On 2nd April 1982, when Argentine Marines occupied Stanley in the Falklands, in Argentina news of the invasion was met with celebrations. To General Leopaldo Galtieri all information seemed to indicate that London would not go to war over these islands. But by the 5th April, a British Task Force was already on its way. It had taken just days to fully load and equip both aircraft carriers, HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes and their escorts. They were on their way south ahead of other ships to enforce the total exclusion zone. But with the Royal Navy more prepared for cutbacks and the Cold War than a conflict 8,000 miles away, what kind of force had they been able to pull together? 

IWM Curator Alan Jeffreys tells us more about this topic, looks at an Exocet Missile on display at IWM London and some objects that belonged to commander of a naval bomb disposal team, Nigel 'Bernie' Bruen including a scorched alarm bell from RFA Sir Tristram.

How the British Task Force took control of the South Atlantic

In June 1981, Sir John Nott Secretary of State for Defence presented a defence review to parliament. He was proposing significant cuts to the Royal Navy, including scrapping the Antarctic patrol ship HMS Endurance, and the withdrawal of major vessels including two aircraft carriers. The risk of an out-of-area amphibious operation was considered extremely unlikely.

Just nine months later, Argentinian scrap merchants landed on South Georgia. The invasion of the Falkland Islands followed on the 2 April. This action had taken the British almost entirely by surprise. And yet within a matter of days, a Task Force was being assembled. The Chief of the Naval staff believed the Royal Navy were capable of recovering the Islands. The UK had entered a conflict that they never thought they would be fighting, 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic. The Nott review had been turned on its head, and the Navy’s priorities by the end of 1982 were completely transformed.

British sovereign territory has been invaded by a foreign power... A large task force will sail as soon as all preparations are complete.

On 2nd April 1982, when Argentine Marines occupied Stanley, in Argentina news of the invasion was met with celebrations. A 250,000-strong crowd appeared in the heart of the capital chanting their approval. To General Leopaldo Galtieri all information seemed to indicate that London would not put up a fight for these islands, and his gamble initially appeared to have paid off.

But by the 5th April, the British Task Force was already on its way. It had taken just days to fully load and equip both aircraft carriers ‘HMS Invincible’ and ‘HMS Hermes’ and their escorts. They were on their way south ahead of other ships to enforce the 200-mile exclusion zone.

But with the royal navy more prepared for cutbacks and the Cold War than a conflict 8k miles away, what kind of force were they able to pull together?

Here’s Alan Jeffreys, curator at IWM London.

There were three task forces, one headed for South Georgia under the command of Captain Brian Young, one for the amphibious landing under the command of Commodore Mike Clapp and the main task force under the command of Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward.

The two key ships were the aircraft carriers - HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible which were not totally suited as they could carry only twenty Sea Harriers between them and too few Sidewinder missiles against air attack.

Commercial shipping was also requisitioned such as the liners - Canberra and Queen Elizabeth II and the container ship Atlantic Conveyer.

The Task Force eventually comprised 44 warships, 22 RFA ships, 45 merchant ships.

The British strategy was to achieve command of the air and sea before an amphibious landing could take place. The strategy had been formed by a War Cabinet hastily pulled together by Margaret Thatcher, and the Royal Navy led the campaign.

The senior British commanders in the campaign were all naval e.g. the Chief of the Defence Staff was Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, the First Sea Lord was Admiral Sir Henry Leach who at the beginning of the campaign advised Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that a task force should be sent and would be ready in three days. Admiral John Fieldhouse was in operational command of the campaign and he was based at Northwood.

But despite the Royal Navy’s confidence, they were not wholly prepared for this war.

The Falklands was an operational area that the Royal Navy was not really used to during the Cold War. At this time they were largely geared towards dealing with Soviet submarines operating on the high seas. This had manifested itself in John Nott’s defence review of 1981, which had put the Navy’s two aircraft carriers under threat.

In contrast, Argentina’s military were getting ready for this action. In January 1982, Admiral Anaya, Commander-in-Chief of the Argentine Navy, directed Vice Admiral Lombardo to develop a plan to seize the islands.

