It is 39 years since the Falklands War ended, but many who were there likely remember it as if it were yesterday.
Britain continues to have a military presence there, while also working with Argentina on NATO missions, with the South American country being a non-alliance ally.
The Falkland Islands had originally been claimed by Britain in 1765 and, and they had been safely in British hands since 1833, one of many remnants of the British Empire.
Argentina had disputed British control, being only 400 miles away, as opposed to 8,000. As with Gibraltar today, the British government had considered giving the islands back to Argentina but decided not to when residents expressed an overwhelming desire to remain British.
But in the late 70s and early 80s, events in Argentina were in political flux. A 1976 coup d’etet had seen President Isabel Peron replaced by a military junta (dictatorship) and a man named Leopoldo Galtieri ended up as President at the end of 1981.
A number of right-wing coups had occurred in the Americas during the 1970s and this one contained the usual ingredients: The disappearance, arrest, torture and murder of thousands of leftists (or even suspected leftists). According to the Guardian, one policy of the junta was to spare pregnant women until they had given birth before then killing them and giving their babies to a military family.
The Guardian also revealed how Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon, advised the junta to eliminate their opponents quickly before human rights protests could gain momentum. Things did not go according to plan, and by April 1982 Galtieri was beset by problems – a restless and angry populace struggling in an economy that was suffering 600 percent inflation.
But if Galtieri could unite his people around a common cause, perhaps he could increase his popularity and hang onto power. What he needed was a good war centred around something that fired Argentinian pride. He settled on the Malvinas, otherwise known as the Falklands.
The invasion, though, would not occur straight away. Seeking to establish a precedent, Galtieri first sent his forces to take another British colony: South Georgia, also in the South Atlantic.
Constantino Davidoff, an Argentine businessman, had agreed with a Scottish company, Christian Salvesen, to put workers on the island to remove scrap metal left behind from the days of whaling in the region. When the workers arrived, they were instructed to raise the Argentinian flag, thus laying claim to the territory for Galtieri. Troops were sent in to support them.
Argentinian sovereignty had been established just like that. Now it was time to make the next move.
April 2, 1982
The attack came with surprise and overwhelming force. Dan and Peter Snow describe what happened in ‘20th Century Battlefields’:
“About 100 Argentinian marines landed … on the Falklands. Their objective? To capture the capital, Stanley. They were the advanced party, there were 2,000 more men on the way, but the job of these marines was to seize the town and force the British governor of the islands to surrender.”
Rex Hunt, the British governor of the islands, remained defiant within Government House:
“They’ve got us well and truly pinned down. But they’re not trying to attack. I’m not surrendering to the bloody Argies, certainly not.”
69 Royal Marines, members of two detachments used for NP (Naval Party) 8901, were all that stood between the invaders and Stanley. There were two of them because one was being relieved by the other on the very day of the Argentine attack. Still, the extra numbers were not enough and Hunt knew it. He eventually gave in and ordered them to surrender.
It was not long before the story broke in the international media. BBC Radio News reported it as follows:
“The Falkland Islands, the British colony in the South Atlantic, has fallen, that’s what Argentina is saying. It claims its marines went ashore as a spearhead this morning to capture key targets including the capital, Port Stanley.”
The next day the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, addressed the House of Commons:
“We are here because for the first time for many years British sovereign territory has been invaded by a foreign power. After several days of rising tension in our relations with Argentina that country’s armed forces attacked the (Falklands) yesterday and established military control of the islands … By late afternoon yesterday it became clear that an Argentine invasion had taken place and that the lawful British government of the islands had been usurped.”
She declared that there was “not a shred of justification and not a scrap of legality” to the invasion, that the weeping islanders wished fervently to remain British and that “the Falkland islands and their dependencies remain British territory – no aggression and no invasion can alter that simple fact. It is the government’s objective to see that the islands are freed from occupation and are returned to British administration at the earliest possible moment”.
