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The Falkland Islands Conflict No one really knows who discovered the Falkland Islands. Nearly every British historian will insist that the English explorer John Davis discovered the islands in 1592(1) while Argentineans typically credit Vespucci, Magellan, or Sebald de Weert. (2) The events of January 2, 1883 are not in dispute, however. On this date, James Onslow, captain of the HMS Clio, dropped anchor just off the Falklands. The next day he went ashore and raised the British flag.
(3) This action infuriated the Argentines, who had taken control of the Falklands upon receiving independence from Spain in 1816. With his imperialistic seizure of the islands, Onslow began a sequence of events that would end nearly 150 years later in war. Shortly after the invasion, the Argentine government set out four arguments in favour of their ownership of the Falklands: 1. Argentina ruled all land in the region formerly held by Spain. 2. Spain had purchased the islands from France.
3. Britain had abandoned its claim to the Falklands in a "secret" 1771 agreement. 4. Britain had abandoned its settlement in West Falkland in 1774.(4) No matter how well formed these arguments may have been, they fell on deaf ears in Britain. Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, simply asserted that the Falklands had been British since the initial claim of sovereignty in 1765.
(5) Although Argentina remained in a state of official protest, few things changed over the next 132 years. The issue was finally brought to the forefront in 1965 when the United Nations passed Resolution 2065, which called upon Britain and Argentina to come to an agreement on the issue with reasonable speed. (6) With this resolution began what came to be called the "Seventeen Year War" between the two nations. In March 1967 Britain agreed that it might be possible to cede sovereignty of the Falklands to Argentina, as long as the islanders agreed. (7) While the Argentines may have viewed this as a major concession, Britain had really given up very little.
The Falkland islanders were quite resolute in their desire to remain subjects of the Queen. They managed to force the creation of a Falklands Islands lobby whose purpose it was to frustrate any plans to hand over the territory to Argentina. (8) The lobby combined with the islanders' continuous protests to parliament was enough to stall the negotiations indefinitely. The events of the following decade are notable only because almost no headway was made on the issue. While joint memos of understanding were forthcoming from the two countries, they did little more than voice each side's desire to bring the issue to a resolution. Events took on a more urgent tone as the years wore on, however.
This was mainly due to the Argentineans, as Great Britain almost certainly desired a continuation of the status quo. Argentina was being relegated to a position of third-rate influence in the world. The country was still recovering from "la guerra sucia" (the dirty war) waged by military dictator Jorge Videla from 1976 to 1978. During these two years, nearly 18,000 Argentineans vanished, including dozens of journalists, scientists, and religious figures. (9) Things had changed dramatically, however, by the end of 1980. Leopoldo Galtieri had ascended to the presidency of Argentina.
As commander-in-chief of the army and head of the three-man military junta which ran the country, Galtieri largely ended the dirty war and worked very hard to build a closer relationship with the United States. As the government was positioning Argentina as a new regional power, Galtieri began to concern himself with the state of the Falklands negotiations. He convinced himself that regaining the Falklands was essential to maintaining national pride. By December 1981, Galtieri, after speaking with Admiral Jorge Anaya, head of the Argentine navy, resolved that the Falklands would be in Argentine hands within a year. (10) The Course of the Falklands War The Falkland Islands lie 8,000 miles Southwest of Britain, a distance that takes at least 21 days to traverse by ship.
During the negotiations Britain, for the most part, had not taken any overt military action to fortify the islands. (11) Therefore, there was only a small garrison of troops in the Falklands on April 2, 1982. At 4:30 am 150 Argentine marine commandos landed at Mullett Creek, three miles south of Stanley, the island's capital.(12) While a fierce guerrilla battle broke out between the Argentines and the British Marines at the Government House, the British soldiers never really had a sporting chance. At 6:00 that evening, Governor Rex Hunt, having surrendered to Argentine General Manuel Osvaldo Jorge Garcia, left the Falklands. (13) With the governor's departure, the Falkland Islands fell into Argentine hands.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ensured that the English response to the invasion was swift and decisive. The House of Commons met in emergency session on April 3 and was told that a task force had already been dispatched to the South Atlantic. (14) The diplomatic response was equally swift. United Nations Security Council Resolution 502 was introduced on the very day of the invasion. Resolution 502 called for the immediate cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of all Argentine forces from the islands. The resolution passed by one vote and became, according to one source, "a formidable part of her [Britain's] diplomatic armoury."(15) Because of the distance between Britain and the Falkland Islands, there was necessarily a lull in the fighting while Britain manoeuvred her troops into a position to re-take the islands. United States Secretary of State Alexander Haig used this period to seek a peaceful solution to the situation. Beginning on April 8, Haig flew back and forth between Buenos Aires and London trying to mediate a truce.
