Falklands War (1982)
Well-known though the Falkland Islands may be today, their location — in the South Atlantic some 300 miles off the coast of South America — was as unfamiliar to the average Brit in 1982 as the words of the second verse of our national anthem. Given that the Falklands are relatively unpopulated — 750-plus islands with a total population of no more than 3,000 and humans far outnumbered by sheep — and have a basically agricultural economy, an outsider might wonder why they have been the subject of so much disagreement over so many years.
Although sometimes wavering, Britain’s support for the islands, a British Overseas Territory, and the islanders’ way of life (‘more British than the British’) should not have been doubted, especially by the Argentine government. The extent of that commitment became evident in the spring months of 1982, when President Galtieri of Argentina made military moves to establish the country’s ‘rightful’, as every Argentine schoolboy is taught, claim to the ‘Islas Malvinas’.
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A complete timeline of the Falklands War
1976 - November
Argentina illegally establishes a ‘scientific base’ on Southern Thule, a British Overseas Territory in the South Sandwich Islands. Small though it is, this is a military establishment, complete with barracks, weather station, helicopter landing pad and a flagpole flying the Argentine flag. The Argentine presence goes unnoticed for several weeks. When Britain becomes aware of the settlement, it reacts with diplomatic protests. Buenos Aires notes that the UK has made no military response and interprets this as a lack of commitment on Britain’s part to its territories in the South Atlantic.
1977 - November
Under conditions of total secrecy, a Royal Navy task force is sent to the South Atlantic with SSN HMS Dreadnought and two frigates to act as a deterrent to further Argentine moves. This is Operation ‘Journeyman’. But no attempt is made to retake Southern Thule and the task force’s rules of engagement are highly restrictive.
Discussions begin between UK and Argentine governments on ‘economic co-operation’ over the Falkland Islands. These moves are seen as ‘realistic’ in London, ‘playing for time’ in Argentina and as ‘a sell-out’ in the capital, Port Stanley. Unsurprisingly, they reach no meaningful conclusion.
1979 - May 4
Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister, replacing James Callaghan. The previous PM had failed to make any military response to the landing on Southern Thule. This was perceived in Buenos Aires as a sign of weakness.
UK Defence White Paper (the ‘Nott Review’) announces retirement of Antarctic patrol ship Endurance. This was interpreted by Argentina as a further sign of decreasing British interest in the Falklands.
UK Government presented with Foreign Office assessment predicting a likely Argentine invasion of the Falklands by end-1982. Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington pulls the bedclothes further over his head, muttering ‘It will not happen’.
1982 - Late January
Argentine junta takes final decision to invade Falkland Islands. Detailed military planning for Operacion/Operation ‘Rosario’ gets underway. Despite this secrecy, it is hard to believe the British government is unaware of likely developments.
KC-130H TC-69 lands at Port Stanley with ‘fuel leak’. Its occupants, including senior Argentine military, take tour of islands. Reports talk of their being seen in the Stanley shops, buying up all the Falkland tourist maps they can find. In truth, Argentine military have had the opportunity over the years to know every aspect of the Falklands.
Argentine scrap merchants land at Leith Harbour on South Georgia. Although most are civilians, a number of Argentine marines have been included in the number. Britain protests.
Argentina rejects protests about South Georgia, insists there will be no agreements with Britain and begins build-up of stores at its sea ports.
C-130 of Grupo 1 makes final pre-invasion reconnaissance flight over Falklands. In Britain, Joint Intelligence Committee reports that invasion is imminent.
Argentine aircraft carrier Veinticinco de Mayo (25 de Mayo) sails from Puerto Belgrano as flagship of Task Force 20, to provide cover for planned Argentine landings on Falkland Islands. Embarked aircraft include eight A-4Q Skyhawks.
Chief of Navy Staff advises Mrs Thatcher that sending a naval task force is feasible, should the Falklands be attacked. This will be Operation ‘Corporate’. Argentine naval forces sail towards Falklands. British intelligence warns of impending invasion.
Falklands governor Rex Hunt declares state of emergency. First Argentine landings at Mullet Creek at 04.30hrs; troops advance on Port Stanley. Further Argentine forces land at Stanley airport, C-130H TC-68 being first to land, carrying advance party with equipment to set up airfield. At 09.15 Hunt agrees to surrender before being evacuated (against his will) to Montevideo. Port Stanley was renamed ‘Puerto Argentino’. Soon after, a large signboard ‘Base Aerea Militar Malvinas’ is erected at Stanley airport.
C-130s of Grupo 1 — and other Argentine aircraft including some from Aerolíneas Argentinas — commence supply missions into Stanley carrying freight and personnel, flying from Comodoro Rivadavia.