Across the Atlantic, the Reagan Administration was ambivalent about the coming war. President Reagan explained why to reporters:
“It’s a very difficult situation for the United States because we’re friends with both of the countries engaged in this dispute, and we stand ready to do anything we can to help them and what we hope for and would like to help in doing is have a peaceful resolution of this with no forceful action and no bloodshed.”
But in Britain things were moving towards war. Operation Corporate, the mission to retake British possessions in the South Atlantic, was being launched. A task force hastily assembled that weekend set off from Plymouth. Troops consisted largely of Royal Marines and PARAs as well as sailors aboard the flotilla’s multiple ships. Someone who was there was an 18-year-old sailor aboard HMS Fearless, Kevin J Porter.
In his book about the war, 'Fearless: The Diary of an 18 Year Old at War in the Falklands', Porter describes how the crew formed human chains to get all the equipment and supplies they needed aboard the ship, which proved to make conditions inside very cramped indeed. He says of some who came aboard:
“It was later discovered, that the embarked Royal Marines had supplemented the reduced normal meals the chefs were serving up, by opening up some of the tins (of food) from the bottom, eating the contents of the tins and replacing the tins the right way up so that they looked intact!”
The greedy marines may have regretted scoffing rations because according to Porter conditions at sea over the next few days made keeping food down difficult:
“The sea was rough, with waves breaking over the bough. HMS Fearless, being a flat bottomed ship, lurched and rolled a lot in heavy weather. Much to the merriment of the ‘Old Sea Dogs’ on board, many of the crew suffered from sea sickness – huey – due to the motion of the ship.”
Britain established a 200-mile Maritime Exclusion Zone (MEZ) around the Falklands.
April 21 - 22
The mission to retake South Georgia was known as Operation Paraquet and involved dropping SAS teams near Leith and SBS units south of Grytviken so they could conduct reconnaissance. Many SAS soldiers ended up in near-Antarctic conditions on Fortuna Glacier and had to be evacuated amidst great difficulty the next day.
42 Commando’s M Company was dropped on South Georgia from HMS Tidespring, dodging the Argentine submarine Santa Fe in the process.
The Santa Fe was spotted again on the morning of April 25 and engaged by HMS Endurance and Plymouth and by helicopters, all of which damaged it with the fire they unleashed, forcing it into harbour at Grytviken.
With many men in M Company still aboard HMS Tidespring, those already ashore formed a 75-man composite unit from the SAS, SBS and Royal Marines available.
April 27 - 28
The attack was commenced on April 27 with supporting fire from the 4.5 inch guns on the Antrim and Plymouth out at sea, the men then attacking the 140-man garrison at King Edward Point. Moving through the old whaling station at Grytviken and a minefield, their advance was duly noted by the garrison who promptly surrendered.
HMS Endurance and Plymouth moved into Leith the next day and their presence also provoked the Argentine troops there to surrender. South Georgia was Britain’s again, and M company would now garrison it.
Lieutenant Commander Alfredo Astiz surrendered the Argentine forces on South Georgia.
By now most of the British ships had reached the TEZ, or Total Exclusion Zone, the circular area surrounding the Falkland islands that the British had declared should not be crossed.
The Argentine ship the General Belgrano was also inching closer to the TEZ. Although it didn’t get into the zone, the British were so concerned that this cruiser would sink one of Britain’s two aircraft carriers (which would have lost the war for Britain) the decision was made to attack it anyway.
The British submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoed it before it could be allowed to get any closer to the rest of the British task force. 323 people were killed.
An Argentine pilot fired as Exocet missile from a Naval Aviation Lockheed SP-2H Neptune at HMS Sheffield, a Type 42 destroyer. 20 men were killed.
The main body of the Amphibious Task Group set off for the Falklands from Ascension.
The QE 2 set off from Southampton with 5 Infantry Brigade.
While much of the fighting would take place on the main eastern island of the Falklands, an obscure north west corner would be the focus of the action on May 14.
Known as Pebble Island, the site was attacked because it contained an airfield. Planes stationed here, it was feared, might attack the main British force when it landed at San Carlos. So that night a contingent of SAS troops was dropped by helicopter five miles from their target. They marched over the rugged terrain to reach their target upon which they would launch a surprise attack in the darkness.
