The world awoke on April 3, 1982 to the shocking news that an Argentine invasion force had landed on the desolate Falkland Islands in the far South Atlantic, subdued the small force of Royal Marines stationed at the capital, Port Stanley, and proclaimed the islandsnuestras —“our” — Malvinas (Argentina would follow up with the capture of a tiny garrison on South Georgia Island that same day). No one except the invasion force and a few planners in the Argentine military staffs knew of the expedition until it was over. There had been long and drawn-out discussions in the United Nations (UN) and other venues for decades about the contentious issue of sovereign control of the islands. Multiple conflicting claims dating back to the Seven Years' War of the eighteenth century ensured that both sides had established rather rigid positions: Britain in favor of “self-determination” for the few settlers on the islands (Scots and Welsh) and the Argentines in favor of exclusive sovereignty over islands on the Argentine continental shelf, with guarantees of civil rights for the settlers as Argentine citizens. Even so, the notion of actual hostilities over the islands seemed remote. The Argentine plan was based on forcing a fait accompli. That the British would undertake the costly and huge operation necessary to recover the islands some 8,500 miles distant in the coming South Atlantic winter was deemed too unlikely; a negotiated settlement would be reached. Argentine planners understood, however, that defeat was a distinct probability if the British did fight.
And fight they did. The British navy, not having sailed forth in anger since the frustrating Suez Crisis, mobilized immediately. The nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror — just one example of British military superiority — departed for the South Atlantic on April 4. Surface forces, including Britain's two aircraft carriers, deployed from Portsmouth on April 5. On April 9, troop transports, loaded with British paratroop and marine units, deployed, and on April 12, Britain announced a two hundred mile exclusion zone around the islands. Even though not yet in theater, British forces were on the offensive; the Argentines sat pat.
The UN condemned the invasion and called for withdrawal of Argentine forces, cessation of hostilities, and a negotiated settlement. The United States embarked on shuttle diplomacy between Washington, Buenos Aries, and London in an attempt to effect some kind of settlement. But American efforts came to naught. The Argentines were suspicious—correctly—of the neutrality of America's good offices and the British were determined to press forward. Eventually, the United States offered logistical and intelligence support to the UK and helped pressure the Organization of American States and virtually every American republic to stand aside. Only two Latin American nations involved themselves directly in the conflict and in very limited roles: Peru flew some sorties in support of Argentina; Chile rendered support to Britain.
By May 1, British operations had reached the point that an active offensive could be launched. Royal Marines had recaptured the small base on remote South Georgia Island in late April. With that flank secured, a direct approach to the Falklands was open and the war was on. On May 1, Vulcan bombers from the UK reached and bombed the airstrip at Fort Stanley, the British task force entered the exclusion zone, and Harrier “jump-jets” from the carriers bombed targets on the Falklands. In opposition, the Argentine navy was not an inconsiderable force: it had the Ventecinco de Mayo, one of only two carriers in Latin American maritime forces. It also boasted the heavy cruiser Belgrano, some reasonably modern frigates, and somewhat older diesel submarines. And the navy operated a significant number of attack aircraft. However, once HMS Conqueror torpedoed and sank the Belgrano on May 2 (the heaviest loss of life of any incident in the war) the navy did not sortie to offer battle to the British forces: arguably a missed opportunity. In response, Argentine naval aircraft, French-made Super Entendards carrying exocet missiles, successfully attacked HMS Sheffield on May 4. The pattern of the largest naval conflict since Okinawa was set: the British controlled the sea, but Argentine aircraft sent six British ships to the bottom and damaged ten others.
On land, the issue was more one-sided. Once the British landing was completed in the inland sea of San Carlos Water (Falkland Sound) between the large East and West Falklands on May 21, the outcome was not in doubt. Not that the fighting was easy: the Argentines put up stiff resistance at Goose Green and Darwin on the southern flank of the British landing zone, but were overcome on May 28. Argentine air forces continued to pound landing ships and escort vessels in San Carlos Water and on the southern coast of the East Island, as the British attempted to leap-frog by water towards Port Stanley. Eventually, the British land forces had to march cross-country and attack the capital from the west. This required subduing dug-in Argentine infantry on several mountain ridges, but this was done in good order and all Argentine forces on the islands surrendered on June 14.
The costs of the war were not light: the British lost 255 personnel killed and some 777 wounded; Argentine losses were 652 dead and missing, and an unspecified but larger number of wounded. Most Argentine losses were at sea. Materially, Britain could absorb the number of ships lost, but Argentina could not; in addition to the Belgrano, she lost a submarine and virtually all of her troop carrier capability. The Argentine air arm, both navy and air force, was cut off; perhaps as many as 109 aircraft were lost. But the real costs to Argentina were political. The military government — now demonstrably incapable of performing even its most basic function of national defense — was entirely discredited and stepped down, ending an era of military dominance of political power begun in 1930. The military has not returned to power since. And the British commitment to hold the islands is more solid today than it was before the war.
SEE ALSO: Gurkhas; Punitive expeditions; Submarine warfare; United Nations.
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