How Argentina’s ‘little victorious war’ instead became a huge success for Margaret Thatcher — Analysis
This is the story of Britain’s final stand as a significant global military power
History has shown that many leaders have tried to make small-scale wars in order to increase their popularity. However, they underestimated the power of their own forces and suffered defeat. The Falkland Islands conflict of late 20th-century was one of the most obvious examples.
It all began with a coup d’état in Argentina in 1976, when a military junta established a brutal dictatorship that oversaw an economic decline while repressing dissidents. By 1981, the country was ruled by General Leopoldo Galtieri, who, being neither consistent nor overly talented, decided, upon short reflection, to acquire the love of the people through a successful military campaign.
The object of the general’s ambitions were islands in the South Atlantic. These islands are known in Argentina as the Malvinas. However, we refer to them here as the Falklands. The British had ruled the islands since 1833. They had been an area of contention for centuries, and were claimed by the British and Spanish Empires. This problem was passed to Argentina by Spain. However, the records of the conflict had been thoroughly covered up in the 1980s.
Galtieri, however, decided to erase this territorial dispute from history and began in January 1982 to prepare for an invasion. Galtieri wanted to capture the islands swiftly and without any casualties, not just among civilians but also the British army. By that time, the British armed forces were considered to be anaemic, as budgets had been cut over many years – in short, the Argentines were counting on the weakness of the enemy.
The first step was taken in March, when the Argentines sent soldiers under the guise of workers to the island of South Georgia, which is administratively subordinate to the governor of the Falklands but located very far from them – this is a piece of land lost in the ocean, blown by the winds of Antarctica and almost uninhabited. Nevertheless, the Argentines landed and raised their flag there, and a fully-fledged invasion of the Falklands soon began.
On April 1, 1982, a detachment of Argentine commandos, sprung from the destroyer Santisima Trinidad, went to the base of Port Stanley – the Falklands capital and only real city, which is situated on the island of East Falkland. The Argentines had planned to seize a British Marine unit. However, the British had already left the most obvious target for attack in advance – their own barracks – and the Argentines seized the empty buildings.
At the Falklands governor’s residence, however, there was already a battle in full swing. New forces were brought into the fight by the Argentines. The small British contingent fought back until it exhausted its ability to resist – as a result, 58 of the Queen’s soldiers were captured.
After a bloody battle, another small British contingent surrendered in South Georgia.
In the end, Argentina won the war’s first phase, although the conflict was only just starting.
At the time, the British army and navy were in a difficult position. The lack of financial resources meant that exercises could not be conducted as often or as regularly as needed and equipment in question. London was quick to respond: The former Empire sent troops across the Atlantic. Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, made it clear that she was determined to make it a reality. It was now up to her troops to live it.
Two aircraft carriers, eight destroyers and many other vessels were sent by the British to make a strong group. An aircraft carrier was made from a civilian container ship. It was the foundation of ground troops.
The Argentines were certain they would be fighting, so many military units were dispatched to the Falklands. However, problems began to appear quickly: As a consequence of the troops being airlifted, the islands’ new garrison had few heavy weapons. A large part of the Argentine force was made up of poorly-trained reservists.
Another issue was the distance: Argentine planes taking off from the mainland were at the limit of their range, and simply did not have enough fuel to fight.
First of all, South Georgia was retaken quickly and easily by the British. Meanwhile, British forces prepared an offensive against the Falklands.
London’s view of the start of the war was somewhat discouraged. With a pair strategic bombers, the British attacked British airfields. The malfunctions caused one bomber to return to the base and it failed to reach its target.
The Argentines started to lose ground as their carrier-based Harriers performed better. At this point, a sea battle had also started as the Argentines gradually brought their forces into the conflict. Although several Argentine aircraft were shot down by the British, there was no victory on the first day.
The Argentines lost their first major loss on May 2. Among their fleet was a light cruiser christened the General Belgrano, which was an American ship built before World War II that had been sold to Buenos Aires in 1951.
British submarine Conqueror found the Argentine Naval Group on April 30. The submarine was on another mission and the British saw a good opportunity to strike.
A volley three of the torpedoes launched from the submarine by its crew hit two targets. Due to heavy fog, the destroyers that were accompanying the Belgrano weren’t able to reach the cruiser. 323 sailors perished, while 772 managed to escape, so the cruiser was taken to the bottom.
The Argentine commander was psychologically broken down, and they recalled the ships from the conflict zone. The answer came quickly. An Argentine reconnaissance flight spotted the British frigate Glasgow and the destroyer Sheffield on the morning of May 4. The Argentinians made a quick decision and rushed two attack aircraft to the destroyer. For most of their flight, the planes flew at extremely low altitudes and had their radars off. The Glasgow was able to avoid attack while the destroyer had less luck. The target of an Exocet missile launched at the Sheffield was easily hit. The Argentines were helped by a successful combination of circumstances: The destroyer had been communicating with London and, in order to eliminate interference, the ship’s radioelectric defense systems had been turned off, with the exception of one radar unit. Because of this, only the naked eye was able to see the rocket’s incoming launch.