‘Pebble Island’ by Francis MacKay describes what Argentinian troops saw when they were alerted by sounds of gunfire and explosions:
“(They) witnessed a number of shadowy figures running towards and around the parked aircraft, pausing only to fire weapons or throw hand grenades.”
They next saw star-shell, mortar rounds, flares and high explosive blasts:
“These explosions were succeeded by streams of GPMG tracer rounds going into and through aircraft, small arms fire, grenade and LAW blasts.”
LAW blasts were shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, which were used along with standard assault rifles to riddle the planes with fire. Explosive charges were also deposited with timed fuses, blowing apart planes as they went off.
Fuel spilling onto the airfield then caught fire, and the enormous fire, along with the continued shell and tracer rounds, lit up the night sky as the SAS ran off. It was a mission very much in the spirit of the original SAS operations, which began as night-time raids on Nazi airfields in World War 2.
But the coast still was not clear. The night before the amphibious landings were due to commence at San Carlos, a number of Argentine soldiers at Fanning Head were overlooking the landing site. They were thought to be armed with anti-tank and other weapons that might threaten the landing craft due to come to shore the following morning. 25 heavily-armed SBS soldiers were dispatched and they quickly neutralised the group.
In the early hours of the morning, 3 Commando Brigade landed at San Carlos, with 40 Commando and 2 PARA in the lead followed by 3 PARA and 45 Commando. They were soon ensconced at various sites around San Carlos Waters: Ajax Bay, Blue Beach and Green Beach.
Despite the work done by the SAS and SBS, Argentine soldiers on the ground shot down a two Gazelle helicopters, killing three aircrew from the Marines, and the troops in the bay were attacked by aircraft at 9am. The attacks continued for the next several days; HMS Ardent and Antelope were sunk, but despite this, supplies still made it ashore to the men clinging on in the bay.
Meanwhile, at sea, HMS Coventry and the SS Atlantic Conveyor, an enormous transport ship, were struck by more Exocet missiles. 19 men were killed aboard the Coventry and 12 aboard the Conveyor.
These sinkings had a direct impact on the men now ashore: Transport helicopters meant to rapidly ferry them over to Port Stanley were now at the bottom of the South Atlantic. A four-day trek now lay ahead.
May 26 - 29
After the Atlantic Conveyor sinking political pressure mounted for action and a victory. Argentinians were known to be garrisoned at Goose Green and Darwin to the south of San Carlos, and intelligence believed that three companies occupied the area with two 105mm howitzers and some anti-aircraft guns.
The attack was assigned to 2 PARA, whose commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel H Jones, spent several days arranging to bring up artillery and helicopters in support and getting into position. Everything seemed to go to plan, with two Harrier Jump Jets softening up the targets with a prior attack. Argentinian air support also swooped in, but an SAS soldier sprung out of hiding and shot down one of the Pucara jets with a stinger missile.
Unfortunately, despite this success, Jones turned on the radio to discover that the BBC news were reporting a PARA battalion was getting ready to mount an attack in the area. He was furious at such specific information having been given away to the enemy, but concluded the attack must go ahead anyway. (As it happened, the Argentinians decided to dismiss the report, believing it to be, essentially, ‘fake news’).
As 3 PARA and 45 Commando continued their advance across East Falkland, 2 PARA began their attack in the early hours of May 28. Lieutenant Clive Chapman of 6 Platoon, B Company, 2 PARA, recalled the attack well. In 'The Falklands 1982' by Gregory Fremont-Barnes, he is quoted as saying:
“Just about every trench encountered was grenaded … There was a continuous momentum throughout the attack and it was very swiftly executed. The Argentinian resistance was pretty weak. A lot of them were, I believe, trying to hide in the bottom of their trenches and ignore the fight. They were a scared bunch, and a lot of them were non-participants. The success of the attack had an electrifying impact on the platoon. I think we believed from there on in that we were invincible. I am a great believer in the force of ‘will’ in battle, and the fact that we had imposed our will so well and so early, made us a better platoon.”
