BATTLE FOR THE FALKLANDS
21 May – 14 June 1982
Time mattered a great deal in the British operation to recapture the Falkland Islands (the Islas Malvinas in Spanish), the South Atlantic colony occupied by Argentine forces on 2 April 1982. The campaign had to be conducted quickly before international pressure for a diplomatic solution became decisive; it had to be carried out before the harsh winter weather made operations impossible; it had to be a swift campaign because men and equipment could not easily be replenished thousands of miles from the homeland. In the end, an operation could only be launched with any chance of success in a ten-day period at the end of May. Any longer delay and the men would have to return to land. Timing proved to be everything in the eventual British victory.
The Argentine invasion, codenamed Operation Rosario, was part of a long-running dispute between the two countries over sovereignty of the Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
The issue was revived late in 1981 by the military government of Argentina led by General Leopoldo Galtieri. The object was to apply diplomatic pressure to compel Britain to abandon the territories and to prepare for a military showdown if negotiations stalled. In Buenos Aires, it was not clear how determined Britain might be to hold on to the Falklands and growing frustration with the onset of talks finally prompted the military junta on 26 March 1982 to order an invasion.
The islands had a small Royal Marine force, but resistance was pointless as almost 3,000 Argentine troops disembarked at the capital, Port Stanley. That same evening the British cabinet decided to send a naval task force, complete with aircraft carriers and a body of troops, to the South Atlantic. Britain had not yet ruled out a diplomatic solution and many overseas observers assumed that the task force was no more than a show of strength. To invade distant islands in an inhospitable climate was, a United States navy spokesman claimed, ‘a military impossibility’.
There followed weeks of shuttle diplomacy as the United Nations Secretary-General and the United States State Department tried to broker a deal between the two parties. Naval and air conflict had already begun, including the sinking of the Argentine troopship General Belgrano on 2 May.
The critical issue for Britain was the withdrawal of the Argentine garrison on the Falklands, and by mid-May it was evident that the Argentine regime would not accept the condition. On 19 May, the cabinet of Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, agreed to the launch of Operation Sutton, the reconquest of the islands. Feints and false intelligence were used to persuade the Argentinian commander on the islands, Brigadier General Mario Menendez, that the British would try to land close to Port Stanley, which is where the bulk of the 10,000-strong Argentine army was dug in, facing south and east.
Instead the British Task Force delivered the 3,000 men of 3 Commando Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Julian Thompson, together with thousands of tons of stores and equipment, to the western shore of East Falkland at San Carlos, 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the west of Port Stanley.
The bridgehead was rapidly consolidated, helped by uncertainty among the Argentine high command about whether the San Carlos landing was only a diversion. Despite repeated attacks by the Argentine air force flying from the mainland, in one of which the storeship Atlantic Conveyor was hit and burnt out, the small contingent of 42 Harrier fighters inflicted substantial losses on enemy aircraft, most of which were kept back from the conflict in case of an air assault on Argentina itself.
Speed was essential for Operation Sutton because resupply was difficult and there was constant diplomatic activity to try to prevent further escalation. After a week ashore, there was pressure from London to begin the assault on Port Stanley, but Thompson was anxious to wait for further reinforcements (the 5th Infantry Brigade of 5,000 men was on its way) and was aware that on the British right flank there was an Argentine base at Goose Green/Darwin. On 28 May, 600 men of the 2 Battalion Parachute Regiment advanced to the base and after fierce fighting, in which their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert ‘H’ Jones, was killed, over 900 Argentinian troops were taken prisoner. The British moved forward across the island to take Mount Kent, the highest point in the circle of mountains around the capital. The Argentine chiefs-of-staff realized that an attack was imminent but offered no immediate reinforcements to Menendez, who was becoming increasingly demoralized at the prospect of maintaining the Argentine occupation. The forces at his command were a mix of regular soldiers, commandos and conscript troops, whose capacity to withstand the harsh conditions of mud, rain and cold while facing Britain’s regular soldiers was evidently limited. Instead of sending out units to delay or obstruct the British advance, he ordered his forces to high alert around the capital and waited on events.
By early June, the 5th Infantry Brigade had arrived and command of the whole of Operation Sutton was taken over by Major General Jeremy Moore of the Royal Marines. The new units were shipped to the south coast of East Falkland, where Argentine aircraft hit two vessels loaded with men, Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram, leaving fifty dead. The infantry were to march across the south of the island to attack Port Stanley from the southwest. On the night of 11 June, the 3 Commando Brigade moved forward to take the high ground around Stanley at Mount Longdon, Two Sisters and Mount Harriet. The defence was fierce, if brief. By the end, the Argentine garrison of around 5,000 fighting troops was encircled. At 4 p.m. on 13 June, in a snow storm, the British assault began. The Argentine marines dug in at Mount Tumbledown proved difficult to dislodge, but they were withdrawn by the following morning. British advance was methodical and by the morning had reached the outskirts of Port Stanley. The one remaining stronghold on Mount Sapper was about to be assaulted by 5th Brigade when a ceasefire was announced.
The options had become increasingly narrow for Menendez. Galtieri ordered him to continue to fight with everything he could, but his troops had already taken high casualties and the conscripts were now of poor fighting quality. In the afternoon of 14 June, Menendez met British officers to discuss surrender terms. After agreeing to remove the term ‘unconditional surrender’, the British insisted that Menendez accept their conditions.
The surrender was finally signed at 9.15 p.m. Three days later Galtieri resigned as Argentina’s president. Against all expectations, and in the face of almost universal pressure to accept further negotiations, the British task force had succeeded in overturning the Argentine occupation before the crisis of resupply or the weather undermined the whole operation. Timing had been critical on all fronts, military and international, and despite victory, the factors that might have turned Operation Sutton into a disaster were never far away.
The cost was high to both sides: 649 Argentine dead, 1,657 wounded; 255 British dead and 775 wounded. A total of 11,313 Argentine soldiers, airmen, sailors and support troops were taken prisoner. The Argentine air force and army lost twenty-five helicopters and seventy-four other aircraft, the British twenty-four helicopters and ten fighters. The British were compelled to keep a substantial garrison in the islands thereafter. Despite a United Nations resolution passed on 4 November 1982 calling on the two sides to resume negotiations, the Falkland Islands have remained under British sovereignty to the present day, while Argentina has never abrogated its claim for the return of the Malvinas to Argentine rule.