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The Falklands War
Background to the Falkland Islands
France, Spain, Argentina and Britain had all laid claim to the Falkland Islands during the eighteenth century. In 1833 Britain reasserted its claim of sovereignty over the islands, forcing the Argentine administration to leave. Approaching 150 years of British rule, 1982 was the year it would once again be challenged.
In 1981 the new Conservative government, led by Margaret Thatcher published its defence review. It sought to scale down the naval presence in the South Atlantic, by withdrawing Britain’s only ship there, HMS Endurance.
This information encouraged Argentine belief that Britain’s interest in the Falkland Islands was waning. Argentina’s military junta, having been in power since 1976, was facing an economic crisis and civil unrest. To restore support and bolster national pride, it decided that winning back Islas Malvinas or the Falkland Islands was the answer.
Port Stanley attacked
On 2 April, President Leopoldo Galtieri, ordered the invasion of the Falkland Islands. Posted at the capital, Port Stanley, was a small garrison of about 80 British Royal Marines. They were joined by 20 locals who managed to hold off the Argentine troops for two days. But with over 3,000 more arriving on the island, Governor Rex Hunt ordered the British troops to surrender. By 4 April, Port Stanley was under Argentina’s control.
Britain severed all diplomatic ties. Unprepared for an invasion, it assembled a large naval taskforce. At its head were HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. These were light-aircraft carriers designed for Sea Harrier and Sea King aircraft. They were vital in providing air cover for the fleet.
Leaving Portsmouth on 5 April it took them over two weeks and 8,000 miles to reach the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Sinking of the Belgrano
Setting up a 200 mile exclusion zone around the islands, the initial phases of the conflict involved the British naval taskforce and the Argentine Air Force. Both were shadowing each others movements. Crucial to British success was ensuring her two aircraft carriers remained in operation. This was threatened when the Argentine navy were spotted beginning a pincer attack with the ‘General Belgrano’ leading one battle group, and ‘Veinticinco de Mayo’, leading the other. HMS Conqueror, a nuclear submarine, responded. Firing three torpedoes the Belgrano was hit twice and sank, taking with it the lives of 323 Argentines. After this incident, Argentina’s ships remained in port.
The Argentine Air Force proved a formidable foe. Two days later, two Super Étendard aircraft fired two Exocet anti-ship missiles at the destroyer HMS Sheffield. Set ablaze, twenty members of her crew were killed.
Arrival at San Carlos Water
On the 21 May, under the cover of darkness, 3,000 British troops arrived at San Carlos Water on the north-western side of East Falkland. It had been just seven weeks since the invasion began. The wintry weather had delayed progress, so that by daylight the anchored ships were sitting ducks to the Argentine Air Force. Over the course of a week HMS Ardent, HMS Antelope, HMS Coventry and the Atlantic Conveyor were sunk leaving 31 Britons dead.
Leading the ground troops, Brigadier Julian Thompson’s mission was to secure the north-western side of East Falkland. Having done this he was then asked to push his men south. On 28 May the battle to retake Darwin and Goose Green was won. It was fought over one night and one day, with heavy losses on both sides. The British Forces realised how outnumbered they were when they managed to capture a garrison of over 1,000 Argentines. This victory enabled the British to advance on Port Stanley, but not quite as planned.
Three Chinook helicopters on board the Atlantic Conveyor had been lost. They were to provide essential transportation of the troops to the higher ground around Port Stanley, which was the chosen location of attack. Now, the troops were forced to walk or ‘yomp’. The conditions were harsh and almost every man suffered from trench foot. On top of this, they each carried about 120lbs of supplies, food and weaponry on their backs.
The night battles in the hills surrounding Port Stanley were fierce, as British soldiers risked being picked off by the strategically placed machine guns that lined the hillsides. On 12 June Mount Longdon was the first battle to be won, and soon Britain had taken Two Sisters, Mount Harriet and Mount Tumbledown. Wireless Ridge was Port Stanley’s last natural line of defence. By 14 June all Argentine defences had been breached. At 9.30am the Argentine Commander, General Mario Menendez, surrendered his 9,800 troops. This effectively ended the Falklands War which claimed the lives of 655 Argentines, 255 Britons and three islanders.
To this day Argentina still lays claim to the Falkland Islands, and tensions between the two countries remain.