Falkland Islands War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After Argentina’s unexpected seizure of the Falklands, Great Britain asserted sovereignty over the islands in a short but hard-fought war and removed an Argentine junta, thus restoring civilian control of the government.

Summary of Event

In the early morning hours of April 2, 1982, Argentine armed forces staged an amphibious invasion of the lightly defended Falkland Islands and within a few hours took control of Port Stanley (the capital) and the main airport. This unexpected aggression stunned British government officials. The two nations had been arguing about British possession of the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) since the 1830’s. This long and complicated dispute proved difficult to resolve because both nations refused to compromise on their conflicting claims. The British pointed to nearly 150 years of continuous occupation by their settlers, but the Argentineans argued that the British occupation of 1833 was illegal in the first place and, therefore, the British claims were invalid. This dispute seemed to be largely a matter of pride for both nations, as the Falklands had only limited economic value, with much of the income of the approximately eighteen hundred inhabitants derived from increasingly marginal sheep ranching. The cold, windswept climate, dominated by the nearby Antarctic, gave the islands an inhospitable environment. Falkland Islands War (1982) Malvinas War (1982) South Atlantic War (1982) [kw]Falkland Islands War (Apr. 2-June 14, 1982) [kw]Islands War, Falkland (Apr. 2-June 14, 1982) [kw]War, Falkland Islands (Apr. 2-June 14, 1982) Falkland Islands War (1982) Malvinas War (1982) South Atlantic War (1982) [g]South America;Apr. 2-June 14, 1982: Falkland Islands War[04820] [g]Argentina;Apr. 2-June 14, 1982: Falkland Islands War[04820] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 2-June 14, 1982: Falkland Islands War[04820] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 2-June 14, 1982: Falkland Islands War[04820] Galtieri, Leopoldo Haig, Alexander M. Thatcher, Margaret [p]Thatcher, Margaret;Falkland Islands War Thompson, Julian Woodward, Sandy

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Margaret Thatcher’s government was caught by surprise. Although the Argentineans had recently shown signs of impatience in the discussions regarding the Falklands, the dispute about these South Atlantic islands remained a fairly low priority for the British, just as it had been since its beginnings in the 1830’s. Thatcher and her cabinet emphatically expressed their outrage against the invasion and, by the end of the day (April 2), decided to organize a task force to reestablish British control of the islands. The buildup of forces on both sides brought a third party into the conflict. The administration of President Ronald Reagan, Reagan, Ronald represented by Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, attempted to mediate this dispute involving two allies of the United States. Haig used “shuttle diplomacy” between Buenos Aires and London in the hope of formulating an agreement that would bring both sides back to diplomacy and away from war. Haig faced great difficulty in part because of the intransigence of both sides on crucial issues. The Argentine government wanted Britain to surrender sovereignty, whereas the British government was determined to protect the self-determination of the islands’ residents, who clearly wanted to remain British. Haig could not find a middle ground on which to revive negotiations.

After Haig’s mediation efforts failed, Argentina and Great Britain intensified their preparations for combat. The British task force was a formidable presence as it made its way southward. Admiral Sandy Woodward assumed command of an assemblage of ships that included two aircraft carriers, five state-of-the-art nuclear submarines, and more than fifty additional warships and naval support vessels, plus approximately forty-five civilian ships that the British government pressed into duty. The British military force included ten thousand men, many of whom were experienced in cold climate operations. The British air arm, limited because of the absence of a secure air base on the mainland within striking distance of the Falklands, consisted of thirty-eight modern Harrier jets (capable of vertical takeoffs) and 140 helicopters. The level of British training and technical expertise was quite high, reflecting their participation in the forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Argentina’s armed forces were impressive in certain areas but did not equal the overall strength of the British forces. The Argentine navy consisted largely of World War II-era ships that were no match for the modern surface vessels and submarines of the British Royal Navy. Argentina’s army had some well-trained units, but President Leopoldo Galtieri did not send them to the Falklands. Most of the ten thousand soldiers stationed in Port Stanley and its environs were intended to serve in a pacification role and not in actual combat. Galtieri and his advisers had clearly underestimated British determination to retake the Falklands. The component of the Argentine armed forces that most concerned the British was air power. Argentina possessed an array of up-to-date jet aircraft and also the fully modern French-made Super Étendard fighter bombers capable of firing Exocet missiles. Such missiles had a great destructive potential when launched from distances of thirty to forty miles from their targets. The Super Étendard-Exocet combination posed a definite threat to the task force. In addition, Argentine fighter pilots in general were highly motivated and well trained in the tactics of attacking surface ships with conventional bombs.

