The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982
The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982

The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982

Larry Holzwarth - February 23, 2020

The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982
The American built A-4 Skyhawk was used by the Argentine Air Force and Navy throughout the war. US Army

13. The British took additional steps to stop losses to the Exocet missile

The naval losses and the threat they posed to the two aircraft carriers were of deep concern by late May. Loss or incapacitation of either of the British carriers would have crippled the invasion even after ground troops were ashore. The Admiralty and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) conducted operations to stop the flow of Exocet missiles to the Argentines. SIS agents were sent to various hot spots on the global arms market. They posed as arms dealers buying weapons for the Argentines, diverting the weapons from reaching genuine arms dealers working on their enemy’s behalf. They also used their infiltration of the trade to prevent known stocks of the weapons from reaching Argentine agents.

Diplomatic pressure was exerted on the French to stop sales of the Exocet to Peru, which SIS agents identified as supplying the Argentines. British agents exposed the sale to Peru – which was legitimate – as being funded with deposits of $200 million in the Andean Lima Bank. The bank was owned by Banco Ambrosiano, an Italian banking firm. According to British intelligence, the funds were Argentina’s and the contract to deliver 52 Exocets was signed by Argentine Naval officer Carlos Alberto Corti. France agreed not to deliver the missiles to Peru during the conflict, and in effect cancel the contract. Nonetheless during the war technicians from Dassault – builder of the Exocet – worked alongside the Argentines preparing and programming the missile.

The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982
HMS Avenger provided gunfire support for the ground troops during the operations to capture Stanley. Wikimedia

14. The British land invasion began on May 21 at East Falkland

The British 3 Commando Brigade of 4,000 men went ashore on East Falkland on the night of May 21. They were delivered to the shores at San Carlos via landing craft and barges. Artillery and armored vehicles were also delivered, along with engineering units. The beachheads were secured by dawn. British ground operations were directed toward the targets of Darwin and Goose Green prior to an assault on Port Stanley. The Argentine Air Force responded to the invasion force with bombing raids, which continued at night for the rest of the war. The helicopters lost when Atlantic Conveyor was sunk directly impacted the British assault, as they were meant to carry troops and support their attack on Goose Green.

Initially, the Argentine defensive positions at Goose Green and Darwin were considered to possess little offensive capability and were thus unable to hinder British operations against Port Stanley. Following the landings at San Carlos, the British troops did little but patrol and consolidate their position. Naval losses mounted. Rumors of a peace agreement reached at the United Nations which included a ceasefire with all forces remaining in place were also considered in London. The decision was made that the formerly undesirable attack on Goose Green was critical to Britain’s overall strategy. Control of Goose Green and Darwin would place a large portion of East Falkland under British control in the event of a ceasefire. They were ordered to be attacked.

The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982
Thatcher was angered over BBC policies, which included referring to the troops as British, rather than “ours”. BBC

15. The role of the BBC was criticized by the British government

Throughout the British operations in the Falklands, the British Broadcasting Corporation – the BBC – and other news organizations aired reports of events despite some heavy military censorship. The government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher roundly condemned the BBC for its coverage. Privately, Thatcher fumed over the organization and its reporting, calling it “treacherous”. She was particularly outraged over the BBC allowing those who opposed the war – and there were many in Britain – to air their views on the news broadcasts and opinion programs offered by the company. Thatcher went so far as to pressure the Home Secretary to invoke emergency powers and seize control of the BBC for the duration of the war, powers intended only for use during a nuclear attack.

The BBC established an official policy during the war not to refer to the troops and sailors fighting in the Falklands as “ours”, insisting instead to call them “British”. Thatcher’s relationship with the BBC was long antagonistic in nature, the war simply added to her complaints about the corporation. Throughout her government, she complained the BBC was biased toward the left, supported trade unions over the government positions, and was a waste of government funding. Military commanders in the Falklands often reflected her view, claiming BBC broadcasts released information that was beneficial to their Argentine enemy. At least one naval officer complained that BBC broadcasts led to the Argentine successes in bombing ships.

