April 2, 1982. Forces of the Argentinian military land on the Falklands, a tiny pair of islands owned by Great Britain since 1833. The unexpected invasion of these dispute territories catches the small British garrison completely by surprise. The Argentine Government has made a huge mistake, and what looks like an easy victory will quickly spiral into the Falklands War.
The Falkland Islands are a pair of windswept, mountainous little masses 300 miles east of Argentina in the South Atlantic with 776 smaller and much more worthless islands, covering about 4,700 square miles – for reference, bigger than Rhode Island but smaller than Connecticut. The Falklands are famous for their penguins, the main industries are fishing and sheep farming, but apparently Falklands wool is good stuff, so they’ve got that going for them. So why would anyone give a crap about these tiny patches of rock in the remote South Atlantic?
Well. If you can give me a good answer for that, you might have an answer to most of world history.
Apparently, people did care. The Falklands were discovered in the 16th Century, but remained uninhabited until the French occupied one island in 1764, and the British another in 1766. France sold its claim to Spain in 1766, and the Spanish and British settlements coexisted until 1774, when the British withdrew, leaving a plaque claiming the islands for their own. (We’re leaving, but you can’t have it!) The Falklands were mostly abandoned by 1811, when the Spanish garrison abandoned the island chain.
In the continuing story of “Why Does Anyone Care About These Stupid Islands Volume II,” the Argentinian government, now independent from Spain, reoccupied the islands in 1826. In 1831, an American warship arrived after provocations from the local government and kicked the tiny garrison off. A new Argentine garrison arrived, but they mutinied against the government. This was time for the British to come sidling in, and in 1832 they quite peacefully took the islands over. From that point on, the Falklands were a Crown Colony, and waves of Scottish settlers founded a quiet pastoral community on the barren rocks.
So here we are. Fast forward to 1982. The British had held the Falklands for 160 years, using them as a base for launching expeditions to Antarctica as well as naval control of the South Atlantic. Throughout both World Wars, the Falklands had been a vital base against both German U-Boats and surface fleets, culminating in the Battle of the Falklands against a German battle fleet on December 8, 1914. (See my post for that day! Yes, I have these planned out all the way till then.) Nevertheless, Argentina maintained its claim on the islands and repeatedly raised the issue through diplomacy.
Great Britain, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, had a mixed view on its tiny colony. On the one hand, the population of the islands was overwhelmingly pro-British and had virtually no political or cultural connections with Argentina, even though they regularly traded with Argentina for basic supplies. Sustaining and defending the Falklands, though, was a tall order for Britain in the Cold War. Having released almost all its Imperial possessions in the last several decades, the Crown was not high on making a big issue of the Falklands. The rub of the matter was that the Argentinians wanted the Falklands far more than Great Britain did.
Argentine President Juan Peron pressed for the British to cede the archipelago throughout the 1960s, brandishing the recent UN resolution on decolonization. In 1965, the UN resolved for Britain and Argentina to reach an amicable settlement over the Falklands. The UK was willing, because the islands were a liability more than an asset at this time. Throughout the 1960s, Britain quietly discussed the transfer of the Falklands with Argentina, but the main sticking point was the opposition of the residents. The Falklanders wanted to remain British.
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female Prime Minister. An ironclad conservative, she was a hard customer and a shrewd politician, but she inherited a Britain in profound crisis. Thatcher remains a sharply polarizing figure in Britain, and could be compared to Ronald Reagan in the United States. Her tight-fisted fiscal policies and pro-business attitude deepened her unpopularity during the 1979-1981 recession, but her housing policies and privatization efforts did strengthen the UK economy in the long-term. I will not proceed further in the troublesome waters of UK politics, but suffice to say that in 1982 Thatcher’s popularity was on the rocks.
Argentina was not doing much better. In 1976, a military junta had come to power that launched a terrible campaign of repression so well-known that it sparked a U2 song, “Mothers of the Disappeared.” By December 1981, the current junta government of General Leopoldo Galtieri was facing a severe economic crisis of its own as well as mounting political and international pressure over its right-wing repressions. Less well-known was the U.S. involvement in Argentina, termed “Operation Condor”, that supported right-wing governments in Latin American in an effort to curb the spread of communism. This support extended to the Argentinian junta, which sought to suppress the leftist supporters of the now-dead Peron.
