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At the beginning of 1982 the political position of the junta in power in Argentina was very much criticised. The country was entangled in an economic crisis with unemployment problems and a popular contestation against the junta, which was getting stronger and stronger. The Argentinian rulers hence had the idea of dragging up an old quarrel concerning the sovereignty of the Falklands. The junta then ordered the armed forces to quickly make a plan of invasion. The aviation force was relatively well prepared, its pilot being regularly trained by the Israelis but the other forces were not at all ready to answer the government’s orders. Moreover many officers were not really convinced by the invasion project. The junta thought that there was little chance that Great Britain would launch a military operation big enough to win the Falklands back. On the international politics level Argentina counted on support from South American countries and especially on the neutrality of the United States. Although this analysis was proved completely wrong it was not without foundation.
On 2nd April 1982 an Argentinian invasion force landed in the Falklands. After a few hours combat and fierce resistance around the governor’s residence, Rex Hunt ordered the Royal Marines detachment to lay down arms. The next day Argentina took South Georgia also.
Before even the landing of the first Argentinian troops, the British government had been warned, by its secret services, of an imminent invasion of the Falklands and had taken the decision, under the direction of Mrs. Thatcher, to intervene immediately by sending some submarines. According to some sources the first nuclear submarines had been already directed towards the Falklands on the 30th March. An expeditionary force was rapidly got together and on 5th April the first parts of the Task Force left Portsmouth and Gibraltar for the South Atlantic. The British, at the same moment, instigated an exclusion zone of 200 nautical miles around the Falklands.
On the spot, about 10’000 Argentinians took up position mainly around Stanley and its airport while two other important garrisons were stationed at Goose Green and Port Howard.
On the diplomatic side, Great Britain actively tried and with success to obtain the support of the international community and at the same time a peace mission was led by the Americans. The British force was put in place without taking account of the possibility of the success of the negotiations in course. Ascension Island was used as a base for equipment and its airport became, for a few days, the busiest in the world. It was the only usable base for the English and it is situated 6’000 km from the operation zone.
On the archipelago life organised itself with the inhabitants living with great indifference towards the Argentinian occupiers. The most notable change was driving on the right. Some houses were also requisitioned to lodge officers. According to witnesses, the Argentinians did not put very great pressure on the inhabitants, at least not before the British military operations. Some fairly physical searches were carried out by the secret police for intimidation purposes. The living conditions of the Argentinian soldiers were particularly bad, most of them living in tents or chance shelters dug in the ground and they were badly fed. Several letters to the inhabitants asking for food can be seen in the Stanley museum . There were also several thefts and houses robbed in the search for food. Stocks in the shops were sufficient, fortunately, but this situation would rapidly have deteriorated if the conflict had lasted longer. Stanley was occupied for 72 days.
On 25th April a group of British commandos took South Georgia back and this was the beginning of hostilities. Five days later the Task Force took up position in the operation zone and on the 2nd May the nuclear submarine Conqueror attacked the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano outside the total exclusion zone. The vessel sank quickly taking with it 368 sailors and this made people realise that a large scale war had started in the South Atlantic. Soon after, the Argentinian air force sunk the Sheffield off Sealion Island. A monument in the memory of the sailors who died that day has been erected on that little island. In the following period, the combats were mainly in the air. The British attacked Stanley airport several times and destroyed numerous targets on the ground.
During the period before the landing of British troops, several reconciliation missions were attempted by the United Nations as well as several countries of South America. On 18th May the last peace proposals of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Perez de Cuellard, were rejected by the English. The formal order for landing of troops was sent to the Task Force commanders.
On 21st may at 2 o'clock the British Marines Commandos, 41 and 45, landed in San Carlos. Some hours later, parachutists occupied Port San Carlos. The Argentinians did not put up any resistance and the landing of the bridgehead continued. Towards 9 o'clock in the morning the first waves of the aviation attacks of the Argentinians arrived and they attacked all day the completely naked fleet in the waters of San Carlos. During the next three days there were no less than 8 English vessels seriously damaged or sunk. At this stage, only the Argentinian aviation put up any resistance by its constant attacks, mainly directed at the fleet or supply ships. After a landing phase and a consolidation phase of the bridgehead, the British forces were separated, one part going to the south towards Goose Green and Darwin, the other to the east towards Stanley. Following the loss of the Atlantic Conveyor cargo boat and practically all transport helicopters, the men prepared for a march of about 100 km which led the majority of troops near to Stanley. In spite of loads of more than 35 kg each none of the 5’000 was reported missing following this hard march, more proof of the excellent condition of the British forces.
Goose Green was the scene of the hardest combats of the war. This settlement is easily the most populated isle after Stanley and has 100 inhabitants. The Argentinian commander had more than 1’500 men to defend it. The 2 PARA commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Jones had hardly 500 men, a ratio of 1 to 3 which contradicts all rules taught by military schools (the assailant should have a numerical superiority of 3 to 1). Moreover the English accumulated disadvantages, they had marched the 30 km from their point of landing, mainly at night. Worse still, the BBC announced publicly that the parachutists had started out for Goose Green, eliminating all surprise effect. The terrain was also against them as the Argentinians occupied all positions at the top of the hills overlooking completely open terrain. Ignoring all these difficulties the British engaged battle at 2.30 on the 28th May which lasted until the following night. Towards 2.00 on the 29th May, the Argentinians finally accepted surrender terms, allowing the English soldiers to free the 112 civilians and make prisoner 1’400 soldiers who were visibly surprised at the low number of parachutists who had attacked them. On the battlefield 15 British, one of whom was the commander of the battalion Lieutenant-Colonel H.Jones (decorated with the Victoria Cross) and 45 young Argentinian soldiers lost their lives and there were also a large number of wounded.
For the visitor, today, it is almost impossible to realise that a battle took place here. It is difficult to understand how men were able to come such a long way to fight each other and die in such a tranquil place and for stakes which seem so ridiculous. This feeling is even stronger, when one visits the 231 graves in the Argentinian cemetery near Darwin and realises the young age of the buried soldiers: between 18 and 25.
After taking Goose Green, the British headed for Stanley and apart from a few problems, mainly with the aviation, they did not meet much resistance. The main body of Argentinian troops, about 10’000 men, was concentrated around Stanley.
On the 8th June during the landing operation at Fitzroy, two English crafts were attacked by the Argentinian aviation. There were 50 killed and 60 seriously injured which certainly was the darkest day for the British.
The main part of the British forces now prepared for the final battle. Nearly 5’000 men faced 10’000 Argentinians occupying fortified positions near Stanley. Between the 11th and 13th June a series of battles took place for control of the hills overlooking Stanley and after violent fighting and an amazingly fierce defence by the Argentinians the British took Mounts Longdon, Harriet and Two Sisters before finishing with Thumbledown Mountain and Mount William. On the evening of the 13th, Stanley was completely surrounded. During this episode, a house was hit by a British artillery shot, killing the 3 only civilian victims of the conflict.
On the 14th June Major General Jeremy Moore, commander of the British forces, signed with General Mendes the document of the surrender of all the Argentinian forces in the Falklands, the only concession to Mendes being that the word unconditional before surrender was erased. With this signature finished on of the shortest and intense conflicts of the modern era.
On the 20th June, hardly 6 days after the surrender, the majority of Argentinian prisoners were sent back home on board the liners Norland and Canberra. Two days later the main part of the British forces were on their way back home on the same boats.
Above all, this conflict had great political consequences in Argentina. It was also the base and reference point for British defence policy for the next decade.
Text: © Michel Chabod