|Causes of the War|
|1982 saw one of the strangest conflicts in imperial history as Britain found itself forced to come to the rescue of 1,800 subjects who were invaded and occupied by a a major South American nation. In many ways, this was the last example of old-style gunboat diplomacy and certainly the last imperial war.The ownership of the Falkland Islands has been in dispute since the 18th Century and even before that. See the Falkland Island entry for details of the early history. It was always hoped that the chain would provide a useful base for the Royal Navy, which indeed proved to be the case in the First and Second World Wars. However in a period of post-war decolonisation, the Argentinians expected and hoped that British interest in the South Atlantic would fade and sovereignty of the islands would be handed over to the Argentinians. The British did indeed seem to wish to shake off their responsibility for the islands and the 1,800 settlers (almost all of British stock) who lived there. The strategic necessity for naval bases scattered across the globe was no longer effective and the islands had no dockyard or repair facilities. In fact they did not even have an airport until the 1970s (and that was constructed by the Argentinians). The island economy was tiny and could not even cover the costs of the 40 man Royal Marine garrison (NP8901) that had been stationed there since 1966.|
The early 1980s saw a period of deep economic stress in Britain. The newly elected Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was savagely cutting back spending across the board in Britain. Some of these cuts would send very mixed messages to the Argentinians who sensed that perhaps British opinion was moving away from supporting the Falkland Islanders. The British government announced that it was closing down the Antarctic Research station on the nearby island of South Georgia. John Nott, the Minister for Defence, announced sweeping cuts in the Royal Navy including the withdrawal of the Antarctic Research vessel HMS Endurance from service and making it clear that it would not be replaced. Perhaps the most baffling decision was the withdrawal of Full British Citizenship for the islanders. This had actually been introduced to prevent a massive influx from Hong Kong before its return to China, but the rules were applied to all the British dependencies and possibly helped convince the Argentinians that British commitment to the islands was beginning to wear thin. These signals helped the Argentine generals convince themselves that the British might not have the resolve to recover the islands by force should the Argentines be able to seize them.
The British government was not the only government to see economic difficulties in the early 1980s. The Argentinian military government (the Junta) had presided over a collapsing currency, runaway inflation at over 100% and had been forced to introduce savage cuts of their own in Argentina. It was these cuts to services and benefits that saw Argentines take to the streets early in 1982. These demonstrations began to get out of hand, and the Junta sensed that it was losing popularity and even the ability to impose law and order. It was thought that they might be able to restore some of their credibility by playing to their institutional strength and launching an invasion of what they referred to as the 'Malvinas'.
|Escalation of Tension over South Georgia|
|The trigger that would lead to the full scale invasion of the Falkland Islands was actually a tragicomic affair over the nearby island of South Georgia. An Argentinian scrap merchant dealer, Constantino Davidoff, had won a contract to clear up an old whaling station owned by the British company Christian Salvesen. The Argentine navy became aware of the opportunity that this presented and decided to make arrangements to facilitiate Davidoff's movements. They christened their plans 'Project Alpha' and had in mind an excuse to set up a presence in the islands to challenge British sovereignty. But for a British Scientific Detachment, the islands had been uninhabited since the departure of the whaling industries. The Argentines were attempting to replicate their establishment of a 'scientific station' on South Thule which had been manned since 1978. Davidoff was provided the services of an Argentine Naval ice-breaker, the Almirante Irizar to accomplish his task. The voyage provoked suspicion by the British who wondered why they did not receive notification of its journey until after it had departed Buenos Aires, why it refused to return radio calls and why it did not register its arrival at the British science station in Grytviken as was required. When the lead British scientist, who also acted as the island's chief magistrate, went to investigate the activities of Davidoff at Leith Harbour he found a wall painted with 'Las Malvinas son Argentinas' scrawled upon it. The British protested to the Argentines but kept the protests at the diplomatic level.Davidoff returned to South Georgia on board the Bahia Buen