Reflecting on the Falklands conflict forty years ago

Survivors from HMS Sir Galahad (ablaze in the background) are hauled ashore by colleagues at Bluff C

Survivors from HMS Sir Galahad (ablaze in the background) are hauled ashore by colleagues at Bluff Cove, East Falkland, after the ship was hit by an Argentinian air attack on June 29, 1982, during the Falklands conflict - Credit: PA

Forty years ago, on April 2nd 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands.

In Sue Townsend’s book, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, the fictional Adrian told his father the news. “He shot out of bed because he thought the Falklands lay off the coast of Scotland,” the teenaged Adrian recounts. “When I pointed out that they were eight thousand miles away he got back into bed and pulled the covers over his head.”

Funny though this was, however, at the time the invasion was no joke. Situated 300 miles off the southern tip of Argentina, the Falkland Islands had been a British colony since 1892 and in British possession since 1833. Although no one had been killed or even injured in the invasion, 1,800 Falkland Islanders, most of them English-speaking sheep farmers, now suddenly found themselves reluctantly placed under Argentine rule.

Argentina had long argued they too had a claim over the Falkland Islands which they called Islas Malvinas. By 1982, the country was ruled by a military junta under the dictator, Lieutenant General Leopoldo Galtieri. It was widely felt Galtieri had launched the invasion as a means to distract attention away from internal problems within Argentina.

In Britain, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher faced internal problems of her own. Both she and her government elected in 1979 had already become deeply unpopular as a result of the growing economic recession and rapidly rising unemployment. Now Britain faced humiliation comparable to that of the Suez Crisis in 1956. Back then, as Thatcher well remembered, Prime Minister Anthony Eden had resigned. Now her Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington did the same. Many felt the government should have seen the invasion coming. Really Thatcher had no choice other than to resign or to recapture the Islands. She chose the latter option. Her Tory colleague Enoch Powell speaking in the Commons noted that she had been widely nicknamed “the Iron Lady” adding with a pun that both she and the nation would soon “learn of what mettle (metal) she was made.”

A task force comprising 127 ships: 43 Royal Navy vessels, 22 Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, and 62 merchant ships set sail. In addition to ground forces, the RAF also played a crucial role. Britain received backing from the UN. Although traditionally an ally of Mrs Thatcher, President Ronald Reagan found himself in an awkward position as the US was keen to remain friends with both Britain and Argentina. Publicly, however, the US supported Britain. In 1956, during the Suez Crisis, they had not done.

War was never officially declared but the conflict lasted 73 days from April 2nd until June 14th. It was a war fought on land, sea and air. Crucial moments included the early recapture of South Georgia in April, the Battle of Goose Green towards the end of May and the disastrous sinking of HMS Sheffield on May 4th. Another low point was the bombing of RFA Galahad in early June during which Welsh guardsman, Simon Weston was badly injured.

The sinking of the Argentine ARA General Belgrano on May 1st remains controversial. 368 members of the crew were killed and Thatcher faced questions as to why the order had been given to sink the ship when it had been sailing outside the official exclusion zone. The Sun newspaper also drew heavy criticism for their notorious “Gotcha!” headline about the sinking and about the jingoistic nature of much of their coverage of the war.

In the end, however, Argentina was defeated and Britain was victorious. 225 Britons were killed in the conflict. Argentine casualties were higher. It is a sad fact, however, that more British Falkland War veterans have committed suicide since the war ended than were killed in the conflict itself.

In Britain, Margaret Thatcher received a massive boost from the conflict ensuring the Conservatives a landslide election victory in 1983 and giving her leadership a momentum that would keep her in power for the rest of the decade. Meanwhile, in Argentina, Lieutenant General Galtieri was overthrown. The Union Jack continues to fly over the Falkland Islands to this day