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40 years on: Remembering the Falklands War
Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands, a remote British colony in the south Atlantic, on 2nd April 1982. Up until that point, very few people in Britain had heard of the Falklands and even fewer were aware that the islands were British territory, despite the fact they were 3,000 miles away. Many would have also been hard-pressed to point out accurately the islands’ location on a map.
“Isn’t that where we get a lot of cod?” I overheard one lady say to a friend in Huddersfield’s busy indoor Kirkgate market following news reports about the Argentine invasion. The first stages of the attack were met with fierce opposition by the Falkland Islands Governor Sir Rex Hunt. A Royal Marines garrison of 68 marines, assisted by 23 volunteers of the Falkland Islands Defence Force was stationed on the islands. They were vastly outnumbered by Argentine troops the Government House in Stanley (the capital of the Falklands) was taken.
My own views were coloured by the news that my 25-year-old Army brother was soon to be sent out there with a British taskforce to reclaim the islands. As a teenage sociology student and without the benefit of Google to detail the history of the Falklands or reveal the horrors of Argentina’s ‘junta’ dictatorship government led by its ruthless leader Leopoldo Galtieri, I instinctively sided with the anti-war group. But far from the jingoistic tone of most tabloids and a couple of right-wing broadsheets, opinions in Britain were deeply polarised. The mood of the country was difficult to navigate and increasingly xenophobic.
While visiting a fish & chip shop in Halifax with a friend at the height of the conflict in May 1982, our conversation was overheard by a group of youths. On our departure, we were suddenly assailed by a torrent of abuse, complete with inverted V sign swearing. This was a clear demonstration of their disapproval of anyone even questioning the conflict, which had taken on the mantle of nationalism versus unpatriotic traitors.
For the over 1,800 British residents in the Falklands, news that an Argentine air and sea taskforce was heading their way was devastating. Patrick Watts, the islands’ radio station manager recalled how he and his fellow citizens feared that their British way of life would be swept away forever.
“I told my wife and two daughters that we would have to leave. I went outside to contemplate the future and then a neighbour told me that [Margaret] Thatcher was sending a task force that was leaving on the Monday and my whole attitude changed. I suddenly became alive and went back in and I said to my family, forget what I said before, we’re not going anywhere. We’re staying and going to be here when the British arrive”
During a 2012 radio interview for BBC World Service, former Argentine soldier Miguel Savage recalled his experience of the conflict highlighting how for him and his fellow military comrades their fears were compounded by a lack of resources and training.
“It was like a lunar landscape, like Mars, cold, windy, and wet. We went from 30 degrees to minus 15 or 20 and our infantry had very basic canvasses. Half of the weapons didn’t work. I had only one day of rifle practice. It was excruciating for me. Just the weather made me terrified.”
As the conflict played out in real-time on the news, live bulletins made it a first in British television history, as opposed to filmed footage only shown weeks after the events. Opinions in the country began to shift as the reality of the deaths of the young British military began to change minds.
The terrible life-changing facial injuries of Welsh Guardsman Simon Weston, when his ship Sir Galahad was hit by bombs, shocked millions of viewers in Britain and was a powerful reminder of the horrors of conflict irrespective of arguments over sovereign territory. Weston’s painful and emotional plight was played in front of news cameras as he was transferred to a war ship’s hospital and eventually back to the UK. Millions of viewers were faced with a reality that overshadowed notions of patriotism.
Several names have become synonymous with the Falklands War, such as Bomb Alley, Bluff Cove, and Goose Green. The latter was the scene of a ferocious battle between British para troops and Argentine forces which saw Lieutenant Colonel H Jones killed at the head of the battalion and posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Perhaps the most arresting image for British viewers broadcast on the news was the sinking of HMS Sheffield on 4th May following an Exocet missile strike from an Argentine naval air fighter attack. 20 crew members of the British ship were killed. The sinking of the Argentine ARA General Belgrano on 1st May was a decisive moment during the war which saw the deaths of 368 Argentine crew and 700 more rescued from the open ocean. Despite the controversy over the attack, it had a crucial strategic effect in eliminating the Argentine naval threat.
On the night of 11th June, the fall of Stanley along with a phase of attacks on 13th June, which saw the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards capturing Mount Tumbledown costing 10 British and 30 Argentine lives, brought a closure to the 74 days of conflict. 649 Argentine soldiers and 255 British military personnel, along with three Falkland islanders, had lost their lives.
The Argentine forces were comprehensively beaten and surrendered on 14th June 1982, prompting Margaret Thatcher to declare victory in the House of Commons.
“Large numbers of Argentine soldiers threw down their weapons. They are reported to be flying white flags over Port Stanley.”
Miguel recalled the waste of young lives on both sides with the poignant revelation that the Argentine military had been forced into a political war that was doomed from the start for his countrymen.
“We had three enemies. We had our own officers as enemies, we had one of the worst weather conditions on the planet, and half-dead and starving we were attacked by the three para regiments, one of the best units in the world.”
After the Argentine forces surrendered to the British, Miguel was sent back home to Argentina and was reunited with his family after just a few days.