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Naval Gazing: The Empire Strikes Back

By Tom Anderson

HMS Antelope returning to San Carlos Water after being hit during the Falklands War.

In the roughly 45 years of the Cold War, the great naval buildup by the United States and her allies, and the more modest and asymmetric one by the USSR and hers, was never tested in battle. At least, not between the two sides. There were individual naval incidents between East and West, such as the very early (1946) clash between Britain and Albania over the mining of the Corfu Channel which had damaged HMS Volange and Saumarez, or the much later (1984) collision between the Soviet submarine K-314 and the American aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk during wargames. But as far as open warfare went, it was much more common to see skirmishes between unexpected belligerents which did not fit into the concept of a bipolar, ideologically-defined Cold war world. In the last article we looked at the Bangladeshi War of Independence (incorporating the Indo-Pakistan War) as one of the biggest examples of this, as well as mentioning the Ogaden War between two theoretical Soviet clients (Ethiopia and Somalia). There were also clashes between two titular Western allies, such as the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 (still not resolved to this day, with the island still divided). At the centre of the biggest of these were the South American republic of Argentina and the fading former superpower of Britain. What lay at stake: a small group of islands in the grey, windswept South Atlantic of which most Britons, before 1982, had barely heard—and the lives of the roughly 1,800 people who lived there. The Falklands War looms large in both the British and Argentine cultural imaginations to this day. Sea Lion Press has already seen an extensive account of the conflict itself by one who was there, our own David Flin, and I will not attempt to compete with his work—my own connection is one level removed, as my uncle served in the conflict on HMS Hydra. Instead, I am going to focus on the background to the conflict and what it meant in the long run for both nations. One point emphasised by British writers is just how unexpected the war was for the average Briton. People in 1982 were conditioned to associate the idea of war with either an apocalyptic world war with the USSR, or at least a more localised proxy war (like Vietnam, which Britain stayed out of) but still motivated by the East-west divide. There was an air of unreality to Britain fighting one last colonial war to protect what remained of her overseas possessions, against a country that was a fellow US ally and which most British people had only a nodding acquaintance with except as a potential football World Cup opponent. This, together with the self-contained nature of the war, led the late Alison Brooks, Alternate History pioneer and Falklands Veteran, to write a hilarious ‘review’ of the war as though it was a laughably implausible AH novel. Yet despite this impression by the general public, the seeds of conflict had long since been sown. The first person to discover the then-uninhabited islands remains disputed, with the first recorded landing being that of Englishman John Strong in 1690. Strong gave the name Falkland to the islands and the Sound between them, taking it from his patron, the Scottish nobleman Anthony Cary, 5th Viscount Falkland. The islands remained uninhabited until both Britain and France planted small outposts there in the 1760s, established by John MacBride and Louis, Comte de Bougainville respectively. Bougainville (who also gave his name to an island of Papua New Guinea later immortalised by a Second World War battle) had intended his colonial project to be a site to resettle those French Acadians expelled by the British from North America for their refusal to sign loyalty oaths. His force had set out from St Malo in Brittany, so he named the islands the Îles Malouines. The French colony was ultimately unsustainable, in part because Spain advanced a (rather theoretical) claim to the islands and the French monarchy gave concessions to Spain in order to maintain their alliance. Although the islands might seem remote and unimportant, they were strategically vital as a potential site for a British base to raid Spanish shipping. Spain had not previously colonised the islands; they were only important to Spanish interests if someone else controlled them. Spain agreed to maintain the French settlement at Port Louis, renaming it Puerto Solidad (‘Port Solitude’). Meanwhile the British maintained their separate settlement at Port Egmont until the arrival of a Spanish force led by Don Juan Ignacio de Madariaga in 1770, forcing the colonists to leave. This sparked outrage back in Britain—the ‘Falklands Crisis’—and war nearly ensued between Britain and Spain and their allies. The situation was defused when French monarch Louis XV, against the wishes of his minister the Duc de Choiseul, refused to support the Spanish and the latter backed down. Britain was allowed to re-establish her colony, yet neither side backed down from their claimed sovereignty over all the islands. It is noteworthy that if a Falklands War had started in 1770 rather than 1982, the world we live in would look rather different—what would have happened in Britain’s American colonies, for example, already simmering under unpopular laws and heading towards what would become open rebellion? In fact, Lord North’s hand was strengthened by his apparent success in the Falklands Crisis, and his actions a few years later were in part driven by the incorrect assumption that the French would once again back down and not get involved in an American revolt. It is certainly an underdone topic for alternate history.