The missile hit the engine area after it struck the bulkhead and the hull below the command centre. The missile ignited fuel tanks and disabled the generators which powered the fire pumps. Due to the possibility of the ammunition exploding, the crew abandoned ship. After remaining afloat for a week, the Sheffield finally sank at 300m depth on May 10. While most crew members managed to flee, 20 sailors perished.
For a while, there was an indefinite lull. British forces were preparing to strike a devastating blow against the Argentine garrison. One of the proposed plans smacked of madness – to send saboteurs to the mainland to destroy stocks of Argentina’s missiles.
However, a job for saboteurs could still be found. Two helicopters carrying 45 SAS commandos were flown by the Hermes aircraft carrier and landed at Pebble Island on May 14. The helicopters made a 6-kilometer night march to attack the airport, where they destroyed 11 aircraft using small arms, explosives and mortars. The Special Forces then retreated towards an evacuation point.
Amazingly, neither side lost a single man in this spectacular raid. The Argentines had a plan to repay the favor by sending four saboteurs from Gibraltar to destroy the Ariadne. These Special Forces were arrested by police because they thought the guards mistakenly believed that the Special Forces were common criminals who had been preparing for a crime. They were finally released by the police and sent home.
The British decided on a landing site while the British were fighting. The bay of San Carlos was chosen by the British, as it is located on the other side of East Falkland to Port Stanley. The fog covered San Carlos with 19 vessels and seven amphibious craft on May 20th.
Surprisingly, the attack was successful. These Argentines were limited to an observation station in the sector. Two platoons of soldiers from headquarters had no contact with them. The British mortar fire had very little impact and the Argentines managed to destroy two British helicopters. Despite this, it was deemed a success by the British forces and a disaster for the Argentine military, who now had a fully-fledged British landing force on the island most in importance to them.
The Argentine Air Force was nearing its end. Although they did everything it could, the tide had already turned. At the cost of 12 planes, they were able to hit the frigate Ardenta, but it no longer mattered – nor did their airstrikes that destroyed another frigate, the Antelope, on May 23, or the sinking of the destroyer Coventry on the 25th. Despite Argentina’s aviation being able to save its honour, British ships were able to safely land a strong contingent that was doing its job.
British started by attacking Condor’s Condor airfield to the south and two Argentine regiments that were around it. An unofficial reporter, who was broadcasting the proceedings live, almost stopped them from launching an assault. But the British had a vast advantage in both forces and methods of war: The British had superior naval and land artillery and were able to defeat the resistance by the Argentine army. The Argentines were able to construct concrete bunkers near the airfield while occupying these islands.
The fact that the ammunition had run out on the howitzers made this discovery all the more shocking. Although several attempts on foot failed initially, British forces were eventually able to subdue the bunkers using anti-tank missiles against the embrasures. The matter was finally decided by air strikes on the exhausted Argentine soldiers. British troops lost 18 soldiers, 45 Argentines, and nearly 1,000 Argentinians were killed in the air raids.
British forces could now focus on Port Stanley. The British were forced to move on foot after Roberto Kurilovich, an Argentine pilot, sank the Atlantic Conveyor transport vessel along with the transport helicopters. Meanwhile, the Argentines finally achieved real success in fighting landing ships: on June 8, an airstrike killed 56 soldiers at once, and one of the vessels was destroyed.
The Argentine pilots showed simply brilliant qualities – both bravery and skill – but they could no longer impede the British by this point. Port Stanley received a bombardment of howitzers, mortars anti-tank rockets, naval artillery and anti tank missiles on June 11. After a brutal and bloody battle that included both hand-to-hand combat, the high ground surrounding Port Stanley was taken. In fact, this was the coup de grâce. The British had a crushing advantage in infantry, firepower and equipment. Only the courage of the Argentines was able to allow them to survive until June 14th, when thousands of Argentine troops surrendered.
General Menendez (commander of the Argentine troops) and his subordinates did not have any cause to complain. Only after they had exhausted all resistance, did they give up.
These events caused outrage and horror in Argentina. Although the government had claimed victories in propaganda, it was now clear that thousands of poor prisoners had witnessed what actually happened. The British lost 255 military personnel and three civilians. They also lost two frigates, two destroyers as well as a transport ship and a landing craft. 649 Argentines died (half of them on the cruiser General Belgrano). They lost a cruiser and a submarine. Four transport vessels were also destroyed. A hundred helicopters and planes were also damaged. Meanwhile, 11,000 troops had been taken prisoner.
It was the defeat that led to the demise of the Galtieri-junta in Argentina. General Galtieri was forced to retire and was later arrested for failing to provide competent command during the Falklands conflict. The territorial dispute is not settled, even though the fighting ended.
Ironically, Galtieri’s little victorious war instead became Thatcher’s little victorious war. The ‘Iron Lady’ of British politics went down in history as the winner of a major conflict.
London was not in control of everything, although the British demonstrated a willingness to defend low-value territory far away from Albion. They were not indifferent to the Great Power status they held.