“We must find an element that brings cohesion to society and the country. That element is Malvinas [Falklands]”
Admiral Jorge Anaya, Chief of the Argentinian Navy via Joffre 1982
Lying about 500 km off from Argentina and 13,000 km from the UK, the Falkland Islands, known in Spanish as Las Malvinas and in French as Les Iles Malouines, have a long and complicated history going back to the 16th century. Much indeed is made of the complex and overlapping history of the islands with regard to who settled where, when, and for how long, and what laws actually applied. For the Argentinians, they asserted numerous reasons for their claim of ownership, including inheritance of prior Spanish colonial possessions, prior settlement attempts by Argentina, as well as geography (the Falklands are on the Argentinian continental shelf), and distance from Britain as justification for their claims, whilst the British looked to settlement. The reality is that, since the end of World War II, in an era when Britain was financially crippled from the costs of the war and a new era marked by the creation of the United Nations in 1945 created a new paradigm for international relations. This new supranational body promised a new era of solving disputes and was one which both the UK and Argentina signed up for. Article 73 of the UN Charter both nations had agreed to states:
“Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories….”
The Falkland Islands were listed by the UK as a Non-Self Governing Territory (N.S.G.T.) and the economic and military value of the islands was seen by some as being a burden on a tight budget. In this post-war era, Argentina continued to press its claim and even offered to purchase the islands from Britain in 1952, but was declined.
Multiple attempts by Britain to take sovereignty issues to the International Court of Justice were refused by Argentina, until it finally did so unilaterally in May 1955. The United Kingdom was seeking once and for all to put the matter to rest in a situation made more complex by a military coup in Argentina, which resulted in Argentina refusing to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the ICJ the next year.
This confusion continued until 1960, with the passing of UN Resolution 1514 signed by both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Argentina, as its first two articles state:
“1. The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination, and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations, and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.
2. All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.”
Thus, the people on the Falklands, regardless of who discovered the islands first, Spanish colonialist claims, or the provisions of the Treaty of Utrecht 1713, were to be masters of their own fate. The UK could not ‘dispose’ of the islands unilaterally, as the future of the islands had to remain solely with the inhabitants. Over the following years, they did, however, display numerous signs and signals that they were willing to part with the islands, in a demonstration of a general attitude of animus derelinquendi. The few military resources on the islands constituted just a token garrison.
The UK, in many ways, displayed an attitude of almost indifference over the islands. They were willing to abandon them if the islanders wanted them out and thus signaled to their Argentinian counterparts very clearly that these islands were not, in the eyes of some in Britain, worth fighting over. Yet another military coup in Argentina in June 1966 was followed in September that year with ‘Operation Condor’ (Spanish: ‘Operativo Cóndor’), the hijacking by 20 armed Argentinians of an Argentinian DC-4 airliner, which was then forced to land at Port Stanley. A weak British response to this act of terrorism did not help matters, but this was not a stunt or casual act of violence and was, instead, an action of the Argentinian government catering to a domestic audience, for whom the islands were serving and continue to serve a useful purpose – a distraction from domestic problems, notably economic ones. Therefore, this incident only served to reinforce the appearance of British reluctance to exert its sovereignty forcefully over the islands.
A ‘distraction’ is exactly that, as the relationship between the UK and Argentina was otherwise mostly untarnished and cordial. Britain had, after all, helped to free Argentina from Spanish colonial rule in the first place, being one of the first nations to recognize its independence in 1823. An 1849 treaty (ratified 1850) between them furthered this relationship and put pay to any remaining disputes between them, serving as a foundation of generally good political and trade relations between them – most notably being the sale of Argentinian beef to the UK. In this context, the dispute over the Falklands was certainly an unwanted cost and hindrance to the British.
The British response post-Operation Condor was somewhat pitiful. The defense force on the Falklands was increased from just one officer and 5 men to a whole platoon of 40 men, hardly enough to demonstrate a willingness to conduct major defensive operations.
Operation Condor had come as a surprise, but it should not have been. As early as March 1965, British military intelligence was warning of the possibility of an Argentinian military attack and this was reinforced post-Condor in 1968. This 1968 heightening of tension with the Argentinian military dictatorship of General Ongania was down to the failure of a joint memorandum on negotiation between the two parties over the islands. This would have promised to cede sovereignty only if the people on the island wished it. The Argentinians refused to adopt this language and thus, in December 1968, the memorandum collapsed as a mechanism for negotiation in the UK too. Despite this failure to try and respect the wishes of the inhabitants, the UK government stated that it would continue to negotiate.
UN Resolution 1514 (1960) was reinforced in December 1966 with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in Resolution 2200A (XXI), which once more affirmed the inviolable principle of self-determination for the inhabitants of the islands. This was not the spur for talks the British wanted as, by 1969, Argentina would still not negotiate on the basis that any involvement of the islands was unacceptable, thus guaranteeing the situation could never be resolved.