As they struggled forward, Argentine resistance got stiffer. It turned out that the enemy were a lot more numerous than had been previously estimated. Even worse, as the sun rose, Lt Col Jones knew his men below would be out in the open and exposed to enemy fire. He charged an isolated position up the hill in front of him but was shot dead. One of two Scout helicopters bringing up ammunition and evacuating casualties was also shot down by an Argentine jet.
Thankfully for the PARAs, one helicopter not shot down was that ferrying Major Chris Keeble from battalion HQ in the rear. He had been second in command and would now take over from Jones.
2 PARA was struggling because the position they were attacking was so easily defensible, layered with multiple trenches and bunkers situated across a narrow isthmus that made flanking difficult or impossible. Still, if some key positions were taken out with heavy fire, it might free up more space for manoeuvre, as Fremont-Barnes quotes B Company Commander Major John Crosland recalling:
“A Milan is an anti-tank weapon, which fires a guided missile with a very substantial warhead over a range of 2,000 metres. I thought, if we can bust them with the Milans, we can probably get round their flank, get down to Darwin, knock that off and then worry about Goose Green. The Milan was an unorthodox choice, but it was the only powerful weapon we had. Much to our relief, the first round fired was a perfect bull’s eye. It went straight through the bunker window and blew it out completely, and the second one did the same. Four more rounds and that was Boca House cleared out. Everyone stood on their feet and cheered!”
Argentinian Skyhawks soon swooped in to attack the attacking British, but they themselves were attacked by Harriers with sidewinder missiles. Cluster bombs were also dropped on the Argentinians and Darwin was soon taken, the garrison at Goose Green surrounded.
But rather than fighting on, Keeble had another idea, as explained by Peter Snow in ‘20th Century Battlefields’:
“That night Keeble decided on a cunning ploy to try and bluff the Argentinians into an early surrender. He sent a letter to the Argentinian commander. In a highly confident tone, he demanded an Argentinian surrender and warned them that he would bombard them heavily and hold them responsible for any civilian casualties if they went on fighting. Amazingly the gamble worked – the Argentinians agreed to surrender.”
It’s a good thing they did. 2 PARA had already suffered 16 killed and 36 seriously wounded and almost certainly would have taken more, and possibly even lost the battle. This is because when the Argentinians did come out there were almost 900 of them, twice as many men as the PARAS had left, and three times more enemy troops than they’d anticipated.
Meanwhile, the Marines and 3 PARA had encountered pockets of resistance as they’d continued the tough march across the unforgiving boggy terrain of East Falkland toward Stanley.
One of these battles took place at Top Malo House, an isolated sheperd’s house and grounds. On the evening of May 30, Argentine Special Forces were spotted being dropped into the area by helicopter and the following morning an attack was mounted. The assault force consisted of 19 men from the Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre. Captain Boswell was present at the battle and gave his impression of the enemy on the program ‘Greatest Raids’:
“Their professionalism left a little bit to be desired. They shouldn’t have been in an isolated farm house, most certainly not inside it anyway. If they were, they should have had sentries well clear of the building to cover the approaches … But they made up for their lack of professionalism by their courage – they certainly did not lack courage.”
That bravery was on full display when the Royal Marines launched a rocket at the house, sending the Argentinian troops spilling out and ready to fight, crouched defensively in front of a stream. Using smoke cover from the fire now raging in the house, the Marines dashed forward and engaged their opponents. Very soon, the battle was almost over, except for one thing:
“There was one other building, the outhouse, that had to be cleared and the nearest man to it was Corporal MacGregor. So I shouted down to MacGregor ‘Clear the outhouse’.”
MacGregor also remembered the incident well:
“Captain Boswell shouted to me to ‘clear that toilet,’ and I think what he expected me to do was to go over and knock on the door and say ‘Excuse me, would you like to come out and join us? We’ve had a little fight here but …’ But, as it was, I turned round and I thought ‘There’s no way I’m going over there just in case one of them happened to be in there’. So I let off the whole magazine in the toilet and the methane that was in the little bucket … exploded and blew the toilet completely up! ... And that was the end of Tat Malo really, when the toilet disappeared.”
