It was a brief but violent war that baffled Americans, drove Britons to an ecstasy of patriotism and totally blindsided the Argentines. For 150 years Argentina and Great Britain had contested sovereignty over the Falklands and South Georgia, a group of wind-ravaged, virtually treeless islands in the South Atlantic. Though essentially worthless, they had once been useful as coaling stations for Royal Navy warships. In 1982 they were populated by sheep and 1,800 docile British subjects.
In March 1982 the Argentines decided to put a stop to the endless diplomatic back-and-forth. They landed troops on the Falklands and ran up their flag, never dreaming the British would fight a war to regain the rocky piles. The British, for their part, couldn’t imagine the Argentines standing up to the task force that sailed south from Portsmouth to fight nearly 8,000 miles from home.
By mid-April two aircraft carriers, 23 destroyers and frigates, six submarines, eight large amphibious-warfare ships, dozens of support ships (including the Cunard luxury liner Queen Elizabeth 2) and 28 Harrier jump jets had set forth toward some of the most hostile, subantarctic waters in the world. Fighting on the Falklands lasted from May 1 to June 14, 1982, and it was far from a mismatch.
British strategy had been to gain air and sea supremacy and then proceed with an amphibious assault on the main island. They did neither but landed their troops anyway. There were several Midwaylike moments when a well-timed Argentine air assault could have turned the tide against Britain. Ultimately, however, the most highly trained soldiers and officers the British had ever sent to war vanquished the Argentines.
To this day the two countries dispute ownership of the islands.
■ Professional soldiers beat draftees. The Argentine army comprised conscripts led by politically chosen generals. The British had an army of pros commanded by elite officers.
■ Racism can get you killed. Though many British dismissed their foes as “just wogs,” Argentine pilots proved skillful and brave. “We should have known that a nation that produces some of the world’s best Formula 1 drivers could produce a few good pilots as well,” said one officer.
■ Obstinacy also kills. As UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar said, “[Falklands sovereignty] was the sort of problem which would take 10 minutes to solve if both sides were willing.”
■ Read the manuals. The Argentines didn’t have the manuals for their American-made bombs, which would have shown them how to fuze the weapons for low-altitude attack. As it was, very few went off, since the Argentine pilots dropped them so low they didn’t arm.
■ Good missiles and agile aircraft even the odds. Though slower and less flashy than Argentina’s Skyhawks and Mirages, Britain’s Harriers used American Sidewinder missiles and homegrown maneuverability to dominate the Falkland skies.
■ Airborne early warning is crucial. The British had none, and their shipborne radar was useless. They first saw Argentine attackers when they popped up over the Falklands hills, already into their bombing runs.
■ Choose valuable targets. The Argentine air force targeted warships but ignored the more crucial troop transports.
■ Low and fast equals hard to hit. The anti-aircraft missiles fitted to British warships were largely incapable of tracking and hitting fast-moving Argentine attackers.
■ Fitness counts. The Royal Marines stunned their truck-reliant conscript Argentine foes by sucking it up and conducting marathon cross-country forced marches they called “yomping”—carrying up to 120 pounds per man.
Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.