Argentina did, however, continue a rational soft-power approach towards the islanders, engaging closely with the islands to bring them closer to the Argentinian point of view, providing assistance with communications, etcetera, at a time when the British governmental attitude was essentially one of indifference. This situation continued between 1969 and 1974, with cooperation between the UK and Argentina in which islanders could go to study in Argentina, an airstrip built to connect the islands, and other issues, such as reciprocal agreements of taxes and immigration. This had continued as a situation in which the islands would slowly lean closer and closer to Argentina even through the end of the work of the UN Decolonisation Committee in 1971 and yet another UN Resolution (2625) in 1970, once more reaffirming people’s rights to self-determination. By 1973, Argentina had grown impatient with this soft-power approach to diplomacy and demanded a restart of negotiations over sovereignty – albeit obviously without the islanders (now European citizens thanks to Annex 4 of the Treaty of Rome 1972) involved, which once more guaranteed it would go nowhere.
Not for the first time then, British military intelligence warned of possible military action against the islands, and once more this was squarely ignored. Britain, for its part, was not against any negotiations that included a sharing of sovereignty, but these were solidly within a framework which respected the will of the islanders. Argentina, for its part, did not care for their wishes and tensions escalated with the publication, in December 1974, of a call for invasion in some Argentinian newspapers.
If what was viewed by many as the later spinelessness of some in the British government can be set aside as supporting an Argentinian view that Britain would abandon the islands, then Derick Ashe, the British Ambassador to Buenos Aires, was made of far sterner stuff. In April 1975, he warned the Argentinians, in no uncertain terms, that any military action against the islands would be met with British counteraction and that diplomacy was the only possible route ahead for them.
Despite that, and in what can only be described as a semi-formal policy of self-delusion about British acquiescence, the Argentinians were actively contemplating military action. Argentinian Foreign Minister Alberto Vignes rejected British attempts at enhancing regional economic development opportunities of the Falkland and surrounding islands and, instead, openly suggested occupation of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. As a counter to this nakedly aggressive idea, Vignes offered that Argentina would only take part in this economic development of the region if the UK adopted some scheme around a transfer of sovereignty, with the British then leasing back the islands for a period. This ludicrous idea was even considered by some in the UK but rightly rejected by others as, once sovereignty was ceded, there could be no going back.
Poking the Lion
In part to test British resolve, a test invasion of British territory was to take place. The plan was concocted in secret and carried out in 1975, with the landing of an Argentinian military party on the Thule Island, one of the South Sandwich Islands. This rather obscure island group also formed part of Argentina’s claims of sovereignty, despite the fact it lay over 2,500 km from Buenos Aires and over 2,000 km from Port Stanley. The uninhabited islands of Southern Thule, in fact, had never formed any part of the old Spanish Empire and had been discovered in 1775 by Captain James Cook.
The Argentinian argument of 1976, when a naval landing party was set on Thule Island along with the construction of a weather station, barracks, and a radio station, was that it was for scientific purposes. If this somewhat silly distraction from Argentina was a ruse to try and suggest that some kind of negotiations over the Falklands, which could trade them for these remote islands whose only native inhabitants were birds and seals, was naive at best.
When the landing was discovered, and not wanting to provoke an international incident, the British simply asserted their own sovereignty was still there and duly ignored the occupation until such time as it would see fit to remove them. As it happened, the removal of Argentinians from the island would be the last act of the war to retake the Falkland Islands. In 1976, however, the decision to not eject them by force was simply a pragmatic move to not be seen as the aggressor and to leave the squatting Argentinians with an expensive base to manage on a remote rock of little value in the short term.
The landings should, however, have shown the British in no uncertain terms the stark willingness of the Argentinians under President Isabel Perón (Juan Perón’s wife) to use their military to achieve their own objectives, regardless of what was right or legal. They did not. British indifference was ignorant and self-defeating.
The tensions became, at some point, almost a nuanced balancing act of cat and mouse and served only to support, amongst many in the UK, a notion of saber-rattling with no real will. Certainly, this could be seen as the view which had prevailed despite numerous warnings over the years of active contemplation by the Argentinians of military action against the islands.
In January 1976, such notions of a peaceful resolution could have been considered dead when the unarmed British research ship, the RRS Shackleton, was fired upon by an Argentinian destroyer. The decision to attack this ship had actually been made weeks earlier, in 1975, and followed the withdrawal of HMS Endurance, an armed ice-patrol ship.
The Argentinian military, it seems, had been opposed to this provocation by the Perón government, but acquiesced. The Army was, however, clear on not seeking a military solution to the islands at the time, although the British response to the RRS Shackleton incident was weak and served as almost no deterrent at all – the despatch of just a single frigate to the area. It was the government of Argentina for whom this saber-rattling was working and March 1976 brought yet another military coup in Argentina. Notably, this latest military coup was the day after the 1976 Convention on Civil and Political Rights came into effect (23rd March), affirming the right of all people to self-determination. Argentina refused to ratify this.