The Marines had suffered four wounded compared to five Argentinians killed and 12 taken prisoner. The following day, 14 more enemy troops who’d witnessed this assault would surrender to the nearby 3 PARA.
At this point, other infantry units were being brought into the war to reinforce the PARAS and Marines. Unfortunately, many would be killed before even entering battle.
On the morning of June 8, the RFA Sir Galahad and the RFA Sir Tristram were unloading troops at Port Pleasant when they were attacked by A-4 Skyhawks. Two men were killed aboard the Tristram while bombs dropped on the Galahad caused huge fires because they ignited ammunition and fuel. 48 men were killed, 32 of them Welsh Guards. 115 men were wounded, many burnt. One of these men was Simon Weston:
Despite the attack on the Welsh Guards, the British were closing in on the Argentinian forces holding out at Port Stanley. Many on both sides must have welcomed the end. The Argentine troops were often demoralised – their food supplies hadn’t been properly organised and many went looking for extra, begging or stealing from the locals. They also hadn’t been relieved by a rotating draft of fresh troops from home, as had been promised.
Just as with the 1967 Six Day War, the Argentinian government in Buenos Aires did not let its population know any of this. Instead, it lied to them about having blunted and then repelled the British task force.
Morale was getting difficult to keep up in the British ranks too. Marine Nigel Rees of 42 Commando (quoted by Fremont-Barnes) relates why:
“It boiled down to personal survival. I was very cold; sometimes we were in the clouds. The wind was horrific, always whipping across the top of that mountain. We could not dig in; we only had makeshift bivvies [bivouacs]. The main problem was staying dry. We tried desperately to keep our feet dry. The feet are your main thing; it doesn’t matter what happens to the rest of you. We had Cairngorm boots which were very good but, when wet, they retained the water and became thick and heavy and got very cold. You would take your boots off, then the socks off, put the wet socks inside your shirt next to the body and try to dry them out while you were asleep. While you were asleep, you kept your feet dry in your sleeping bag – if that wasn’t wet; if it was wet – tough. Then, in the morning, you put your spare socks on and your wet boots back on, and were ready for another day. For rations we had to go back down the mountain to the helicopter landing zone and carry the rations up in boxes. It was only a kilometre’s yomp but it developed into a right pain in the you-know-what. That kilometre took up to two hours to do over rock screes and steep ground. One party lost its way in the fog and took four hours.”
The race was now on to beat the weather. Major General Moore, commander of ground forces in the Falklands, would have to take Stanley within the next two weeks lest the South Atlantic winter come on in full. Once it did, conditions would be too cold to operate.
He assembled an attack force consisting of 42 Commando, 45 Commando, 2 and 3 PARA, 1 Welsh Guards (those that hadn’t been killed or wounded on the Sir Galahad), 2 Scots Guards and 1/7 Gurkhas. They had 30 105mm guns from 29 Commando Regiment and 4 Field Regiment in support. The two Paratrooper and two marine battalions would take the lead in the coming assaults.
June 11 – 12
The western approach to Stanley was dominated by several mountains, each overlooking open plains and each occupied by Argentine forces that would utilise mutually supporting fire. Advancing in daylight would be suicide, and so night attacks were chosen.
As 3 PARA advanced towards its objective, the summit of Mount Longden, Company Sergeant-Major John Weeks of B Company, also quoted by Fremont-Barnes, took note of the atmosphere:
“It was a very eerie, very quiet, cold night. We were going quite well towards the hill and were 500 metres short of the rock formation, when Corporal Milne trod on a mine. That was the end of our silent night attack. It then became like Guy Fawkes night; I’ve never seen so many illuminations. I think most of the Argies must have been asleep. But what came at us was bad enough, so if they’d all been awake, they’d have wiped our two platoons off the face of the mountain.”
