On April 2, 1982, an Argentine invasion force landed on the Falklands and took control of the capital, Port Stanley, easily overrunning the token garrison of 80 royal marines. Argentina was expecting that Britain would make public protests but privately resolve to let the islands go. In fact, the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, ordered her chiefs of staff to assemble a huge task force (codenamed Operation Corporate) to take back the Falklands. More than 100 ships and 27,000 service personnel were sent to the South Atlantic, to take part in the fiercest fighting British forces had seen since World War Two.
DEATH AT SEA
The sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was the single most controversial action of the war. On May 2, the British government gave a nuclear submarine, HMS Conqueror, permission to sink the Belgrano, despite the fact that the cruiser was outside a previously declared naval exclusion zone and was sailing away from the Falklands. Three hundred and sixty-eight men died as the Belgrano, holed by two torpedoes, rapidly sank in freezing conditions. Two days later, Argentine forces had their revenge. The destroyer HMS Sheffield was hit by an Exocet missile and later sank. Twenty men died in the attack.
Bloody as they were, naval battles alone could not decide the outcome. On May 21, British ground forces began landing at San Carlos, 60 miles northwest of Port Stanley. At first, things went relatively smoothly but, on May 25, the British suffered a major setback. An Exocet sank the Atlantic Conveyor, a merchant vessel that had been carrying most of the task force's heavy, troop-carrying Chinook helicopters. Twelve seamen were dead and British soldiers now faced the prospect of a 60-mile march to Port Stanley.
Argentina's defenders, a mixture of regular troops and conscripts, were well dug in around Port Stanley and Goose Green, a settlement 20 miles south of San Carlos. On May 28, after intense fighting, Goose Green fell. Colonel H Jones, the commander of 2 Para, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his single-handed charging of an Argentine position.
Meanwhile, British soldiers were advancing on Port Stanley. They encountered fierce resistance, often having to clear Argentine positions with grenades and bayonets. Just as the ring was beginning to tighten around Port Stanley, disaster struck the British. Fifty men were killed and scores more were injured on June 8, when Argentine jets bombed two landing craft crammed with troops.
Despite this setback, the British maintained the initiative and took several key Argentine positions over the next few days. On June 14, with Argentine morale beginning to crumble, the garrison at Port Stanley surrendered and British troops took control of the Falklands capital. The fighting was over but the effects of the war went on.
Buoyed by the victory in the South Atlantic, Margaret Thatcher won a second term in office in 1983. Argentina's dictator, General Leopoldo Galtieri, was swiftly replaced as the country moved towards democracy. Britain and Argentina resumed diplomatic relations in 1990.
It was a brutal conflict. Hostilities lasted just 10 weeks but claimed 913 lives: 655 Argentines, 255 Britons and three Falkland islanders who died during the fighting.