Less than four weeks later, on April 30, Haig gave up and returned to Washington. The United States then formally abandoned its neutrality on the Falklands matter and sided with Britain. (16) The United States likely viewed neutrality as a diplomatic necessity during the earlier stages of the conflict; after all, Argentina had previously been emerging as one of the United States' staunchest allies in South America. By May 1, Britain finally found itself in a position to begin an operation against Argentine troops on the Falkland Islands. While the main task force had still not fully assembled itself, the materials necessary to launch a limited bomber strike were available at the British base on Ascension. The obsolete Vulcan bomber chosen for the mission required no fewer than seventeen refuelling stops during the fifteen-hour flight to the Falklands.
Once it had arrived, the crew dropped 21,000 pounds of explosives from an altitude of 10,000 feet on the Stanley airfield. One of the bombs scored a direct hit on the runway, while the others fell off target. Later that morning, twelve V/STOL (very short take-off and landing) Sea Harriers carried out a series of raids. The day was capped when the first ground troops landed on both the east and west islands that make up the main body of the Falklands. (17) Historians generally classify the war as a British rout.
The Argentineans were up against superior technology, highly trained soldiers, and (never to be underestimated) the indomitable will of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Despite their overall disadvantages, however, the Argentines did manage to extract some expensive losses from the British. Throughout the war, both sides used traditional, predictable military tactics. For the most part British and Argentine troops played by the rules of war. Patrick Bishop has classified the campaign as having "many of the characteristics of a nineteenth-century military encounter."(18) Despite all of the high-tech weaponry available to both sides, bayonets were bloodied in several battles. Nevertheless, advanced technology did have a definite impact upon the direction of the war, especially during sea-based encounters.
It is interesting that neither side was able to achieve air supremacy during the Falklands War. The main aircraft used by Argentine air forces was the French-built Mirage fighter. After the Stanley airfield was disabled, the Mirages could only operate from mainland airbases several hundred miles from the Falklands. (19) This distance limited the "loiter time" available to the Argentine fighters. British attempts at air supremacy were limited not by distance but instead by the limited number of aircraft that could operate from the short-deck carriers HMS Hermes and Invincible, the only two carriers in the British inventory at the time.
Interestingly, the HMS Invincible had actually been sold to Australia before the beginning of the conflict and was scheduled to be delivered during the summer of 1982. Had the British only had one small carrier at their disposal, any plans to recover the Falklands would have likely been dismissed as unworkable. (20) Without a doubt, the most effective weapons of the war were the French-manufactured Exocet anti-ship missiles in the Argentinean inventory. One of these missiles was responsible for the sinking of the HMS Sheffield, a British destroyer dispatched to the Falklands as a member of the "forward air defence picket."(21) The loss of the Sheffield was one of the most painful blows received by the British Navy during the course of the war and greatly affected public sentiment in England. (22) The Exocet was also instrumental in a number of other attacks against the British fleet, including one incident in which 50 Welsh guardsmen were killed. (23) Despite the havoc wreaked by the Exocet, Britain was able to land sufficient quantities of troops onto the islands to reach their objectives. The first large landing of the war took place at San Carlos, located off of the Falkland Sound in the Northeast portion of East Falkland on May 21. One week later, the troops were involved in the bloodiest land conflict of the war: the Battle of Goose Green, in which 250 Argentines and 18 British soldiers, including a Lieutenant Colonel, were killed.
(24) From this point, British troops methodically made their way across East Falkland towards the capital at Stanley. The battle for Stanley began on June 11 and ended three days later with the formal surrender of Argentina. The battles of the Falklands War are glossed over here because there is really very little to discuss. Neither the British nor the Argentineans showed any flashes of true tactical brilliance during course of the conflict. At one point, an officer of the Welsh Guards was asked what the strategy for an upcoming attack was. He responded, "We'll sneak up on them, open fire and give them cold steel up their [expletive deleted]."(25) And such was the strategy behind many of the British attacks carried out in the Falklands.
Theoretical Interpretations of the Causes of the War What was it that caused Leopoldo Galtieri to forsake his country's hard-fought gains by launching a foolhardy invasion of a foreign territory as insignificant as the Falkland Islands? Historians will no doubt struggle with this question for years to come. To come closer to an answer to this question, one must understand Galtieri himself. The Galtieri junta was significantly different from the two previous military juntas in several important aspects. General Galtieri, having received training in the United States, was very more than willing to coddle American interests. Human rights violations slowed during the Galtieri regime as well. (26) Galtieri showed himself on several occasions to be a very emotional man. His voice cracked conspicuously on the night of April 2 when he announced to a throng of Buenos Airiness that ...
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