Argentine landing on east coast of South Georgia involving Alouette II and Puma helicopters. The small contingent of Royal Marines is outnumbered. Argentine Puma AE-504 is severely damaged by gunfire, crash-lands. Royal Marines surrender to vastly superior firepower, are disarmed and returned to the UK via Montevideo.
First RAF elements deploy to Ascension Island, the god-forsaken volcanic island in the South Atlantic which has the nearest ‘friendly’ runway to the Falklands — but still nearly 4,000 miles away.
Aircraft carriers Invincible and Hermes, the first elements of the British Task Force, sail from Portsmouth. Sea Harriers and Sea Kings are lashed to the decks, and hangar decks similarly well stocked. Assault ship Fearless follows. Invincible has 801 NAS (plus extra aircraft and crews from training unit 899 NAS) with Sea Harriers and 820 NAS with ASW Sea Kings embarked. Hermes has 800 NAS (plus elements of 899) with Sea Harriers, 826 with ASW Sea Kings and 846 with ‘junglie’ Sea Kings. Quayside is packed with friends and families, bands play and patriotic, good-taste banners abound (eg “Up ya bum Galtieri!!”)
Lord Carrington resigns.
200-mile Maritime Exclusion Zone around Falklands declared by Britain.
No 1 Squadron at RAF Wittering tasked to deploy to South Atlantic. Pilots start ski-jump training at Yeovilton and DACT with any available aircraft — including, on 22-23 April in conditions of great secrecy, French Super Étendards and Mirage III/Vs at Coningsby. No 1 Squadron will be transported aboard Atlantic Conveyor and provide attrition replacements against losses by Sea Harrier squadrons.
Task force nears Ascension Island.
RN Wessex experience white-out conditions while transporting troops for Operation ‘Paraquet’, the operation to recapture South Georgia. Two (XT464, XT473) are lost.
South Georgia retaken by Royal Marines and special forces after Argentine submarine Santa Fe damaged and grounded at Grytviken by Lynx HAS2 from frigate HMS Brilliant. An early success, but the real battle is yet to come.
Maritime exclusion zone extended to total exclusion zone (TEZ); ships and aircraft of any nation may be fired upon if they venture within it.
Six Sea Harrier FRS1s of newly re-formed 809 NAS depart Yeovilton for Ascension Island with Victor support. Two more follow the next day. Squadron will reinforce 800 and 801 NAS.
Diplomatic missions have failed.
British task force arrives within TEZ, action starts.
Vulcan B2 XM607 — Flt Lt Martin Withers and crew — flying from Ascension Island drops a stick of 1,000lb bombs across the runway at Port Stanley in ‘Black Buck 1’. Eleven Victor tankers are needed to support the single attacking Vulcan. Some damage caused to runway, but Argentine C-130s soon restart their regular resupply missions.
Sea Harriers attack Argentine defences on Falklands. Several Pucarás destroyed or damaged on the ground at Goose Green. Two Argentine Daggers engage 800 NAS Sea Harriers; one Dagger is destroyed by AIM-9L Sidewinder. 801 NAS destroys two Mirages in air-air combat, again with AIM-9L. Later, Argentine Canberra B-110 is brought down by AIM-9L. The Sea Harriers suffer no losses. BBC’s Brian Hanrahan, reporting from Hermes, announces on air that he cannot give the number of Sea Harriers involved: “But I counted them all out, and I counted them all back.”
A quiet day in the air, although Sea Harriers hold CAP against expected air attacks. Argentine cruiser General Belgrano is sunk by torpedoes from HMS Conqueror, outside TEZ. Many sailors are picked up from sea, but 323 die. From this point on there is no doubt. This is war. 801 NAS recce sortie confirms 25 de Mayo is at sea — but outside the TEZ — with an air group including A-4Q Skyhawks and S-2 Trackers. In fact, a dawn raid from the carrier has been planned against the British task force, but is called off at the last minute.
First five Harrier GR3s of No 1 Squadron deploy to Ascension Island, refuelling en route from Victor tankers operating from Marham, Banjul and Ascension Island. Five others follow over next two days.
25 de Mayo disembarks air group and returns to port. Has the sinking of the Belgrano softened Argentine resolve? Or, at least, its willingness to risk its most significant military asset?
The Sun’s headline, over a picture of the Belgrano, is “Gotcha!” The text, more calmly, refers to “fears for the 1,200 crew”.
