By an extraordinary chance of fate, seven weeks later I found myself crouched in a landing craft crammed with Royal Marines hastening toward a hostile shore, amid the concussions of a naval bombardment. How did that weird time-warp microcosm of D-Day come about?
On April 2, 1982, forces of the ruling Argentine military junta inflicted a stunning shock on the British government by invading and occupying the Falkland Islands colony, to which Buenos Aires had long laid claim.
These pimples on the map of the South Atlantic, with a population of just 1,800, were a piddling hangover of empire 8,000 miles from Britain, and less than an hour’s flight time from Argentina. Most of us assumed that the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would thus swallow this humiliation; acquiesce in the Argentine aggression.
Not, however, the Iron Lady. Less than three years into her premiership, Thatcher’s grasp on power at home was precarious. Many people expected her to lose the next general election.
The Falklands were irrelevant to modern Britain. A decade earlier, a previous British government had ruthlessly evicted the indigenous population of the Indian Ocean island possession of Diego Garcia, to accommodate a U.S. air and naval base. My conviction is that the significant difference between the arbitrary treatment of the 924 Diego Garcians — now known as the Chagos Islanders — and the impassioned concern in London for the rights of the Falklanders is that the latter were white.
Anyway, Thatcher proclaimed her absolute determination of recovering the Falklands by force; to display Britain’s commitment to undo the coup by the Argentine generals; to assert the right of the islanders to self-determination.
As an old cynic, I have always believed that her principal motive was a belief that if she tamely acquiesced in loss of the islands, her own premiership was probably doomed.
At first, I thought the dispatch of an amphibious task force absurd. It would have been much cheaper to give every islander $10 million to relocate. As a former long-time war correspondent, however, I decided that if there was to be a conflict in the South Atlantic, I wanted to witness it.
There was little competition among my distinguished media colleagues for a berth aboard the small fleet that sailed from Southampton, Portsmouth and Plymouth just after Easter, because few believed there would be a real shoot-out. It seemed ridiculous to suppose that two supposedly civilized nations would fall to killing each other’s soldiers for possession of this meaningless piece of real estate in the middle of nowhere.
We knew, from the outset, that the U.S. administration of President Ronald Reagan was desperate to avert a war. The Buenos Aires dictatorship was favored in Washington as a bastion against Latin American communism. Secretary of State Alexander Haig shuttled to and fro between the rival capitals, struggling to find some diplomatic out that must involve a British climbdown. Thatcher, however, while anxious not to fall out with the U.S., remained determined to secure victory at almost any cost.
The skepticism of people who knew something of military affairs was rooted in our knowledge of how threadbare were Britain’s forces, how difficult it must be to fight in the storm-tossed Atlantic, especially since the scrapping of the Royal Navy’s last fleet carrier that transported aircraft capable of sustaining long-range radar surveillance. The chiefs of the army, especially, thought the venture recklessly perilous.
The head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Henry Leach, nonetheless told Thatcher he could sail a credible task force. This was not because this wooden-headed old seadog had thought much about the difficulties, but because he glimpsed a unique opportunity to showcase the continuing relevance of sea power in general, and of his own service in particular.
What followed was one of the most extraordinary, anachronistic little warrior adventures of the 20th century. We sailed with two small carriers bearing a mere 20 Harrier jump-jet fighters, together with two very elderly assault ships that had been intercepted on their way to the scrapyard. These were defended by a scratch assembly of destroyers and frigates armed with missile systems never tested in action. Some 6,000 Royal Marines, airborne troops and support elements were carried aboard a requisitioned cruise liner and a North Sea ferry, along with assorted supply vessels.
We sailed South in an atmosphere of unreality, undiminished by air-raid drills and companies of super-fit young men running relentlessly around the decks in union flag shorts and hideous tattoos. Ashore, the frustrated Haig found his diplomacy getting nowhere. He repeatedly urged the Argentine generals that, if they did not back off, the British would fight. The junta, however, refused to believe him.
