 42 destroyers to Argentina). The sweeping Defence Review 1981 of the UK Armed Forces promised even further cuts, for example by eradicating the RN's amphibious capability by the sale of the LPDs Fearless and Intrepid, selling the brand-new VSTOL carrier Invincible to Australia, retiring the old carrier Hermes, and a general run-down in the frigate and destroyer force. In hindsight, had Argentina shown more patience and made their move in, say, 1983/84, the invasion would have probably settled the matter permanently, for the UK would truly have no means of recourse.
The UK's prime minister Margaret Thatcher immediately declared that the islands should be recovered at all costs. This view was not shared accross her cabinet; not only was the weakened state of the armed forces a cause for pessimism, but even the rationale for claiming the islands in the first place was in dispute. Why, it was asked by many, should Britain go to war for a barren patch of rock-land thousands of miles away? (This reluctance was sometimes shared on the other side too: Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges described the decades-long dispute as "a quarrel between two bald men over a comb".
Others, however, felt that there was much more at stake than simply ownership over some rocks; Admiral Henry Leach, when directly asked by Thatcher on his view, stated: "We could recapture, it would be a high-risk venture, and nevertheless we should. Because if we do not, if we muck around, if we pussyfoot, if we don’t move very fast and are not entirely successful, in a very few months’ time we shall be living in a different country whose word will count for little". This appeal to the UK's status & credibility on the world stage settled the dispute; the UK was going to war.
A task force, centered on the VSTOL carriers Hermes and Invincible, together with multiple warships, landing ships and support & replenishment vessels, was assembled within an astonishing two days, and set sail for the South Atlantic under the command of admiral John Woodward. While de-escalation and a diplomatic solution were still possible in theory, both sides had come too close to the brink to back down without consequences. The pen was giving way to the sword.
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