Remembering the Falklands conflict: How Argentina's 'little victorious war' instead became a huge success for Margaret Thatcher
World history has recorded a lot of rulers who have attempted to use a small war to gain a popularity boost but overestimated the strength of their forces and reaped disaster instead of triumph. One of the clearest examples of this was the late 20th century conflict in the Falkland Islands.
It all began with a coup d’état in Argentina in 1976, when a military junta established a brutal dictatorship that oversaw an economic decline while repressing dissidents. By 1981, the country was ruled by General Leopoldo Galtieri, who, being neither consistent nor overly talented, decided, upon short reflection, to acquire the love of the people through a successful military campaign.
The object of the general’s ambitions were islands in the South Atlantic. In Argentina, they are called the Malvinas, but we know them as the Falklands, in the English language. Since 1833, the islands had been under British rule. However, they had long been a disputed area, claimed by both the Spanish and British Empires. Argentina had inherited this problem from Spain, although the chronicles of the conflict were already thoroughly covered with dust by the 1980s.
Nevertheless, Galtieri decided to extract this territorial dispute from the annals of history, and, in January of 1982, the Argentine military began to draw up plans for an invasion. Galtieri hoped to take the islands quickly and bloodlessly, avoiding casualties not only among civilians, but also among the British military. By that time, the British armed forces were considered to be anaemic, as budgets had been cut over many years – in short, the Argentines were counting on the weakness of the enemy.
The first step was taken in March, when the Argentines sent soldiers under the guise of workers to the island of South Georgia, which is administratively subordinate to the governor of the Falklands but located very far from them – this is a piece of land lost in the ocean, blown by the winds of Antarctica and almost uninhabited. Nevertheless, the Argentines landed and raised their flag there, and a fully-fledged invasion of the Falklands soon began.
On April 1, 1982, a detachment of Argentine commandos, sprung from the destroyer Santisima Trinidad, went to the base of Port Stanley – the Falklands capital and only real city, which is situated on the island of East Falkland. The Argentines planned to capture a British Marine unit there. However, the British had already left the most obvious target for attack in advance – their own barracks – and the Argentines seized the empty buildings.
Meanwhile, a full-fledged battle was already underway at the residence of the governor of the Falklands. The Argentines brought new forces into the fray. The small British contingent fought back until it exhausted its ability to resist – as a result, 58 of the Queen’s soldiers were captured.
In South Georgia, a small British detachment also surrendered after a fierce battle.
In short, Argentina had prevailed in the first phase of the war, but, in reality, the conflict was just beginning.
At the time, the British army and navy were in a difficult position. Due to a lack of funding, exercises were not conducted as often as necessary, and the state of its equipment was questionable. However, London did not hesitate long: the former Empire sent troops to the Atlantic. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided to demonstrate her resolve, and it was up to the troops on land, sea, and in the air to embody it.
The British sent in a powerful grouping, including two aircraft carriers, eight destroyers, and a number of other ships and vessels. A civilian container ship was also converted into an aircraft carrier. The reinforced 3rd Marine Brigade made up the backbone of the ground forces.
The Argentines had no doubt they would have to fight, and numerous army units were deployed to the Falklands. However, problems began to appear quickly: As a consequence of the troops being airlifted, the islands’ new garrison had few heavy weapons. In addition, a significant part of the Argentine forces were poorly trained reservists.
Another issue was the distance: Argentine planes taking off from the mainland were at the limit of their range, and simply did not have enough fuel to fight.
First off, the British returned to South Georgia, recapturing it faster and easier than they had lost it: The Argentines quickly raised the white flag. Meanwhile, the main British forces were preparing an offensive on the Falklands.
The beginning of the battle was somewhat discouraging, from London's point-of-view. The British attacked airfields with a pair of strategic bombers. However, one of them returned to base due to malfunctions, and the other did not hit its target.
Simpler carrier-based Harriers fared better, and the Argentines began to suffer losses. At this point, a sea battle had also started as the Argentines gradually brought their forces into the conflict. The British shot down several Argentine planes, but in general, the first day of active fighting brought victory to neither side.
The first really serious loss befell the Argentines on May 2. Among their fleet was a light cruiser christened the General Belgrano, which was an American ship built before World War II that had been sold to Buenos Aires in 1951.
On April 30, the Argentine naval group was discovered by the British submarine Conqueror. Though the submarine had been on a different mission, seeing a favorable opportunity, the British decided to attack.
The submarine launched a volley of three torpedoes, and two of them hit home. The destroyers accompanying the Belgrano were nowhere in the vicinity of the cruiser, as they had lost contact in heavy fog. As a result, 323 sailors died, 772 escaped, and the cruiser was sent to the bottom of the sea.
After that, the Argentine command psychologically broke down and recalled their ships from the combat zone. However, the answer was not long in coming. On the morning of May 4, an Argentine reconnaissance aircraft spotted the British destroyer Sheffield and the frigate Glasgow. The Argentinians quickly made a decision, and a couple of attack aircraft rushed to the destroyer. The planes were flying at ultra-low altitudes with their radars turned off for most of the flight. While the Glasgow managed to evade attack, the destroyer was less lucky. An Exocet missile fired at the Sheffield easily reached its target. The Argentines were helped by a successful combination of circumstances: The destroyer had been communicating with London and, in order to eliminate interference, the ship’s radioelectric defense systems had been turned off, with the exception of one radar unit. As a result, the incoming rocket was noticed only when it became visible to the naked eye.