‘Black Buck 2’ raid by Vulcan against Stanley airfield. Little or no damage caused, but psychological effect on Argentina is not to be underestimated. Sea Harrier XZ450 lost and Lt Nick Taylor of 801 NAS killed making bombing run against Goose Green airfield. The expected Argentine retaliation materialises. Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield on radar picket duty attacked by Super Étendards of 2 Escuadrilla. One Exocet hits and ensuing fire causes Sheffield to be abandoned. 21 die, but RN sailors gather on deck awaiting rescue singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. More than any other weapon in the Argentine armoury, it is Super Étendard/Exocet combination that is seen to pose a threat to the British fleet, particularly in the absence of any airborne early-warning radar capability following retirement of the Gannet AEW3 in 1978.
Two Sea Harriers of 801 launched to intercept a contact. They descend to low level and disappear from radar, never to be seen again. It is presumed they collided or flew into the sea. Lt Cdr John Eyton-Jones (in XZ452) and Lt Al Curtis (XZ453) killed.
Six Harrier GR3s of No 1 Squadron, eight Sea Harrier FRS1s of 809 NAS, plus various Chinooks and Wessex embark in Atlantic Conveyor. A landing pad has been constructed on the ship, while hangar ‘walls’ are provided by containers.
First Nimrod MR2P — the aircraft now having been given flight-refuelling capability in a rush programme at BAe Woodford — deploys to Ascension Island. RAF Nimrods are also given self-defence capability with the addition of underwing AIM-9 Sidewinder rails for South Atlantic use.
Narwhal, an Argentine (intelligence-gathering) trawler is attacked by Sea Harriers from 800 NAS and left dead in the water.
Liner Canberra, requisitioned as troop ship, sails from Southampton. Two helicopter landing pads have been constructed in a hurried conversion for military use.
Whole South Atlantic declared a war zone by Argentina.
BBC Panorama criticised for what some see as a ‘pro-Argentine’ bias in this evening’s programme. The relationship between free speech, truth, speculation, the right of expression and censorship in the interests of military secrecy will be a continuing point of disagreement throughout the campaign.
QE2 leaves Southampton for the South Atlantic with 5 Infantry Brigade. Two Sea King HAS2As of 825 NAS also embark while the ship is steaming towards the Atlantic.
Three Skyhawks shot down when attacking British warships off Stanley. Sea Wolf — a ‘goalkeeper’ point defence SAM — launched from Type 22 Brilliant works exactly to specification.
801 NAS launches a number of bombing raids on Argentine positions and airfields on Falkland.
Six Pucarás destroyed in a special forces raid on Pebble Island.
RAF Hercules C1P (newly probe-equipped) makes 6,300-mile refuelled sortie from Ascension Island to drop supplies to Antelope within the TEZ. It lands back at Ascension Island after more than 24 hours.
800 NAS flies recce sorties over Falklands in preparation for upcoming amphibious landings.
First Sea Harriers of 809 NAS fly from deck of Atlantic Conveyor to Hermes and Invincible. The aircraft and crews will be integrated with 800 and 801.
First Harrier GR3s of No 1 Squadron land aboard Hermes. Remaining helos aboard transfer to Intrepid.
Sea King HC4 ZA294 transporting SAS troops from Hermes to Intrepid crashes into sea, possibly as result of bird strike. Eleven die.
No 1 Squadron flies its first combat mission from Hermes. The Harrier GR3, despite being Sidewinder (AIM-9G)-capable, will be used primarily for ground attack and recce since losses of Sea Harriers have — thus far, at least — been lower than feared.
Operation ‘Sutton’ launched – the start of the British amphibious landings and of the ‘Battle of San Carlos Water’. Both 800 and 801 NAS fly CAP throughout the day, to cover landing areas. Two Argentine Skyhawks and a Dagger shot down by 800 using AIM-9Ls. Three A-4Qs attack frigate Ardent and succeed in hitting it with 500lb retarded bombs, setting it alight (it would later sink). This is a courageous attack, but all three aircraft are subsequently destroyed by 800 NAS Sea Harriers, either by gunfire or AIM-9L. 801 shoots down one of a pair of Pucarás flying out of Goose Green on CAS duties. Two Daggers of Grupo 6 destroyed in close-in, turning fight with 801 NAS Sea Harriers.
Argentine helos (Chinook, Puma) destroyed or damaged in No 1 Squadron cannon attack on their landing ground, but Flt Lt Jeff Glover (in XZ972) shot down by shoulder-mounted SAM while on recce sortie — 1’s first loss.