Map of the Falklands by Eric Gaba. Shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

British forces left the islands again in 1774 due to overstretch, though a plaque was left signifying Britain’s continued claim. Spain reoccupied Port Egmont during the American Revolutionary War, but her days as a colonial power were coming to an end, and she withdrew her own people in 1811, leaving the islands uninhabited once again. Spain’s New World colonies declared independence during the Napoleonic Wars (for reasons too complex to go into here, but principally because Spain was being dominated by Napoleonic France). Spain’s claim to the Falklands (or the Islas Malvinas, a hispanicised form of the French name) had been as part of the colonial Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata. This term, rendered into English as ‘the River Plate’, refers to plate in the sense of silver plate; silver was mined and minted at Potosí in modern Bolivia before being shipped from the capital port city of Buenos Aires (meaning Fair Winds). The Viceroyalty consisted of roughly what became the later nations of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. Argentina also takes its name from that historic silver trade, its name meaning Land of Silver in Latin. Her flag consists of horizontal bands of light blue, white and light blue, with a ‘Sun of May’ symbol referencing both traditional Inca beliefs and the May Revolution which gave birth to the independent nation in 1810. However, prior to this her people had also defeated two British attempts to occupy Buenos Aires in 1806 and 1807, which (having been achieved with no help from Spain) gave them the confidence to rebel a few years later. Argentine independence was achieved through campaigns led by leaders including Manuel Belgrano, Juan José Castelli and José de San Martín, whose names one will notice reoccuring in later history. Britain had long desired trade with South America; a century earlier the South Sea Bubble scandal, which ultimately created the institution of Prime Minister, had in part been driven by the fact that the trade concessions there she had won during the War of the Spanish Succession turned out to be exaggerated. Britain signed a treaty recognising Argentine independence in 1825 and swiftly developed economic interests in the region—which is another way of saying that, for much of the nineteenth century, Argentina has been described as an unofficial extension of the British Empire. In particular, British railway engineers remarked that her land was so suitable for the new invention that it seemed already prepared to take the rails.


The Argentine economy grew remarkably, with her wealth lying not in the silver that had given her her name, but in grain and beef for export to hungry Europe. This growth happened despite Argentina going through much of the same political instability and conflicts as her fellow South American republics; in her case this mostly focused on the question of whether she would be a confederation or a unitary state. Even the Panic of 1873, one of the great financial depressions of history, was compensated for by Julio Argentino Roca’s ‘Conquest of the Desert’, in which Patagonian land was supplied for settlers (regardless of what the Mapuche natives had to say about it). Argentina is also remarkable for her demographics. There remains controversy over the Afro-Argentine minority being written out of history, but even just her white European peoples are drawn from a wide variety of countries. More than half of Argentines have Italian ancestry, and a sizeable number of Argentines are descended from families originating from Germany or the British Isles. Argentina claimed the islands from the start, attributing this to inheriting the former Spanish claim. The islands remained uninhabited barring temporary shipwrecks and settlements by fishers or whalers; in the 1820s Luis Vernet attempted to found a colony for fishing purposes after seeking permission from both Britain and Argentina. Vernet claimed a monopoly on seal hunting rights and seized several American rival ships, which led to intervention by the USS Lexington in 1831. (Vernet launched a long-running dispute with the US government which lasted for more than 50 years). Charles Darwin and the Beagle visited the islands two years later, and in response to the Argentines reasserting their claim, Britain occupied the islands and reasserted her sovereignty from 1833. Settlers arrived in the 1840s and the islands saw use as a resupply station for ships heading to round Cape Horn for the California goldrush of 1849. Fishing and whaling remained the main industry of the isles, with sheep and cattle also introduced. The new capital of Port Stanley became a key Royal Navy base, and it has already been covered in these articles how naval battles were fought against Germany in waters near the Falklands in the early parts of both the First and Second World Wars. A disproportionate number of Falkland Islanders also served in the British armed forces in the latter war.