The missile pierced the hull beneath the bulkhead of the command center and hit the engine room. The strike ignited the fuel tanks, and the electric generators that fed the fire pumps were disabled. As a result, those on board abandoned the ship due to the risk of its ammunition detonating. The Sheffield remained afloat for another week and sank only on May 10 at a depth of 300 meters. Most of the crew escaped, but 20 sailors died.
There was a lull for some time. The British were preparing to deal a decisive blow to the Argentine garrison. One of the proposed plans smacked of madness – to send saboteurs to the mainland to destroy stocks of Argentina's missiles.
But a task for saboteurs was still found. On the evening of May 14, two helicopters from the aircraft carrier Hermes landed on Pebble Island, where Argentine attack aircraft were based, carrying 45 SAS commandos. They made a six-kilometer night march and attacked the airfield, destroying 11 aircraft with explosives, mortars, and small arms. Afterwards, the Special Forces retreated to an evacuation point.
Surprisingly, not a single person from either side was killed during this brilliant raid. Interestingly, the Argentines planned to return the favor and sent four saboteurs to Gibraltar to blow up the frigate Ariadne. However, these Special Forces were detained by the police, as the guards mistook them for common criminals preparing to commit a crime. In the end, the hapless saboteurs returned home.
While the special forces were fighting, the British were choosing a landing point. They decided on the bay of San Carlos, which is on the opposite side of East Falkland from Port Stanley. On May 20, 19 vessels, seven of them amphibious, reached San Carlos under the cover of fog.
The attack went surprisingly smoothly. In this sector, the Argentines had only an observation post, where two platoons were on duty with no communication with headquarters. The mortar shelling from the British forces had little effect, and the Argentines hit two British helicopters before managing to escape. Nevertheless, the incursion was considered a success for the British troops, and a real catastrophe for the Argentine army, as a full-fledged British landing force was now operating on the most important island of the archipelago.
Nearing the end of its rope, the Argentine Air Force did all it could to stem the tide, but the damage had already been done. At the cost of 12 planes, they were able to hit the frigate Ardenta, but it no longer mattered – nor did their airstrikes that destroyed another frigate, the Antelope, on May 23, or the sinking of the destroyer Coventry on the 25th. Though Argentine aviation managed to salvage its honor, British ships had safely landed a powerful contingent, which was now doing its job.
The British began by attacking the Condor airfield south of the landing point and two Argentine regiments around it. The assault was almost foiled by a reporter who broadcast the preparations live. However, the British had a huge advantage in forces and means of warfare: Naval and land artillery swept away the resistance of the Argentine troops. It soon became clear that, while occupying the islands, the Argentines had managed to rebuild concrete bunkers on the approaches to the airfield.
This discovery was all the more dramatic because the howitzers had just run out of ammunition. A series of attacks on foot initially failed, but, in the end, the British were able to suppress the bunkers by firing anti-tank missiles at the embrasures. The matter was finally decided by air strikes on the exhausted Argentine soldiers. The British lost 18 men, the Argentines 45, and almost 1,000 Argentinians surrendered.
Now the British could concentrate on attacking Port Stanley. However, Argentine pilot Roberto Kurilovich sank the Atlantic Conveyor transport ship along with its transport helicopters, so the British had to march on foot. Meanwhile, the Argentines finally achieved real success in fighting landing ships: on June 8, an airstrike killed 56 soldiers at once, and one of the vessels was destroyed.
The Argentine pilots showed simply brilliant qualities – both bravery and skill – but they could no longer impede the British by this point. On June 11, a barrage from howitzers, mortars, anti-tank missiles, and naval artillery rained down on positions around Port Stanley. The high ground around the town was captured after a monstrously brutal battle, which included hand-to-hand fighting. In fact, this was the coup de grâce. The British had crushing superiority in equipment, firepower, and infantry training, and only the courage of the Argentines allowed them to hold out until June 14, when thousands of Argentine soldiers laid down their arms.
Neither General Menendez, who commanded the Argentine forces, nor his subordinates had any reason to reproach themselves. They surrendered only after resistance was no longer worthwhile.
However, in Argentina, these events sparked horror and outrage. While state propaganda had been boasting of victories, now thousands of depressed prisoners clearly demonstrated what had really happened. In total, the British had lost 255 military personnel, three civilians, two frigates, two destroyers, a transport ship, a landing ship, and 34 aircraft. The Argentines lost 649 (half on the cruiser General Belgrano), a cruiser, a submarine, four transport vessels, and about a hundred planes and helicopters. Meanwhile, 11,000 troops had been taken prisoner.
The defeat led to the fall of the Galtieri junta in Argentina. The general retired and was arrested in 1983 for incompetent command in the Falklands. Though the fighting stopped, the territorial dispute remains unsettled.
Ironically, Galtieri’s little victorious war instead became Thatcher’s little victorious war. The ‘Iron Lady’ of British politics went down in history as the winner of a major conflict.
Everything went far from smoothly for London, but, in general, the British showed the will to fight for seemingly low-value territories far from Albion. They had shown that they were not at all indifferent to their own status as a Great Power.