Prior to the spring of 1982 few of us in Britain could have said with any certainty where in the world the Falkland Islands were. Why should we when the islands were little more than a barren group of rocks barely a few hundred miles north of the Antarctic.
From the earliest recordings of the islands their inhospitable nature and barren outlook has been their main noticeable features. For instance, a Spanish ship’s captain remarked in his log in 1540 that “all this country is bare with not a bit of wood, very windy and cold, because eight months in the year it snows and the prevailing winds are south-west.” (Hastings & Jenkins, 1983: 1).
Little had changed four and a half centuries later and visitors to the islands were still struck by the fact that not one single tree grows naturally on the islands. The Falklands, however, had one redeeming feature – their strategic position on the approaches to Cape Horn. Despite this it wasn’t until the end of the seventeenth century before Governments began to recognise this.
In 1690, Captain John Strong landed on the islands. He did some charting, killed a lot of geese, named the islands the Falklands after the First Lord of the Admiralty, and sailed on. His reports and those of others planted the seed in political minds that the islands could be of “great consequence to this nation and in time of war would make us master of the seas,” as Lord Anson said in the early eighteenth century. Despite the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, which formalised Spain’s traditional control of the Southern Americas – and therefore the Falkland Islands included – British and French ambitions continued.
A power struggle ensued for the tiny islands. The French set up a physical presence on the islands, while the British contented themselves with landing on uninhabited areas, planting vegetables and flags before sailing off, reassured by their arrogance that their action was enough to justify their claim to the islands. Eventually the British and French on the islands met, which soon led to the French coming to an accommodation with the Spanish Government: the French would withdrew and be replaced by the Spanish. The British now had to contend with the determined Spaniards, who sent five ships and 1400 men to evict the British. Not unlike 1982, the British marines on the islands, faced with overwhelming numbers, were forced to leave under protest.
The humiliation of British marines when Argentina invaded in 1982 had a similar effect to the eviction of the marines in 1770 – in that it caused public and political uproar in Britain. In 1770 there was a clamouring for war and, in an attack on the jingoistic elements in the country, Samuel Johnson coined his now famous phrase – “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” (Judd, 1996: 402).
The spectre of history repeating itself is prevalent throughout the history of the Falklands, but in 1770 the British Government was sensible enough to come to a compromise with the Spanish, avoiding a costly war. Britain was soon permitted by Spain to return to the islands and set up a limited colony, but had to withdraw three years later after a plague devastated their colony. Eventually, in 1790, Britain and Spain signed the Nootka Sound Convention and Britain seemingly gave up all claims to Spanish territories.
By 1833 the occupants of the islands were mostly rebellious Argentinians who murdered successive Governors sent from the mainland. The British Prime Minister, Palmerston, saw a chance to exploit the chaos and sent two warships to take back the islands. The official Spanish colony was evicted, leaving behind the rebels who now happily turned their hostility on to the British. The British would spend the next six months trying to deal with them. Despite the rebels’ attacks, the retaking of the islands was, eventually, a success and the British would remain in control of the Falklands until the spring of 1982 when once more the islands became the centre of dispute.
By 1982 Britain had been withdrawing from its Empire for around forty years and the Falklands, although still British, did not warrant any special treatment. The British Governments in the immediate years before 1982 had been slowly working towards a settlement with Argentina. Harold Wilson’s Government, according to documents released in December 1998 as part of the Thirty-Year Rule, showed that settlements were considered – perhaps a lease-back or joint sovereignty deal. However, they came to nothing and the islands remained British.
The only moment of heightened tension came in the late 1970s when, faced with the threat of invasion, Prime Minister James Callaghan sent a couple of warships to the islands, successfully deterring the new military junta in Buenos Aires. By the 1980s the Royal Navy was in terminal decline and it would soon have been impossible to even comprehend defending the islands. Even the Government of Margaret Thatcher was in the process of withdrawing the only naval vessel in the area, HMS Endurance: a clear sign to the Junta in Argentina that British commitment to the islands was fading. However, events can quickly overtake any poltical desire and come to determine how a Government thinks and acts, and the events in the spring of 1982 were to scupper any talk or appearance of withdrawal from the South Atlantic. They would also prove a Godsend to Thatcher’s ailing Government.
Encouraged by British signals of indifference to the islands and by domestic unrest in Argentina, the military Junta led by General Galtiari invaded the islands on Friday 2 April. The British knew they were coming but could do little from eight thousand miles away to prevent the invasion. The first target of the elite advance parties of the invasion force was the British barracks, which were stormed and strafed with machine gun fire in the dead of night. They were empty. The few dozen Marines who would normally have been asleep in their beds had gone into the night and were digging in around the airport and expected landing sites, forewarned by London of the imminent invasion.
