5. The British assembled a naval task force to steam to the South Atlantic
On April 3, HMS Conqueror, a nuclear-powered fast attack submarine, left its moorings at the Royal Navy base at Faslane at the start of its voyage to the Falklands. HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes, both aircraft carriers equipped with Sea Harrier jump-jets, departed Her Majesty’s Naval Base Portsmouth. They were escorted by several frigates, destroyers, and support ships. On April 7, SS Canberra, an ocean liner, was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and used to carry 3 Commando Brigade to the war zone. Without time to convert the liner to a troop ship, the commandos undoubtedly enjoyed one of the more comfortable voyages of their military career. In May, Queen Elizabeth II was similarly used by the Royal Navy. It sailed with the 5th Infantry Brigade.
The British eventually deployed over 125 ships to the war zone, 43 of which were commissioned vessels of the Royal Navy. The rest were from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) or were commercially owned cargo vessels. The fleet was nonetheless vulnerable. The two carriers combined could support 42 Harrier jump jets. By contrast, the Argentine Air Force had at least 50 air-superiority fighters, before receiving additional airplanes (and pilots, according to some accounts) from Peru. In total at the start of the war, 122 Argentine aircraft were available to be used as strike aircraft or air-to-air fighters. To counter the disparity, Ascension Island in the South Atlantic was quickly reinforced with long-range bombers, reconnaissance planes, and airborne tankers.
6. Retaking the Falklands and South Georgia Island posed formidable difficulties
The Falklands lie over 7,000 nautical miles away from Great Britain, and 3,300 nautical miles from Ascension Island. The difficulties supplying the invasion force, which had to operate within range of the Argentine Air Force and Navy were huge. In addition, Ascension Island lacked port facilities. Supplies for the forces established there had to be offloaded by boats from the arriving ships, or flown in via C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft. Because of political considerations, fuel for ships and aircraft could not be purchased from South American countries, nor from South Africa. The closest source of fuel for operations in the South Atlantic was Freetown, Sierra Leone, 4,100 miles from the war zone.
The Royal Navy requisitioned 15 tankers, which combined with the 14 tankers of the fleet auxiliary provided 29 ships to supply fuel to the war zone. Drinking water was also a problem. Most of the ships lacked the capability of producing drinking water, and the increased numbers of personnel aboard meant water was in short supply. A Canadian tanker was chartered to carry drinking water, which was transferred to vessels via underway replenishment. The Royal Navy had no hospital ships, so a cruise liner, SS Uganda, was hastily modified to serve as a medical facility, with 135 doctors, nurses, medics, and dentists assigned to treat the wounded and injured. Three survey vessels were modified to serve as ambulance ships. Surgical teams and other medical personnel were also deployed in the aircraft carriers.
7. Both adversaries declared the area around the Falklands a war zone
Argentina and Great Britain declared the area around the disputed islands a war zone, but neither declared that a state of war existed between their respective countries. As the British task force moved down the Atlantic it was observed by Argentine Air Force long-range Boeing 707 reconnaissance planes. The aircraft were greeted by Sea Harriers from the task force but not attacked, since they were outside the war zone and a diplomatic solution was still being sought. British plans were to recapture the island of South Georgia first, using Special Forces and commandos landing ahead of a force of Royal Marines. The first were landed on April 21, but inclement weather and the loss of two helicopters forced them to be withdrawn.
Special Forces were landed again on April 25. During the operation, an Argentine submarine was sighted by helicopters of the Royal Navy and attacked while on the surface. The attacks, launched by several British helicopters from ships of the task force, damaged the submarine to the point it was abandoned by its crew near King Edward Point on South Georgia. Other Navy ships bombarded the Argentine garrison on the island as the Special Forces gathered to assault their defenses. After the bombardment, the Argentine force, which included the crew of the abandoned submarine, surrendered without further resistance.
8. The British bombed the Port Stanley air base from Ascension Island
On May 1, the British launched an air operation known as Operation Black Buck. The operation consisted of bombing the runway at Port Stanley’s airfield, using the medium-range Vulcan bomber flying from Ascension Island. The Vulcan was not designed for long-range bombing. It required multiple refuelings to complete the mission, from tankers which required refueling themselves. Eleven tankers and two Vulcans were required for the missions. Seven raids were planned, five were completed, and of those only three struck the airfield. The other two were against radar and early warning facilities. The Black Buck raids were the longest bombing raids in terms of distance covered ever attempted at the time.
They were minimally successful, damage to the airfield was relatively light and quickly repaired by the Argentines. They did cause the Argentines to relocate some aircraft to bases on the mainland. The Black Buck raids were largely political in nature, an attempt by the Royal Air Force to increase its visibility with the public and perhaps avoid future cuts in its budget. Photographic evidence was required to evaluate its effectiveness, and the Navy’s Sea Harriers were the only means of obtaining them. The Navy argued, before and after the missions, the Sea Harriers could deliver a greater amount of bomb tonnage, and create more damage, for the same amount of fuel used by the Vulcan raids. At any rate, the Argentine Air Force continued to use the airfield for resupply of its troops until it was captured.
