It was 35 years ago. Margaret Thatcher was in power, but only precariously so. The country was fractious, and the economy was still struggling to emerge from the subterranean depths it had plunged to in the 1970’s. A war on the far side of the world was fought and won, against all the odds, and showed the world that Britain would not sit idly by as its sovereign territory was invaded by a belligerent dictatorship.
The first signs of trouble came on March 31, 1982, when news came of Argentinian naval vessels fast approaching the few rocky and windblown islands at the bottom of the world, 8,000 miles away from the UK. The islands were home at the time to around 1,500 people who considered themselves British.
This move by the Argentines came at a bad time. Britain was still weak after the disaster of the 1970’s when even the USSR didn’t want to buy our goods because they were so poorly made. As a result of this, the armed forces, and particularly the navy, had faced budget cuts and were untested since the 1950’s. A victory was not inevitable or even looked possible. The task before Thatcher’s government and the armed forces, in purely logistical terms, let alone in military capability, was immense.
Thatcher had to wage a two-front campaign, both within her own cabinet in order to determine Britain’s response, and also against America, whose interests in the region ran counter to Britain’s. If she had made a mess of either situation, the consequences would have been extremely severe. However, the way Thatcher managed the crisis mirrors the performance of the soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought; they rose to the task, drew a line in the sand and refused to accede to the thuggish behaviour of a dictatorial totalitarian regime.
The cabinet and members of the Foreign Office were already resigned to defeat, showing the prevailing idea from the 70’s of Britain being a nation in decline and that they were just there to manage it. Admiral and First Sea Lord Henry Leach forced his way into the meeting in the House of Commons in full uniform, showing that at times like this symbols of authority such as this are needed to galvanise people into action. He was emphatic: “I can put together a task force of destroyers, landing craft, support vessels… It can be ready to leave in 48 hours.”
This forthright plan of action was the spark that lit Thatcher’s will to action, kindling in her a belief that it could be done. Despite the instability within her inner circle following the invasion, Thatcher assembled a team that served her well during the crisis.
America, as mentioned, had interests counter to Britain’s in the area. There was a lack of clarity surrounding the situation from Washington, and Secretary of State Alexander Haig did not help matters with his poorly handled attempts of trying to persuade Thatcher to sue for peace on terms that she saw as ‘conditional surrender’. The Americans in this instance were not helpful to Britain, and in reality only served to make a difficult and worrying situation more challenging than it already was. Francis Pym, Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary, made matters worse by siding with Haig. Luckily, the rest of the cabinet sided with Thatcher, but it was another obstacle that she could have done without.
The House of Commons voted in approval of the formation of the task force on April 3, with Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse in command. The task force consisted of several groups, the largest focused around the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. In mid-April, the task force left for the Falklands, along with a large number of tankers and cargo ships to supply the fleet while it operated far across the oceans. In total, 127 ships served in the task force. This included 43 warships, 22 Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, as well as 62 merchant vessels.
The first clash came at sea, with the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano by the HMS Conqueror, followed by the retaliatory sinking of the HMS Sheffield by an Exocet missile fired from an Argentine jet. So far, 323 Argentine dead, 20 British. On May 21, 4,000 British troops were landed on the Falklands at San Carlos Water on the north-west Coast of East Falkland by amphibious craft. Over the following week, the ships supporting the landing were hard hit by Argentine air force fighters. HMS Ardent (May 22), Antelope (May 24) and Coventry (May 25) were sunk, along with MV Atlantic Conveyor.
Brigadier Julian Thompson advanced his men south, in his plan to secure the western side of the island before moving on Port Stanley to the east. On May 27-28, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Jones led 600 men and soundly defeated over 1,000 Argentines around Darwin and Goose Green, forcing them to surrender. Jones was killed leading a critical charge from the front and later received the Victoria Cross posthumously. A few days after, British commandos defeated Argentine commandos on Mount Kent. In early June, another 5,000 British troops arrived to reinforce the men already in the fight, with command shifting Major General Jeremy Moore. While some of these troops were disembarking at Bluff Cove and Fitzroy, their transports, RFA Sir Tristram and RFA Sir Galahad, were attacked, leaving 56 killed.
After reinforcing his position, Moore launched the assault on Port Stanley. British troops launched coordinated assaults on the high ground surrounding the town on the night of June 11. After hard fighting, they succeeded in capturing their objectives. The attacks continued two nights later, and the British took the town’s last natural lines of defence at Wireless Ridge and Mount Tumbledown. Surrounded on land and blockaded at sea, the Argentine commander, General Mario Menéndez, realising the hopelessness of the situation surrendered his 9,800 men on June 14, effectively bringing an end to the conflict.
The Falkland Islands are harsh outcrops in the southern Atlantic. There wasn’t much there back then, apart from sheep and some people. That wasn’t the point. The point was that these islands were British; their people were British and wished to remain so. And indeed, still do, by around 99%.
The war showed that Britain was not in a state of managed decline if only it had the will and the spirit to fight for something more. It was able to protect its own when others with malevolence in their hearts wished to do us and ours harm. The war showed that Britain was prepared to fight for this and that some two-bit dictator wouldn’t succeed in his vain attempt at gaining military glory.
On those rocky outcrops far away in the cold southern ocean, Britain refused to back down and fought back. Her troops acquitted themselves admirably and with great courage, showing that they were a force to be reckoned with. In ordering the creation of the task force and the retaking of the Falklands, Margaret Thatcher showed that she also had the strength of character and spirit to choose the way of war, despite the difficulties, despite the risks, despite the self-defeating apathy of those around her. She did it because it was the right thing to do.
Whether Britain could do the same today, 35 years on, with the diminished state our armed forces are in, and the lack of leadership from all political parties is another thing entirely.