The improbable Falklands War still resonates decades later

Few could locate the remote South Atlantic archipelago on a map. But tensions brewed for 150 years over who owned it—and still simmer now, 40 years after the war

Published 11 Apr 2022, 11:48 BST
Captured Argentinian soldiers

Over the course of 10 weeks in 1982, British and Argentine forces battled for control over the tiny Falkland Islands—or, as they're known in Argentina, Islas Malvinas. Although Britain ultimately won the war, Argentina still claims sovereignty over the islands.

Photograph by Martin Cleaver, AP

Shortly after midnight on the morning of April 2, 1982, a detachment of Argentine commandos landed on the Falkland Islands, a South Atlantic archipelago a few hundred miles off the country’s southern coast, and moved overland toward the settlement’s capital, Port Stanley. A few hours later, a larger landing force began unloading troops in Stanley harbour. By 8.30 a.m., with 800 Argentine troops ashore and 2,000 more about to join them, the islands’ British-appointed governor recognised the futility of resistance by the small garrison of Royal Marines at his disposal and agreed to surrender.

Not until 4 p.m. local time did confirmation reach London, more than 8,000 miles away. For much of the British public, the news was both shocking and confusing, not least because few had heard of the islands or could locate them on a map. In Argentina, however, the fate of what is known there as the Islas Malvinas had been a cause célèbre for generations. Their reclamation prompted wild celebrations in Buenos Aires.

British survivors of an Argentine air attack are hauled ashore by colleagues at Bluff Cove, East Falkland, as their ship smokes in the background. The June 8 attack on British forces at Bluff Cove killed more than 50 and left 150 wounded.
Photograph by Martin Cleaver, PA Images via Getty Images

The joy would prove short-lived. By June 14, Britain had recaptured the Falklands and neighbouring South Georgia, after a “curiously old-fashioned war” over what then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan dismissed as “that little ice-cold bunch of land down there.” But despite being characterised by British journalist Max Hastings as a “freak of history,” the conflict had been brewing for 150 years, and the match that lit the long, slow-burning fuse was, improbably, the 19th-century arrest of three American sealing vessels.

Early claims to the islands

Argentine soldiers line up to hand in their weapons to Royal Marines outside Port Stanley on East Falkland on June 17, 1982. Argentine forces had surrendered to the United Kingdom three days earlier, ending the conflict.
Photograph by Martin Cleaver,AP
Royal Marines from the 40 Commando unit wait on the deck of the HMS Hermes for helicopters to transport them to the Falklands Islands. The unit was among the first British forces to arrive after the Argentine invasion.
Photograph by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/ Getty Images

There is no certainty who saw the Falkland Islands first. It may have been Esteban Gómez, a member of Ferdinand Magellan’s 1519-22 circumnavigation of the globe; it may have been the English navigator John Davis on board the Desire in 1592. The first undisputed sighting belongs to the Dutchman Sebald de Weerdt, sometime around 1600, and the first known landing was by English captain John Strong in 1690. Strong seemed unimpressed, noting that there was an “abundance of geese and ducks” but that, “as for wood, there is none.” He charted the sound between the two islands, named it after the First Lord of the Admiralty, Viscount Falkland, and sailed away.

Indeed, despite the jostling for possession that would unfold over the ensuing centuries, few of the French, British, or Spanish settlers who took turns colonising the islands seemed particularly enamoured by them. “I tarry on this miserable desert, suffering everything for the love of God,” lamented the Reverend Sebastian Villeneuva, the first priest at what was then the Spanish colony of Puerto Soledad, in 1767. Four years later, the British government was so anxious it would have to reinforce the country’s claim to the islands that it commissioned Samuel Johnson to belittle them as “thrown aside from human use, stormy in winter, barren in summer … which not even the southern savages have dignified with habitation.”

A helicopter hovers overhead as the HMS Antelope, still burning fiercely, slips beneath the water of Ajax Bay. Argentine forces dropped two bombs on the British vessel on May 23, sinking the ship as surviving crew was ferried to safety.
Photograph by PA Images via Getty Images

But if few seemed keen on the islands, no claimant wanted any other country to possess them. When French and British explorers established settlements in the 1760s, Spain reacted with fury, arguing that the actions were a violation of the Treaty of Utrecht, which it claimed reaffirmed Spain’s dominion over its traditional territories in the Americas. The French colonists promptly withdrew. After a few years, so did the British—but not before leaving a plaque claiming sovereignty.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Foreign Secretary Francis Pym meet with U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig (center), who had flown to London on April 9 hoping to mediate an end to the burgeoning crisis in the Falkland Islands.
Photograph by Ap
Haig also attempted to negotiate an end to the conflict with Argentine president Leopoldo Galtieri, a military dictator who launched the April 2 invasion, claiming Argentine sovereignty over the Islas Malvinas.
Photograph by Ap

Britain takes control

In 1816, the forerunner of the modern Argentine republic formally declared independence from Spain and four years later claimed the islands. Without a Spanish presence, the islands descended into an anarchic refuge for sealers. So in 1829, Argentina appointed a governor, Louis Vernet, who attempted to impose order by arresting three U.S. sealing vessels. In response, Silas Duncan, the captain of the U.S.S. Lexington steamed to the archipelago, destroyed all military installations, razed all the buildings, and then sailed away, declaring the islands free of government.

