May 28, 1982 - The Falklands War & the Battle for Goose Green
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
May 28, 1982. The 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment and Commandos of the Royal Marines are a long way from home as they cross the hills of East Falkland Island and descend on the airfield at Goose Green. They are heavily outnumbered by the defending Argentines, but determined to take the Falklands back. Today is the pivotal battle of the Falklands War.
On April 2, I described the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s dispatch of a task force across the 8,000 miles to recapture the Falklands from Argentina. If you want to consult that post for the background, it’s on the website. (POST LINK LATER).
The British armed forces faced a daunting task at the outset of the Falklands War. The islands were 8,000 miles away, and Britain had no contingency plans in place for operations to retake them. The U.S. Navy regarded the chances of a successful mission to retake the islands as zero. The British had two carriers and numerous smaller craft available, and they even had to requisition cruise ships and merchant ships to transport the men and supplies needed for the trip. The British effort in the Falklands War was a shoestring operation from the get-go, thrown together within a matter of days to make its way down to the South Atlantic.
While the slapdash assembly of the operation would cause consequences, it also had the benefit of surprise. No one expected the British to put together a force so fast after years of cutbacks in defense spending – least of all the Argentinians. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy had 43 ships, along with 84 other ships carrying troops and supplies, on their way to the Falklands.
One of the first problems the British would run into was air power. The Falklands were well within fighter and bomber range from 122 Argentine land-based jet fighters, while the British had to rely on their 42 carrier-based planes throughout the course of the war. The British did set up air operations on Ascension island near the African coast, and these aircraft provided supplies and munitions to the fleet, but it was a thin thread of supply for a force that was very far from home.
Even as the British task force approached the Falklands, the shooting had not yet started; both sides were still trying to resolve things diplomatically. When the U.S. tried to mediate an end to the conflict, though, Argentina rejected the overtures. A U.N. Resolution demanding Argentinian withdrawal also fell on deaf ears. While Thatcher’s initial response was viewed by much of the world as aggressive, Argentina quickly lost sympathy from world powers due to her unwillingness to negotiate. With the British task force on its way, soon matters were beyond the point of negotiation. It was about to become a shooting war.
On May 1, the air war began over the Falklands as the British fighters and bombers began attacking the airfields on the Falklands, and Argentine air forces rushed in to stop them. The British ships descended on the islands as jet fighters continued to dogfight over the bleak, windswept Atlantic crusts of land. As the British surface fleet approached, it was shadowed by a task force of nuclear-powered submarines to safeguard the troop convoys and heavy ships from the small Argentine fleet.
On May 2, the HMS Conqueror, a nuclear-powered submarine, sank the ARA General Belgrano, resulting in the death of 323 Argentine crewmen – the first high-casualty event of the war. Despite intense postwar controversy about the sinking due to the undeclared nature of the war and the fuzzy borders of the battle zone, the sinking of the General Belgrano kept the Argentine Navy locked up in port for the rest of the war. The Argentines resorted to Exocet ship-killing missiles, which sank multiple British ships. The first was the destroyer HMS Sheffield on May 4, which truly awakened the British public to the reality of a “shooting war.” It was the first Royal Navy ship sunk from enemy action since World War II.
As the British made their final run at the Falklands under increasing pressure from Exocet missiles and air attack, the final attempt at negotiations in the UN fell through. The sinking of the Belgrano hardened the Argentine position – the dictatorship would surely fall if they backed out now, after the loss of so many men and no tangible gain. Despite the course of the war so far, the Argentines were still confident they could hold the Falklands with their larger troop numbers and superior air power. Enough British ships sunk, and a significant land defeat or two, would be a much stronger bargaining position. Even when the British proposals dropped the requirement that the Argentines evacuate, the government of Leopoldo Galtieri held firm. It was a fatal decision.
On May 21, the British mounted an amphibious landing at San Carlos, a bay on the western shore of East Falkland. 4,000 men of the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marine Commandos came rolling ashore, along with artillery, engineers and armored recon vehicles. Even though they established a secure bridgehead and faced no immediate opposition on land, the British ships in San Carlos were incredibly vulnerable to concentrated Argentine air attack. Soon San Carlos was known as “Bomb Alley,” where they were subjected to air raids that slowly began to tell. The British lost a frigate on May 21 and another on the 24th. The merchant ship Atlantic Conveyor was hit on the 25th, resulting in the loss of most of the British force’s Chinook helicopters and engineering equipment. This was a major drain on British logistics – all supplies to the ground forces would have to be humped by the infantry or carried by sea without those choppers.
The constant attrition on the Navy’s ships made a quick ground victory imperative, and the British commanders realized that without a quick attack the force could be cornered by superior Argentine numbers and artillery. They had to maintain the momentum of the attack and retain the offensive – go get them before they get us.
The closest Argentine force was the 1,000-man regiment at Goose Green, the site of one of the Falklands’ three airfields. The Argentines were dug in and their artillery was within striking range of San Carlos. The victory would also mean dominance over the western half of East Island and a major propaganda triumph at home. The 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, under Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Jones, set out on the 13-mile march for Goose Green. He was supported by three 105mm artillery pieces, some scout helicopters, and three Harrier jets from HMS Hermes; the destroyer HMS Arrow would soon arrive for fire support, and some Royal Marine Commando interpreters went along to interrogate prisoners. It was a true joint operation.
Jones’ battalion arrived on May 26 to scout out the battlefield; several captured Argentines revealed the enemy positions, and Jones ordered a night attack to begin on May 27. It was risky. Four companies of paratroopers would have to assault frontally over open ground; Goose Green was on a thin peninsula and there was no other method of attack.
The paratroopers approached in silence through the night, with A Company making first contact and breaching the Argentine trenches. The Argentine troops reacted in different ways when the British hit their main defense line: some resisted with spirit, others panicked or cowered. The Argentine troops were almost all raw conscripts, treated poorly by their officers or government, while the British paratroopers were some of the best infantry in the world. It was a truly uneven fight; what was surprising, in retrospect, was how long the Argentines fought.
By 0930, the British advance had stalled, with the paratroops under heavy fire and the daylight now exposing them to view. Colonel Jones tried to lead a flanking movement around the right side of the Argentinian line, but was killed, later to be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross; Major Chris Keeble took command. He and D Company found a narrow path along the shore, which unhinged the Argentine line and finally drove the defenders back.
The British pursued, even as the Argentinians began receiving reinforcements by helicopter from other parts of the island and aircraft began strafing them. The defeat of the Argentine infantry, though, signalled the end. The airfield was captured at 1440 hours, but 2 Para was in bad shape. Most of its men had been in action all day, rations, ammo, and water were low, they were still under heavy fire, and Goose Green itself was surrounded but not captured. Major Keeble decided to call for a surrender, otherwise he would call in every bit of firepower he could muster and storm Goose Green with every man he had.
The Argentine forces on Goose Green, however, had had enough. They surrendered at 1150 hours on May 29, 1982. The British forces had suffered 18 killed and 64 wounded, with one helicopter destroyed, from their force of 690 – about 12% losses – while the Argentines had suffered 45 killed and 112 wounded, in addition to the 961 remaining that surrendered.
Goose Green was the critical battle. With Argentinian positions unhinged, and San Carlos bay safe from ground attack, the British began to push towards the main Argentine positions at Port Stanley. As the Navy struggled to hold on in Bomb Alley and the RAF fought it out over their heads, the British infantry – Gurkhas, Paras, Royal Marine Commandos – pushed forward. They were soon joined by Scots and Welsh Guards, men who would in better days be guarding Buckingham Palace. By June 14, after many more small battles and engagements – and many close calls for the British – the Argentinian force at Port Stanley surrendered. The 24-day ground campaign had been a complete British victory, with 11,313 Argentine troops ultimately surrendering to no more than 7,000 elite British troops, and a ceasefire finally agreed.
With the ceasefire on East Falkland, the war was for all intents and purposes over. It brought immediate political consequences for both sides. In the UK, Thatcher’s popularity soared; her Conservatives had been trailing the opposition in polls for months, but the Falklands victory swept her to triumph in the 1983 elections. Defense spending cuts were scaled back, then abandoned. Despite losses of 255 killed, 775 wounded, and several ships, and great controversy, the victory is still commemorated in Britain.
In Argentina, the Galtieri government collapsed, with Argentina holding its first free elections in a decade in 1983. The war was regarded as a national tragedy and humiliation, and is still perceived as such to this day, with many Argentinians bemoaning the loss of “Las Malvinas” and maintaining a grudge against the British that has never been resolved. Argentina lost 649 killed – half from the General Belgrano – and 1657 wounded, in addition to much of their military hardware.
The irony is that the British had been considering giving the Falklands up to Argentina before the war, but after the conflict it was pretty much guaranteed this would never happen. The British have invested money and defenses in the Falklands ever since, and its inhabitants were given full British citizenship. Recent polling of the islanders shows a virtually unanimous desire to remain part of the British Empire.
The Falklands War was an incredible campaign on the part of the British, showing enormous logistical skill and daring; it demolished the myth of a weak and vacillating nation that had become the prevailing international perception. It was one of the very few land-air-naval wars fought on something like equal terms since World War II, and the British proved they still “had it.” For the Argentines, it remains a sore point, a bitter pill – its combatants were not heroes, but victims of both a cruel military government and the callous aggression of the British armed forces.
The Falklands remain contested to this day.