The Falklands War emphasized an important lesson of all international affairs: There is no one universal reality. Every nation has its own narrative, as we are witnessing yet again today, in the conduct toward Ukraine of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In 1982, amid the surge of Argentine popular patriotism that followed the country’s “liberation” of Los Malvinas — as Latin Americans know the Falklands — a wild conviction grew that the faraway gringos could not undo a fait accompli. Much later, I interviewed Argentine prisoners who cried out: “Why did you want to fight us? We never thought you were serious.”
During the weeks that followed, as diplomacy waned and then exhausted itself, it became plain that war was coming. On April 25, a British naval squadron staged a dramatic little operation to recapture the Antarctic dependency of South Georgia from its 55- strong Argentine garrison.
A week later, Thatcher inflicted a stunning shock on the Argentine navy. Having proclaimed a total exclusion zone around the Falklands and demanded the invaders’ withdrawal from the islands, the prime minister authorized the submarine Conqueror to attack the heavy cruiser General Belgrano — formerly the USS Phoenix — which sank with the loss of 323 lives.
The Argentine air force responded the next day by launching French-built Exocet missiles against the British destroyer Sheffield, killing 21 men. The warship foundered a few days later, under tow in heavy seas. Thereafter, the conflict steadily intensified, with almost daily clashes between Argentine aircraft and the Royal Navy’s planes and warships.
In the early hours of May 21, British marines and airborne units landed at San Carlos Bay to launch a three-week land campaign to reach the islands’ capital, Port Stanley. At sea, Argentine air attacks battered the British fleet, sinking a succession of frigates, destroyers and a big container transport ship — but at the cost of unsupportable losses to their own squadrons at the hands of Harrier fighters and sea-to-air missiles
I spent many days and nights ashore with British troops and special forces. The cold, intensified by a wind that seemed never to die, was relentless: We shivered through every darkness. After heavy helicopter losses both to enemy action and maintenance imperatives, men were obliged to march day after day across the sodden peat; to sleep on open, snow-dusted hills, often lacking sleeping bags.
But beyond one bitter little battle to overrun the strongly-garrisoned Goose Green settlement and several skirmishes between patrols, until the last days there was amazingly little land fighting. It became increasingly apparent to us that the enemy, mostly unwilling conscripts, had little stomach for the struggle. Their pilots were terrific — both proficient and brave — but their bombs often failed to explode, and they were desperately short of missiles.
Argentine commanders, though leading forces that outnumbered the British and better supplied with heavy equipment, lacked spirit to interdict our advance, as any half-decent army would have done. There was a fierce round of June 11-12 fighting for possession of the mountains guarding the approach to Port Stanley, in which scores died. But then the opposition collapsed. On June 14, the Argentine military governor in the Falklands, General Mario Menendez, surrendered. His troops were disarmed and ignominiously shipped home. Britain’s governance of the Falklands colony was restored
Everybody with Thatcher’s task force recognized that we had been phenomenally fortunate. This little war, which cost less than a thousand lives on both sides, flattered our armed forces. The Argentines were not a serious foe. British troops were incomparably more skilled, especially in night fighting — almost all the significant land clashes took place in darkness. Argentine officers seemed extraordinarily detached from their men: They relinquished most of the discomforts and hazards of the campaign in favor of warmer billets in Port Stanley.
Nonetheless, given the excellence of the Argentine air force, Thatcher took a huge gamble by dispatching her fleet. Very little would have needed to go wrong for the British, and right for the junta, for an aircraft carrier to be sunk by Exocets, almost certainly with catastrophic consequences for the whole naval operation.
The British government was at pains to confine its objectives to recapture of the Falklands — there were no special forces attacks on, for instance, Argentine air bases on the mainland. The Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, morally indistinguishable from its counterpart in Buenos Aires, provided critical assistance to the British cause, especially through radar reporting of takeoffs from Argentine air bases.
Meanwhile in Washington, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, almost the only member of the Reagan administration who wholeheartedly supported Thatcher’s cause, provided vital support. He first authorized access to the U.S. airbase on Ascension Island, then the provision of intelligence data, fuel and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles with which the Royal Navy’s Harriers were armed.