British troops secure beachhead, move inshore. Heavy Argentine air attacks on the British fleet. But Argentine tactics are flawed — they fail to prioritise as targets the liner Canberra (with large number of troops aboard) and the landing ships Intrepid and Fearless, going instead for the frigates and destroyers. And their bomb fuses are ineffective at the low altitudes at which they are launched. Mirage and Skyhawk pilots press home their attacks relentlessly and over the next few days will destroy four ships and severely damage several others. But they will not deliver the knockout blow. Several Argentine aircraft are shot down, some by SAMs. Performance of British SAMs proves ‘mixed’. Sea Dart (fired from ships) disappoints against low-level targets, but eventually goes on to claim seven kills and causes Argentine pilots’ eyes to water at medium altitudes.
Antelope sinks in San Carlos Water after Argentine co-ordinated air attack by Skyhawks which approach at low level — one collides with Antelope’s main mast and crashes. Two bombs penetrate hull but do not detonate. Later, while being defused, one explodes, blowing a 30ft hole in the ship’s side and starting an uncontrolled fire.
800 NAS Sea Harriers destroy a number of Argentine helicopters (Puma, A109) in flight or on the ground using guns. Sea Harrier CAPs deter some Argentine attacks, but Lt Cdr Gordy Batt of 800 is killed when ZA192 explodes on take-off from Hermes.
No 1 Squadron and 800 NAS undertake bombing raid on Port Stanley airfield, but runway remains usable. Three of six Daggers of 6 Grupo attacking British vessels in San Carlos Water are shot down by 800’s Sea Harriers.
Argentina’s national day. Increased Argentine air activity expected. Sea Harrier CAPs flown throughout day. Significant Argentine successes; Type 42 destroyer Coventry is hit by bombs and will later sink after repeated attacks by Skyhawks. Atlantic Conveyor, carrying large number of helicopters, weapons and supplies, is severely damaged when hit by an Exocet launched (at a range of 30 miles) by a 2 Escuadrilla Super Étendard. Twelve crew die; ship is taken in tow, but later sinks. Effect on British forces is serious; six Wessex, a Lynx and three Chinooks are lost. Only Chinook HC1 ZA718/BN, in the air at the time, lives to tell the tale. The future mobility of British troops in the Falklands is, at a stroke, severely impaired.
This will prove to be the final day of heavy Argentine air attacks. It may not be immediately apparent, but British forces are moving towards the establishment of air superiority. In particular, the Sea Harrier is acquiring a reputation among Argentine pilots, who name it ‘muerta negra’ — ‘black death’.
No 1 Squadron Harriers fly armed recce, to seek out Argentine vehicle and troop formations. 801’s Sea Harriers tasked to sink hulk of Coventry (to avoid possibility of an Argentine boarding for examination) but by this time it has already sunk.
No 1 Squadron launches attacks on Argentine guns and emplacements. Sqn Ldr Bob Iveson in Harrier GR3 XZ988 is shot down by AAA during strafing run near Goose Green, but survives to be picked up later by Army Gazelle and returned to Hermes.
QE2 arrives at Grytviken, South Georgia, transfers troops to Canberra and returns to UK with Royal Navy crewmen who have survived the sinking of Ardent, Antelope and Coventry.
With both Hermes and Invincible now positioned some distance from the Falklands (in the east of the TEZ), Sea Harriers continue to provide CAP over the Islands. 801’s Sea Harriers attack Stanley airfield with 1,000lb bombs after reports (probably erroneous) that Argentine fighters were operating there.
Goose Green falls after assault by 2 Para, although Argentine resistance proves stronger than anticipated. Para CO Lt Col ‘H’ Jones has been killed on 28th in heroic attack on an enemy position. He will be awarded a VC for his action. 1,400 Argentines taken prisoner. Falkland Islanders earlier imprisoned at Goose Green are freed.
Forward operating base (FOB) established at San Carlos with short runway of metal planking for use by Harrier/Sea Harrier.
Paras ‘yomp’ towards the mountains behind Stanley. 45 Commando similarly makes for Stanley by a different route, but again on foot. The troops’ resilience is tested to the limits by the weather, the mud and the weight of kit they have to carry.
Argentina claims Invincible has been sunk by ‘the last’ Exocet and by bombs dropped by A-4Qs. This claim is clearly unfounded and results from wishful thinking. In fact the Exocet, launched from a Super Étendard, falls into the sea after its propellant is expended, possibly deflected by chaff.
First use of Paveway LGBs in the war. No ground-based designators are available (Jerry Pook, in RAF Harrier Ground Attack Falklands, states the problem was one of “flat batteries”) so Harrier GR3s attempt to use their own LRMTS designator, which was not designed for such use. Not a success; bombs do not track. During attack on Port Stanley, Flt Lt Jerry Pook in GR3 XZ963 is hit and forced to eject into the sea. He is picked by an 826 NAS Sea King within 10 minutes. No 1 Squadron is now down to just three GR3s.