Prior to 1982 Argentina bought submarines and frigates from West Germany, Super Etendard aircraft and Exocet missiles from France and helicopters, anti-aircraft missiles and destroyers from Britain and 42 Israeli-made Dagger fighter-bombers – modified mirages. A quarter of Argentina’s foreign debt was spent on weapons and equipment.

This is a French made Exocet sea-skimming missile of the type (MM38) used by the Argentine Navy. Argentina had sea and air launched versions and Britain had them in the Type 22 Frigates.

The Exocets had the potential to destroy the British task force and were the key threat posed by the Argentinian forces.

Because of this threat that they posed, the British Secret Intelligence Service made sure that it was extremely difficult for the Argentines to buy any more Exocet weapons.

On South Georgia, the Argentinian scrap merchants had been expelled soon after they landed, but on 3 April, Argentine forces arrived and occupied South Georgia. On the 21 April British forces commenced Operation Paraquet, the recapture of South Georgia, and British troops landed on the Island. A few days later, the Argentine submarine ARA Santa Fe was sighted and targeted with depth charges. Aided by naval gunfire the British troops forced a surrender of the Argentinian forces on 26 April. South Georgia returned to British rule. But the British commanders knew that recapturing the Falkland Islands was not going to be so easy.

By 30th April, the Maritime Total Exclusion Zone was enforced around the Falklands, with a 200 nautical mile radius. On the 1 May, the British task force ships entered the Exclusion Zone, the same day as the Black Buck air raid on Port Stanley’s airport (for more on Black Buck, look out for our next video.) Three British submarines were also within the TEZ. They were nuclear-powered Sparten, Splendid, and Conqueror.

A few days previously, Admiral Anaya had also ordered three task groups into the TEZ. To the north was the Argentinian Carrier Veinticinco de Mayo. To the south was the General Belgrano. The Belgrano was one of the Argentine Navy’s major surface combatants, but it had started its life in the US Navy, a Brooklyn class light cruiser USS Phoenix that has seen action in the Pacific in WW2. Although it was an older ship, it carried a heavy fire power, and was escorted by two destroyers armed with Exocet missiles.

The British submarines were initially tasked by Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward to go after the Argentinian Carrier – as this was deemed the biggest threat.

But the Argentinians located the British task force first and the Veinticinco de Mayo prepared to launch her Sky Hawks. Howeverr, dead wind prevented this attack. It was a close call which could have changed the course of the entire war: the loss of one of Britain’s aircraft carriers could have forced the Royal Navy’s withdrawal.

On the same day, to the south of the Islands, the Belgrano had been detected by Conqueror.

On 2 May, the Belgrano group was the only part of the Argentine Navy that the Royal Navy knew

At this point Woodward had permission to attack the Carrier (even outside the TEZ), but not the Belgrano. He ordered the Conqueror to attack it but the order was rescinded by Northwood. The War Cabinet of Thatcher, Whitelaw, Nott, Franci Pym & Cecil Parkinson agreed to change the Rules of Engagement to include warships.

The Belgrano was some 18 miles south of the TEZ. In Woodward’s memoir One Hundred Days he stated on p. 67 ‘if an enemy is skirting his way around you along the edge of an exclusion zone, there is no way you should allow him to go on doing that’.

HMS Conqueror received an order to attack. Three Mk8 torpedos were fired and two hit.

The explosion caused a 20-metre gash in the Belgrano’s deck and damaged the ship’s electrical system. Captain Hector Bonzo gave orders to abandon ship. Bad weather scattered the life boats, but over the next two days, 770 men were rescued from the sea. However, in total 321 crew and two civilians died. It was the largest number killed in any single event during the conflict.

In the UK there were triumphalist headlines such as ‘Gotcha’ in The Sun newspaper, but there were also questions about the legitimacy of the attack. Whether the Belgrano had been heading back to port, or simply turning around remained questionable until many years later.

After the sinking of the Belgrano, the Argentine navy withdrew all units for the duration of the war, including the Veinticinco de Mayo. The Argentine offensive switched focus to their air force.