Argentina went wild with celebration as its forces quickly overrun the British Marines, who surrendered without loss after a last stand at Government House – the home of Sir Rex Hunt, the Governor of the Falkland Islands. He had made the decision for the British forces to surrender. The Junta in Buenos Aires, on a jubilant high, truly believed there would be no response to the invasion from London. They had believed their own propaganda that the Government of Thatcher was not interested in these small islands – named Las Malvinas by the Argentinians.
Once more events intervened to push political decisions in a particular direction. The captured Marines on the islands were filmed, in contravention of the Geneva Convention, being marched through the capital Stanley with hands in air and then lying prostrate on the ground surrounded by jubilant occupying soldiers. These dramatic images flashed around the world and in Britain, as in 1770, the humiliation of British Marines began to whip up popular outrage and anger. The humiliation was enough to put aside rational thought and the mood quickly became one of what could be done to repay the humiliation. These feelings were quickly seized upon by both media and politicians.
Prime Ministe Margaret Thatcher seized with the fervour of a zealot the political opportunity presented by the Falklands invasion and by the humiliation of the Royal Marines. Like Palmerston in 1833, she hoisted the flag of patriotism and like some incarnation of Britannia vowed to retake the nation’s lost territory. In doing so – only hours after the invasion – she demonstrated, as Denis Judd argues, “her continuing capacity unerringly to discern and exploit populist sentiment among the electorate.” (Judd, 1996: 403) There seemed little popular opposition. Those that questioned such war-like posturing were derided and dismissed as unpatriotic, their desire to avoid loss of life for such an insignificant cause ridiculed.
An emergency debate was called in the House of Commons on the day after the invasion – a rare occasion as it was a Saturday. Margaret Thatcher, in all her self-styled majestic presence, spoke to a chamber which was almost completely behind her:
“The House meets this Saturday to respond to a situation of great gravity. We are here because, for the first time in many years, British sovereign territory has been invaded by a foreign power … I am sure that the whole House will join me in condemning totally this unprovoked aggression by the Government of Argentina against British territory. It has not a shed of justification, and not a scrap of legality … I must tell the House that the Falkland Islands and their dependencies remain British territory. No aggression and no invasion can alter that simple fact. It is the Government’s objective to see that the islands are freed from occupation and are returned to British administration at the earliest possible moment.” (quoted in Barnett, 1982: 28).
At her moment of resplendant determination, DenisJudd estimated that only five per cent of the House were opposed to Thatcher’s objectives (Judd, 1996: 405). Even the veteran left-winger, Michael Foot – then Leader of the Opposition – rallied to the cause of the Prime Minister, making a speech which many saw as even more forthright than that of the Prime Minister:
“The rights and circumstances of the people in the Falkland Islands must be uppermost in our minds. There is no question in the Falkland Islands of any colonial dependence or anything of the sort. It is a question of people who wish to be associated with this country and who have built their whole lives on the basis of association with this country. We have a moral duty, a political duty and every other kind of duty to ensure that this is sustained. … The people of the Falkland Islands have the absolute right to look to us at this moment of their desperate plight, just as they have looked to us over the past one hundred and fifty years. They are faced with an act of naked, and unqualified aggression, carried out in the most shameful and disreputable circumstances. Any guarantee from this invading force is utterly worthless – as worthless as any of the guarantees that are given by this same Argentine Junta to its own people.” (quoted in Barnett, 1982: 30-1).
Michael Foot was clearly disgusted at the acts of the military Junta, and by the notion of military dictatorship itself, but the language of this speech has been criticised as “nostalgic liberal imperialist thinking.” (Judd, 1996: 404). Nevertheless, the speech went down well in the Commons, particularly among the Government benches. One influential Tory backbencher, Edward du Cann, remarked – as Leo Amery had also urged the Labour stateseman Arthur Henderson to speak for England during the crucial Commons debate shortly before Britain’s entry into the Second World War – that in his view “the Leader of the Opposition spoke for us all.” (Judd, 1996: 404, also Barnett, 1982: 20).
Over that weekend the Government set up a War Cabinet and put together a Rotal Navy Task Force (bolstered by comandeered Merchant and cruise vessels, including the Cunard liner em>Queen Elizabeth II) and made haphazard plans to recapture the islands. The Task Force sailed within days to wild public and media approval. The speed of the deployment was a remarkable achievement. It would be added to and further supplied as it sailed south via the Azores.
Yet those aboard the ships headig south still could not really believe that it would come to war. Many believed the politicians would settle things before long. Margaret Thatcher, however, was neither in the mood or had the inclination for doing U-turns in mid-Atlantic. She was the strongest advocate of military action throughout, while at the same time striving to maintain the public image of seeking peace.