Suceso in March of 1982. Once again, there were irregularities in informing the British, in maintaining radio silence and in failing to inform the British upon their arrival. The British Antarctic Survey went to investigate after hearing gunshots - possibly from hunting the endangered reindeer on the island. They found a substantial party of 50 mixed civilian and military personel barbecuing reindeer and with an Argentine flag flying a hastily erected flagpole. British signs warning against illegal entry had been defaced and scattered upon the floor. A building holding BAS supplies had been broken into and BAS food, stores and equipment had been rummaged through. British scientists reported this fact to the authorities in Port Stanley.Governor Rex Hunt sent an urgent request for the Argentinians to take down the flag and to leave the island. The British also decided to send two dozen Royal Marines on HMS Endurance from the Falkland Islands to ensure that their instructions had been observed. The Foreign Office became involved in warning the Argentinians of the provocation of their actions. They summoned the Argentine Ambassador to 10 Downing Street and instructed their own Ambassador, Anthony Williams, to complain vehemently directly to the Argentine Government.|
In response, the Argentine government assured the British that the team would be removed and on the 22nd March the Bahia Buen Suceso indeed departed. What the British did not yet know was that 39 members of the Argentine team remained in place on the island. The Captain of the Endurance, Nicholas Barker, claimed that he heard the Argentine Navy radio congratulations to the Bahia Buen Suceso for a successful operation and noted increased Argentine aerial activity around the island. The BAS team soon discovered that Argentines were still at Leith despite requests for them to leave. The Endurance was ordered once more to sail to Leith to with their Royal Marines to investigate. Meanwhile, the Argentines despatched their own contingent of Marines to South Georgia to 'protect' the 'workers' there. The contingent was originally on its way to South Thule to drop the team on that British controlled island - which in itself was an illegal act designed to challenge British sovereignty over the South Shetlands. The ship carrying them, the ARA Bahia Paraiso, was diverted towards Leith to deposit the Marines there on March 24th. Two Argentine missile carrying corvettes, ARA Drummond and ARA Granville were also ordered to take up a position between South Georgia and the Falklands, presumably to intercept the Endurance in the event of hostilities breaking out. Clearly the situation was escalating.
It was at this point that the Junta decided to bring forward their existing plans to invade the Falkland Islands. What they did not want was for the British to bring military assets to the region to deal with the escalating crisis in South Georgia but which might then be diverted to thwart any Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. In particular, they were apprehensive about suggestions that the British might send a submarine to the area to enforce Argentine evacuation and support the activities of Endurance. The British were indeed contemplating sending the submarines but it would be a while before any could arrive. This made timing a severe issue for the Argentine Navy. The Navy had always been the most hawkish of the three armed services when it came to military intervention over the islands, and that desire was not diminished now. If it was going to launch an invasion, it had to be done whilst the islands were relatively undefended. HMS Endurance was a research vessel with a couple of 20mm cannons - a submarine would be a far more severe threat to an invasion force. With demonstrations breaking out on the streets of Argentina, the military Junta took the gamble to launch an invasion - before any submarine might arrive in the area. They agreed to launch the invasion at a meeting on the 26th of March. Leave was cancelled as soldiers and sailors were told to report to various depots and ports. The invasion was on. Ostensibly, it was claimed that the ships were leaving for a major naval exercise but the fact was that they had taken live ammunition and supplies and had only one goal in mind.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, Margaret Thatcher's government thought that it was still dealing with ownership of South Georgia and not the Falkland Islands in general. After Endurance confirmed the presence of Argentine forces on South Georgia and intelligence reports confirmed the departure of the Argentine Fleet, the Royal Navy was placed on standby and preparations were considered for a Task Force by Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse who was the Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy. The British were fortunate that a large part of their own fleet was already out at sea in the Atlantic Ocean taking part in an exercise not far from Gibraltar under the command of Admiral John 'Sandy' Woodward.
