Falklands conflict: Everything you need to know

The Falkland Islands is an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean, less than 500km off the coast of Argentina and about 1,200km from the Antarctic.

The Falklands, also known as Islas Malvinas in Spanish, are a British Overseas Territory.

In the early 1980s they were at the centre of an armed dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina.

Known as the Falklands War, it was actually undeclared because neither side declared war on the other, the conflict lasted from 2 April until 14 June 1982. 

In the 74 days, the diplomatic relations between the two countries were severely strained and it took nearly a decade for them to be fully restored.

What was the Falklands War about?

Ultimately, the Falklands War was about sovereignty over the archipelago.

It was not a novel dispute, as it had been going on since 1833 when both the UK and Argentina tried to assert sovereignty over the Falklands.

For more than a century there were several attempts at talks (sometimes supported by the United Nations) between the two countries, but they all failed to reach an agreement and the situation escalated in 1982.

HMS Hermes crew in the Falklands
HMS Hermes crew on board the vessel during the Falklands War, on 17 April 1982 (Picture: PA/Alamy Stock Photo).

Why was Argentina so interested in the Islas Malvinas?

The Falklands became increasingly important for Argentina in the year leading up to the war.

Based on the information collected in the Falklands Census of 1980, the islands were inhabited by just 1,813 people, with some members of 42 Royal Marines stationed at Moody Brook Barracks.

Nearly all (1,723) of those people held British nationality and just 30 were Argentine nationals.

In 1981, a referendum saw the population vote in favour of remaining under British sovereignty.

However, during the very same year, Argentina was facing a very tough economic and civil situation.

Less than six months before the conflict started, the Argentine military regime changed and a new junta took charge.

As civil unrest and dislike for the military dictatorship grew in Argentina, the junta attempted to shift the public's interest from national issues to a war.

The juntasupported claims that the islands held ties with the South American country, but the ultimate goal was most likely to spur a nationalist sentiment across Argentina and for the military regime to gain both popularity and greater influence over the South Atlantic region.

Watch: Veterans recall their experiences of the Falklands War.

How did the Falklands War start?

On 19 March 1982, scrap metal workers from Argentina arrived on board transport ship ARA Bahia Buen Suceso at a derelict whaling station in Leith, on South Georgia island, and raised the Argentine flag.

The scrap workers, led by merchant Constantino Davidoff, had been contracted to dismantle the abandoned whaling station on the island.

The party was infiltrated by Argentine marines who were posing as civilian scientists and were there to begin what had been code-named Operation Alpha.

The arrival in Leith also failed to follow the correct protocol and that, together with the flag incident, was reported to the governor in Stanley, the capital.

Royal Marines wait to go on patrol from Ajax Bay during the Falklands Conflict in 1982 DATE UNKNOWN CREDIT PA Alamy Stock Photo
Royal Marines pictured during the Falklands War as they wait to go on patrol from Ajax Bay (Picture: PA/Alamy Stock Photo).

On 22 March, ARA Bahia Buen Suceso left Leith, but the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) post detected Argentine personnel on the island in the afternoon and informed London.

The Royal Navy's ice patrol vessel HMS Endurance was ordered to set sail together with two helicopters and a Royal Marines detachment for South Georgia.

On 25 March, Argentine marines landed at Leith from icebreaker Bahia Paraiso.

Less than a week later, on 31 March, the Royal Marines detachment disembarked from HMS Endurance but, at the same time, Baha Paraiso slipped away from Leith.

As this was happening in South Georgia, the Argentine forces were preparing to land on the Falklands.

How did the conflict unfold?

In April 1982, Argentina launched Operation Rosario, aiming to capture the islands.

On 2 April, Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands and the following day South Georgia.

Meanwhile, on 29 March the British Government had already dispatched three vessels from Europe to the South Atlantic in response to what was happening in South Georgia.

Following the invasion of the Falklands, the UK formed a task force aimed at retaking control of the islands as part of Operation Corporate.

The task force was made up of vessels that were ready to be deployed at the time, including nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror, aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes.

The British Forces also requisitioned vessels that were not necessarily used for military operations like ocean liners SS Canberra and Queen Elizabeth 2.

By the time the whole task force was put together, the Armed Forces had 127 ships in total – 62 of which were merchant ships.

