The 40th Anniversary of the Falklands War: ‘Global’ Britain and Reality


By Kenneth Maxwell

On 14 June 2022, the UK remembered the 40 year anniversary of the Falklands War. Looking back provides insights as well with regard to the state of “global” Britain.

In the age of the Brexiters self-proclaimed “global Britain’ two very distinguished British historians, the late Michael Howard and Max Hastings, disagree about the relevance and the meaning of the British victory 40 years ago over Argentina in the Falklands War.

Sir Michael Howard (1922-2019) who served with distinction in the Italian campaign during the WW2 founded the war studies department at King’s College, London, and was one of the founders of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He was the Regis Professor of History at Oxford. He died in 2019 at the age of 97. He saw the Falklands War as perpetuating the “silly illusion about brave little Britain.

Sir Max Hastings, the distinguished military historian, who was the first journalist to enter Port Stanley after the British victory in the Falklands War, writing last week in The London Times said that it is “unlikely that a Latin American junta will again provide us with a pitch on which to achieve a cup-winning triumph against an adversary which was exactly the right size for Britain to defeat in 1982.”

Max Hastings is no friend of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson now seeking political salvation though his avid support for Ukraine in its war against the Russian invasion. Max Hastings believes that Britain needs a “future” not a return to “imperial weights and measures” which is among Johnson’s latest wish list.

Max Hastings called Johnson, who he had known since the 1980s when he was the editor of The Daily Telegraph and Johnson was his correspondent in Brussels, “a cavorting charlatan who will be an unfunny joke as PM.”

Mrs. Thatcher whatever else she may have been was certainly no charlatan. Nostalgia about the Falklands War is all right up to a point. No one would deny the heroism of the British armed forces involved in the Falklands campaign nor Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s determination to launch and sustain the military campaign over 8000 miles away from Britain in the far South Atlantic.

Some in the U.S. at the time believed that the British task force was doomed to failure. The circumstances at the time, however, were very special, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Britain obtained the support of the UN Security Council where only Panama supported Argentina. Both China and the Soviet Union abstained. Britain was also supported by French President Francois Mitterrand.

The quiet but essential support of Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher was essential. Reagan had initially sought a compromise and sent Secretary of State Alexander Haigh on a South Atlantic shuttle. The U.K. was totally unprepared for the Argentinian invasion. John Nott, the UK Defense Secretary, did not even know where the Falklands were located.

The American Ambassador to the UN, the formidable Jeane Kirkpatrick, had argued that the U.S. needed to have strong relations with the Latin American military regimes. She was dining at the Argentinian embassy in Washington on the very evening that the Argentinian armed forces invaded the Falklands.

Kirkpatrick had evidently missed the not too subtle hints from the Argentinian ambassador at the UN who had ended each lunch with Kirkpatrick by standing and shouting loudly “Malvinas, Malvinas” which greatly puzzled the American Ambassador who did not seem to know what he was talking about. The Malvinas was what the Argentinians called the Falkland Islands.

But Admiral Sir Henry Conyers Leach, the First Sea Lord, who had been fighting John Notts plans to phase out the Navy’s “out of area” capacity, gate crashed the meeting Thatcher was holding on how to respond to the Argentinian invasion and persuaded the PM that a task force could be assembled within a week and could indeed retake the Falklands.

Mrs. Thatcher regarded the support of Ronald Reagan essential, The U.S. had airport facilities at the Wideawake airfield on the British overseas territory of the Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic. The U.S. had used the base during the WW2 but abandoned it at the end of the war. In 1956 the Americans returned and the airfield was expanded in the 1960s and a joint U.K. government communications HQ and US National Security Agency was set up. Reagan found General Leopoldo Galtieri, the Argentinian dictator, drunk and intransigent.

In 1982 Ascension Island became the major staging area for the British Task Force and the airfield was a base for the British Vulcan Bombers and for a time because the busiest airfield in the world. The U.S. provided critical fuel to resupply the empty storage tanks there as well as provided the British with satellite intelligence. The British task force was composed of 127 ships, submarines, and requisitioned merchant ships, carrying troops, aircraft and equipment, including two aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, and two nuclear powers submarines, HMS Conqueror and HMS Courageous, and four other submarines.

The French provided training to British Harrier pilots to counter the Argentinian French supplied Super Etendard jets carrying Exocet missiles. Four were used to great effect by the Argentinians in attacks on the HMS Sheffield and the SS Atlantic Conveyor and severely damaging both ships which eventually sank. A technical support team from Dassault, however, had remained in Argentina throughout the conflict. At least seven Royal Navy ships were damaged by Argentina’s Exocet and bomb attacks.

The British nuclear powered submarine HMS Conqueror sank the Argentinian cruiser the ARA General Belgrano with the loss of over 300 crew. Four Royal Navy ships sank. On HMS Sheffield 20 were killed and 24 injured. And two Royal Navy Fleet auxiliary ships also sank after Argentina attacks. The British landed 4000 troops and after intense fighting over 11,000 Argentinian troops surrendered and were repatriated. In the end 907 lives were lost, 649 Argentinians, 255 British, and 3 Falkland islanders.

Mrs. Thatcher told Ronald Reagan in 1982 that “If you allow dictators to march in to take over, no small country is going to be secure.” The Falkland campaign proved to be Thatcher’s finest hour.  It is doubtful, however, that Britain could today launch a similar task force and successfully repel another attack on the Falklands by Argentina.

Nor does it have a Ronald Reagan in the White House. Nor is Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street a Mrs. Thatcher.  And in the Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, evidently did not hear the Thatcherite admonition about dictators invading neighboring countries.

Featured Photo: Avro Vulcan Bomber on display at the National Museum of Flight Scotland at East Fortune Airfield. XM 597, was involved in the Falklands war and attacked Port Stanley Airport in the famous Black Buck Raids.