The day we took back the Falklands: Thirteen British warships sunk or damaged and ten helicopters destroyed… but the task force commander gave the order to advance. Three days later, victory was ours, writes JONATHAN MAYO
Just after 6am on April 2, 1982, the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands, which they call Las Malvinas. MP Alan Clark told his wife Jane: ‘We’ve lost the Falklands. It’s all over. We’re a Third World country, no good for anything.’
However, Mrs Thatcher was persuaded that a task force of about 100 ships could be swiftly assembled to recapture the islands.
Its first offensive action was the recapture of the island of South Georgia on April 25 — news of which the Iron Lady famously greeted with the word ‘rejoice’.
On May 21, the first British troops landed on East Falkland, but the Argentine Air Force was inflicting severe damage on British warships — HMS Sheffield, Ardent, Antelope and Coventry were sunk, many others damaged.
On May 25, the SS Atlantic Conveyor was hit, killing 12 of the crew and destroying her cargo of ten helicopters, needed to carry troops to the Falklands’ capital, Port Stanley.
To liberate the islands, the men now had to walk, or ‘yomp’, 50 miles across East Falkland carrying 120 lb of kit. In early June, the harsh South Atlantic winter arrived, which meant there were only a few days left before weather conditions would put victory on a knife edge.
Royal Marines yomping towards Port Stanley, Falkland Islands in 1982, with the Union Jack flying from the backpack of one
A Royal Marine of 40 Commando searching an Argentine prisoner at Port Howard on West Falkland on June 17, 1982
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher returned to a reception from well-wishers outside 10 Downing Street after announcing the surrender of Argentine armed forces in East and West Falklands at 9pm local time 14th June
This map details the geography of the Falkland Islands and the location of Port Stanley, the main settlement on the island that was the final position to be assaulted by British soldiers
Friday, June 11
10am Falklands Time
Argentine troops have spent almost 70 days in the mountains of East Falkland, living in tents or shelters made from rocks and turf. Their trenches are waterlogged and many soldiers are suffering from frostbite and trench foot; some of their equipment is rusting.
One conscript recalled: ‘We were cold, wet and hungry. I had three pairs of socks; I wore them all at once and never changed them.’
Food is scarce, and when parcels from home arrive in Port Stanley, they are looted by other troops based there.
Submerged off the coast of Argentina, the Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror is providing early warning of enemy aircraft. Five weeks earlier, on May 2, the Conqueror sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano and 290 sailors were killed instantly; another 33 perished in the water or in life rafts. From the Conqueror, the sound of the Belgrano breaking up was ‘like the tinkling of glass from a huge chandelier that has crashed to the ground’.
Trudi McPhee is a sixth-generation islander who lives on a sheep farm on East Falkland. For two weeks, she and other farmers have been using their vehicles to carry troops, supplies and ammunition up the mountains, sometimes driving without headlights, relying on moonlight to find their way.
As Trudi will be near the action, an officer from 3 Para tells her to write a letter to her next of kin in case she doesn’t come back. ‘Things are going to get pretty serious,’ Trudi writes to her parents, adding she loves them very much.
Nine thousand British troops are now in position close to the hills between them and Port Stanley. After the 50-mile yomp, many of their boots have all but disintegrated and their Arctic tents were lost on the Atlantic Conveyor.
After the bloody battle for Goose Green two weeks earlier, Brigadier Julian Thompson, commander of 3 Commando Brigade, knows moving men across the open terrain in daylight is suicidal.
He has decided to carry out all his attacks at night. Their first objectives are Argentine positions on Mount Harriet, Two Sisters and Mount Longdon which are blocking the way to Port Stanley.
The start of the attack has been delayed as some units are lost. The commander of 2 Para, Lieutenant-Colonel David Chaundler, walks back to his temporary HQ singing Land Of Hope And Glory loudly, as he can’t remember the password to give the sentries.
At HQ, he is given a captured Argentine map which shows he and his men are about to advance into a minefield. Chaundler remembers an army lecturer once telling him that the odds of stepping on a mine are small, so he decides the attack will take place as planned.
When Chaundler later told the lecturer what he’d done, the man was shocked: ‘My God, if I’d have known somebody was going to put the theory to the test, I’d never have used that example!’
The attack on Mount Longdon begins. Many Argentine soldiers are caught by surprise. Cabo Oscar Carrizo, of 7th Regiment, recalled: ‘I heard a clunk-click, then many clunk-clicks. I knew that sound. It was bayonets being fixed. Panic surged through my body.’
On the other side of Mount Longdon, Trudi McPhee can hear the whistle of Argentine mortar rounds flying towards her, ‘but they’d plop into the peat and were lost’.
Frigates HMS Arrow and HMS Active aid the ground attack by firing at Argentine positions.
On HMS Hermes, the task force commander, Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward, is writing a list of ships lost: ‘Two destroyers sunk, three seriously damaged; two frigates sunk, two seriously damaged; one container ship sunk; two LSLs [Land Ship Logistics] sunk, one seriously damaged.’ The task force has been seriously weakened.
Woodward writes: ‘Frankly, if the Args could only breathe on us, we’d fall over! Perhaps they’re the same way: can only trust so, otherwise we’re in for a carve-up.’
Every night from 11pm to 3am, the Royal Navy warships have been bombarding Argentine positions around Port Stanley. Some islanders shelter in the Anglican church or in a large storehouse.
