The incident that sparked off the Falklands conflict was so instantly polarising that historians have since speculated that it might have been secretly orchestrated by the Junta, the military dictatorship that at that time ran Argentina. On 19th March 1982 an Argentinian scrap-metal merchant, along with 39 workman, landed on South Georgia, a British-owned territory near the Falkland Islands. Ostensibly there to rummage through a graveyard of ancient whaling ships, the merchant, Costantino Sergio Davidoff, incensed the British when he defiantly planted an Argentine flag on the island’s rugged shoreline. Britain demanded that he present himself to properly request permission to forage metal on British soil, but he refused. The British Embassy and Argentine Foreign Ministry got involved, and suddenly the rightful ownership of the Falkland Islands was a hot topic in government. All of this boosted support for the Junta, which had been suffering a dive in popularity.
Ominous rumblings began to reach the government via intelligence channels, suggesting that Argentina was planning an imminent invasion of the Falklands, and HMS Endurance, with a crew of a dozen marines, was dispatched to guard South Georgia, while Argentina also sent soldiers ‘to protect the remaining workmen on the island’. More Naval personnel were dispatched the help from Port Stanley, the capital of the islands, and Argentina sent two Corvettes, small warships, to patrol the area. The stage was set for a fight, but it would commence on the Falkland Islands themselves.
The fact that Britain was taken by surprise by the speed of the attack is illustrated by the fact that, the very day before it was launched, there was a ‘changing of the guard’ in the Port Stanley garrison. The company of Marines that had been based on the islands all year departed on 1st April, and a new batch of guards was brought in, under Major Mike Norman. It was horrible luck that, on his first afternoon of the new assignment, Norman should be called in and told the news that a hostile force was likely already on its way. Although some of the previous guards and the old commander, Major Gary Noott, had still not departed, against 4,500 invading troops, Norman could place just 80 men. Knowing that it would not ultimately be possible to defend the capital, he nonetheless set about trying to hold the Argentinians at bay. He secured the airport and Yorke Bay, a possible landing site, and deployed his troops towards the east, the direction from which he felt an attack was likely to come.
He was wrong; the attack came from the west, and first fell upon the empty barracks of the garrison (where it was vainly hoped that the British defenders would still be snoozing) The Argentine soldiers landed at 4.30 am on 2nd April, with 150 Buzo Tactico Argentinian Special Forces men spearheading the invasion, and the explosions began at 6.15. Quickly, Norman ordered his troops to pull back to Government House, the garrison’s headquarters. There they fiercely held their own against the much more plentiful Argentinian troops, until they heard from the inhabitants of the island (who had been sheltering and passing news via the local radio station) that amphibious tanks (Amtracks) were en route. There was no way that the British could fight long-range weapons such as these, so Norman convinced Governor Rex Hunt to surrender. This he did, after first explaining to the Argentine commander, Admiral Bussar, with dignity that his men were unwelcome at the island and should leave at once. Knowing he had far more men and arms the Admiral declined to oblige, and the governor ordered the Marines to lay down their arms. Small parties of Marines around the rest of the island soon followed suit. The invasion had taken just 5 hours, and the news was broken to Britain as follows (this text is taken from Marshall Cavendish’s comprehensive compendium, ‘The Falklands War’):
Lon: Hello there what are all these rumours we hear this is Lon
FK: We have lots of new friends
Lon: What about invasion rumours
FK: Those are the friends I was meaning
Lon: They have landed?
The telex operator confirmed, in the same correspondence, that the invading party had been too large to resist, and that Argentina now had absolute control of the capital, a fact which reached the ears of the small clutch of defenders on South Georgia via radio communication. Nick Barker, the Captain of the HMS Endurance, briefed the Marines’ commander, Lieutenant Keith Mills, to put up a token defence. He replied defiantly that he would ‘make their eyes water’, and that’s just what he set about doing. With a meagre 22 men at his disposal, outnumbered 50:1 by the invaders, he first set about booby-trapping the jetty, then settled down to wait.
At 10.30 on 3rd April the Argentinian fleet entered the bay, and was met by Mills, who coolly informed them that they should expect to meet with resistance if they attempted to land. He then tried to lure them towards the jetty, but instead of sending a boat the Argentinians went in with a Puma helicopter, which fired on Mills. As he beat a hasty retreat, a second Puma landed – only to be shot down by the gutsy defenders. Two other helicopters, Allouettes, met with the same fate.
The Corvette ARA Guerrico moved forward to shoot at them, and, encouraged by their successes so far, the Marines went at her with everything they had as she moved out again. A well-placed shot from a Carl Gustav Recoilless Rifle put a hole below her water line, while another tipped her gun skywards, rendering it useless. She was in real danger of being sunk! As she fled the Marines continued to pursue her with heavy fire, but by now they were more or less surrounded. It had only taken until noon for the tiny force to surrender, but considering how colossal the disparity of men and arms available to the two sides was, it’s amazing that they even had the courage to put up a fight, let alone such a fierce and intimidating one. The Argentines couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw how few men had kept them at bay, and Lieutenant Mills was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his gallantry.
The Falkland Islands were now comprehensively under Argentinian control… but it would not be long until Britain fought back.