In the aftermath of the 1982 victory, Britain’s domestic morale soared, as did Thatcher’s prestige. Even the left-wing opposition leader Michael Foot felt obliged to say in the House of Commons following the Argentine surrender: “I congratulate her.”
The Falklands Islands were heavily fortified and garrisoned in the wake of the war. They have since remained a strategic embarrassment to the British defense budget — costing a cumulative $15 billion since hostilities ended — though they remain a national totem that cannot be negotiated away.
When in 1984 I suggested in print that a rational British government would open talks with Buenos Aires about some compromise settlement on Los Malvinas — perhaps a surrender of British sovereignty in exchange for a long-term leaseback — I earned a blistering personal rebuke from the prime minister herself: “You of all people, Mr. Hastings, should understand why that is unthinkable.”
When the Labour Party secured power in 1997 and I again made the arguments for a deal, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s close associate Peter Mandelson leaned across a lunch table and demanded of me with shameless cynicism: “What’s in it for us? The tabloid press would go crazy. The Falklands lobby in Parliament would crucify us. The only people who would be impressed are a few wet liberals like you.”
People who remember that I witnessed the war still sometimes accost me and say hopefully: “We’re going to get oil from the Falklands, aren’t we?” They are touchingly eager to hope that something of value will yet come from those islands, to compensate for the expenditure of so much blood and treasure. I respond that oil within those waters is unlikely to prove economically recoverable.
Their flickering candle flame of hope reminds me of the gunfighter in that fabulous movie “The Magnificent Seven,” who rides into the final shootout just in time to be mortally wounded. As he lies dying in the arms of Yul Brynner, he pleads to be told about the gold he is sure must be buried in the Mexican village: “I don’t want to die a sucker!” Brynner, aka Chris, tells him soothingly there is indeed a great stack of gold. Nobody can honestly say that today about the Falklands.
Thus, those barren islands on the far side of the world continue to fly the Union Flag, and are likely to continue to do so long after I am dead and buried, mostly because the 1982 attempted seizure and its failure made a diplomatic compromise stubbornly unacceptable to British domestic opinion.
Argentina nonetheless became the biggest gainer from its own defeat, which precipitated the collapse of the hated military dictatorship and the revival of democracy.
The South Atlantic campaign was a small war, utterly insignificant by comparison with today’s bloodbath in Ukraine. Its saving grace was that, because there were scarcely any civilians in the line of fire, pain and grief were almost exclusively borne by warriors, and not by hapless women and children. Britain’s armed forces, tiny as they were by American, Russian or Chinese standards, could take pride in what they achieved, offering a master class in professionalism, together with fortitude in the most hostile possible environment.
I still cherish innumerable vignettes of the campaign: of warships tossed on vast waves amid Atlantic storms; of brave men, battling against cold and wet, short rations and moments of terror, trudging doggedly across those barren wastes, bent beneath huge packs; of nights lit by flares, tracers, explosions as Royal Marine commandos and parachute battalions stormed Argentine positions in the usual organized chaos of battle.
Four decades on, I find myself bleakly reflecting that Britain was able to make the decision to fight for the Falklands, in part because Argentina possessed no nuclear weapons to deter us, such as the Kremlin threatens to unleash today. A Latin American military junta was the right-sized enemy for 1982 Britain.
We came home comfortably convinced that virtue had triumphed; that the good guys had won, and moreover achieved victory inside three months. Thus, the usual short attention span of a democracy was not tested to destruction.
Wars are seldom that obliging. Six years ago, I addressed 400 young U.S. Marine officers at Quantico, Virginia, about the Falklands campaign. If you are very fortunate in your long and distinguished service careers, I told them, you may get to fight an enemy as incompetent as the Argentines. More likely, however, you will have to meet enemies who know their business. Gosh, we were lucky.
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Max Hastings is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A former editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard, he is author, most recently, of “Operation Pedestal: The Fleet That Battled to Malta, 1942.”
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