On the 29th March, the British took the decision to send RFA Fort Austin to the South Atlantic to allow Endurance to stay on station longer. They also decided to send two submarines, HMS Spartan and HMS Splendid, but it was going to take a few more days to get them ready for the long voyage south. By a happy coincidence, the new detachment of 8901 was en route to taking up its post in the Falkland Islands. The 1981 detachment was still in post awaiting its relief from the new team. Arrangements were made to get the new 8901 team to Port Stanley without having to use the Argentine Air Service that operated out of Stanley Airport. RSS John Biscoe ferried the new 8901 troop from Montevideo to Stanley arriving on the 25th. The old detachment was ordered to stay in place until a resolution of the situation in South Georgia was satisfactorily achieved. Of course, some soldiers had been despatched to South Georgia under Lieutenant Keith Mills on the Endurance leaving a total of 67 troops on the Falklands themselves. Nevertheless, this was still clearly a tiny force against a fully fledged invasion force. 8901 had only ever been designated as a 'trip wire' force along the prevailing Cold War doctrine of the era. The idea being that they would offer resistance to prove dispute to any forced landing and to trigger an excuse for the despatch of a larger force. No one was under any illusions that the force could in any way prevent an invasion. Its purpose was to demonstrate sovereignty and illustrate a determination to defend the islands and give political justification for a future force to come to the aid of the islands.
The British were still convinced that war was not inevitable at this point. They were under the impression that the Argentines were testing British resolve over the sovereignty of South Georgia and had not anticipated that the Falklands might be the immediate target. The Argentines made it clear that they would resist any forced attempt by the British to arrest or escort any Argentines on the island of South Georgia, but the British assumed this was another attempt along the lines of the South Thule occupation to dispute British sovereignty of this lonely island. The British assumed that if they avoided direct confrontation then the situation could be contained. However, they did order Endurance to land its small 22 man contingent at King Edward's Point but to await further instructions on how to proceed. They did not wish the force to accidentally escalate the situation further. What the British government did not realise was that the situation had already gone beyond any point that could be recovered by peaceful means alone.
|The Argentine Invasion|
|The British did not discover that the Falkland Islands were the intended target for an Argentine invasion until March 31st. British Intelligence discovered that the Argentines had been gathering weather data for the Falkland Islands, an Argentine submarine had been deployed off the coast of Port Stanley, the Argentine 'exercises' had been broken off and the fleet was sailing towards the Falkland Islands, an army commander had been appointed the commander of an amphibious force and most distressing of all, the Argentine Embassy in London had been ordered to destroy all of its documents. Plotting the movements of the ships, British planners predicted that an invasion force could expect to land on the Falkland Islands in the early hours of April 2nd.There now erupted an enormous political panic in Britain as they realised what faced them. Margaret Thatcher was being advised by the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence that there was little that the British could do to respond to this force. John Nott was telling her how little military capability the British had in the South Atlantic and that any attempt to recover them would be hugely expensive. The Foreign Office argued that Britain should try and negotiate some face-saving deal to offload the expensive and diplomatic liability of the islands. It was at this point that the First Sea Lord, Sir Henry Leach, intervened decisively. He managed to convince the Prime Minister that Britain might not be able to save the islands from invasion now, but that it had the capability of retaking them, but only if the government made the necessary arrangements immediately and to dedicate fully its military assets, and especially naval ones, to the task. Margaret Thatcher was persuaded of the merits of his case despite the scepticism of others in her cabinet. Many were mindful of the legacy of the disaster of the Suez Canal Crisis and wondered if Britain might not be walking into a similar shambles now. For the time being, she gave Leach the necessary authority to formally organise a Task Force designed to recover the islands, even before they had technically lost them!|
"We have apparently reliable evidence that an Argentine task force will gather off Cape Pembroke early tomorrow morning, 2nd April. You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly."
Major Norman had to set about organising a rapid defence of Port Stanley with the small number of Marines at his disposal. The Falkland Islands have a coastline of over 1250 kilometres and so it was clearly impracticable to defend anywhere in depth. As it was, he selected the beaches nearest to Port Stanley that would allow Landing Craft to disembark its troops upon. Unbeknownst to Norman, the Argentines intended using Amtracks which required a different gradient from Landing Craft, Norman therefore concentrated his defences on the wrong beach. His intention was only ever to slow down any invading troops as they retreated towards Government House and the seat of government. The point of this was to give Governor Hunt the maximum amount of time to coordinate a political response to the invasion.
The tiny detachment had to spend the rest of the day and night preparing for an invasion. It was at this point that it began to dawn on them what a 'tripwire' force entailed. They had very little equipment at their disposal, apart from small arms and machine guns, they only had a few anti-tank weapons and a few hundred yards of barbed wire.
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