The Falkland Islands are a desolate and cold group of islands in the South Atlantic, 400 miles off the South American mainland. The two main islands are about the same area as Wales in the UK and in 1982 had a population of 1,820 people and 400,000 sheep - hardly a place that would expect an invasion or a war of liberation in response.
Before 1816 the island had a chequered past and were often left unguarded and uninhabited. After 1816 when Argentina won its independence from Spain they laid claim to the islands. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars Britain was determined to reassert its imperial claims and this included the Falklands. Pride was also at stake after the failure of a British expedition to Argentina during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1833 a British Naval force evicted the Argentineans and it was this act of aggression that they wished to avenge in 1982.
Under international law the Argentineans had no case, despite the original British aggression the Island had been settled and inhabited by the British continuously since 1833 with most of the islanders descended from the Scottish settlers brought there by the Falkland Islands Company to raise sheep. If such a claim as the Argentinean one was honoured then it would open an immense can of worms for many countries throughout the world. The British also pointed out that the UN charter gave small nations the right of National Self Determination and the islanders definitely wanted to remain British. Yet with such a seemingly worthless piece of territory at stake with a population equal to a large block of flats it seemed to the Argentineans that the British would offer no physical resistance especially with the distances involved and a population of 100,000 British Ex pats living on the Argentine mainland.
The Argentines had been taught since school that the British had stolen the islands and the country had not suffered the horrors of war as seen in the two world wars. It is also clear that if the Junta had not invaded the Falklands it would have gone to war elsewhere. The British didn't take such childish claims seriously while for the Argentineans it was a passionate, national cause. Caught up in a wave of patriotism the Argentinean government and people were about to pay a heavy price. Not expecting any British military response the Argentineans invaded on 2 April 1982 (Spring). If they had waited for 2 months it would have been too late for any British counter attack, but then the Argentineans hadn't even considered such an event.
The British and Argentineans had periodically conducted talks on the Islands, the Argentineans had tried economic incentives for the islands to join their country but few willing wanted to be ruled by a military dictatorship. Running out of time and needing a victory the military junta led by General Galteri decided invasion was the only option to retake the island before the 150th anniversary of British rule. The Argentineans who had a good relationship with the US government under President Reagan believed the US would support them in the coming war or at least remain quiet, it would be yet another mistake.
The Argentineans then needed a Causus Beli, this was soon found. An Argentinean scrap merchant had been contracted to remove an abandoned whaling station on South Georgia, a British Island to the east of the Falklands (which the Argentineans also claimed). He landed without permission and was told to leave or gain permits and just over 20 Royal marines were sent to enforce the decision. On 25th March the Argentineans sent troops to protect the scrap dealer and occupy the Island, at the same time the invasion of the Falklands was ordered with troops landing at Port Stanley, the capital, on 2nd April 1982, taking the British completely by surprise. The Argentineans had taken the cutbacks proposed in the British 1981 White paper as an indication that the British would not fight for the Falklands. They were terribly mistaken. The British saw it as a point of honour and were furious at the actions of what they saw as a ‘Tin-pot’ dictator. The invasion was on a Friday by Tuesday a British task force had set sail to retake the islands! It was an amazing feat of mobilisation considering the islands lie 8250 miles from the UK. Merchant ships were drafted into service including two liners - the Canberra and the QEII. The Canberra returning from a cruise on the 7th April to be quickly refitted, a helipad added and setting sail two days later with 2400 troops on board, the QEII also became a troop ship like the Queen Elizabeth liner in World War 2. With the nearest British airbase being at Ascension Island 4000 miles from the Falklands the operation had to be completely naval.
The US tried to avert war diplomatically but both sides were now in a bellicose mood. The US public was massively pro British and the US lent the British arms and provided intelligence even offering the use of the USS Guam a 12,000 ton assault ship. It is likely that US intelligence proved vital during the war.
The British Task force reached the South Atlantic on 1st May and quickly retook South Georgia and then prepared for the more difficult task of retaking the main Islands. The British chose to land on the other side of the island to the capital Port Stanley in a narrow stretch of water called San Carlos sound which lines between the two main islands. The landing started on the 21st May and was hardly opposed. British elite units such as the Parachute regiment and Royal Marine Commandos faced a weak, mainly conscript, Argentinean army, which proved to have poor morale. Once a British Submarine sunk the Argentinean Cruiser the General Belgrano the Argentinean navy stayed in port. The Argentinean Air force did much better and only luck saved the British from some awful casualties. They operated some 400 miles from their home bases and sank several British ships. British air defence was weak with a few Harrier and Sea Harrier aircraft and Rapier missile batteries. Bombs sank four British ships, and Exocet missiles sank the destroyer HMS Sheffield and the transport the Atlantic Conveyor. Many other ships were damaged some badly with considerable lost of life. The ground phase took 3 weeks and the British fought their way across the island with an Argentine surrender on 14th June 1982. The British lost 250 men including Colonel H Jones of the Parachute regiment and captured 12,278 prisoners, 5 civilians died. The Argentines lost 746 killed of which 368 had been on the Belgrano when it sunk. There have been some hints of war crimes carried out by British troops against Argentine prisoners but no firm evidence.
The Argentine government quickly collapsed, a return to democracy quickly followed and many former Junta officials received long prison sentences as torturers and leaders of government death squads. Argentina then entered a period of political unrest and threatened and abortive military coups. In 1990 Britain and Argentina resumed normal diplomatic relations and a naval exclusion zone around the islands was lifted. The British had spent £600 million on an air base at Port Stanley and it still proves costly to maintain today, although the British military presence is small and often contains Territorial Army units (part time volunteer soldiers). Two huge Squid fisheries opened bringing in $50 million in licenses a year. Large oil deposits also almost certainly exist in the waters around the Falklands and although in the 1980s it was difficult to locate them and uneconomic to extract them, technology is now making this feasible. It will never be known but is possible that the British knew about the long tem oil prospects when they made their decision to go to war. The population of the Island has increased but many islanders seek to marry service personnel as a way to escape these barren isolated islands. Argentina has not renounced its claim but continues to try and win hearts and minds. With the events of the Gulf War and Kuwait the Argentineans are unlikely to try force again especially against a much better defended Island. Should oil production start the Argentines have much to gain economically by co-operating, as they would be the nearest supplier of men and materials needed in the oil industry.