On This Day

falkland war, argentina flag falklands, argentina soldiers falklands, argentine flag
Associated Press
Argentine Marines hoist an Argentine
flag in the Falkland Islands, April 2, 1982.

On This Day: Argentine Troops Seize Falklands From Britain

April 02, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On April 2, 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, triggering a 74-day war that consolidated Margaret Thatcher’s power and spelled the end for the Argentine junta.

Invasion of Falklands Sparks 74-Day War

The Falkland Islands, known as the Malvinas in Argentina, are a small archipelago located about 300 miles of Argentina’s east coast. Britain, which had claimed and abandoned the inhospitable islands in the 18th century, reclaimed the Falklands from the Argentines in 1833. Britain governed the Falklands ever since, though Argentina contended that it had the rightful claim.

In 1982, Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, head of Argentina’s military junta, decided to seize the islands by force. Many analysts believe the decision was made not for territorial reasons, but to divert attention from the country’s economic woes; Argentine leaders “believed that the ‘recovery’ of the islands would unite Argentines behind the government in a patriotic fervour,” explains Encyclopedia Britannica.

On March 19, a group of Argentine marines posing as scrap metal workers arrived on the island of South Georgia, located over 850 miles east of the Falklands, and raised an Argentine flag. The act prompted Britain to send a Royal Navy vessel to the area.

On April 2, Argentina launched an amphibious invasion of the Falkland Islands. The Argentine troops, numbering over a thousand, easily overcame the 85 British defenders, who surrendered later that day. The following day, Argentina seized South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Argentina sent in 10-11,000 troops into the Falklands over the next several weeks to prepare defenses.

Britain immediately broke diplomatic ties with Argentina and demanded a withdrawal from the islands, and the United Nations passed a resolution condemning Argentina’s action. Despite international pressure to back down, the Argentine junta refused to comply.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher quickly mobilized the British forces to travel more than 8,000 miles to the war zone, using Ascension Island, located 3,000 miles north of the Falklands, as a staging post. The operation was not guaranteed to work due to the long distance to travel and the lack of air cover over the Falklands.

On April 25, a separate force recaptured South Georgia. The main forces arrived near the Falklands on April 29; three days later, a British submarine sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, killing more than 300 of over 1,000 men aboard.

The sinking, which was controversial because it occurred outside of the 200-square-mile exclusion zone declared by Thatcher, discouraged the Argentine from fighting a naval war. For the remainder of the Falkland War, Argentine ships would be positioned far from the conflict.

Much of the war was fought between the British Royal Navy and Argentine aerial forces. On May 4, the HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Exocet missile, the first of several Royal Navy ships destroyed during the war.

The decisive moment of the war occurred on May 21, when the British launched a successful amphibious landing at Port San Carlos. From there, British forces marched south to seize Darwin, Goose Green and finally Stanley, the capital of the Falklands, on May 31.

The surrounded Argentine forces surrendered on June 14, bring and end to the war. In the 74-day conflict, 655 Argentines, 255 British and three Falkland Islanders were killed.

Repercussions of the War in Britain and Argentina

Thatcher had been beset by domestic unpopularity before the war, but Britain’s victory sparked a wave of nationalism and support for the “Iron Lady,” who went on to a landslide victory in the 1983 election. Her response to the crisis proved a defining moment of her years in office.

“Not only did victory give her the courage and self-confidence to tackle pressing domestic issues such as the challenge posed to the government’s authority posed by militant trades unions, it restored Britain’s post-war status as a major world power,” writes Con Coughlin in The Daily Telegraph.

In Argentina, the public turned against Galtieri and the junta. Galtieri resigned days after the surrender; in October, the unpopular junta was forced to hold free elections, in which it was defeated. Galtieri was arrested and convicted for mismanagement of the war, serving five years in prison.

Analysis: A Pointless War?

The war, fought for control of remote islands with just 1,800 residents and no significant natural resources, seemed to have little at stake other than national pride. It was, in the words of Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges, “two bald men fighting over a comb.”

The Guardian’s Julian Barnes writes of the popular opinion in Britain at the time: “The fact that the rest of the world viewed the war as a bizarre and brainless squabble between nostalgic imperialism and nostalgic fascism was irrelevant; we didn't care what the rest of the world thought, except to imagine that it was impressed.”

In Argentina, where the war is seen as a national humiliation, veterans are bitter toward their former leaders for sending inexperienced and ill-prepared soldiers into battle with so little justification.

“The war was improvised. The junta wanted the invasion to distract people from resistance to the regime,” says veteran Ernesto Alonso. “We were cannon fodder in a war we couldn’t win.”

Historical Context: Military Rule in Argentina

Conflict between the populists and the military characterized Argentina in the 20th century.  A 1930 military coup removed populists from power. Through the 1940s, Juan Perón emerged from the junta’s ranks to garner mass popular support, becoming a left-wing “hero of the descamisados (the 'shirtless')."

He was imprisoned for his attempts to seize power, but large-scale worker protests in Buenos Aires, organized by actress Eva Duarte, known as Evita, brought about his release in 1945. Perón married Evita and became president, but after her death his popularity waned. Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri assumed rule in 1981.

The People of the Falkland Islands Today

Although the people living in the Falkland Islands were “gloomy” following the war, that attitude no longer characterizes the population today, said Brian Hanrahan, who reported on the war in 1982 and returned to the islands 25 years later.

The isolated, quiet islands had been thrust into the public eye “to protect a community whose origins, attitudes and aspirations are all British,” according to Hanrahan. He goes on to say that the Falklands today are a “happy, prosperous and part of the wider world but at the same time, keeping some distance from it.”

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