9. The Argentine Navy suffered its greatest loss on May 2
The Argentine light cruiser ARA General Belgrano was a veteran of World War II, when it had served in the Pacific War as USS Phoenix. By 1982, the old ship was virtually obsolete in every manner, though its weapons could still pose a threat against unarmed auxiliaries. On May 1, the ship was operating outside of the Military Exclusion Zone announced by the British. Both sides had exchanged messages through Swiss emissaries, clarifying their understanding of the exclusion zone. The British had informed their adversary, via the Swiss, that ships inside the exclusion zone were liable to attack by a nuclear submarine, as well as from the surface and air.
HMS Conqueror began trailing General Belgrano on April 30, and notified the Admiralty of its position. The Admiralty informed the War Cabinet and at a meeting on May 1, it was decided to change the announced rules of engagement. Conqueror was ordered to attack and sink General Belgrano regardless of where it was located. Conqueror sank the cruiser on May 2. Nearly half the fatalities sustained by the Argentine armed forces in the war, 323, resulted from the attack. The clear intent of the British task force to expand operations outside of the exclusion zone led to the Argentine Navy withdrawing to its home waters and taking little action in support of the rest of the war.
10. The loss of HMS Sheffield demonstrated the dangers presented to the task force
HMS Sheffield was a Type 42 destroyer and one of the most modern ships of the Royal Navy. It was less than ten years old and equipped with what the British considered state-of-the-art anti-submarine and anti-aircraft systems. On May 4, the ship was operating on radar picket duty when it was struck by an Exocet anti-ship missile. The Exocet was built by the French firm Dassault, and launched from Super Etendard strike fighters, operated by the Argentine Navy. The missile set the ship’s superstructure afire and knocked out key electronic systems and pumps, severely restricting the crew’s ability to fight the blaze. Two other British warships, HMS Arrow and HMS Yarmouth assisted the crippled Sheffield, but the fire raged out of control for hours.
After four hours of fighting a losing battle, Sheffield was abandoned. Twenty of its crew died as a result of the attack, and 26 others were injured. Sheffield was the first ship of the Royal Navy lost to enemy attack since World War II. The hulk was taken under tow after the fires burned themselves out. While being towed by HMS Yarmouth the heavy seas of the South Atlantic flooded the hull, which listed until it capsized and sank on May 10. Contrary to popular belief, Sheffield’s superstructure was not built of aluminum, which melts at a lower temperature than steel, and contributed to its loss. Its superstructure was built of steel.
11. The British responded to the loss of Sheffield with an operation worthy of James Bond
The loss of Sheffield led to a British plan to eliminate the stock of Exocet missiles at the Argentine Air Base at Rio Grande, Tierra del Fuego. The first plan was known as Operation Mikado. C-130 Hercules aircraft were to be used to deliver Special Air Service (SAS) personnel to the base, their mission to destroy the five Etendard strike fighters based there. The plan was evaluated as too risky and dropped in favor of another. In the second plan, SAS agents were to be deposited on Tierra del Fuego by submarine after another group penetrated by air and prepared the way for the seaborne group. Agents were flown into Chile by helicopter to south of Punta Arenas.
The helicopter lacked fuel to return to HMS Invincible, so its three-man crew destroyed it by burning. On May 25, the crew surrendered to Chilean police. They were repatriated to the UK. Meanwhile the SAS team, despite being landed more than 50 miles from their assigned position, managed to enter Argentina. The international notice of the Chileans discovering the burned-out British helicopter raised Argentine suspicions of an espionage mission and over 2,000 Argentine police and army troops searched for British agents. Security was increased at Rio Grande as well. The SAS team made its way back to Chile, and from there took a commercial flight back to Great Britain, eluding detection.
12. British naval losses mounted during the month of May
Although the Argentine fleet withdrew from the battle after the loss of General Belgrano, its air arm did not. Nor did the Argentine Air Force. Attacks on the British task force and supporting vessels continued from the air throughout the month of May. On May 21, HMS Argonaut, a frigate, was crippled when hit by Argentine bombs which did not explode, but nonetheless did heavy damage from the force of their impact. Ordnance disposal teams later defused the bombs. HMS Antelope was not so lucky. Hit by two bombs which also failed to explode, Antelope sank when the ordnance team attempting to defuse one bomb detonated it, causing massive fires and breaking the ship’s keel.
HMS Ardent, another frigate, was sunk by an aerial attack on May 21. HMS Coventry sank after being hit by three bombs, two of which exploded. On May 25 SS Atlantic Conveyor was hit by two Exocet missiles. The ensuing fires destroyed 9 of the 10 helicopters being carried by the cargo ship, as well as all of the fuel and ammunition aboard. The ship was taken under tow after the fires burned themselves out, though it sank on May 28. The loss of the helicopters adversely impacted the speed with which the British Army advanced after landing to attack Port Stanley. The losses of British ships, and the damage done to others, were a source of deep concern to the Admiralty and the War Cabinet, and hurt morale in Great Britain.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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”.
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