The United States Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, began a peace mission between Washington, Buenos Aires and London. He quickly discovered to his dismay that he was dealing with a General convinced of London’s disinterest in the islands and spurred on by unfamiliar welcome public opinion at home, and with a Prime Minister adamant that nothing short of full withdrawal will stop the Task Force. Thatcher knew that Galtieri would never accept the United Nations order for him to withdraw his forces from the islands. She also knew that once the British Task Force had sailed it could not turn back. For both Galtieri and Thatcher, backdown would have been political suicide.
So there we had it – a haphazardly put-together Task Force sailing south to meet a large and entrenched army, supported by a navy and well-armed air force. The meeting of forces would not take place for several weeks, but politically it was inevitable. The American-led peace shuttle continued as the Task Force sailed south and the Government in London spoke of peace, but prepared for war. Meanwhile, the British media began feeding the public’s insatiable demand for news.
Whether they thought too much about it or not, the majority of the British public seemed to be swept up in war fever. The tabloids fed this with outrageous and jingoistic anti-Argentinean stories. Events that most people had never witnessed before were taking place and what was happening? People were becoming bored. The Task Force seemed to be taking forever to get to the islands, and nothing was happening. No number of images of smiling soldiers, sailors and Marines singing “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” on board the Task Force’s ships could quell the public’s frustration. Our armed forces were about to go to war, overstretched and unprepared, and the British public’s only concern was that they were not seeing any action.
Events were becoming surreal. For most people it seemed like a film, yet the Government secretly concerned itself with the inevitable conclusion of war – death! Despite the public statements, propaganda and press assertions that the Argentineans were no match for a professional military, there was concern that losses would be horrendous. The War Cabinet in Whitehall fully expected to lose one of the aircraft carriers steaming towards the South Atlantic.
The tabloids’ jingoistic editorials failed to reflect the reality that Britain was stretching itself to its limits by sending a Task Force eight thousand miles after which it would have to protect itself, undertake a land invasion and fight a war – all without the chance of quick support if needed. The gravest threat to the Task Force came from the air as the Task Force lacked any effective air-cover. The Argentinean Air Force was no joke – it was a modern and well-equipped force with top-quality French Exocet missiles. In the event it was not so much pilot error or lack of skill or training that saved many of our ships when the air attacks began. It was, instead military mistakes made by the Junta in Buenos Aires. Perhaps without experience of such campaigns and with a desire for high-profile successes, they decided to attack only ‘grey ships’. This saved many of the unprotected support and troop-carrying vessels from attack – whose loss could have stopped the British in their tracks.
Lack of air-cover was a terrible gamble by Thatcher and her War Cabinet. It was the first time in recent British naval history that ships have sailed to war without such protection. Thatcher took the calculated risk that all would be all right. The loss of HMS Sheffield, the Atlantic Conveyor</em?, HMS Antelope and several smaller vessels over the following few weeks brought her decision into question. The Argentinean Air Force was more successful than it could have hoped to be if the Task Force had been protected by air-cover. The Task Force was saved from even greater loss by several Argentinean bombs failing to explode on impact, the bombs not having time to arm in the confines of the valley in which they were attacking British ships in San Carlos Bay.
It took the loss of ships, and men, to bring home to people that Britain was fighting a war – and that Britain was not invincible. The imposition of a 200-mile exclusion zone was a reflection of the Task Force’s vulnerability to air attack, and the sinking of the aging cruiser General Belgrano by the British submarine HMS Conqueror was, at the least, a dubious decision, but its sinking did achieve the effect that the Argentinean Navy remained firmly in port from thereafter. The Task Force faced little opposition from the opposing Navy, but would be continually harassed by the Argentinean Air Force throughout most of the conflict.
Despite the mounting losses, the whole conflict – aided by propaganda and news censorship – had an feel of fantasy about it. A public brought up with war on television, and largely lacking first-hand experience of the horrors of war, were swept away in the fantasy. The author and journalsit Max Hastings, who later wrote a book on the war, suggested that many of those doing the fighting also felt they were part of something that had escaped from a television screen. People at home watched dumbstruck as Ian MacDonald went before the cameras and announced another ship lost to the nation. But then the public would yearn for the next day’s instalment of news from the South Atlantic – as if it was all some sort of soap opera.
For many others Thatcher’s desire for outright victory, at the cost of a negotiated peace, was beginning to come at a very high price. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Runcie spoke of how the loss of life was bringing a new note of sombre realism to discussion in the country. He spoke of how war was a tragic failure in human relations. (Times, 8 May 1982).