While preparations were in full swing in the UK, the Royal Air Force set up an airbase on Ascension Island, where bombers, fighters and refuelling aircraft were sent to protect the naval task force that would arrive on its way to the Falklands.

A small task group left Ascension Island on 11 April and reached South Georgia a few days later.

Argentinian soldiers captured at Goose Green are guarded by a British Royal Marine as they await transit out of the area 020682 CREDIT PA Alamy Stock Photo.jpg
A picture showing several Argentinian soldiers captured at Goose Green while they are being guarded by a British Royal Marine on 2 June 1982 (Picture: PA/Alamy Stock Photo).

By 25 April, British forces and the Royal Marines had retaken control of the island of South Georgia, successfully completing Operation Paraquet.

Argentine forces and British forces fought in several close-combat battles at sea and in the air.

RAF Vulcan bombers also played a significant part in the Falklands War.

As part of Operation Black Buck, the V-Bombers performed a series of missions from Ascension Island to the Falklands between 30 April and 12 June 1982, specifically targeting first the runway at Port Stanley Airport and later Argentinian anti-aircraft radars.

The series of long-distance bombing missions has been described as ambitious by many and the Vulcan To The Sky Trust defined Op Black Buck as "the RAF's most daring attack" since the Dambusters raid during the Second World War.

Several vessels were lost by both sides, most notably Argentine cruiser General Belgrano and British destroyer HMS Sheffield.

Airpower was also weakened on both sides, but Argentina suffered the loss of what was estimated to be 20% to 30% of their aircraft.

On 21 May, British forces were able to land on the Falklands.

Contrary to what had been expected by Argentinian military officials, the amphibious operation took place in the east of the islands, avoiding the capital Stanley, where the Argentine forces had planned their major resistance points.

Resistance fighting quickly broke out on the islands, but the British infantry made its way southward and captured both Darwin and Goose Green.

Hard fighting continued until British forces were able to surround the capital of Stanley and the main port.

On 14 June 1982, Argentina surrendered, officially marking the end of the 10-week undeclared war.

Watch: Falklands veteran talks about a close encounter he had with an Argentinian aircraft. 

How many people died?

A total of 907 people lost their lives during the 10-week Falklands War – 255 of them were British, 649 Argentinian and three were Falkland Islanders killed by friendly fire.

Several people were also wounded, including 775 Brits and 1,657 Argentinians.

How was the Falklands War perceived in the UK?

The Falklands War is often defined as a popular war in the United Kingdom.

The conflict took place in the early 1980s, when the British Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher.

Also known as the 'Iron Lady', Mrs Thatcher was facing criticism for her strict policies at the time, which led to high unemployment around the country.

However, her response to the Falklands War and the subsequent relatively quick victory of the UK in the conflict led to an increase in Ms Thatcher's popularity and contributed to her re-election in 1983.

A series of surveys conducted during the war by Ipsos MORI revealed that within the span of a few days, the UK population shifted its key focus from domestic issues such as unemployment and inflation to the situation in the Falklands.

During the war, the public opinion of the Prime Minister also consistently grew, with 45% of respondents saying that their opinion of Mrs Thatcher had "gone up" by the end of June 1982.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher talks to BBC Panorama interviewers Richard Lindley and Robert Kee a the programme regarding the Falklands War 260482 CREDIT PA Alamy Stock Photo
Support for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher soared during the Falklands War (Picture: PA/Alamy Stock Photo).

What happened next?

The Falklands War severely strained the diplomatic relationship between the United Kingdom and Argentina, and it took until the early 1990s for it to improve again.

However, the 1982 war was just the beginning of further complications in the relations between the two counties, as disputes over the archipelago continue well into the 21st Century.

According to research conducted in 2012, UK-Argentine relations were at the time "in their worst state since 1982".

In November 2017, for the first time since before the conflict, a Royal Air Force aircraft landed in Argentina to support the search for the missing submarine ARA San Juan.

As of 2021, there are still instances where Britain has actively attempted to oppose the modernisation of the Argentine military kit, blocking potential sales of parts of avionics of British origin.

The situation on the islands themselves was also deeply impacted by the conflict as it is estimated about 30,000 landmines were laid by Argentine forces in 1982.

Despite the end of the hostilities, it took until October 2020 for the Falklands to be declared mine-free.

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