Juan Perón in 1946

Throughout the nineteenth century, Argentina was in no position to dispute the British claim. Not only was Britain the world’s leading naval superpower, but British companies also dominated large parts of Argentina’s economy. Food supplies from Argentina, brought in convoys defying U-boat attack, were crucial to keeping Britain going in both World Wars. But things changed with the coming of Juan Péron, a second-generation Italian immigrant, to the Argentine presidency in 1946. Argentine prosperity had been wrecked by the Great Depression and the ‘Infamous Decade’ of political instability had followed. With Britain now weakened and in debt to Argentina following the war, Péron seized the opportunity to nationalise British-owned companies, especially the railways. His populist ideology is known as ‘Peronism’, and one’s opinion on it seems to have dominated political discourse in Argentina ever since—despite it being almost impossible to define, with both ‘right-wing peronists’ and ‘left-wing peronists’ existing. Péron’s first term in power was helped by the popularity of his second wife, Eva ‘Evita’ Péron, who regained prominence following a Lloyd Webber musical in the 1970s. (Ironically, this was probably how a lot of British people in 1982 knew anything not football-related about Argentina). In 1953 Péron offered to buy the Falklands from Britain, but the Foreign Office ruled this out as unthinkable. Péron was then overthrown by a military coup in 1955, leading to years of instability, attempted democratic restorations followed by further coups, and political violence. Argentine rhetoric about claims to the islands escalated throughout the 1960s. Péron returned from exile for a brief second term as president from 1973-4 before his death. He was succeeded by his third wife Isabel. At this time the United States covertly backed right-wing coups against left-wing governments throughout Latin America (‘Operation Condor’) and in Argentina under Isabel Péron this took the form of the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (‘Triple-A’) death squads, connected with the Italy-based ‘P2’ right-wing Masonic lodge. Before long, though, Isabel herself was ousted by a military junta (officially the ‘National Reorganisation Process’) which launched the ‘Dirty War’ against dissidents. Those who lost their lives in the process are known as the ‘disappeared’. Greatly unpopular and seeking a rallying cause, the NRP junta looked for one to capitalise on. A war of some kind was probably inevitable, but it might have been very different to the one we know. In 1975 the Argentine government declared Britain’s ownership of the island to be ‘an act of international piracy’, and the Argentine destroyer ARA Almirante Storni (formerly USS Cowell) fired on the British Antarctic surveyor RRS Shackleton. A year later the Argentines established a military base on the uninhabited but British-claimed island of Southern Thule. This met with diplomatic protests from the British Labour Government of Jim Callaghan, whose Secretary of State for Defence, David Owen, sent a task force (Operation Journeyman) led by the submarine HMS Dreadnought in response. The Argentines backed down from further action at that point; Owen later claimed that if Margaret Thatcher had been similarly decisive in 1982 in response to the first rumblings of action, the war could have been averted. Or conversely, if Callaghan had been slow to respond in 1976 and war had ensued, would it have been his own shaky government to be buoyed up by a military victory over Argentina? For a while it seemed as though the junta had found a different cause. When Argentina and her neighbour Chile had won their independence, it was at a time when the Spanish Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata had advanced only a theoretical claim to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, at the bottom of South America. The precise claims of the two nations therefore overlapped, particularly in the case of Picton, Lennox and Nueva islands, three strategically important isles in the Beagle Channel (named for Darwin and FitzRoy’s aforementioned ship, which had mapped it). In 1971 the Argentines and Chileans had submitted their claims to Queen Elizabeth II as an arbiter, though the decision would be taken by the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The court ruled in 1977 that the islands belonged to Chile, which the NRP junta predictably rejected. Direct negotiations between the two nations continued, while the junta plotted to launch a military invasion of Chile in December 1978: Operación Soberanía (Operation Sovereignty). However, this was ultimately called off after initial moves due to both bad weather on the day of the attack, and the news leaking to Pope John Paul II, who intervened with his personal envoy Cardinal Antonio Samoré. If things had been slightly different, then this might have been the only war in the region in this era: imagine how different both South America and Britain would look today without a Falklands War! With Soberanía cancelled and a new government in power in Britain (Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives winning the 1979 general election) the junta, now led by General Leopoldo Galtieri, Air Brigadier Basilio Lami Dozo and Admiral Jorge Anaya, turned back to the Falklands. Anaya was the main architect of the invasion, believing that Britain would not respond militarily to a swift occupation. Anaya’s assertion was in part driven by the new British government’s cost-cutting Defence White Paper of 1981, which would see the Royal Navy essentially abandoned as anything other than an anti-submarine force for local NATO operations. In particular, the planned to withdrawal of the ice patrol vessel HMS Endurance, as well as the mooted sale of aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare vessels for the Royal Marines, suggested to Anaya that Britain had abandoned any attempt to project military force overseas. Despite warning signs from Endurance, the British Government was caught offguard on April 2nd 1982 when the Argentines under Rear Admiral Carlos Büsser (who, ironically, had British ancestry) launched Operation Rosario against the islands. The isles were swiftly occupied and Governor Rex Hunt surrendered. While the United Nations condemned the attack and some in Britain wanted the matter to be settled at the UN, a military task force (Operation Corporate) was launched by the Thatcher Government in order to recapture the islands. This was led by the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes and commanded by Admiral Sir John Forster ‘Sandy’ Woodward. The assessment of US Navy analysts at the time was that Britain retaking the islands was effectively impossible, pointing to Argentina’s arsenal of French-built Exocet anti-ship missiles and Super Étendard planes, and her two German-built Type 209 submarines. (Britain herself had also previously sold ships to Argentina, although Argentina did have some domestic military production, such as the FMA IA 58 Pucará counter-insurgency aircraft).