Weeks was right, the Argentinians were asleep, as Cabo (Corporal) Oscar Carrizo from the 7th Regiment remembered:
“I stood and looked down towards the western slope. Then I heard a clunkclick, then many clunk-clicks. I knew that sound. It was bayonets being fixed. Panic surged through my body. I ran to the other bunkers to rouse the men. Many were sound asleep … Men were scrambling out of their bunkers, Within seconds the whole place was alive with tracer bullets. They whizzed past my head and whacked into the rocks and the ground. Everyone was in a panic. I ran for cover and crawled into a bunker with a sargento. It was impossible to fire my mortar now. Outside, the English were running past, screaming to each other and firing into tents and bunkers. I could hear my men being killed. They had only just woken up and now they were dying.”
The fighting raged for eight hours, with the PARAS ejecting the Argentinians only to find the sun coming up. They had to hug the reverse slope of the mountain they’d just captured to avoid becoming artillery targets that day.
The attack by 42 Commando upon Mount Harriet went similarly wrong, with the marines suddenly finding themselves under Argentinian artillery fire, 105 mm shells landing four or five feet from them, lifting huge chunks of rock out of the ground as they scrambled for cover. Many curled up behind nearby rocks and prayed that a shell would not find them.
Despite this, the attack on Mount Harriet succeeded, partly because of support from anti-tank MILANs, shoulder mounted rocket launchers that were fired at the Argentinian positions in the rocks.
Their comrades in 45 Commando, meanwhile, were nearby taking two mountains next to each other named Two Sisters.
They’d come under fire from machine guns, being fired by enemy soldiers hiding in makeshift bunkers made of holes in the rocks. Gregory Fremont-Barnes quotes Sergeant George Matthews remembering a particularly lively part of the battle:
“Everywhere we tried to go, the rock channelled you towards these machine guns … Young Dave O’Connor … suddenly leapt forward with his machine gun, screaming, ‘You Argie bastards!’ He went over the rocks, totally exposed, yet followed by his number two who carried the ammunition. They dived down on the rock and commenced to open fire at this machine gun. For a couple of seconds it was just our machine gun … and theirs … and then he went into the open under heavy fire, continually engaging this machine gun. That drew their fire for a second and in that second another young lad, barely out of training, jumped up with a 66mm rocket launcher, fired it at their machine-gun positions and hit just above … For a split second the first stopped … After we’d taken the machine gun out, there were a couple left further up, on the way to the other peak. The guys took them out with grenades and rifles … The lads up there were working in pairs. One would throw in a grenade, the other would charge in, fire a few rounds, shout ‘Clear !’ and then move on to the next one.”
June 13 – 14
The Scots Guards had a similar experience on Mount Tumbledown the following night, hiding in crevices amongst the rocks as defenders, equipped with night sights, unleashed a torrent of small arms fire upon them. They suffered nine dead but eventually took the ridge after 11 hours of intense fighting.
The Gurkhas would support by attacking Mount William while 2 PARA would have just as difficult a time as the Scots Guards when they attacked wireless ridge.
Still, the British were inching closer to Stanley.
It was expected that the war would end with an assault on Stanley itself, but the SAS had been communicating with the Argentinian commander Brigadier General Menendez over the radio, urging him to surrender. As the British got closer he relented, and the Falklands War was over.
When he did, Major General Moore wasted no time sending a message back to London. It read:
“The Falkland Islands are once more under the government desired by their inhabitants. God Save The Queen.”
For more on the conflict, including a brief day-by-day synopsis of the war, read ‘The Falklands 1982’ by Gregory Fremont-Barnes. There is also 'Battle for the Falklands (1)' by Will Fowler, an illustrated history of the land forces involved in the war. Both these titles come from Osprey Publishing.
Also read 'Fearless: The Diary of an 18 Year Old at War in the Falklands' by Kevin J Porter, ‘Pebble Island’ by Francis MacKay, or watch Peter and Dan Snow's episode on the Falklands in the series '20th Century Battlefields'.