The Falklands Conflict of 1982 only lasted for 74 days, but it had lasting consequences which continue to be felt today. Prior to 1982, Margaret Thatcher's government was planning major defence cuts including withdrawing military from the South Atlantic. Instead, they spent nearly £3 billion defending British sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, and to this day maintain a garrison there. What was the effect of this short conflict for Argentina, Britain and the Falkland Islands, and what impact did it have around the world?
In Episode 5, the final episode of IWM's five-part series, find out about the far-reaching effects of Britain's conflict for its South Atlantic territories.
The global impact of a 74-day conflict
Forty years after the end of the Falklands conflict, Argentina continues to assert its claim to the islands.
Prior to 1982, the British government was planning major defence cuts including withdrawing military from the South Atlantic. Instead, they spent nearly £3 billion defending British sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, and to this day maintain a garrison there, devoting approximately £80 million a year to their defence.
The Falklands Conflict of 1982 only lasted for 74 days, but it had lasting consequences which continue to be felt today. What, if anything, has changed since 1982?
On 14th June 1982, a ceasefire was agreed between British and Argentinian forces. Colonel Michael Rose, commander of Special Forces in the Falklands, flew into Port Stanley by helicopter with a large white flag dangling beneath the aircraft to negotiate surrender terms with the Argentinian commander, General Mario Menendez. At 9 p.m. that evening, the surrender was signed. The British had retaken South Georgia on 25 April and on 20 June, British forces retook the South Sandwich Islands and the British Government formally announced an end to the Falklands Conflict. The Falkland Islands were now at peace. But the consequences of this conflict were far from over, particularly for those who had been involved in the fighting.
Some 11,300 Argentinean troops were now prisoners of war. Their garrisons had to be assembled, disarmed and processed. Nearly 600 Argentinian officers, including General Menendez, were held back for intelligence gathering. But most prisoners were confined to a temporary holding area. Many feared that they would be tortured or executed by the British. Instead, they found themselves sailing home on a luxury cruise liner.
There were so many of them that the priority was to process them as quickly as possible and repatriate them to Argentina. A holding camp was set up at Port Stanley and many were held with basic minimum of food and shelter. Within a week, they had embarked on the Canberra and Norland and were on their way back to Argentina. Here they received a miserable welcome. In Argentina, the former prisoners received a miserable welcome. They were a defeated army. There were no parades. There were certainly very few benefits available to them. And so, for many years, the veterans of the Falklands war in Argentina struggled.
The British experience could not have been more different. Those that served with the Task Force received a hero’s welcome when they returned home. Ships were greeted by crowds, flags, and celebrations. Britain had endured many years of decline at home and overseas. Victory in the Falklands provided the country with a much-needed boost to its morale.
Every civilian and serviceman who participated in the Falklands Conflict was awarded a campaign medal, the South Atlantic Medal. And in October 1982, the City of London held a victory parade, the first time that it had done so since the Second World War.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s controversial economic policies had made her government very unpopular in Britain before the conflict, and it seemed unlikely that Thatcher would remain in power for long. Her decisive response to the Argentinian invasion changed her political fortunes. Her popularity soared with the British public and the press. This, combined with an improving economy, helped Thatcher win a stunning victory in the general election of 1983. She would remain in power for another eight years.
In Argentina, matters took a very different course.
The loss of the Malvinas was something which spoke very deeply to the Argentinean sense of national identity. President Galtieri was soon forced to resign, and the military junta was forced to step down. Democratic government was restored to Argentina.
The restoration of democratic government helped Argentina to improve many of its international relationships, but diplomatic relations with Britain were not restored until 1990.
The conflict forced both nations to change their defence policies. Argentina forged new military alliances but also had to make significant cuts to its armed forces. Thatcher’s government had also been planning major cuts to Britain’s armed forces to help balance the economy. But after the Falklands, many cuts were abandoned, with lost equipment being replaced and upgraded.
Since 1982, the Falklands Islands have been defended by a tri-service garrison comprising more than 1,000 military personnel, warships and aircraft. In 1986, a new airbase, RAF Mount Pleasant, was established 30 miles from Port Stanley.
Other military lessons of the conflict, such as strategy, training and equipment were studied carefully. Changes adopted by Britain’s armed forces were emulated around the world.
The Royal Navy introduced measures to reduce the vulnerability of its surface ships. A third of British casualties had resulted from Argentinian attacks on British ships.
The Royal Navy adopted the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System to defend ships against incoming missiles, and it redesigned its ships to make them less flammable. The importance of submarines was also brought home and there was new investment in the submarine arm of the Royal Navy.
The performance of the Sea Harrier was another new lesson. This was the first time that they had shown how useful they were and how manoeuvrable they were.
The conflict also reinforced the need for highly trained troops capable of operating effectively in extreme conditions. British special forces – the SAS and SBS – also received extra investment.
More broadly, the conflict demonstrated that selling high performance weapons to other countries could have dangerous consequences.
Britain had found itself facing the Exocet missile - a missile designed, manufactured and sold by France, a friendly country. It had been able to borrow or get access to military supplies from the United States, which had made a huge difference to its ability to conduct the war. So, the whole business of the arms trade - who had access to what technology – came under the microscope as a result of the Falklands conflict.
The fighting had caused many horrific injuries. The medical facilities of the British task force were well equipped, treating injured from both sides during the conflict. The British even had a psychiatric team on hand to treat any cases of shell shock. But the long-term impact of conflict on mental health was poorly understood in the 1980s. Although the Falklands conflict didn’t last long, it still caused widespread trauma amongst the fighting forces and it was not until the 1990s that sufferers began to receive support.
