Thatcher’s Falklands War
Britain held on Wednesday a funeral full of military honors for former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher comparable to the pomp and pageantry accorded in 1965 to Winston Churchill, its World War II prime minister.
Thatcher’s funeral fell short of a state funeral, which she declined when she was alive, but the Cabinet decided it would have as its theme the 1982 Falklands War between Britain and Argentina. More than 700 armed forces personnel, representing the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force units that fought in the Falklands War, marched in the military procession.
The theme depicted Thatcher as a war leader who restored Britain’s prestige as a world power following the decline of its economic and military power after World War II.
The conflict between Britain and Argentina broke out when Argentine forces invaded on April 2, 1982, the islands that Britain occupied in 1832. Argentina has asserted that the islands, located in the South Atlantic and which it called the Islas Malvinas, have been its territory since the 19th century. Britain dispatched a naval task force to retake the territory.
The war lasted 74 days, until June 14, 1982, when Argentina surrendered, returning the islands to British control. A total of 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel, and three Falkland islanders died in the conflict. Militarily, the Falklands War remains the largest air-naval combat operation between forces since the end of World War II.
Last April 9, the Guardian newspaper said the Falklands War was “a turning point in Mrs. Thatcher’s premiership. The previous October, the Tory Party conference had been alive with dissent…. Bets were being taken against her surviving into the new year. Well behind in the polls, and with the new Social Democratic party challenging both Labor and Conservatives, few believed Thatcher would ever lead her party to another election win.”
“Though spring brought some relief to the battered economy, Thatcher appeared a weak, broken leader with little support within her party. What was later called Thatcherism was still a dream, with only top-rate tax cuts in place. The ruling obsession was reducing double-digit inflation and cutting public spending. Nothing else seemed to concern the government,” reported the Guardian.
On the Falklands War’s 30th anniversary last year, a Guardian commentary said that Thatcher’s decision to go to war in 1982 was a gamble “that paid off,” with her government on the brink of collapse. The Guardian further wrote that the gamble “not only repelled the Argentinian invasion but also paved the way for her ideological reforms.”
When Argentine forces invaded and seized the Falklands, very few knew where the islands were located. When the British intelligence reported the invasion to Thatcher, she had no idea where they were. She had to consult the Atlas to find out. It had only a few hundred inhabitants, most of whom were British subjects. There were more penguins and sheep, causing many outsiders to wonder what was there in the Falklands that were worth fighting for. The invasion occurred on a Friday, at 2 a.m., Melbourne time.
The news bulletin came through the teleprinters of the Melbourne Age newspaper, where I was in charge of the late shift (8 p.m.-2 a.m.) as foreign news subeditor. It was my duty to monitor foreign news and remake the front page in case there was a big news break. For the next 40 days of the war, I was the only staff member at the news desk on this shift called the “graveyard shift,” all the editors and other subeditors having gone home. This was the way the Age, a leading broadsheet in Australia, covered the war—by remote control of the subeditors desk.
Among its staff, the Age was known as a newspaper run by the subs. They called the shots when the editors had gone home. When the Falklands War broke out, my task was to quickly edit the first batch of news bulletins, compress these into a story no longer than 10 column inches, chuck out the headline story, and replace it with the war story. This took place every evening for more than two months. The naval, air and land battles were always fought between midnight and 2 a.m., as fortunes changed swiftly. We received dispatches from Age correspondents in London and Buenos Aires, correspondents accredited to the British task force that Thatcher dispatched to retake the Falklands, Paul Reynolds, former BBC correspondent, recalled that British reporters who found themselves in Argentina during the Falklands War naturally wondered if the British government was serious in retaking the islands. “After all, the Royal Navy was no longer equipped for expeditionary warfare,” he wrote. “It had no fleet airborne radar, for a start.”
Thatcher’s Cabinet was divided and in disarray. In the first hours of the Argentine invasion, BBC reported, Thatcher established that the Royal Navy thought that a reinvasion could be started. The First Sea Lord Henry Leach had told her that a task force could sail within days, and it did. She took heart from this.
We have to recover those islands, Thatcher said. We have to recover them for the people on them are British and of British stock and they still owe allegiance to the Crown. Within days, the largest British naval armada since World War II was dispatched. On June 14, 1982, the Argentine garrison in the Falklands surrendered.
The surrender resulted in the collapse of the dictatorship of the military junta led by Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri. This opened the way for the return of parliamentary democracy, or a semblance of it, in Argentina, as part of the wave of new democracies in Asia and Latin America in the 1980s.
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