The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982
Argentine troops in Stanley before the British campaign to capture the city. Wikimedia

16. British commanders complained the BBC aided the Argentines in combat

Several of the ships which were severely damaged, and at least one which was sunk, were struck with Argentine bombs which did not explode. The bombs were released with detonation deliberately retarded, set so that the aircraft which released them at low level were not damaged by the explosion. Bombs caused damage by force of impact even when they did not explode. The information was not released by the British military at the time. They feared the public learning of the failure of British military systems and equipment, would lead to the loss of public support for the war. At least two of the ships lost to Argentine attack were damaged by bombs which did heavy damage to onboard systems despite failing to explode.

The BBC learned of the situation and reported on it in detail, including a description of the workings of retarded fuses on bombs. The Royal Navy and others within the conservative government accused the broadcast agency of aiding the enemy. Similar accusations were heard when the agency described the preparations for the ground campaign, including the apparent change in strategy to attack the Argentine forces at Goose Green and Darwin. Lt. Colonel Herbert Jones, who planned the attack of the 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment at Goose Green heard BBC broadcasts describing the pending attack – and the units which were to take part in it – while still in the planning stages.

The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982
The ground campaign to retake the Falklands was short, but with sharp fighting. Wikimedia

17. The British encountered strong resistance at the Battle of Goose Green

British intelligence recommended bypassing the Argentine positions at Goose Green and Darwin, but political implications in London overrode the recommendations. The 2nd Para provided the bulk of the troops for the assault, which was planned and led by Lt. Col. Herbert Jones. The battle took place on May 28-29. Unexpectedly heavy resistance was encountered by the British troops. During the assault, which was against prepared positions on a narrow peninsula, Jones was killed. He was succeeded in command by Major Chris Keeble. The assault troops were supported by preliminary bombardments by ships and bombing runs launched by the Sea Harriers, which had limited effectiveness.

Shortly after midnight on May 29, Argentine prisoners of war captured during the heavy fighting of the previous day were sent to the Argentine positions with a message demanding the remaining enemy forces surrender. The Argentine forces occupying the settlement realized the British could bombard them at will using artillery and heavy mortars, and they had no means of responding. British terms also informed the Argentines that they would be responsible for any loss of civilian lives. The Argentines surrendered shortly after daylight. Their losses were 55 dead and 86 wounded, with 961 taken prisoner. British losses, disputed by several sources, were 18 dead and 64 wounded, though some say the British losses were significantly higher.

The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982
A GR3 Harrier taking off from the Port Stanley airstrip following the end of combat operations. Air Historical Branch RAF/MOD

18. The role of the Sea Harriers during the Falklands War

The Sea Harrier was tasked with providing aerial defense of the British task force and performed air-to-ground support of the British troops, though primary aerial support of ground forces came from helicopters. 28 Sea Harriers operated from HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. In addition, there were 14 Harrier GR3 attack aircraft. The Sea Harriers from the British ships shot down 28% of the Argentine aircraft lost during the conflict without the loss of a single aircraft in air-to-air combat. There were six Sea Harriers lost during the war, two shot down by the anti-aircraft fire and four were reported lost to accidents. The performance of the Sea Harriers was a substantial contribution to the British victory.

The British stationed the aircraft carriers outside of Exocet range, limiting the time the Sea Harriers could spend in the combat zone, since they had to expend so much fuel to reach the area. Even so, they were capable of remaining in assigned positions for up to half an hour while the Argentine strike fighters were limited to less than ten minutes, having flown from distant bases to reach the islands. Despite the effectiveness of the Sea Harriers, the Argentine Air Force continued to fly nightly resupply missions to Port Stanley’s airfield, using C-130 cargo planes, throughout the conflict.

The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982
Sir Galahad in flames following the Argentine bombing attack. BBC

19. The attack on troop transports of June 8

In early June British plans for the assault on Port Stanley suffered a setback. Two ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram were attacked by Argentine A-4 Skyhawks. The ships were preparing to offload troops of the Welsh Guards when they were hit by bombs which set them afire. The fires on Sir Galahad were out of control and it was ordered abandoned. The ship’s Royal Marines detachment organized and carried out the evacuation of the Army troops, using helicopters to lift them clear of the ship, and launching life rafts from the vessel’s bow. The evacuation of the burning ship was recorded by BBC cameras and broadcast throughout the world.