So here we have a poster which was produced by the Royal British Legion . The poppy appeal in 1990 took place against the background of the first Gulf War. What you have here is a photograph of a tormented veteran: ‘Here lies a survivor of the Falklands War.’ The focus of this particular poster is to raise awareness of how post-traumatic stress disorder may emerge over time. And the efforts of health services around the world to engage with post-traumatic stress disorder really gathered momentum in 1990, 1991 and in the context of the first Gulf War.
Throughout the conflict, people around the world were desperate for news of what was happening in the South Atlantic. But very little information got through and some which did caused problems. One newspaper described the conflict as ‘the worst reported war since the Crimea’.
So, we’ve now come to the Falklands display in the galleries at IWM London. I'm standing in front of a display of photographs by Paul Haley, who was one of three British civilian photojournalists who covered the Falkland conflict. There was a group of journalists accredited to the British Task Force, but they were working under very constrained conditions.
The Vietnam War had demonstrated the power of journalists, photographers and television crews to offer a critical perspective on events. But they were able to operate in Vietnam with a freedom which did not exist in the Falklands.
The military Junta refused to allow international journalists access to the Falklands during the occupation. The only way to reach the Falklands was to accompany the Task Force. But the British government and armed forces were very reluctant to allow this.
There were two reasons why the armed forces were reluctant to allow access to the press. The first was logistics. Could they really spare the space to accommodate journalists and could they also afford to feed them? That was one element. But another element was the risk of giving away information of use to the Argentinean forces. And we've already heard in a previous episode that this had happened in the context of the Battle of Goose Green, but it also happened in the context of the Argentine air attacks on the task force. The British news media reported the fact that a number of Argentinean bombs were not detonating because of issues with the setting of the fuses. This information made its way back to Argentina and as a result of that, a number of bombs detonated and caused damage.
Such was the frustration and criticism of the coverage of the Falklands conflict that after the journalists had returned, the House of Commons Defence Committee held an inquiry into how the Ministry of Defence had handled the reporting of the war. And when it came to the Gulf War in 1991, just under ten years later, there was a whole different approach.
The consequences of the conflict were not restricted to Britain and Argentina. They reverberated around the world. Some countries, such as the United States, Chile and Norway, had assisted Britain, providing diplomatic and political support, access to facilities at Ascension Island, military equipment or intelligence. Others, such as the Soviet Union, Peru and Israel, assisted Argentina.
For the United States, the support that it had given to Britain also had consequences in terms of its credibility in Latin America and its relationships with the countries there. The Soviet Union and China watched the performance of the British armed forces with great interest and reassessed their capabilities in that context.
The people at the heart of the conflict, the Falkland Islanders, had endured occupation, shortages, air raids and bombardments. Some had been deported or forcibly separated from their families. After the conflict, the relationship between the Falkland Islanders and Britain became much closer. The islanders received full British citizenship and help with reconstruction. But there was a great deal to do. Buildings and essential equipment had been damaged or destroyed. And landmines littered the islands.
We went from being this quiet peaceful free little country to suddenly having the streets full of armed troops speaking different language, our freedom being completely curtailed, and it was absolutely terrifying. At that point we had no idea what might happen and it was petrifying.
30,000 mines had been laid by the Argentinean forces all over the islands, on the beaches, on farmland. When Britain signed up to the Ottawa protocols banning landmines, it took on a responsibility to clear the landmines in the Falklands and a team of workers from Zimbabwe came and spent years working to clear the minefields. Those minefields were finally cleared in 2020
The clearance of the landmines resulted in the discovery of some unmarked graves, mostly of Argentinian soldiers who had been buried where they fell in 1982. In 2018, the governments of the Falkland Islands, Britain and Argentina achieved a brief rapprochement, when they collaborated with the International Red Cross in work to identify the remains of 122 Argentinian soldiers.
So here we have a rose, which is made out of the melted down cartridges of bullets used in the Falklands conflict. It was produced by an Argentinian silversmith. He produced two such roses, one which he hoped that the Argentinian families would present in memory of the British fallen, and one which the British families would present in memory of the Argentinian fallen. It represents the spirit of reconciliation between the two countries in the years that followed the Falklands Conflict.
Despite efforts to improve relations, the dispute over the Falkland Islands remains unresolved. In 1994, their claim was inserted in Argentina’s constitution. The Falkland Islands Government argues that Argentina is deliberately obstructing the Falklands’ three main industries – fishing, tourism and oil and gas exploration – by withdrawing from a commission to manage fisheries; and stopping charter planes from flying from Chile to the Falklands.
British policy is driven by the wishes of the Falkland Islanders, who have doubled in number since 1982 and consist of more than 40 nationalities. In the last census, 99% voted to remain British. In 2022, as part of the Queen's Platinum Jubilee Civic Honours, Port Stanley was granted city status.
The referendum I think was so important, it actually properly gathered the the opinion and the voice of Falkland Islanders. It's critical to us that we are able to express our own voice and we make our own laws we run our own finances and so we will always I think as Falkland Islanders fight to be heard and to express our opinion and to make our political choices freely.
The future of the Falkland Islands is positive, but there is still the problem of Argentina's claim which has been enshrined in the Argentinean constitution. And there is no doubt that for Argentina, the claim to las Malvinas is very much part of their national identity.
Thanks for watching IWM’s five-part series on the Falklands Conflict. Please like and subscribe for more, and let us know in the comments below what you’d like to see next.