Mrs. Thatcher visiting British troops in Falkland Islands, January 1983.

Mrs. Thatcher visiting British troops in Falkland Islands, January 1983.

Thatcher is surrounded by troops on a visit to Goose Green in January 1983, where the Parachute Regiment had secured a crucial victory seven months earlier. The war was a turning point in her premiership. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges called the Falkland War: “The Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb”. Thus, describing how useless the islands were to both nations, as bald men do not have hair and have no use of a comb.

The Falklands War was a ten-week war between Argentina and the United Kingdom over two British overseas territories in the South Atlantic. The conflict lasted 74 days and ended with the Argentine surrender on 14 June 1982, returning the islands to British control. 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel and three Falkland Islanders died during the hostilities.

The islands have little ostensible economic or strategic value — though it does have valuable fisheries, and there are suggestions that there may also be oil and gas reserves (which could well reignite/escalate the sovereignty dispute). What they do have, however, is a couple of thousand citizens who identify very strongly as British, and who hold British citizenship. The public opinion in Britain dictates that they should be protected by the British government — that explains in large part why the Thatcher government went to war.

The reason war broke out in 1982, has a lot to do with the domestic situation in Argentina at the time: the ruling military junta, then led by Leopoldo Galtieri, was facing a major economic crisis and severe public unrest. A very good argument can be made that the invasion of the Malvinas was partly machismo military adventurism by the Argentinian Navy, and partly a public-relations gambit designed to distract from a febrile domestic situation by settling an old score; unifying the country by restoring Argentine territory (and thus national pride). In the event, losing the war played a major role in hastening the fall of the junta the following year.

Thatcher's boys: Visiting troops in the Falklands in 1983.

Thatcher’s boys: Visiting troops in the Falklands in 1983.

The Argentine military planners didn’t think there would be a war, they thought that the British didn’t have the stomach or money to defend what were strategically unimportant islands. Their assumptions were not without merit. Waging war so far from home is tremendously expensive and a logistical nightmare. Argentinians were even less prepared for a major amphibious assault (Operation Sutton) accompanied by substantial special forces operations — especially given the islands were held by an Argentine force made up primarily of ill-trained conscripts. Argentina had no military force-projection capability that would allow it to escalate — even sustaining a campaign in the Falklands was a major logistical challenge (and strained supply lines were a significant contributor to their defeat).

In fact, a lot of people in the British government (including the armed forces) didn’t think waging a war against Argentina was doable. Thatcher herself in her memoir alludes to how a huge gamble it was. British victory was by no means certain because of the distance. The only practical way to land troops in numbers was by amphibious assault, it was simply too far to use paratroopers in any numbers. Everyone knew if the British could land, it was game over, but there was an enormous risk in getting them there.

Despite the performance of the Harrier jump jets, the landing was made without air superiority. The conclusion of most defense analysts is that the Argentinians should have won this war, and had they awaited the south Atlantic storms of June they probably would have done. Had Argentinian planes bombed supply and troop ships rather than warships, a land operation could have become logistically impossible. Anyway, the British Navy, the SAS, the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marine Commandos proved to be extremely effective. Victory was finally achieved on 14 June, when the dejected Argentinian garrison surrendered in Port Stanley.

Interesting facts:

  • The British already had a problem with bringing its strategic bombing force to bear in the South Atlantic. Operation Black Buck was a series of air raids against Argentine positions in the Falklands, mounted by bombers that had to fly 7,000 miles (11200 km), 16-hour round trips from Ascension Island, refueling in mid-air several times. It remains one of the longest-distance aerial bombing operations ever carried out — although the raids were of dubious strategic effectiveness.