An Argentine soldier on his way to occupy the captured Royal Marines base in Puerto Argentino/Port Stanley on April 13, 1982, a few days after the Argentine military dictatorship seized the islands.
Photograph by Photo by DANIEL GARCIA, AFP via Getty Images
A young Argentinian prisoner glances at the camera as he waits aboard a ship in San Carlos water for transit out of the area. He was captured along with more than 1,200 others after a British attack on Goose Green and Darwin in late May 1982.
Photograph by Getty Images
Argentine soldiers march near Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands.
Photograph by Photo by: SeM Studio/Fototeca/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
40 Royal Marine commandos keep fit on the deck of the carrier H.M.S. Hermes as it heads south for the Falkland Islands with the British naval task force.
Photograph by Martin Cleaver, PA Images via Getty Images

With the islands a more lucrative proposition given the growth of the sealing industry, Britain saw an opportunity and stepped into the vacuum, raising the Union Jack on January 3, 1833, and formally establishing the Falkland Islands as a Crown Colony in 1840.

London hosts a military parade on October 12, 1982, four months after the victory of British forces in the Falklands War. The decisive victory had reinvigorated a sense of patriotism among the British public.
Photograph by Photo by Jacob SUTTON, Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
On the 36th anniversary of the Falklands (Malvinas) War, Argentine veterans of the war participate in a ceremony honoring the soldiers who perished in the conflict. Today, Argentina continues to claim sovereignty over the islands.
Photograph by EITAN ABRAMOVICH,AFP via Getty Images

Although Argentine resentment simmered for more than a century, the country did not press its claim to sovereignty until the 1960s, according to a 1983 paper in the Naval War College Review. A 1965 United Nations resolution recognised the existence of a dispute and invited the two countries to enter negotiations over the islands’ future. The level of engagement on the issue was not equal: In their book The Battle for the Falklands, Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins note that British politicians visiting Buenos Aires “were constantly baffled by the emotion the subject aroused.” During the 1970s, both sides grew increasingly aware of the islands’ strategic usefulness, particularly in terms of fishing. But despite that, and despite its assertion that the wishes of the 1,800 or so inhabitants—whose principal income was wool from the islands’ 600,000 sheep—had to be paramount, Britain “was not willing to devote resources to the islands” and seemed increasingly inclined to reach an accommodation.

An Argentine cemetery for the country's war dead near Darwin, Falklands. More than 900 people died in the conflict, including 649 Argentines, 255 British troops and three islanders, before Argentine forces surrendered on June 14, 1982.
Photograph by Daniel Garcia, AFP, Getty Images

In Buenos Aires, the ruling military junta of General Leopoldo Galtieri, sensing a lack of British commitment to the cause, anxious to shore up its fading domestic support, and mindful of the rapidly approaching 150th anniversary of Britain’s annexation of the islands, drew up its plans. When a team of scrap merchants raised the Argentine flag over an old whaling station at Leith in South Georgia in March 1982, British officials began to realise the situation was rapidly spiralling out of control. But by then, it was too late: Argentina was preparing its invasion.

War begins

Despite its quick early victory, Argentina had underestimated Britain’s resolve, motivated by a determination to hang onto its dwindling Great Power status and by the belief articulated by Sir Henry Leach, the head of the Royal Navy, that if they failed to respond to the invasion, “in a very few months’ time we shall be living in a different country whose word will count for little.” Even as U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig engaged in shuttle diplomacy to find a resolution, a British task force of 127 ships—including Naval vessels and commandeered merchant ships such as the luxury cruise liner Queen Elizabeth 2steamed south toward the islands.

For all the history building up to it, when war finally erupted it was relatively brief. Argentina had not expected a forceful attempt to retake the islands. When it became clear that such an attempt would take place, the defenders expected it to come through Port Stanley and were caught by surprise when the British landed to the west and worked their way inland. Additionally, the Argentine forces “were riven by conflicts between officers and men, regulars and conscripts,” whereas the British force “demonstrated the virtues of military professionalism.”

Argentine forces on South Georgia surrendered almost as soon as British soldiers stepped ashore on April 25, 1982; and the main battle for the Falklands lasted 72 days, culminating in the capture of Port Stanley, on June 14.

But despite its brevity, the conflict was brutal: Argentine fighter planes sunk several British ships, and altogether about 900 people were killed—255 British and 649 Argentine, as well as three islanders. Defeat proved disastrous for Galtieri, who was deposed almost immediately—ushering in a new period of Argentine democracy. The previously unpopular government of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, however, was reelected in 1983 and again in 1987.

Legacy of the war

Forty years later, Argentina continues to assert its sovereignty over the islands, and a 2021 survey found that 81 percent of the country believes it should continue to do so. A Malvinas Museum, established in 2014, presents Argentina’s claims to the archipelago. Conversely, in a 2013 referendum, 99.8 percent of Falkland Islanders—whose numbers have doubled and wealth has increased in the years following the war—opted to remain British. Of approximately 1,500 votes cast, only three were ‘no.’

But in the immediate aftermath of the war, wrote Hastings and Jenkins, a kind of silence descended on the islands anew: “Just as many of the islanders made clear their impatience to be alone once more, so the British did not conceal their burning anxiety to be gone from the islands … They had done what they came to do. By the end of June, most of the men who fought were gone.”

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