How Britain won the battle for the Falkland Islands

An English ship made the first recorded landing on the islands, an uninhabited archipelago some 300 miles off the South American coast, in 1690 and named them after the expedition’s sponsor, Viscount Falkland. However, the French established the first settlement there in 1764: they named it Îles Malouines after the port from which they had sailed, Saint-Malo. (Hence “Las Islas Malvinas” in Spanish.)

The British established a rival settlement a year later, and thereafter the islands’ status was always disputed. France ceded its claim to the Spanish Empire; Britain and Spain almost went to war over this issue in 1770, but reached an inconclusive compromise. In the early 19th century, newly independent Argentina claimed the islands.

But a dispute over seal hunting prompted the Royal Navy to retake the Falkland Islands in 1833 and establish a colony there in 1840. Apart from two months in 1982, the islands have been British owned ever since.

What significance did they have for the British Empire?

Not much. At the time of the Crisis of 1770, Dr. Johnson said it was absurd to go to war over a “bleak and grim loneliness.” From the 1840s until the Falklands War, sheep farming was the only profitable activity. From the late 1960s, British governments disliked the cost of owning them, seeing them as an obstacle to good relations with South America. An attempt was made to reach an agreement. “Unless sovereignty is seriously negotiated and ceded,” wrote a State Department minister in 1968, “in the long term we are likely to find ourselves in armed conflict with Argentina.”

There was talk of a “Hong Kong solution”: the islands would be ceded to Argentina and leased back. However, Parliament gave the islanders an effective veto, and their 1,800 residents, mostly descended from Scottish and Welsh settlers, wished to remain British. On April 2, 1982, an Argentine military government led by Leopoldo Galtieri interrupted talks as they invaded.

Why did Argentina invade?

Argentina’s right-wing dictatorship, in power since 1976, has been rocked by civil unrest and an economic crisis; a patriotic victory would be a useful distraction. The Falkland Islands/Malvinas was a topic on which most Argentines could agree, and it was a longtime obsession of Admiral Jorge Anaya, who had devised the invasion plan when he was a young naval officer.

In General Galtieri’s view, Margaret Thatcher’s government was unlikely to wage a war at a distance: “This woman would not dare,” he said. Argentines also felt they could count on some international sympathy in times of widespread decolonization.

Was there support for Argentina?

Not nearly as much as expected. The principle of islanders’ self-determination partially neutralized the anti-colonial argument. And even countries that rejected British claims to the islands acknowledged that international disputes should not be settled by force. It didn’t help that the attacker was a dictatorship notorious for human rights abuses.

Britain won the day at the UN. Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher, with the full backing of Michael Foot’s Labor Party, was hastily assembling a task force of 127 ships and 30,000 men to be sent 8,000 miles into the South Atlantic to retake the islands – a task the US Navy had planned as a “military impossibility”. The campaign’s official historian, Lawrence Freedman, described it as “an enormous gamble”.

How did Great Britain win?

That almost didn’t happen: the task force was within range of the Argentine Air Force and seven ships were lost to their Exocet missiles and bombs, causing many casualties. The task force’s decisive landing in San Carlos, it is often said, could have been very different; Many Argentine bombs hit British ships but did not detonate. Lord Craig, an RAF Air Marshal, is said to have declared: “Six better fuses and we would have lost.”

As it was, the 74-day campaign was a triumph for Britain. It generated some of the most iconic moments of the early Thatcher years: the Prime Minister proclaiming “Rejoice!” after the reconquest of South Georgia; the sinking of the Belgrano; the bitter firefight at Goose Green; Marines “howl” to Port Stanley. A total of 258 Britons and 649 Argentines lost their lives; 11,000 Argentines were captured.

What political impact did it have?

The task force returned to Portsmouth in glory, and Thatcher rode a wave of nationalist fervor to a landslide re-election victory in 1983. Many Conservatives believe that the war ushered in a reversal of Britain’s post-war decline. Thatcher was open about linking the conflict to her domestic agenda. She told the Tory Backbench Committee of 1922 that after defeating the ‘enemy without’ she would take on the ‘enemy within’: the unions.

In Argentina, the defeat shattered the junta’s claim to represent the nation and paved the way for the first free elections in a decade. Still, skeptics in both nations considered the conflict slightly absurd: Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges described the conflict as “a struggle between two bald men over a comb”.

Is everything clear after 40 years?

Far from it. Argentina never dropped its claim. Since 1994, Argentina’s constitution has made sovereignty over the Falkland Islands a “permanent and irrevocable goal”. A poll last year shows that 81% of Argentine voters support it.

The Falkland Islands are still a British Overseas Territory and the UK insists that the wishes of the islanders remain the guiding principle; In 2013, 99.8% of them voted to remain British in a referendum. The islands are self-governing and are now relatively wealthy thanks to increased investment and the sale of fishing licenses; They are defended by a garrison of 1,200 military personnel, costing the UK around £60m a year. How Britain won the battle for the Falkland Islands

Fry Electronics Team

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