‘Black Buck 5’ — Vulcan XM597 launches two Shrike missiles against Argentine ground radar at Stanley.
Canberra arrives off San Carlos with 1,200 troops. 42 Commando takes Mount Kent, the highest peak around Stanley.
‘Sharkey’ Ward, 801’s boss (and author of Sea Harrier over the Falklands) engages Argentine C-130E TC-63 at low level over the sea and destroys it with AIM-9L and gunfire. This is first C-130 kill. Argentine pilots have been flying regular resupply runs — unarmed, unescorted and mostly by night — into Port Stanley, for which task they have gained the respect of many British aircrew. 801 NAS Sea Harrier XZ456 brought down by Roland SAM. Pilot Flt Lt Ian Mortimer of 801 rescued from sea eight hours later by 820 NAS Sea King.
5 Infantry Brigade starts to come ashore at San Carlos.
Britain offers ceasefire terms to Argentina.
Argentine Canberras bomb East Falkland. Sea Harriers cannot launch to intercept because of fog.
First Sea Harriers — of 800 NAS — land at San Carlos FOB, now known as HMS Sheathbill. Reduced distances from likely targets on, or over, Falklands is major ‘plus’ and allows the aircraft carriers to move to safer areas.
BBC reports that, from Mount Kent, British troops “can see Port Stanley when the mist clears”.
Skyhawks of Grupo 4 and 5 attack RFAs Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram at Port Pleasant while they wait to put British troops ashore by landing craft. 53 die. Had Atlantic Conveyor with its cargo of helicopters not been lost earlier, troops could have been lifted further inland by air.
Peru sends 10 Mirage 5s to Argentina in gesture of support. According to later comments (2010) by Argentina’s President Kirchner, “with no hesitations Peru made available to our country Mirage aircraft, missiles and pilots to (go into) combat next to our Argentine pilots and boys”. But it is not believed they were used operationally.
Battle for Stanley starts on Mount Harriet, Mount Longdon and Two Sisters. 23 paras and 50 Argentine troops die in the fighting.
The final assault. 3 Para takes Mount Longdon. Sgt Ian McKay awarded posthumous VC for an attack on an enemy position. Mount Harriet and Two Sisters taken.
HMS Glamorgan damaged but not sunk by an Exocet fired from land.
Mount Tumbledown provides the final battle; action is by night and British (Scots Guards) troops are in control by daybreak.
Two 800 NAS Sea Harriers are about to land at the FOB at San Carlos. But a Chinook’s rotor downwash lifts the planking off the strip, rendering it temporarily unusable. Sea Harriers fly out to sea, to land on board Fearless and Intrepid.
In last Argentine combat mission of the war, two Canberras of Grupo 2 attack Stanley from high altitude by night. B-108 is brought down by a Sea Dart SAM.
By morning, white flags are seen flying over Stanley. In afternoon, British troops march in. At 21.00hrs local, Gen Mario Menendez (commander of the occupying Argentine forces) surrenders to Maj Gen Jeremy Moore “as representative of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government”.
British forces enter Port Stanley. 10,000 Argentine troops lay down their arms, reflect on a wretched three months and look forward to going home. Argentine encampments in outlying islands also surrender.
British Defence Minister Peter Blaker announces, “The latest available information is that 255 armed forces personnel and associated civilians were killed” in retaking the Falklands. Four days later, he will revise this figure downwards to 252.
President Galtieri resigns.
British forces retake Southern Thule. There is no Argentine opposition.
In a Commons statement, Peter Blaker lists the British aircraft destroyed in operations in and around the Falkland Islands: 26 A-4s, 24 Mirage IIIs and Vs, one Canberra, 15 Pucarás, four T-34s, one MB339, three light aircraft, one C-130, six Pumas, one Chinook, one UH-1. “Of the 83 aircraft firmly estimated as destroyed, 35 are believed to have been destroyed by air patrols, 20 by sea-launched weapons, 25 by land forces, and three by Argentine forces.”
Life for the Falkland Islanders begins to return to normal — or, at least, as normal as ever it can with an estimated 20,000 landmines left by the Argentine occupation. An air defence alert is established at Stanley Airport with Sea Harriers, ‘just in case’. Over the following weeks, most British troops return to the UK. Later, funding will be approved for the construction of a major British military base at Mount Pleasant. This would become operational in 1985 and was intended to provide a deterrent to future expansionist thoughts by any Argentine government.
Compiled by Denis J. Calvert