On This Day: Argentina invades the Falkland Islands

APRIL 2, 1982: Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands on this day in 1982 – triggering a war that would cost the lives of 255 British servicemen in their successful bid to reclaim them.

Around 600 elite Argentine troops mounted an amphibious landing and within hours overwhelmed 57 Royal Marines, 11 Royal Navy sailors and 25 local militiamen.

British forces initially surrendered after killing three enemy soldiers and losing none in a fire fight at Government House in Stanley, the capital of the disputed islands.

In the hope of preventing a massive British retaliation, Argentina’s forces had been ordered to avoid killing and immediately returned the prisoners of war to the UK.

But images of a surrendered platoon lying face down in a field – supposedly to highlight that none had been shot – deeply angered the British public.

And as the Marines were being taken Uruguay, one of them told a guard: ‘Don't make yourself too comfy here mate, we'll be back.’

So a mood of despondency in London – in which Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington resigned after failing to realise the threat – quickly turned to resolve.

British troops arriving in the Falklands Islands during the War.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was determined to protect the island’s 1,820 UK citizens and despatched a military task force aboard 127 vessels.

These included two aircraft carriers, two requisitioned cruiseliners and 60 merchant ships carrying 9,000 troops to the wild, rugged and windswept islands.

Meanwhile, celebrations continued on the streets of Argentina, where the invasion of ‘Las Malvinas’ was used to quell unrest against the brutal military regime.

Nobody there – nor anywhere else – believed the British could use force to take back islands that were only 300 miles from the Argentine mainland.

 

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In particular, Britain were dispatching only 42 fighter planes against 122 Argentine jets, armed with French-made Exocet missiles.

The U.S. government, which described a successful counter-invasion as ‘a military impossibility’, initially tried to broker a peace deal before providing material assistance.

The first engagement took place on April 25 when the Navy damaged Argentine submarine, Sand, and a British landing party recaptured South Georgia, 970 miles away.

A sign warning regiment members to return to their barracks after the Falkland islands were invaded (Rex)

On May 1, British bombers – flying 4,000 miles from Ascension Island – destroyed Stanley airfield, meaning Argentine planes could only take off from their mainland.

At the same time SAS and SBS special forces landed on the Falklands, where they carried out sabotage missions ahead of the major invasion three weeks later.

The following day, the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was controversially torpedoed and sunk, causing the biggest single loss of life in conflict, with 320 deaths.

 

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On May 4, HMS Sheffield was destroyed – killing 20 British sailors – and became the first Royal Navy ship to be sunk since World War II and one of nine vessels lost.

Around 3,000 British forces carrying 1,000 tons of supplies landed at San Carlos on May 21 with the first major battle taking place at Goose Green seven days later.

British troops, who were vastly outnumbered, defeated the Argentines and took 1,000 prisoners of war while other UK forces made advances elsewhere.

But the British effort faced a major setback when two landing ships – the RFA Sir Galahad and RFA Sir Tristram – were bombed, killing 48 Welsh Guards, on June 8.

HMS Hermes leaving Portsmouth heading for the Falkland Islands following the Argentinian takeover (PA)

That day, a botched naval bombardment led to the only civilian deaths when Mary Goodwin, Sue Whitley and Doreen Bonner were killed while sheltering in a house.

But six days later British troops had marched into Stanley and raised the Union Flag on the Falkland Islands once again, spreading euphoria both there and in the UK.

The victory helped Mrs Thatcher overturn dismal opinion polls – after unemployment had soared to a record 3million – and she won the 1983 election with a landslide.

 

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And it hastened the demise of the Argentina’s military junta, which was responsible for the deaths of 22,000 political opponents at home as well as 649 soldiers.

Today, although diplomatic relations were restored between the UK and democratic Argentina, the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands remains disputed.

Last year islanders voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining a UK territory – claiming British settlement in 1833 means Britain retains ownership.

The victory helped Margaret Thatcher win the 1983 election with a landslide. (Getty)

Argentina, which claims sovereignty due to its former ruler Spain discovering the islands, has long scoffed at the notion that islanders can have a say.

It has pointed out that the now 2,841 people living in the Falklands are outnumbered by its million-strong penguin population.

 

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Since the war, the islands have become increasingly prosperous – with the sale of fishing rights its biggest earner and the prospect of an oil boom on the horizon.

But the discovery of this black gold also worries the locals – who depend on a large British defence force – as it has once again peaked Argentina’s interests.