By 4 May the weather had improved and the sea was unusually calm. The Task Force was approaching the Islands from the South East. 3 Type 42 destroyers were occupying air defence stations in front of the main task force, providing protection for the larger ships such as the ‘Hermes’ and ‘Invincible’, which the Navy could not afford to lose.

HMS Glasgow commanded by Captain Paul Hoddinott was in the middle with HMS Sheffield under Captain Sam Salt on its left and HMS Coventry under Captain David Hart Dyke on its right. They were approached by two Super Etendards, who were in search of HMS Hermes, releasing two Exocets.

Now The Sheffield had no warning of the attack because it was transmitting from its satellite equipment which masked the missiles’ signals. It was first seen on the ship’s bridge when officers saw the smoke of the missile before hitting the starboard side but didn’t detonate. Fire and smoke broke out. After an hour they were unable to stop the spread of the fire and Captain Salt ordered that the ship be abandoned before the fire reached the Sea Dart Magazine.

And so really the first my first thought on seeing something black and smoking as a small dot was essentially that this may well have been a helicopter in difficulty. And again I looked at it through my binoculars and was having great difficulty trying to sort out what it was because it appeared to be stationary or suspended in air. And I think really simultaneously we realised that this actually did have a bit of movement on it, and it was coming towards us, and that it was a missile, but that realisation really came very late. The Sunday Times I think quoted me are saying my god it's a missile but i think i probably said what the -- is that, not only knowing at all. And there was then a matter of seconds before impact.

Out of the 281 crew, 20 died and 26 injured. It sank four days later.

Admiral Fieldhouse later wrote that some key officers were inexperienced and did not take the threat seriously due to previous ineffective air attacks writing that it ‘was an expensive warning and a foretaste of real Argentine capability’.

Just as the sinking of the Belgrano kept the Argentine Navy in port, the sinking of the Sheffield kept the British carrier group to the east of the Falklands.

The British Task force started to land its troops at San Carlos Bay on the 21 May. The main priorities were to secure the beachhead from attack and land as many men and supplies as was possible.

The landing force comprise three royal marine commando, two battalions of the parachute regiment, supporting artillery engineers, logistical support, and one rapier battery.

Although San Carlos reduced the threat from Argentine submarines and Exocet missiles, it was in range of land-based aircraft.

The Argentine air force launched repeated full scale air strikes on the British ships. The pilots had been ordered to attack warships as opposed to the amphibious assault ships & the supply ships. While the landings went to plan, this meant that the warships and logistics ships sustained heavy damage. The area around San Carlos Bay became known as Bomb Alley.

HMS Ardent, HMS Antelope and HMS Coventry were all sunk and HMS Argonaut was badly damaged. Another 33 planes hit 4 warships but not a single bomb detonated. The bombs were fused to ensure that the aircraft had time to get out of the blast area. The skilful low-flying of the Argentine pilots had inadvertently saved a number of ships.

The Atlantic Conveyer was at this time with the carrier group, approaching from the North East and heading towards San Carlos Water. Two Super Etendards approached the group and launched two Exocets. Atlantic Conveyor was hit, broke in half and sank the next day with the loss of twelve men. The loss of helicopters from the Atlantic Conveyer was almost critical in consequence the troops would have to travel by foot to Stanley.

Yet despite these losses at sea, the attacks had made no difference to the actual landing at San Carlos. But the British forces’ luck was about to turn.

So we're here in IWM London in the old historic Reading Room to look at some of the objects donated by Lieutenant Commander 'Bernie' Bruen when he was working in mine clearance during the Falklands campaign. Lt Cdr Nigel ‘Bernie’ Bruen was the commander of a naval bomb disposal team three. They were responsible for defusing and removing bombs on several ships as well as dealing with sea mines. A job that is perhaps not that well known during the Falklands campaign but required great courage and bravery.

And the first objects i'm going to look out are a bayonet and scabbard that are used in de-mining and also his own personal de-mining kit, and if we look on the knife here we can actually see that it says 'Bernie's' inscribed upon it.