Image taken of the ARA Belgrano sinking by Martin Sgut

The events of the war are almost burnt into the cultural memories of both Britain and Argentina. The Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano, which had survived Pearl Harbor in 1941 as the USS Phoenix, was sunk by the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror on May 2nd 1982. This was regarded as controversial in Britain at the time as it lay outside an exclusion zone the British had just declared, but was later acknowledged as a legitimate military attack by the Argentine government. More than half of Argentina’s war dead consisted of the 323 lives lost in the sinking. This was the second and last time a submarine had sank a target since the Second World War (the first being Pakistan’s PNS Hangor mentioned in the previous article) and the first and only nuclear submarine to do so. The attack was important not merely for its boost to British morale, but because it meant the remainder of the Argentine Armada effectively returned to its ports and played no other part in the remainder of the conflict. While the Falklands War is often described as the most significant naval conflict since the Second World War, this single clash was therefore strictly the only conflict between ships. The remainder of the naval war therefore consisted of the Royal Navy being attacked by the Argentine Air Force and Argentine Naval Aviation. HMS Sheffield, a former command of Admiral Woodward, was sank two days after the General Belgrano by Exocets fired from the Super Étendards of Argentina’s Second Naval Fighter/Strike Squadron. 20 lives were lost and 26 more personnel received injuries. The name ‘Exocet’ entered British discourse overnight, and to this day remained a common analogy for any fast-moving object by people who lived through the 1980s. British soldiers, commandos and Royal Marines were then landed at San Carlos to defeat their Argentine counterparts on the islands (Operation Sutton). The narrow bay was described as ‘Bomb Alley’ by the British, and rendered the ships vulnerable to attack from the unguided iron bombs of Argentina’s older American-built Skyhawk planes. The British found their Rapier anti-aircraft missiles and other anti-aircraft weapons to be less effective than hoped. Despite this, the British suffered fewer losses than one might expect because of fuse problems with the Argentine bombs meaning that they frequently failed to detonate. Admiral Woodward later accused the BBC World Service’s reporting of alerting the Argentines to this fact and leading them to make changed. Bombs sank the destroyer HMS Coventry, the frigates HMS Ardent and Antelope (the latter exploding during attempts to defuse an unexploded bomb) and inflicted damage on several other ships. Despite the problems with the anti-aircraft weapons, Britain’s Sea Harrier (or ‘Shar’) ‘jumpjet’ planes also entered the public consciousness for their remarkable vertical takeoff and manoeuvrability. Though it made it challenging to fly, the Harrier’s adjustable jets allowed the tactic known as ‘viffing’, rapid evasive movements in unexpected directions which no normal plane could achieve. The planes were also equipped with the latest radar systems and Sidewinder missiles. This meant that, though 28% of Argentina’s air losses in the conflicts came from the outnumbered Harriers, the Argentines were unable to shoot down a single Harrier in return. Despite British losses, the task force had successfully achieved a beachhead. Britain’s land forces, specifically the Second Battalion, Parachute Regiment (“2 Para”) and 8 Commando