In a sign that Argentina was not going to act rationally in settling the dispute over the Falklands, the result of UK arbitration between Argentina and Chile over the Beagle Islands was concluded in February 1977. The UK sided with Chile and Argentina simply refused to accept the result, declaring it was against their own vital national interests. The matter was then sent for Papal mediation, which concluded in March 1981 also in Chile’s favor – Argentina rejected that outcome as well.
Later that year, in September 1977, Lord Carrington, who had taken over from Sir Francis Pym as Foreign Secretary, suggested a ‘leaseback’ for a 99 – 200 year term of the islands as long as the islanders agreed. Later discussions with the Argentinians centered around a 20 – 75 year term instead, but any notion of this was utterly rejected by the islanders, who wished only to be British.
If the open hostility of landing on Thule Island in 1975 or firing on the RSS Shackleton in 1976 was not enough, more was to follow. Yet another warning came regarding Argentinian military intention, this time from the Chiefs of Staff themselves, with an analysis of the situation in February 1976 which showed that an Argentinian invasion would likely succeed. Any response would have to use all of the resources of the Royal Navy at the time which was already being proposed for substantial cuts of up to a third. Those cuts would be followed by yet more as detailed in the 1981 Defence White Paper, providing yet another British governmental exercise in slashing its own capabilities reducing further still the 1976 strength. Of particular note, the plan was for the fleet reduction to include the loss of an aircraft carrier and the potential disbanding of the Royal Marines as an amphibious assault force.
If the British public were not paying attention to the progressive destruction of its own armed forces since WW2, then its potential adversaries certainly were. The Royal Navy was to be slashed by 59 escorts, an aircraft carrier, two amphibious assault ships, and up to 10,000 personnel. The overall naval budget would increase by GBP£1/2 billion (~ GBP£2 billion in 2021 value / ~US$2.7 billion), with eventual carrier replacements for the existing surface fleet. The reality was that these cuts were deep and serious. Indeed, it has been speculated that all the Argentinian Junta had to do was wait and successive British governments would have done the work of demilitarisation in capability terms for them.
Of course, whether or not these cuts were directly influencing Argentinian military planning, the British, through these cuts were clearly demonstrating a capability and capacity reduction for power projection at sea by the British.
If the Argentinian actions since 1974, both diplomatic and military, had been insufficient to convey the seriousness of the situation, then any lingering doubts should have been over in 1977. During September and October that year, 9 fishing vessels (7 Soviet and 2 Bulgarian) were detained in the waters around the Falkland Islands by the Argentinian Navy. One Bulgarian sailor had been shot and wounded and the Argentinian Navy was trying to assert sovereignty over the waters where it could act at will, including against vessels flying the British flag.
This was a bold move and unlikely one which might garner support from a permanent member of the UN Security Council (the USSR), which was disinclined to support a party that liked to take its citizens and ships hostage. In this regard, the actions could be seen not only as aggressive and potentially very inflammatory, but also reckless and lacking in a clear vision of how they would be seen internationally. Such actions were clearly intended for a restless domestic audience.
A later agreement with the Soviet Union over fishing rights in “Argentine waters south of 46 degrees latitude” clearly covered normal waters off the Argentinian coast which had never been in dispute. The vagueness of the wording, however, was taken by some as tacit agreement from the Soviets of the rights of the Argentinians over the islands when it clearly was not. It would, however, stop the harassment of their fishing vessels, so was a smart Soviet foreign policy move committing them to nothing.
The Thule Island occupation, known as ‘Operativo Sol’ (English: ‘Operation Sun’), was just the start. In December 1981, another British island, this time South Georgia, was occupied as part of ‘Proyecto Alpha’ (English: ‘Project Alpha’). With no permanent population, the island had once been an important whaling station in the days of whale oil but had since fallen into disuse. Ostensibly acting as ‘scrap dealers’, an Argentinian party of Marines in civilian attire had landed without permission, and the Governor of the Falklands, Rex Hunt, protested to London. He was told to be quiet and not to provoke the Argentinians as, yet once more, British arrogance, dithering, and indifference served only to further bolster the Argentinians. The ‘scrap dealers’ had not been evicted and had not been threatened with anything more than a stern letter delivered by the British in Buenos Aires on 6th January. The Argentinians quite obviously rejected this letter, as the British were seen as toothless and unwilling to protect their territories, so why not go further? The result was more Argentinians landing at South Georgia, this time as a mixed civilian and military ship, as any pretence of scrap-hunting was dropped.
If the response to Thule Island had been indifference, the first landings at South Georgia marked incompetence, then the British response to this further escalation was yet again inadequate. A stern verbal rebuke came from the British Ambassador, demanding the Argentinians leave the island and HMS Endurance was sent over to finally show a little backbone.
Whatever spine had been found in Whitehall was lost just a few days later, on 23rd March, when HMS Endurance’s deployment was cancelled en-route to the Argentinian landing site at Leith, South Georgia, once more for fearing provoking the Argentinians, who had been the provocateurs of a crisis all along to this point. It is this namby-pamby behavior which was to lead to Lord Carrington, misled as he was by the Argentinian Foreign Minister Costa Medez, to eventually have to resign. More Argentinian ships followed, including some landing craft and a helicopter, followed by the announcement by Mendez that the Argentinian forces there would not leave except by force.
If the British government had another foot to shoot, it managed to do it again by continuing with the scheduled decommissioning of HMS Endurance that very month, not even delaying it by a few weeks, removing the only viable tool in place to help enforce British sovereignty.
British foreign policy weakness and hubris over ‘sabre-rattling’ from the Argentinians gave their skillful and politically aggressive Argentinian counterpart, Mendez, what he wanted to hear. He thus managed to convince the Argentinian government of what they wanted to hear too – namely that the British would not fight for the islands which, after all, had no purpose for whale oil, or for coaling stops. They were a relic of a bygone era of Empire which ironically was wanted by a nation seeking to take back part of what it saw as its Spanish Empire inheritance. It had, afterall, only remained British because the inhabitants wished so. All they needed to do was to take the final step and the British weakness demonstrated consistently to that point was expected to continue.
The relationship between the UK and Argentina over the islands reached crisis point on 3rd March 1982 when, during talks, the Argentinian representative stated their “total dissatisfaction with the outcome of the … talks and implied that it would not feel bound to pursue its national interests by peaceful means”.
In short, in the prelude to the actual invasion of April 1982, successive British governments through the 1970s managed via inaction, incompetence, ignorance, and gross indifference to provide a message to multiple Argentinian governments of both Perón and Galtieri that Britain would not defend its assets and people. The Argentinians seemingly wanted to believe that Britain was not interested in them and misread British incompetence as a green light to just do whatever they wanted. Combining that acquiescence with their own aggressive military posturings and crippling domestic problems, the invasion of the Falklands in 1982 was an inevitable consequence which neither party seemed able or even willing to prevent.
“If the Argentinians thereafter [after cutting air links between the Falkland Islands and Argentina] threatened military action, Britain would face an almost impossible task in seeking to defend the Islands at such long range”
Lord Carrington, 25th March 1982 Cabinet discussions over the Falkland Islands
The people of the Falklands could quite rightly feel sidelined and unwanted in all of this. The British government could not resolve the dispute with Argentina without their permission, but Argentina refused to involve the islanders, meaning some would suggest simply becoming independent.
“We can trust the British Government as little as we trust the Argentina Government and feeble cries of ‘Keep the Falklands British’ and other cliches will win us no support. Instead we should look to ourselves and proclaim the Falklands belong to us, and not to Britain, Argentina or any other foreign country. We could set ourselves the greatest goal that a people could have – independence.”
Editorial – Penguin News 7th February 1979
In May 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in the UK and December 1981 brought yet another military coup in Argentina. This time, it was General Leopoldo Galtieri who came to power as both head of the Army and as President. With him, tensions over the islands remained high into 1982.
On 1st April 1982, intelligence revealed that Argentinian forces were readying to invade. With this information, the British Permanent Representative at the UN, Sir Anthony Parson, demanded an emergency meeting of the Security Council, calling on them to make a resolution on Argentina not to invade. Argentina’s response was “It was ironic and inadmissible for the Council to be convened by the United Kingdom on that day to consolidate the spoils of colonial plundering. Argentina rejected being accused when in fact what should be judged, if justice was to be served and peace preserved, was the conduct of the accuser.” In other words, any military action would be the fault of the British. The President of the Security Council appealed to Argentina not to invade, but the decision had already been made.
The government of Argentina had three factors on its side in this seemingly unavoidable conflict. First, geographical proximity made transport to the islands easy. Second, the willingness to use military power to achieve what it could not through diplomacy, and thirdly, an open disregard for international law.
They felt, incorrectly, that, despite the invasion being a grotesque act of aggression, the UK would acquiesce, take the humiliation and that it would be a fait-accompli. At no time, it seems, was an actual British counterattack even contemplated seriously or perhaps the planners of the invasion just were too scared to raise the possibility to the junta, which did not want to hear something it did not like.
The invasion would serve a useful purpose domestically for Galtieri’s government. That leadership had continued a long tradition of gross mismanagement of the economy and society, with an acceptance of both open corruption, in the form of bribes and nepotism, with an extra salting of harsh repression and extra-judicial murders. Galtieri’s ruling junta, consisting of a trio of him, Admiral Anaya (Navy), and Brigadier Basilio Dozo (Air Force), was steadily losing its grip on the reins of power and was fearful of an internal coup within the military. A successful invasion taking the islands could cement their rule.
Left Out to Dry
It was Governor Rex Hunt who was left in an impossible position on 1st April 1982, when he received a telegram from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London stating:
“We have apparently reliable evidence that an Argentine task force could be assembling off Stanley at dawn tomorrow. You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly.”
Quite what he was meant to do with this information is unclear and he might very well have felt sold out. The Argentinian operation to take the islands, known as Operación Rosario (English: Operation Rosario), was already underway and there was nothing he could do about it.
The primary defence force at Governor Hunt’s disposal was a 57 strong Royal Marine force of Naval Party 8901 led by Major Mike Norman. Eleven sailors from the HMS Endurance and 25 troops of the Falkland Island Defence Force (F.I.D.F.) were also available, along with 15 former F.I.D.F. members, for a grand total ground strength of just 79 men.
Strike One – Moody Brook
The first Argentinian troops to land were 14 men belonging to the Buzos Tacticos (English: ‘Tactical Submariners’), under the command of Lt. Commander Alfredo Cufre, on the Pembroke Peninsula to conduct reconnaissance. Landed in darkness, they were tasked with planting beacons for the amphibious assault group to follow.
At around the same time, the destroyer ARA Santisima Trinidad deposited 84 men of 1st Amphibious Commandos Group, under Lt. Commander Guillermo Sanchez-Sabarots, into light raiding boats off Mullet Creek, with a goal of taking Government House. A small group which landed with this party, under the command of Lt. Commander Pedro Giachino, had a different goal, the barracks at Moody Brook, with the goal of getting there in time for dawn on 2nd April.
The Argentinian attack on Moody Brook barracks used either tear-gas and/or white phosphorus grenades covered by machine gun teams to prevent escape of any of the Marines inside. The goal was the destruction of the garrison and, of note here, is that military use of either agent is legally problematic. Tear-gas in war as an asphyxiating agent is specifically prohibited by the 1925 Geneva Protocol (signed by both the UK on 9th April 1930 and Argentina on 12th May 1965) and, if it was white phosphorus (WP), the situation is not much better. WP used to target men in the barracks may have been unlawful under Protocol III of the 1980 ‘Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons which may be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects’ (signed by the UK and Argentina on 10th April 1981 and 2nd December 1981, respectively). Later examination of the barracks in June 1982 found the walls to be poked with machine gun fire and scorching from white phosphorus grenades consistent with a strike designed to kill everyone inside.
Fortunately for the British Marines, they had already left the barracks, so the target was empty at the time of the attack. When Major Norman heard of the Argentinian attack at Moody Brook, he immediately ordered all British troops to Government House to try and hold that position and protect Governor Hunt.
Governor Hunt, unwilling to see men die fruitlessly faced with overwhelming Argentinian military force, ordered all members of the F.I.D.F. to surrender and not to resist under any circumstances. The F.I.D.F. complied and, in doing so, Governor Hunt saved many of these men, islanders who lived and worked there and served part-time, from being killed.
Yorke Bay and the LVTP-7s
The landings at Mullet Creek had been well conducted and achieved total surprise. The same was not true at York Bay, just north of Port Stanley airfield. Here was the main invasion force, consisting of D and E Companies, 1st Amphibious Vehicle Battalion, 2nd Marine Infantry Battalion under Lt. Commander Guillermo Cazzaninga, which landed the primary Argentinian force. This force consisted of 20 American-made LVTP-7s amphibious armored personnel carriers along with troops and support personnel and equipment. The force was a sizable one.
The Landing Vehicle Tracked Personnel 7, (LVTP-7) specifically the LVTP-7A1 model, was an improvement over the LVTP-7 which had been developed in the 1960s, ostensibly as an amphibious armored personnel carrier to serve the US Marine Corps for amphibious assault. Made by United Defense (a subsidiary of FMC Corporation), the first vehicles were delivered to the USMC in the early 1970s and were a substantial improvement over its predecessor – the LVTP-5. At 24 tonnes and powered by a Detroit Diesel 8V-53T engine delivering 400 hp (upgraded to the Cummins VTA-903T diesel producing 525 hp for the A1 model), it had a speed of 72 km/h on a road and 13 km/h in water. This fully amphibious, fully enclosed vehicle was able to be launched up to 37 km (20 Nm) from shore, attack a beach, and then operate on land as a ‘normal’ armored personnel carrier. Carried on land by means of 6 road wheels running on tracks, the vehicle was propelled in the water by a combination of both its tracks and a pair of hydrojets mounted along the sides.The vehicle was 7.9 m long, 3.3 m wide, and 3.3 m high.
Armaments for the vehicle could vary, but the standard was a single 0.5” calibre (12.7 mm) heavy machine gun in the small turret operated by the gunner. Two other crew, (commander and driver) completed the standard compliment for the vehicle and up to 21 troops could be carried in the back. Everyone was behind aluminum armor up to 45 mm thick at the front and 30 mm thick on the sides. The armor, as standard, provided protection from small arms fire and artillery splinters. The layout provided additional protection, as the nose of the vehicle contained voids for buoyancy, as well as the automotive plant for the vehicle. When moving through water, the vehicle floated with very little freeboard, making it a very hard target to hit when ‘swimming’.
The LVTP-7A1 in Argentinian service is known as the Vehiculo Anfibio a Oruga (English: Tracked Amphibian Vehicle) or simply just ‘VAO’. The Argentinians went for possibly the simplest numbering system possible, starting at ‘01’ and going up to ‘19’, making identification rather simple. The Argentinian historian and author Ricardo Fogliani tracked down 7 of the vehicles as having landed on the Falklands from photographs; 01, 07, 09, 10, 14, 16, and 19. However, some other vehicles have, since the original publication of his work, come to light.
Argentina possessed just 21 of these vehicles, which it had obtained from the United States in the early 1970s, consisting of 19 APCs, a single command vehicle and a tracked recovery vehicle. The command vehicle was indexed as VAO C1 and the recovery version as VAO R1.
The Argentinian LVTP-7A1 invasion force consisted of 16 vehicles from two 8-vehicle sections, along with a command element of 4 vehicles and a single wheeled recovery vehicle, a LARC-5. Two other LVTP-7A1s, number 14 and 17, were suffering from mechanical problems and only number 14 could be repaired in time. Vehicle number 17 had stayed behind whilst all the others were loaded onto the ARA Cabo San Antonio. Another four 4-wheeled ‘Light Amphibious Resupply Cargo’ (LARC) vehicles and 30 other vehicles were carried onboard the ARA Cabo San Antonio.
The LARC was an American light amphibious vehicle which started life in the 1950s, meant to replace vehicles like the DUKW amphibious truck. Despite its size, the LARC could manage a respectable 48 km/h on land and 13 km/h in the water, carrying up to nearly 5 tonnes of cargo. With a boat-shaped hull and powered by a Cummins V-8 diesel engine delivering 300 hp, this four-wheeled vehicle had a hull made from aluminum and, despite being unarmored, was a valuable addition to the invasion force. The LARC was effectively an amphibious load-hauling truck, ideal for moving cargo from landing craft or ships off-shore onto a beach. In total, 5 LARCs were brought along to ensure supplies could be landed from ships offshore.
All five Argentinian LARC vehicles off-loaded and taking a break at the side of the road during the invasion. Source: Zona Militar forum
A Royal Marine force under the commande of Lt. Bill Trollope was on the beach at Yorke Bay, watching the landing as the first LVTP-7A1s came ashore just after 0700 hours. This beach landing was later seen in the TV movie ‘An Ungentlemanly Act’, where a British FV.432 Armoured Personnel Carrier was used to substitute for the Argentinian amphibious assault vehicle, presumably on the basis that no LVTP-7s were available and the FV.432 is similar enough in shape to the American M113 APC to go unnoticed by many viewers.
Lt. Trollope’s section (No.2 section), which was at the beach, fired a shot from their 84 mm Carl Gustav recoilless rifle at one of the Argentinian vehicles in the water, but the round missed. Unable to do much else, they withdrew, but as this Argentinian column advanced down the main road from the beach, passed Port Stanley Airfield and towards Port Stanley, they would be ambushed by Lt. Trollope’s team near to the Ionospheric Research Station.
Using the heaviest weapons available to them, the 84 mm Carl Gustav recoilless rifle and 66 mm Light anti-tank rocket launcher, the British engaged the leading three LVTP-7A1s. Those vehicles were VAO-07, VAO-19, and VAO-5, under the command of Captain Hugo Santillain. Three rounds were fired initially at a range of 200 – 250 m and all missed. A second salvo of rounds, with one 84 mm and one 66 mm, was fired and at least one of the rockets may have struck VAO-07.
The result of the ambush was that one Argentinian vehicle had track damage and at least one of the crew or men inside one of the vehicles had been injured. The remainder of the Argentinian column halted about 400 to 500 m behind these three lead vehicles and fired upon the RM section in the area but the fire was ineffectual and no more injuries were incurred.
As partially successful as that ambush had been, it was not going to stop such a strong invasion force and, withdrawing, the Marines then had to run the risk of being hit by Argentinian fire or friendly fire in error.
VAO-02 – no images known
VAO-05 – no images known
VAO-09 – no images known
VAO-11 – no images known
VAO-13 – no images known
VAO-14 – no images known
VAO-16 – no images known
VAO-17 – mechanical problems – did not take part
VAO-18 – no images known
VAO-19 – no images known
The Commander of VAO-07 being interviewed after the invasion in the top of VAO-07, clearly showing the numerous bullet strikes and damage to the cupola. The camera does not, however, pan down over the front right damage.
Prior to the Yorke Bay landing and with just 16 men, Lt. Commander Pedro Giachino had been tasked with the single most important target, Government House. Approaching the building at around 0630 hours, the Argentinians were spotted and fired on by Royal Marines inside. Gianchino and another commando were shot and wounded during this attack and a medic trying to render first aid to Gianchino was struck by grenade fragments. Gianchino would later die of his wounds, but the first attack on Government House had failed.
Nonetheless, the ferocity of the exchange of fire here had persuaded the Marines inside that, rather than facing just over a dozen Argentinian commandos, they were actually surrounded by a much greater force. Governor Hunt himself said he thought around 200 men were attacking the compound in perhaps a testament to the abilities of Lt. Commander Giachino and his men. This misapprehension led to the decision to stay put and defend the position, although their only viable escape vehicles, consisting of unarmored Land Rovers, were now riddled with Argentinian machine gun fire and useless anyway.
