2 April 1982.
In a desperate attempt to remain in power, the Argentinian junta decides to go to war over a trivial, ancient dispute: the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.
A group of small islands—more like a gigantic sheep pasture than an ideal human habitat—about 400 miles off the East coast of Argentina, the Falklands offered General Galtieri’s military junta a tempting way out of an escalating domestic crisis. Armed British response, after all, was unlikely, since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government had been hacking the defense budget for years.
How wrong would that calculation prove.
On that cloudy April night, a small group of Argentinian frogmen from the 1st Amphibious Commando Group, emerged stealthy out of the dark waters of Mullet Creek, 3 miles south of the capital, Port Stanley.
They slowly stalked their way towards the Royal Marine barracks. Moving swiftly, they surrounded the old, brick building and waited for the order.
Their tear-gas attack—they were under orders to inflict no unnecessary casualties—fell on dry eyes. No one was there. The Marines had seemingly vanished. Next target: the Governor’s House.
This time, however, there would be a somewhat livelier response from the British garrison. The firefight began at 06:30, and lasted for one and half hours. The clever use of stun grenades and the constant shifting of fire positions by the small group of Argentinian commandos, made the 80 British defenders falsely assume that they were under attack by a largely superior force. Nevertheless, they fought fiercely.
By 08:00, scores of Argentinian armored personnel carriers filled with Marines, the rest of the invasion force, were rushing to the scene. Realizing the hopelessness of their situation, Governor Rex Hunt began negotiations with the Argentinian commanders.
Before the morning was out, the Islas Malvinas—as the Argentines called the Falklands—had been reclaimed. The cost was minimal: one dead and three wounded Argentinians. The British, having suffered no casualties, were gathered and soon repatriated by plane via Uruguay.
When news of the successful invasion broke out in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, the frantic scenes resembled more of a soccer triumph than any previous show of support for the unpopular junta had. Thousands of ecstatic civilians flooded the streets, waving huge flags and chanting hymns.
Galtieri’s grip to power seemed secure.
Half-a- world away in foggy London, however, his grip didn’t seem that secure. Waving off the initial shock of the invasion, Mrs. Thatcher’s government began planning a potent response.
In the course of a weekend, a naval Task Force of two aircraft carriers, eight destroyers, thirteen frigates, and numerous other support vessels was put together (the Task Force would eventually exceed 100 ships). Even the cruiser Queen Elizabeth 2 was conscripted in HMS Hermes: the flagship and one of the two ordered to accommodate the 11,000 soldiers and Marines of the invasion force and their gear.
Despite the cramped conditions of the ships and the hectic embarkation notwithstanding, morale was unsurprisingly high.
On 5 April, three days after the Argentinian invasion, and amid cheering crowds, the first ships of the Task Force set sail from Portsmouth. The Empire was still alive.
The ensuing conflict would last for ten cold and bloody weeks. And before its end on 14 June, it would witness countless dashing and audacious actions by both sides: It would witness the biggest amphibious operation undertaken by Britain since the Second World War. It would witness the sinking of a battlecruiser by a submarine—one of the three such actions in the last sixty years. It would witness the destruction of seven Royal Navy ships by Argentinian missiles and bombs. It would witness intense diplomatic and intelligence operations that would transcend the borders of the two belligerents. It would witness two Victoria Cross’ actions. And it would witness the deaths and wounding of more than three thousand British and Argentinian soldiers, seamen, and airmen.
Most interestingly, however, it would also witness daring special operations by the famed Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS).
These renowned units would participate in missions ranging from reconnaissance patrols upon freezing glaciers, to daylight helicopter attacks, to nighttime airfield raids, to the takedown of enemy ships, to covert surveillance operations deep inside the Argentinian mainland.
Moreover, the Falklands War would witness both the biggest raid and the biggest loss of life of the SAS since the Second World War. And it would also expose considerable cultural and interoperability issues between the two units, that would eventually lead to a fratricidal incident.
The Argentinian surrender on 14 June, propelled Mrs. Thatcher’s standing to Olympian heights and precipitated Galtieri’s ignominious fall.
But before that was achieved, many would have to die.
And the first action of the British Task Force would take place 900 miles to the southeast of the Falklands, in a small, mountainous island, with an even smaller strategic value: South Georgia.