The surrender of Argentine troops to the British at Port Stanley effectively ended the Falklands War.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Major combat began when the British nuclear submarine Conqueror sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano General Belgrano (ship) on May 2. The Belgrano was a partially modernized World War II warship that, from the British point of view, seemed to be involved in a large maneuver by the Argentine navy and therefore constituted a threat to the British task force. The heavy loss of life (368 Argentine sailors perished) shocked both sides and brought criticism even from British allies. The British fleet experienced another shock on May 4, when two Argentine Super Étendards launched their Exocet missiles, one of which hit and demolished the British destroyer Sheffield, Sheffield (ship) killing twenty-one British personnel and wounding more than forty others. Admiral Woodward quickly realized that the task force, and therefore the entire mission, was threatened by Argentine air power.

The focal point of the fighting became East Falkland Island. The Argentine army had established its defenses around Port Stanley on the eastern side of that island. The British decided to land their troops on the opposite side of the island, where the Falkland Sound offered shelter from rough seas. The surrounding land mass also provided protection from Exocet missiles. British soldiers poured ashore on May 21, led by Brigadier Julian Thompson. They encountered light resistance from the small Argentine units stationed on the western side of the island. Thompson’s units quickly established a beachhead, only to watch with dismay as Argentine aircraft delivered more deadly blows to the British navy. The threat came not from Exocet missiles but from conventional five-hundred-pound bombs delivered primarily by American-made Skyhawk jets flown by Argentine pilots.

In three days, the Argentineans sank three frigates and inflicted severe damage on a destroyer. British Harriers responded with Sidewinder missiles, which took a heavy toll on Argentine aircraft. By May 23, the Argentineans had lost most of their better aircraft and experienced pilots. As the Argentine air threat diminished, Thompson’s forces completed the difficult march across the interior of the island, where the cold, damp climate and soggy soil were formidable enemies. British units soon concentrated around the Argentine troops dug in at Port Stanley. Brief but heavy firefights between the rival armies ensued, with the Argentineans suffering heavy casualties. Isolated, low on ammunition, and without hope of reinforcements, the Argentine forces surrendered on June 14, 1982.

Significance

The British victory brought a wave of patriotic celebrations to the home islands and buttressed the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. These celebrations somewhat obscured the difficulties involved in the mission, the narrow margin of survival against Argentine air attacks, and the uncertain value of the Falklands to the British nation.

As a response to territorial aggression, the British action enjoyed widespread popular support at home and in the United States, but there were significant costs. Approximately 1,000 lives were lost, including those of 255 British servicemen. The British government spent 780 million pounds (approximately $1.1 billion) on the campaign and another billion or more pounds (more than $1.5 billion) to reestablish their normal military operations after the war and to extend their defenses in the vicinity of the Falklands. In Argentina, the humiliation of defeat coupled with economic crisis contributed to the demise of the military regime, which lifted its ban on political parties, paving the way for the return of democracy in 1983. Falkland Islands War (1982) Malvinas War (1982) South Atlantic War (1982)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ethell, Jeffrey, and Alfred Price. Air War in the South Atlantic. New York: Jove Books, 1986. Detailed account of the air combat based on official documents, press accounts, and interviews with both British and Argentine veterans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freedman, Lawrence. Britain and the Falklands War. London: Basil Blackwell, 1988. Conveniently brief, factual discussions of the historical origins, diplomacy, fighting, and consequences of the war, including an assessment of British public opinion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Official History of the Falklands Campaign. 2 vols. New York: Routledge, 2005. An authoritative analysis of the events leading up to and following the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freedman, Lawrence, and Virginia Gamba-Stonehouse. Signals of War: The Falklands Conflict of 1982. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. A thorough, balanced examination of the causes and conduct of the war drawn from British and Argentine sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gavshon, Arthur, and Desmond Rice. The Sinking of the Belgrano. London: Secker & Warburg, 1984. The focus of this critical, thought-provoking study is on the sinking of the Argentine cruiser, but the authors also consider the organization of the task force and the diplomacy of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hastings, Max, and Simon Jenkins. The Battle for the Falklands. London: Michael Joseph, 1983. An early journalistic account of the fighting; retains the strengths of a fast-paced narrative of key events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Middlebrook, Martin. Argentine Fight for the Falklands. Rev. ed. South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword Books, 2003. Sheds new light on how the Argentine forces were prepared for war.

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