Battery, Royal Artillery, attacked Goose Green and Darwin with gunfire support from HMS Arrow. The Battle of Goose Green is another moment seared into the British cultural memory, in particular the death of Colonel H Jones (always known by his initial) in leading from the front against dug-in Argentine trenches. Following this British victory, Argentine commander General Mario Menéndez attempted to stall the British advance in two primary actions: a clash between Argentine and British special forces in the Mount Kent region, and air attacks against British reinforcements unloading at Bluff Cove. At this point, damage to the landing ship RFA Sir Galahad from Skyhawk attack whilst trying to unload Welsh Guards led to fires which killed 48 soldiers and crewmen. Others were badly injured, including Simon Weston, who recovered from severe burns to become a prominent charity campaigner. The Royal Marines played a crucial role in evacuating the survivors from the vessel. This attack delayed the British advance (under Major General Jeremy Moore) on Port Stanley by two days, but Menéndez believed British losses were much greater than they were. A final series of battles was fought between 11th and 14th June (Mount Harriet, Two Sisters, Mount Longdon, Wireless Ridge, and Tumbledown). At the end of this phase, Menéndez surrendered to Moore. The only remaining actions of the war consisted of Britain seizing the South Sandwich Islands (including Southern Thule) which Argentina had occupied in the opening days of the war.


Margaret Thatcher as photographed by Rob Bogaerts from the Dutch National Archives

The impact of the Falklands War was enormous on both its combatants. The Argentine junta collapsed over the next few months following the loss, with a new democratic election held in 1983. That year also saw the next British general election. Thatcher’s Conservative Party, which had frequently looked endangered in the polls before the war thanks to its controversial policies, won one of the biggest majorities in British history and paved the way for her to occupy Number 10, Downing Street for more than a decade in total. That obviously radically reshaped the political landscape of Britain in the short term, yet it also came with subtler effects. There was widespread British public perception (whether justified or no) that Britain could not rely on international diplomacy and fair-weather friends. The move of the Royal Navy towards a specialised jigsaw piece in a NATO whole was halted and became politically impossible to advocate (as was any vaguely equivocal-looking position on the sovereignty of the Falklands or any other British overseas territory). This had substantial consequences for the future, some of them slowly burning beneath the surface for years. As of 2020, the Falklands War remains the last major naval conflict of any sort in the world, yet it lies almost 40 years ago. We are now as distant from that war as its combatants were from the Second World War. The naval military lessons of the Falklands mostly supported those already learned: the importance of aircraft carriers and air superiority, the effectiveness of anti-ship missiles and attack submarines. There were also some important lessons about failed assumptions about anti-aircraft weapons and radar, and the effectiveness of VTOL aircraft (which influenced future designs of many nations). Less than a decade after the Falklands War, the Cold War finally ended. What next? Find out in the final article in this series.

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Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth