The Falkland Islands have two names. To the people who live there and to Britain, they are the Falkland Islands. But to their closest neighbour across the sea Argentina and its people, they are las Islas Malvinas. The debate over what to call the islands is a symbol of a much larger dispute which has raged for hundreds of years and continues to this day. On the Argentinian side, a claim based on territorial integrity and a perceived historical injustice. And on the British side, a claim based on historical precedent and the right to self-determination.
In April of 1982, that debate became a conflict that would take the lives of nearly 1,000 people. But for Argentina, it was never meant to be that way. In fact, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, they believed that Britain wouldn't even respond.
Why Britain fought for the Falklands
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?
These islands in the South Atlantic have two names. To the people who live there and to Britain they are the Falkland Islands. But to their closest neighbour across the sea Argentina and its people, they are las Islas Malvinas. The debate over what to call these islands is a symbol of a much larger dispute, one that has raged for hundreds of years and continues to this day. But in April of 1982 that debate became a conflict, one which would take the lives of nearly a thousand people. But for Argentina, it wasn't meant to be that way. In fact, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands they believed that Britain wouldn't even respond.
In this five-episode series, we're going to take an in-depth look at the Falklands conflicts with individual episodes exploring the fighting at sea, in the air, and on land, plus an exploration of how the Falklands conflict impacted the modern world. But first, we need to understand why the war happened in the first place. Why did Argentina believe they could take the Falklands without a fight? What was the invasion actually like? And why did Britain choose to fight for these islands 8 000 miles from home?
Situated in the inhospitable South Atlantic Ocean the Falklands provide a valuable strategic location to rest and refit. The British first arrived in 1690 but left the islands uninhabited until the late 1700s when they were occupied at different times by France, Britain, and Spain. Britain erected a plaque claiming ownership of the islands, but left a few years later leaving the Spanish in control as they were in much of South America. When that Spanish colony fell apart in the early 1800s Argentina instead lay claim to the islands, but not before in 1833 British marines returned to reassert British rule for good. Argentina continued to claim the land, but the Falklands were governed along with South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands as the Falkland Island Dependencies into the 1980s.
Archive clip: "About half the population of 1,800 live in Stanley the world's most southerly capital. The remainder live in what is called 'the camp' comprising sheep farms. The climate, most charitably described as invigorating, is harsh. The people are all of UK origin, many being the descendants of settlers who first came to the islands over 150 years ago. The Queen's representative is the Governor appointed from UK. He's the senior civil administrator to whom the island's elected council is responsible."
So this is the dress uniform of the Governor of the Falkland Islands Rex Hunt, later Sir Rex Hunt. And indeed there are many postings around the world today where diplomatic staff are required to wear ceremonial uniforms exactly like this. It's meant to evoke symbols of power, evoke symbols of control, represented and embodied in the figure of the Governor. Quite a powerful symbol of both the way in which the islanders saw their relationship to the crown and the way in which the Argentinians viewed the presence of the British as some kind of imperial hangover or legacy.
Since the end of the Second World War most of the world, including Britain, had been decolonizing. The Argentinian government expected the Falklands to pass to their control as so many other territories had around the world from former coloniser to former colony. In 1965 the UN issued Resolution 2065 recognizing the sovereignty dispute and asking the UK and Argentina to find a peaceful solution. It was a problem that the British government would rather not have had. The Argentinian claim was based both on the idea of territorial integrity the idea that the islands are part of Argentina's land and on a sense of injustice. That the British presence was an imperial relic with no place in the modern world.
So what we have here is a letter from the museum's collection. It was sent to the museum and I suspect there are many sent to other institutions, it lays out the reasons why Argentina have staked their claim. It talks for example about Argentina being a "self-governing country since 1816". It talks about a constitution talks, about being a "friendly society". And it kind of crystallizes that argument with this line "all those countries have asked themselves how can Great Britain pretend that those islands 7,000 miles away from Great Britain and so near Argentina are British?". So in theory it should be, based on the principle of that claim, relatively straightforward. But of course, it's not straightforward because there is a competing moral claim and that of course comes from the people who actually lived there the islanders themselves.
The Falkland Islanders wanted nothing to do with the proposed decolonization process for two main reasons. Firstly they were descended from and saw themselves as British citizens, it was part of their identity. And secondly no matter how close Argentina was nor how much they depended on it for supplies and communication. Argentina was not, at that time, an appealing alternative.
Since the mid-1970s Argentina had been led by a right-wing authoritarian government known as the Military Junta. With the support of successive U.S Governments determined to root out communism in South America, people deemed enemies of the state were treated appallingly. Around 30,000 citizens known as 'the disappeared' were murdered, some of them drugged and thrown into the ocean in what became known as 'the Dirty War'. Argentina had also come close to war with Chile in a dispute over the Beagle Straits and as social unrest grew, economic issues developed as well.
Suddenly the situation was murky. Britain might once have been an imperial power, but it was now a democracy. And on the other hand Argentina had shaken off European imperial rule, but it was now a military dictatorship with real issues.
So in the face of all of these problems, one thing is potentially offering itself to the Junta as a solution and that is to focus the attention of the people on a historic injustice. By 1982 the government, the press, the people of Argentina have been describing the Falklands in increasingly desperate terms. One Argentinian general described it as the "open wound on Argentina's soul". And if the Falklands to the Argentinian people is a historic injustice, then perhaps that is something that can unify a nation and provide an externally focused way of moving on from the horrors of the Dirty War.
Throughout the 1970s the British and Argentinian governments continued to negotiate on the Falklands, whether the islanders liked it or not. The British had an economic crisis of their own and were looking to offload the costs of supporting the islands. Some proposals included a Hong Kong-style deal which would see the islands transferred to Argentina and then leased back to Britain for a period of time. Another was simply to pay each Falkland Islander to move to New Zealand, but neither of these ever got off the ground. Though there was some distrust between the islanders and the British government the islander's lobby in Westminster was strong and ensured that their wishes were never off the table. That meant that the British and Argentinian governments were fundamentally opposed. On one side a claim based on territorial integrity and a perceived historical injustice, and on the other, a claim based on historical precedent and the right to self-determination. Their views were simply incompatible.
With the Falkland negotiations going nowhere the British government had few options. They could turn the Falklands into a fortress with an increased military presence and essentially rule out Argentine possession. But it was feared that this would not only be an expensive drain on Britain's forces which were already committed to NATO but also that it might provoke the Argentinians into military action. So instead the British chose to continue negotiating and hope that circumstances would change and things would work themselves out in the future.
But of course, this is all about messages sent and messages received. So with all of these considerations not just about what the governments of Argentina and Britain say but what they do becomes increasingly important as each side tries to second guess what the other is about to do. And I think one of the most interesting examples of that deliberation, that dilemma that the British government found itself in we can see in Hangar 3 here at Duxford.
The signals which Britain sent during the negotiations would eventually convince Argentina to invade the Falklands. Perhaps the clearest was that they were prepared to negotiate at all. It implied that Britain was at least willing to consider transferring the islands despite the feelings of the islanders. The British government position did harden with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, but with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office handling negotiations, those changes took time to filter through. The issues remained as polarizing as before.
Another clear symbol came from the defences on the Falklands themselves or the lack thereof. Just 40 Royal Marines defended the islands and defence cuts were about to make things even worse.
So we're now next to the Westland Wasp helicopter. Now Wasps were a Royal Navy helicopter that was small enough and agile enough to operate with very limited room very small hangers so they folded away quite neatly. If you look at this one there's the name of its ship on the front HMS Endurance. So the Royal Navy maintains HMS Endurance for several months a year in the South Atlantic. It's an ice patrol ship, not like a classic warship, nicknamed 'the red plum' because it has a bright red hull. And this aircraft in its later career actually served on that in the South Atlantic, you'll be able to see a penguin on the side that references that South Atlantic and Antarctic connection. But that's just one Royal Navy vessel. One Royal Navy vessel that's there part of the year not all of the year. When it's decided that it will not survive the next round of defence cuts that sends a very powerful message. That the only ship designed to operate in the South Atlantic for extended periods of time will soon not be there.
For Argentina, it seemed that Britain's commitment to the Falklands was weakening. In 1976 the Argentinians had established a military base on Southern Thule in the Sandwich Islands which Britain owned. But the response had been minimal as the British were worried about provoking the Argentinians. Then in March of 1982 things went a step further. When Argentinian scrap metal workers landed on South Georgia to dismantle the old whaling station they were accompanied by Argentinian marines who erected an Argentine flag. In response to this direct threat to British sovereignty, HMS Endurance was dispatched with 22 Royal Marines. The flag was taken down, but HMS Endurance was then ordered to hold off.
For Britain, the response to all these crises had been proportionate, but to the Argentinians, they appeared token at best. All this pointed to one glaring conclusion, that an invasion of the Falklands would meet no British counter. Signals from around the world were also positive. They had a UN Resolution, support for many Latin American nations, and US backing in the fight against communism. And even if the British did respond, taking back the islands over 8,000 miles away from the UK was another matter.
Everything that we've talked about was leading the Argentinian government to assess that the risk of a British retaliation was low. That if they were going to solve the issue of sovereignty, if they're going to come back and attempt to right that wrong of 1833, then this was an ideal time to do it. And to explain what that invasion was like for the people who experienced it we're going to go back and have a look at a couple of objects.
On the 1st of April 1982, Governor Rex Hunt was informed that an Argentinian invasion was imminent, he had little time to organize a defence. The Royal Marine garrison was actually in the process of changing over and so was double the usual strength it would normally have been. This was augmented by some naval hydrographers from HMS Endurance and members of the local Falkland Islands Defence Force bringing the total to around 85 men. Needless to say, this was not enough to repel a full-scale invasion, so the royal marines concentrated their defence on Government House. With limited weapons and supplies, they knew they could not hold out for long. Instead, they planned to give the Argentinians a bloody nose and show the world that the Falklands would not give in without a fight. At 11pm that night, the first Argentine special forces troops landed at Lake Point and advanced inland. Most of the troops moved to Moody Brook barracks which they attacked but found empty. While the rest moved on to Government house where the main fight would take place.
These are placemats to put under your plates on a table, but these placemats are from Government House in the Falkland Islands. The extraordinary thing about them is that they've been damaged by shrapnel or an Argentinian round. Because when Government House came under attack there's a crucial thing to remember in that it was made largely out of wood. One of the things that happened was that bullets passed through, not just the walls, but the cabinet holding these and actually damaged them there. Not only do they show the sort of damage that if it was inflicted on a person would kill them. The juxtaposition of these scenes of diplomatic gentility, this sort of 19th-century precision and elegance smashed with a bullet or a piece of shrapnel. These mats are an extraordinary witness to the events of that night.
As the battle for Government House raged on newly landed Argentinian Amtracs were making their way up from Yorke Bay into Stanley they were held up by Royal Marines on the main road. But as they advanced on Government House itself Rex Hunt had a choice to make. One option was to head out into the camp and mount a guerrilla campaign, but in the face of now overwhelming Argentinian force he made the difficult decision to surrender.
Rex Hunt: "Dear friends I'm afraid I'm not being given the time to say farewell to you all as I would have wished. But the new Argentine governor has kindly given me permission to send you this last message of good wishes and thanks for all your support. I shall never forget you and hope that we shall meet again someday".
He was repatriated to the UK along with the Royal Marines wearing the ceremonial uniform which we saw earlier. The following day, after spirited resistance from HMS Endurance's Royal Marines South Georgia too was captured by the Argentinians at the Battle of Grytviken. When news reached Argentina the mood was jubilant. Their ''open wound had finally been sutured. But as the British government reacted Argentinian assumptions regarding the next phase quickly fell apart.
The decision was taken almost immediately that they would have to be retaken. A combined land, sea, and air campaign that would have to leave as soon as possible. But it still remains the case that to the vast majority of the people in the United Kingdom the Falklands are not something that is immediately knowable to them. The joke is that many people thought they were off the coast of Scotland. So suddenly to discover, not only that these islands exist, but they have been taken by force. There is predictably a level of outrage.
As Britain readied its task force the rest of the world reacted to the invasion with shock. The UN issued Resolution 502 calling for an immediate withdrawal of Argentine forces. The US, after attempts to broker a peace, also came down on the side of the UK. They offered arms such as Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and the continued use of Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island both of which would prove crucial in the battle to come. And although several Latin American nations voiced approval for Argentina's claim to the islands, Chile did not. The threat of war between the two would keep Argentinian assets tied down on the mainland, while Chilean intelligence would provide early warnings of Argentine air movements and become crucial to the survival of British aircrews.
So it's fair to conclude that the response is neither what the Argentinians hoped for nor in many respects predicted. They wanted Britain not to attempt to retake the islands, they wanted the United States to, if not back them, then at least to remain neutral. And they wanted this to be seen by the wider international community as righting a historical injustice. It's a slightly different prospect and once again that spectre of using military force against a people who do not wish to have their government changed begins to enter the calculus of a lot of places around the world.
Though Argentina's moral claim to the Falklands had begun to falter, the basic odds in the coming conflicts were still very much in Argentina's favour. They were fighting in their own backyard close to their lines of supply, while British forces would have to sail over 8,000 miles from home and rely on just two aircraft carriers for air cover. To find out how they managed to do it make sure you subscribe so you don't miss any of our next four episodes where we explore the Falklands conflict on sea, air, and land, as well as its far-reaching impact on the people involved and the modern world.
The Falklands has often been called a small war and that's a bit of a misnomer really because the Falklands has enormous significance. You don't have to look very far around the world at the moment to see these same issues of historical perceived injustices butting up against the rights of self-determination people living there now. And of course, this is still a live issue because, although the conflict ended, that didn't end Argentina's desire to see the Falkland Islands part of their country. And it did not end Britain's commitment to the islanders. The distance between those two points is just as vast. The only difference is Argentina tested the limits of that proposition using military force and for many people that crossed a line that can never be uncrossed.