By 0730 hours, the whole situation was as clear as dawn. The Royal Marines, determined as they may be to resist, were utterly surrounded. Argentinian forces with armored vehicles and heavy weapons were in the city, their position was surrounded and they were vastly outnumbered. Any further resistance would have just led to them being killed for no purpose and, within an hour, Governor Hunt had decided to negotiate with the Argentinians to prevent a bloodbath. The order to surrender was given at 0930 hours by Governor Hunt.
“With a heavy heart, I turned to Mike [Major Mike Norman] and told him to give the order to lay down arms. I could not bring myself to use the word ‘Surrender’. Mike’s face was a mixture of relief and anguish: it was not part of his training to surrender, but his good sense told him that there was no real alternative. As Gary accompanied Busser [Rear Admiral Carlos Busser] to tend the wounded round Government House, Mike told his radio operator to instruct all sections to down arms and wait to be collected.”
Governor Rex Hunt (1992)
The F.I.D.F. troops were taken prisoner inside their drill hall without casualty, obeying the orders not to resist, but the resistance of the Marines had been fierce if fruitless. A total of 6,450 rounds of ammunition were fired, along with 12 rockets by the British forces. In the confused aftermath it was initially believed that up to 15 or so Argentinians had been killed in the invasion, although both British and Argentinian official accounts agree on just a single fatality.
However, this was not the final attack of 2nd April. Despite the surrender of British forces, the Argentinians were concerned about a possible observation post on Tussack Island, north of Cape Pembroke. A special commando force under the command of Major Mario Castegneto landed on the island as Argentinian Pucara ground attack aircraft attacked the position with napalm. The post was empty at the time, so no casualties were suffered, although it is noteworthy that this use of napalm is prohibited as a weapon by signatories to Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons Protocol III (October 1980), which did not come into force until December 1983. The UK and Argentina both prohibit the use of napalm as of 1954 (the UK classes it as a chemical weapon) and 8th April 1992 (Argentinian signing of the Protocol), which means that the Argentinian use of it in April 1982 was not unlawful despite what has been alluded to in some later books. Nor, for that matter, was the use of it an attempt to burn dozens or hundreds of dead Argentinian troops, as alleged in the book ‘The First Casualty’ by Ricky Phillips published in 2018. There are numerous fallacies within that book, including that claim, which have to be critically examined.
Casualties and Misrepresentation
The official casualty total accepted by both British and Argentinian governments for forces on 2nd April 1982 is just 1 Argentinian soldier killed and at least 3 wounded. A memorandum from the German Ambassador to the UK however, shows that he had been informed by the Argentinians of 4 dead during the invasion.
In 2018, a book called ‘The First Casualty’ was published by Ricky Phillips (unironically referring to the 1915 reference as truth being the first casualty of war and often misattributed to Greek dramatist Aeschylus). This book, purporting to be a factual and untold account of the Argentinian invasion, contains a series of salacious and unsourced claims around the hidden ‘truth’ over Argentinian casualties. Phillips claims true casualty numbers were hidden by the Argentinians to conceal their own losses, and hidden by the British to provide a compelling victim narrative. There are serious and substantial problems with the claims laid out in the book briefly summarised below:
Claim 1: An Argentinian Higgins amphibious landing craft was hit by a British 84 mm AT rocket, holed, and sank killing dozens of men. The craft in question was LC No.9, which had been launched from the ARA Cabo San Antonio. This craft was captured and still afloat in June 1982, before being dumped on the beach at Yorke Bay and eventually disposed of. Photographic evidence of it confirms that no holes in it were made by gunfire or rockets and the ‘patch’ over the ‘hit’ alleged by Phillips was nothing more than a structural feature found not only on both sides of the LC but also on others. Conclusion: Claim is false and this boat was not hit and sunk, associated casualties from it are thereby also false.
Claim 2a: An LVTP-7 was hit and destroyed. This claim is more complex. Firstly, the vehicle is the LVTP-7A1 and the claim specifically is that the vehicle involved was VAO No.17. Phillip’s claim specifically is that this vehicle, now on display in a park in the town of Quequén, Argentina, was hit multiple times by small arms fire and at least one 66 mm LAW. The evidence for the small arms hit is from multiple marks on the surface which have been interpreted as bullet impacts. The ‘hole’ claimed by Phillips as being made by a 66 mm rocket, however, is incorrect and is a manufactured hole just behind the commander’s cupola, which had been there to mount a vision port subsequently removed. The claim of small arms fire damage to a vehicle is perfectly consistent with one vehicle, VAO-07. The claim of a hit followed by a cloud of black smoke mentioned by one British Marine is also perfectly consistent as an account, as the exhaust is located just a little further back from the alleged point of impact and, as the engine runs on diesel, black smoke can often be seen coming out from this position. The biggest problem with the claim of VAO-17 being hit in the manner described, however, is that it never took part in the attack on the islands. Conclusion : LVTP-7A1 No.17 was not hit by small arms fire, but LVTP-7A1 VAO-07 was hit. Any rocket strikes on the vehicle were not in the manner described by Phillips, although VAO-07 could well have been hit by at least one rocket.