This is our situation, or "Why Does Anyone Care About These Stupid Islands Part III." Both the UK and Argentina faced mounting economic crises and unpopular responses to their policies. While they had clashed over the Falklands, neither country had any real desire to go to war for them. The key difference was that the UK had signaled that it had little interest in the islands, while Argentina had a great deal of interest in them. Thatcher even renewed negotiations in 1981 for the cession of the islands, but the negotiations broke down that year over diplomatic issues and the continuing opposition of the Falklanders themselves.
The Argentinians decided to consider military action. This drastic step was reinforced by the poor fiscal state of the UK, as well as the relatively low state of its forces. Many of the ships that would be necessary for any response were scheduled to be decommissioned based on budget cuts that Thatcher had approved, and the Falklands were so far away from any friendly port that it just might not be worth it for the British to respond. The Argentinians gambled that the British would not respond, and they could bolster their own government by presenting a military victory through the annexation of the Falklands. A short, victorious war would reinforce the government’s popularity and turn things around in their favor domestically. A short, victorious war…where have we heard that before?
The conflict basically started by accident. On March 19, 1982, a group of Argentine workers Landed on South Georgia Island of the Falklands and raised the Argentine flag – in theory. In truth, the “workers” were Argentine Marines in disguise, operating under military control without the knowledge of the government. When the Argentinian Government realized what had happened, they ordered the invasion of the Falklands before Britain could reinforce the islands.
On April 2, 1982, the Argentineans conducted Operation Rosario – the amphibious invasion of the Falklands. Major Mike Norman of the Royal Marines, with only 57 Marines and 47 local Falklands volunteers, was there to resist. This tiny garrison had no real hope against the 500+ commandos that the Argentine government dispatched, along with their air cover and superior supply condition.
The Argentine troops converged on Moody Brook Barracks, where the Marines were supposed to be stationed, and cleared them – only to find that the Marines weren’t there. Norman fortified the Government House, on the eastern edge of the Argentine capital Port Stanley, and drove off multiple Argentine attacks with heavy fire. Marine anti-tank weapons destroyed at least one Argentinian personnel carrier, and resisted for the next hour. By 0830 on April 2, the firing stopped, and Major Norman along with Governor Rex Hunt were forced to surrender.
British territory had been invaded, but it was never clear whether the British would respond with force. The Falklands were 8,000 miles from the closest friendly base in poor weather conditions, and the Argentinians would easily outnumber whatever force the British could send. Nevertheless, the Argentine invasion provoked a storm of anger and indignation in Britain. To them, it didn’t matter whether they’d been planning to give up the islands; British troops had been fired upon, British sovereignty had been violated and British citizens were under enemy occupation.
The Argentinians had failed to consider two factors: British patriotism and Margaret Thatcher. Despite the frequent economic troubles of Britain, despite recent urban riots and poor British national morale, and despite the divisive opinions of their leader, the first pictures of the invasion broadcast to British TV were of Royal Marines being forced to lie face-down in the dirt. For those who were old enough, it reminded them of the summer of 1914 at the beginning of the Great War: the sense of national offense and anger was totally unexpected in the allegedly weak, docile, and liberal British populace of the 1980s.
Margaret Thatcher, as well, was infuriated. Bestowed with the title “Iron Lady” by her Soviet nemeses, she could not countenance any negotiation in the face of military force. Thatcher reckoned that a show of weakness in the face of Argentine invasion would be fatal to her government, and as a woman, more would be expected of her than might be expected of a male Prime Minister. If a man sat in her place, his weakness could be overlooked; hers could not.
On the day of the crisis, Thatcher received numerous reports about the impossibility of a military response over such a distance with such tiny forces, with the exception of First Sea Lord Admiral Henry Leach. Leach’s confidence and simple patriotism reinforced Thatcher’s instincts. Orders began pouring out to the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Royal Marines.
Thatcher proclaimed Operation Corporate – the decision to strike back. Britain would not fade into irrelevance. She had little Empire left, but what she had she would defend. The Iron Lady gave the order: take the islands back. “Defeat? I do not know the meaning of the word.”
Great Britain would go to war with Argentina for the tiny, windswept specks in the South Atlantic. The Navy would take its forces south, 8,000 miles away, for the last gasp of the British Empire.
It was never about the islands, not really. It was about the nations. Tune in on May 28 for the climax of the Falklands War.
Book Recommendation: There’s not a good, “landmark” history of the Falklands War in my opinion. Probably still too recent. Best I can offer is Martin Middlebrook’s Operation Corporate: The Falklands War, 1982 (London: Viking, 1985) but it’s mostly told from the British perspective.