Sir Tristram was strafed and bombed; the five hundred pound bomb failed to explode. The troops and some of the crew nonetheless evacuated the ship. The Marines who supported the removal of unexploded ordnance were at the time occupied with the evacuation of Sir Galahad. Later in the afternoon, the bomb exploded, severely damaging the ship and causing it to be abandoned. The ship was rebuilt in 1983. Sir Galahad was towed out to sea using a tug during the third week of June and sunk by HMS Onyx. Thirty-two Welsh Guards were killed in the attacks and over 150 were severely burned or sustained other injuries.

The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982
Sir Tristram’s heavy damage was easy to see in 1983. Wikipedia

20. The Welsh Guards were aboard the ships because of an earlier failed operation

On June 2, a detachment from 2 Para advanced inland to Fitzroy and Bluff Cove. Their move was done without authorization from operation planners and dictated heavier troops be sent to support them. Half of the Welsh Guards were detached to move overland to their support, a distance of approximately thirty miles. The Guards were sent forward light, that is, without their heavy equipment. They refused and attempted to complete the march carrying all of their heavy weapons. When that failed, they returned to San Carlos and were transferred to the fleet auxiliaries which transferred them to Point Pleasant, seven miles from Bluff Cove.

Arguments between senior officers led to delays in offloading the troops. The senior Guard officer insisted on the troops being carried by water the remaining distance to Bluff Cove. An order to offload the troops immediately was issued and ignored. The argument among senior officers delayed the offloading, despite their being warned that the ship on which they stood was vulnerable to enemy air attacks. The argument and the delay it caused led to the men remaining aboard when the Argentine air strikes hit both ships. It further delayed the assault on Port Stanley by two days. The images of the disaster broadcast by the BBC had a sobering effect on the British public at home.

The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982
Wreckage of an Argentine Pucara aircraft destroyed in the last days of the war. Wikimedia

21. Port Stanley was surrounded with heavily fortified positions

The hills which surrounded Port Stanley were heavily defended. The Argentines were subjected to aerial and naval bombardment as the ground troops maneuvered into position. On June 11, the British launched their attacks on Argentine positions, striking at night. Argentine resistance was strong, though British troops advanced steadily, though attacks led to several “friendly fire” incidents as they pressed forward. On the morning of June 12, as the ground fighting continued, Argentine technicians used an improvised launcher to damage yet another British destroyer, HMS Glamorgan. The launcher had been developed and the missile reprogrammed in Argentina and delivered to Port Stanley by the nightly C-130 supply mission.

The Argentines had three available Exocet missiles, the first of which failed to launch. The second failed to lock onto the target and fell harmlessly to the sea. The third found the target, hit the ship near the stern, and penetrated into the hangar deck, where it exploded. It destroyed the ship’s helicopter in the hangar and started a massive fire. Fourteen crew were killed by the explosion and fire. It was the last Exocet to strike a British ship during the war. The crew was able to contain, and then extinguish the fire and the ship was underway, partially operational, later in the morning. Glamorgan returned to Britain after the war and underwent extensive repair and refit in Portsmouth.

The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982
HMS Antelope in San Carlos Water before it was destroyed by an Argentine bomb. Wikimedia

22. Port Stanley fell to the British in June

The British cracked the defenses surrounding Stanley on June 13, and the Argentine forces which remained took up positions in the town proper. Neither side relished the idea of urban combat, which would have undoubtedly caused civilian casualties, which both sides had tried to avoid during the conflict. Early on June 14, the contending armies agreed to a ceasefire. The Argentine garrison agreed to surrender, and did so that afternoon. Six days later the British accepted the surrender of the Argentine garrison at Corbeta Uruguay, which controlled the South Sandwich Islands. Following that surrender the British declared hostilities to be at an end.