And finally this is the alarm bell from RFA Sir Tristram and you can see the scorching bears witness to the heat on board at the ship after the Argentinian air attack on the 8th June 1982 at the action at Fitzroy.

By 1 June, there were sufficient British troops to plan the offensive against Port Stanley. The plan was for the 5th Infantry brigade to be landed to the south of Stanley at Fitzroy, to cross overland. The challenge was how to transport the Brigade from San Carlos to Fitzroy. As there were not enough helicopters to transport the brigade and its equipment by air, it was decided they would go by sea. But the operation was badly coordinated with poor communication. After the movements of troops over three successive nights, half of the 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards, a field ambulance unit and other support units arrived at Fitzroy early on 8 June to find no one was expecting them and minimal resources to unload them. The remaining troops were on board two anchored RFA ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram, waiting to offload. The WG had been told they are going to Bluff Cove, several miles away and have been ordered not to split the unit or be separated from their equipment. They declined to get off until their orders had been clarified. Finally the order came through and a landing craft was available – but before they could start to disembark, the attacks began.

Argentine observers had seen the ships and two flights of daggers and Skyhawks were dispatched from the Argentine mainland and attacked the ships.

Three bombs hit the Galahad and two hit the Tristram.

In total 50 men died including 32 welsh guards and 150 were injured. The disaster was failure of staff work and leadership. So objects like this speak to the disaster on that day and you can see how scorched this bell is from the extreme heat on board ship. And this was rescued by Bernie Bruen and his mine clearance team and they later used it as a drinking vessel for for drinking rum.

News reports of Navy helicopters winching survivors from the burning wreckage of Sir Galahad were broadcast on the BBC. The vulnerability of surface ships was exposed by the war, and hard lessons had been learnt for the British Navy. General Mario Menéndez, commander of the Argentine forces in the Falklands, was incorrectly told that 900 British soldiers had died. He expected that the losses would cause enemy morale to drop and the British assault to stall. However, in fact, the air strike only delayed the British ground attack on Stanley by two days. It was only within a week that Stanley had fallen to the British.

For more on this, watch the next episodes in this series.

Related content

A soldier of 3 Battalion, Parachute Regiment silhouetted against the sunset at Windy Gap.© IWM FKD 2750
© IWM FKD 2750

The Falklands Conflict

From 2 April 2022, Imperial War Museums marked the 40th anniversary of the Falklands Conflict. New exhibits in the permanent galleries at IWM London and IWM North included items from IWM’s rich collection that will went on display for the very first time. The story and legacy of the Falklands Conflict is also explored through a series of five films for IWM's YouTube channel and an episode of the Conflict of Interest podcast. 

Margaret Thatcher superimposed onto a map of the Falklands with British and Argentinian flags on either side.
Cold War

Why the Falklands Conflict happened | Episode 1

In the first episode of our five-part Falklands series IWM Curator Carl Warner looks at why the Falklands Conflict happened. Why did Argentina believe they could take the Falklands without a fight? What was the invasion like? And why did Britain choose to fight for these islands 8,000 miles from home?

Sea Harriers flying low over the South Atlantic
Cold War

Falklands Conflict in the Air | Episode 3

When the Falklands Conflict began Argentina seemingly had a massive advantage in the skies. They had over 100 aircraft of varying types. Some could operate from the Argentinian mainland and others could operate from airstrips on the Falklands themselves. Meanwhile, the British Task Force initially had only 20 Sea Harriers. It was up to them to protect the Task Force at sea as well as the troops on the ground, but to many that seemed like an impossible task.

British troops landing at San Carlos on East Falkland
© IWM (FKD 2744)
Cold War

Falklands Conflict on Land | Episode 4

In this penultimate episode of our Falklands series, IWM curator Hilary Roberts explores the land campaign. What was each side’s strategy? What mistakes did they make? And why - despite fierce Argentinian resistance - did the British eventually come out on top?

Falklands Aftermath video thumbnail
Falklands Conflict Aftermath | Episode 5

Falklands Conflict Aftermath | Episode 5

The Falklands Conflict of 1982 only lasted for 74 days, but it had lasting consequences which continue to be felt today. 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.