Claim 2b: LVTP 7A1 No. 17 does sport two large patches welded somewhat crudely over the front right of the nose of the vehicle. This has been interpreted by Phillips as evidence of a penetration point for the 84 mm shaped charge of the Carl Gustav’s round and the other hole as the point at which the jet exited. No splash, often seen around a point of impact from a HEAT-type round, can be found on either the inside or outside of the vehicle. The claim from Phillips that this is evidence of a rocket hit cannot be substantiated from the damage but the claim that this led to casualties inside is belied by the fact that this front section is well away from, and not connected to any crew or troop space at all. If indeed it was a penetration of any kind, as opposed to just some damage from use in Argentinian service, then it certainly cannot have killed or injured the men inside the back. More likely is that the damage to this buoyancy space was simply the result of wear and tear during routine service. On top of this is also the issue that VAO-17, according to Argentinian sources, was never even deployed to the Falklands, in which case it absolutely cannot have been hit in the first place. All that would be needed to prove the story from Phillips to be true would be a photograph of VAO-17 on the island, in the absence of that the claim cannot be substantiated. Conclusion: False.
Within 24 hours of the invasion, the first political casualty was felt. The inept face of Pym was gone from the British cabinet, as was the Commonwealth Secretary, Lord Carrington.
On 3rd April, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 502, calling for an Argentinian withdrawal and thence for a diplomatic solution.
The European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor to today’s European Union, also condemned the invasion on 9th April, recommending economic sanctions on Argentina for its aggression. Strong support for the British position was to come from the French and West Germany and the strongest opposition from The Republic of Ireland. The Spanish too were unhappy, but limited themselves to simply urging decolonisation without discussing who was supposed to be colonising or decolonising who in the situation, perhaps because they were trying to get UK support for entry to the European Community at the time. Support from the Commonwealth for the British position would also be strong.
Various attempts at preventing what was to become the British counterstrike and action to recover the islands would follow from the UN, the United States, and regional partners up to and including various international commissions and even a proposed UN trusteeship. These would all fail for the same reasons – the Argentinians were unwilling to peacefully withdraw their forces from all of the islands they were occupying and refused to respect the views of the islanders in their own future, in disregard of Article 1 of the UN Charter, as Argentina viewed the inhabitants as invaders. None of this was helped by jingoistic publications in the British press either.
It is perhaps surprising that Britain’s greatest ally, the United States, was less willing to condemn the Argentinian actions and instead sent its own Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, to try and negotiate. He found both parties utterly implacable. The Argentinians were now tied to the islands, just as were the British, and the US eventually sided with the United Kingdom. On 30th April, President Reagan’s government made clear that it supported British actions and would make military supplies and support available.
The May operation by the British to recover the islands would eventually lead to total surrender of the islands back to the British on 14th June 1982, with Thatcher buoyed domestically in the UK and Galtieri pilloried by his own people. The true upside for Argentina for this defeat was the destruction of the Junta.
The domestic popularity of the invasion and the distraction it caused from more pressing domestic woes wedded Galtieri to the islands as tightly as any of the penguin colonies present on them. Having invaded and produced a huge political black eye for the British, he could not back down and leave for fear of losing face. Despite international condemnation, he had to stay the course, seeing any British attempt at retaking the islands as unlikely or fruitless or at least hoping so.
With a seemingly utter contempt or ignorance in equal measure for both the British will to retake the islands and military capabilities at play, as well as complete indifference to the lives of his own men, he just left them to it on the islands. From his point of view, far better that every Argentinian on the Falklands die or get captured than admit to a mistake.
If that contempt for his own men was not enough, the inadequate supplies, the treatment of the men, often at the hands of their own officers when they bothered to remain with their units, and inadequate resources ensured that the Argentinian forces were totally and unnecessarily exposed to the British when they returned to retake the islands. The April invasion of the islands, perhaps more than anything, has cemented and guaranteed for the inhabitants that they will remain British and that their neighbour across the water in Argentina will always be seen with caution.
Falklands Islands Review (1983). Report of a Committee of Privy Counsellors.
Fogliani, R. Bindados Argentinos. Ayer Y Hoy Ediciones
Gompert, D., Binnendijk, H., & Lin, B. (2014). Argentina’s Invasion of the Falklands (Malvinas) 1982. RAND Corporation.
Hansard. HC Deb 09 July 1975 vol. 895 cc5330670 ‘Royal Navy’. Statement by theRight Honourable Mr. George Younger.
International Committee of the Red CRoss. Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries
Lorton, R. (2012). Falkland Islands: South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands – The history.
Socarras, M. (1985). The Argentine Invasion of the Falklands and International Norms of Signalling.
The First Casualty Dissected.
United Nations Office for Disarmament Affair: 1925 Geneva Protocol Text.
United Nations Resolution 1514 (1960)