The Welsh Guards sustained the most fatalities suffered by a unit of the ground troops during the war – 33. Of those, 32 died during the attack and evacuation on Sir Galahad. The Royal Navy’s largest single loss was the 22 killed aboard HMS Ardent. In total 255 British servicemen died in the war, and 777 were wounded or injured in accidents. The Argentine dead was totaled at 649, including 16 civilians. The British suffered civilian casualties as well. Three Falkland Islanders were killed by friendly (British) fire. The Argentines sustained 1177 non-fatal casualties throughout the conflict.

The Messy Business of the Falklands War of 1982
HMS Invincible returned to Britain and huge celebrations after the war. Defense Imaging, Royal Navy

23. The Falklands War boosted the Conservative Party in Great Britain

The end of the war and the successful retaking of the Falkland Islands by the British created a surge of patriotism in Great Britain. Proposed cuts to the British Navy were abandoned. Margaret Thatcher enjoyed a period of increased popularity. The Conservative Party increased its majority in Parliament in the ensuing general election. The opposite effect was felt in Argentina. The loss of the Falklands (called Malvinas in Argentina) led to protests and demonstrations against the ruling military junta. Argentina restored a democratic government in 1983. Diplomatic relations between the two nations weren’t restored until 1989, and neither side changed its position over sovereignty of the islands.

The war remains one of interest to military planners. Although the casualty numbers seem low at first glance, as a percentage of the total number involved, they were high. The vulnerability of ships to anti-ship missiles startled the navies of the world, and defensive systems against them were improved, with newer systems developed. Argentina continued to claim sovereignty over the islands into the 21st century. It retains the claim today, though in 2009 the British Government announced there would be no further discussions of the matter. Of the 229 world economies ranked by the CIA in 2010, the Falkland Islands were listed at 222. Perhaps that’s why Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges described the Falklands War as “two bald men fighting over a comb”.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Malvinas War of 1982: An Inevitable Conflict than Never Should Have Occurred”. Joseph S. Turchin, Latin American Research Review. 1987

“Help was weeks away as 88 men waited in the Falklands dark for 3,000 invaders”. Miles Goslet, The Telegraph. April 1, 2007

“30 Years since the Falklands War”. Alan Taylor, The Atlantic. March 30, 2012

“Argentina Invades Falkland Islands”. Staff writers, The Age. April 3, 1982

“Margaret Thatcher showed no reaction after order to sink Belgrano ship during Falklands War, papers reveal”. Andy McSmith, The Independent. June 18, 2015

“Falklands Invasion ‘Surprised’ Thatcher”. Peter Biles, BBC World Affairs. December 28, 2012

“Falkland war zones bolster UN case for a law of the sea”. Louis Wiznitzer, Christian Science Monitor. April 14, 1982

“Air War in the Falklands”. Carl A. Posey, Air and Space Magazine. September, 2002

“Belgrano, 25 years on”. James Sturcke, The Guardian. May 2, 2007

“Revealed: Catalog of failings that sank Falklands warship HMS Sheffield”. Ian Cobain, The Guardian. October 15, 2017

“Falklands War: SAS role in the conflict”. Peter Jackson, BBC News. May 4, 2012

“Falklands War: The Time British and Argentine Aircraft Carriers Nearly Fought to the Death”. Sebastien Roblin, National Interest. July 6, 2019. Online

“Exocet missile: how the sinking of HMS Sheffield made it famous”. Ian Cobain, The Guardian. October 15, 2017

“The Battle for the Falklands”. Max Hastings, Simon Jenkins. 1983

“Margaret Thatcher papers: BBC ‘assisted the enemy during the Falklands War'”. Tom Rowley, The Telegraph. June 18, 2015

“Offensive Air Operations of the Falklands War”. Major Walter F. Dehoust, Marine Corps Command and Staff College (United States). April 2, 1984. Online

“‘As the blast hit the ship, all hell broke loose'”. Crispin Black, The Telegraph. June 6, 2007

“Troops surrender at Port Stanley”. David Fairhall, Paul Brown, Jeremy Morgan, The Guardian. June 15, 1982

“The Long Shadow of the Falklands War”. Robert Farley, National Interest. Online