The Falkland Islands War (1982)
A unique escapade that paid off for Margret Thatcher.
The Argentine Junta provoked this War by invading without warning these distant, neglected South Atlantic Islands in April 1982 which had been very lightly garrisoned yet they were still a British Crown Colony. (Capital: Port Stanley) Lord Carrington (Conservative) the then Foreign Secretary resigned immediately as an admission and statement of his misjudgement in failing to foresee this bellicosity. Margaret Thatcher the PM’s response was to send a British Task Force including an Aircraft carrier under the overall command of Admiral Sandy Woodward who sailed with the Task Force and took his orders from the War Cabinet including John Nott the Defence Secretary. The HQ for our Navy, Army and Air Force Commanders and Thatcher in the UK was the RAF Northolt bunker in North West London. The task force sailed from Portsmouth with frigates and troops including 2 Para and a powerful contingent of Marines. As always the battles were won by the foot soldiers. The stop off point was Ascension Island in mid Atlantic (US base).
2. The Vulcan Bombing raid on Port Stanley Airfield
This was successfully accomplished and put the airfield out of action. I understand the Argentine air force flew out of mainland bases by and large near Buenos Aires as their highly effective Super Etendard fighter/bombers (French made) had the range to strike at our ships near the Falkland Islands from those bases. The British Land forces once disembarked did not come under fire from the air to any considerable extent I believe.
3. The San Carlos Bay Landings
This went as planned and the battle of Goose Green quickly followed won by the superior infantry tactics and élan of 2 Para under Colonel H Jones (posthumous VC) who was killed in action storming the enemy trenches. Essentially 2 Para enfiladed outmanoeuvred and overpowered the Argentine infantry. The battle was intense but quick. Colonel H Jones leadership was exemplary then and inspirational to those who survived him in the engagements later in the campaign. He was a true leader.
4. HMS Sheffield
HMS Sheffield and at least one other War ship of similar class when anchored at Carlos Bay took direct hits from exocet missiles fired by Super Etendards who proved to be our bête noires during this War. Loss of life on the Sheffield and our ships in San Carlos Bay was more than paltry and very grieving to our nation.
5. The Belgrano
This aged Argentine Battleship (former US Navy Ship renamed) was roaming the seas uncomfortably close to our Navy whose whereabouts were top secret for obvious reasons. Argentine command and control had little information on the location of our Seaborne task force including our precious carrier save that certain of our Warships had been anchored visibly at San Carlos Bay – hence the attack on the Sheffield and its sister Ships who were obvious targets. The Belgrano without doubt represented an actual or at very least a potential threat to our ships naval and mercantile (vital equipment was being brought in to the San Carlos Bay landing beach by merchant ships of the British merchant Navy). I am afraid the decision to sail the Belgrano into those waters left Thatcher and her Admirals with no choice but to order the modern Hunter Killer submarine HMS Conqueror to release its torpedo and deliver the coup de grace to the Belgrano with substantial and regrettable loss of lives but still necessary in an extremely dangerous situation, pre-Goose Green.
6. Argentine Infantry
If the Argentine infantry had stood their ground better at Goose Green (poorly officered and low morale) the whole result would have been in the balance as their air force secured significant results up to the final battle of Mount Tumbledown won by our Royal Marines above Stanley.
7. Captain North
One example was Captain North of the British merchant Navy who captained a sizeable freighter bringing in heavy duty Copters. When he was in the vicinity of the Exclusion Zone imposed by the British War Cabinet, his vessel was spotted by a Super Etendard pilot and his ship was sunk by an exocet missile. In the best British seamanship tradition North went down with his ship. He was a Captain with many years experience at sea in merchantmen. All of his crew were rescued mercifully I remember.
8. Fitzroy Cove
This was perhaps the worst of all attacks when two British landing craft (Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad) carrying Welsh Guards into a vantage point to attack Stanley were spotted by Super Etendard fighter/bombers and struck by their exocet missiles. The terrible consequence was very severe burns for our soldiers many of them facial with intolerable agonising pain. Better dead than alive? Never! The hospital ship was someway apart I fear. Air cover for British troops did not appear – the Carrier was hidden from the enemy advisedly.
9. Mount Tumbledown
The Argentines last stand but the Marines still had to Storm the heights in a short intense encounter yet again. The battle was won through the sheer power of the Marines advance and their precise controlled aggression according to the strongest British military and foot soldiers spirit. One posthumous VC was well won by a Marine Sergeant (Mackay) in this engagement. There was little artillery support.
Was it all worth it? Strangely though it may appear, yes and Thatcher defined her politics in her strategy in this War so it was seminal for her premiership. It paid off – she won the War and the Falklands were restored to Britain as the Falkland Islanders desired and Justice demanded. Foreign policy was her strong point. A long way away yes, but this War was waged to liberate the Falklands – anything less would have been craven cowardice and meek capitulation to the Junta. It was highly unexpected to fight such a campaign in the post-War era. Yet Thatcher had the vision to carry the day and send the Task Force into the South Atlantic. It is very doubtful any other PM would have had that confidence and assurance. She was putting her career on the line and knew it. High risk true, but she did not lack the courage and strength of purpose nor did her Generals and Admirals and Royal Air Force Marshalls.
Correction – It has been brought to the author’s attention that the Scots Guards 1st Battalion stormed Mount Tumbledown and not the Royal Marines as stated in this essay. The author wishes to apologise to all concerned for his error.