Lack of air-cover forced the British landing forces to land some seventy miles from their final objectives. The loss of all but two of the troop-carrying helicopters on board the Atlantic Conveyor meant that the soldiers had to walk the seventy miles across East Falkland into battle. Thankfully resistance was relatively light from the Argentinean soldiers, mainly unwilling conscripts. The fighting on the way was, thankfully, not as costly as it could so easily have been. The main battles took place to secure the mountains overlooking the Falklands’ capital Stanley. Once these fierce but short battles were over the remaining Argentinian forces in Stanley surrendered and a battle for the capital was avoided.
The surrender came on the 14 June, less than ten weeks after the invasion took place. By this time the popularity of the Government in London had risen so high that the polling organisation Mori showed that the Conservatives would win an overwhelming victory if an election was held at that point. Mori estimated that the conflict gave the Conservatives an extra ten points in the polls, one point for ever twenty-five British lives lost, compared with an overall loss of one point for the Labour Party.
The war was quite extraordinary and is certainly the last imperial war Britain will fight. Denis Judd reflects that the pursuit of the conflict went against the ” gales of the Thatcherite revolution.” (Judd, 1986: 406). She was attacking every aspect of British society, yet when it came to an insignificant remnant of a dying Empire, she was determined, no matter the cost, to ensure that the Falklands remained part of that dying Empire.
Judd also argues that the huge relief expressed upon victory showed how low British self-esteem was at the time. He says that the conflict reflected “deep-seated concern at Britain’s slow and apparently inexorable decline which had first manifested itself a century before and was still an unavoidable component of our national psyche.” (Judd, 1996: 405).
Thatcher recognised this and manipulated events to capitalise on what she could portray as a restoration of national pride. She did not, perhaps, actively seek war with Argentina, but she was well aware of Galtieri’s intentions towards the islands. They had been clear since he came to power in 1978. She chose to stand back and let the inevitable happen.
It was significant that in the Spring of 1982, Thatcher’s Government was at a record low after its first three years. The war took people’s minds off reality – as it temporarily did in Argentina. For a while the public had something else to think about other than the depression, the riots and the seeming erosion of British society. Argentina’s defeat cost Galtieri his career, and eventually he was imprisoned when Democracy returned to the country. In Britain, however, victory made the coumntry complacent and reinforced our increasingly dubious superiority complex. It also did wonders for Thatcher’s election prospects. And the following year she secured an overwhelming General Election victory. From this the Conservative Party were able to regroup and entrench Thatcherism. They remained in power for another fourteen years.
Without the Falklands it is entirely possible that the Tories would have been unable to survive in office for so long. Former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was once asked what the primary factor in the direction of his Government was. “Events, dear boys, events!” was his response. No doubt, Margaret Thatcher looked back often on the events of 1982 and thanked God for the events that saved her Premiership.
It has now been a third of a century since the Falklands War. The figures of the War – Galtieri, Michael Foot, Sir Rex Hunt, Alexander Haig and Margaret Thatcher are all dead. Britain has remained in possession of the Falklands and, from the retake of the islands to the present day. They have reinforced and maintained a large military presence on the islands. Successive governments have sworn to maintain the status quo and keep the islands under British rule.
Argentina returned to democracy after the disaster of the war and General Galteri was imprisoned for the crimes of his Junta. Yet the government and people of Argentina still maintain their belief that the Falklands – or Las Malvinas as they are known in Spanish – belong to Argentina. But under democratic Argentinian governments it seems inconceivable that the country would invade again.
Yet the status quo seems increasingly difficult to justify. The islands’ economy has flourished and its population increased since the war – especially recently with the discovery of oil in its territorial waters. This has only increased the tensions between London and Buenos Aires who are mostly excluded from the benefits of the success of the Falklands since 1982.
Under the Conservatives and Labour governments in the thirty plus years since the war, no thought would have been entertained to surrendering the islands’ sovereignty to Argentina. But should the time come that we reconsider the future of the governance of the islands’, if not giving up full sovereignty. Governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan both consider some degree of joint administration on the islands. Now with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party that idea just may come back into public debate.
I find it increasingly unjust to exclude Argentina from the benefits of a growing
South Atlantic economy. Treaties going back centuries have declared the Falklands to be Spanish (and therefore subsequently Argentinian) territory. The islands are only 800 miles from the mainland, but over ten times that distance from Britain. In times of austerity and military cutbacks it seems incredulous to continue to spend such large sums of money defending the islands.
I believe the time should not be far away before Britain and Argentina sit down and sort out the long-term future of the islands and the people who live there.
Barnett, A. (1982), Iron Britannia: Why Parliament Waged Its Falklands War.
Hastings, M. and Jenkins, S. (1983), The Battle for the Falklands, Book Club Associates, London.
Judd, D. (1996), ‘The Falklands War, 1982: Remnants of Empire’, in Judd, D. (1996), Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present, Harper Collins, London.
Article first written in 1998 as a University seminar. Updated September 2015.