A stray shell hits a house. Doreen Bonner and Susan Whitley are killed and several others injured. Mary Goodwin dies later.
Doreen’s body is found by John Fowler, the islands’ Superintendent of Education, her glasses covered with dust. John said: ‘She was a very meticulous person . . . she would certainly have wanted me to wipe them.’
Wellwishers wave British flags as they bid farewell to troops sailing on QE2 as it departs for Falkland Islands as part of the task force to retake the islands
Royal Navy frigate HMS Antelope is blasted when an Argentinian bomb exploding on board, killing the bomb disposal engineer who was trying to defuse it.
Smoke pours from the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield as fire rages through the warship after she was hit by an Argentinean missile
A-4B Skyhawks had been given the task to target HMS Coventry and Broadsword, two British ships on duty to the northwest of the Falkland Islands. The A-4 Skyhawks flew just a few feet above the water to avoid radar detection
Saturday, June 12
On Mount Longdon, as the Argentinians battle in the dark with little option but to surrender, many fight to the death.
British casualties are mounting. Sergeant Ian McKay of 3 Para picks four men, breaks cover with them and runs uphill. He is soon alone, his comrades dead or wounded. He presses on over the summit.
Sergeant McKay’s body was found in the morning, surrounded by dead Argentinians. He was posthumously awarded a VC.
Argentine Brigadier-General Jofre, in Port Stanley, is told his troops on Mount Longdon are being overrun. He orders his artillery to fire on the hill and looks at the Argentine governor, General Menendez, as if to say: ‘May God forgive me if any Argentinians are still fighting there.’
The artillery causes casualties on both sides.
After eight hours of fighting, Mount Longdon is taken by the British. All three hills have been captured, with the loss of 24 men. About 60 more are injured. The Argentinians have lost 85 men.
Although some British troops are aggressive to captured Argentinians, there are acts of kindness. One Marine lies alongside an injured Argentinian while his fellow Marines light a fire to make sure he doesn’t lose body heat.
An Argentine missile launcher on East Falkland fires an Exocet missile at the destroyer HMS Glamorgan, 18 miles offshore. The alarm sounds and Glamorgan turns sharply, but the Exocet clips the upper deck and explodes, igniting fuel in the ship’s helicopter.
Flames leap hundreds of feet into the air. Eight men are killed instantly and burning fuel pours below decks, starting a fire in the galley. Four cooks and a steward die. The most severe injuries are caused by Formica in the galley splintering ‘like carving knives’.
Neville Bennett is a fireman in Port Stanley; his wife Valerie is a nurse. The night before, she had been tending to the wounded from the naval bombardment. Through binoculars, Neville watches the fighting in the hills. He sees gun flashes and men running, then spots three men in an Argentine lorry heading towards him.
Suddenly the lorry vanishes in a puff of smoke. He writes in his diary: ‘Much as I didn’t want the Argentines here, I found it most disconcerting seeing them killed, even through binoculars.’
News about HMS Glamorgan has reached London. Mrs Thatcher wears black for Trooping the Colour because, as she wrote later, ‘there was so much to mourn’.
On HMS Glamorgan, with the fires extinguished, there is a sunset service for the 13 dead.
Crew members write messages on the canvas bags holding the bodies. Glamorgan has too few ensigns to cover each one, so they borrow some from other ships. One by one, the bodies are dropped into the sea.
Valerie Bennett arrives home after her shift at the Port Stanley hospital. She tells her husband that as the bodies of the two Falklands women who died in the bombardment were carried to the mortuary, wounded Argentinians stood in tribute and made the sign of the cross.
But then she says angrily: ‘The bloody Argy reporters wanted to photograph the bodies. I told them no! I locked the mortuary door and put the key in my pocket.’
Sunday, June 13
British soldiers raise the Union Jack flag at the Government House in Port Stanley after the surrender of Argentine forces ended the Falklands war between Britain and Argentina, June 17 1982
The Union Flag flies over Port Howard, West Falkland for the first time in more than two months after the Argentine surrender. The flag is hoisted by the 40 Commando, Royal Marine
A British Royal Marine guards Argentinean soldiers captured at Goose Green as they await transit out of the area
Royal Marines Major-General Jeremy Moore had planned for the advance on Port Stanley to resume last night, but the artillery have only a few rounds left. They are waiting for Sea King helicopters to bring more ammunition.
The P&O cruise liner SS Uganda, requisitioned for use as a hospital ship, is moored off West Falkland with 300 patients on board. Her medical teams have treated more than 120 burns patients, including Welsh Guardsman Simon Weston, who suffered 46 per cent burns when the Sir Galahad was hit on June 8. Simon’s fight to recover from his injuries will later capture the British public’s imagination.
Some soldiers have severe nicotine withdrawal but have burnt hands, so P&O crew help them to put cigarettes in their mouths.
A popular film shown in the wards is Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. The patients sing along to Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, to the amazement of the medics.
Naval photographer Peter Holdgate is behind Royal Marines Corporal Pete Robinson crossing a minefield. Robinson has a Union Flag attached to his radio mast and because it has been raining, the flag is hanging limply.
Suddenly, the wind fills the flag and Holdgate takes a picture that will appear in newspapers around the world (and which is reproduced on the previous page). In future years, soldiers tell Corporal Robinson that he is the reason they joined the Marines.
Many Falkland Islanders are tuned in to the BBC World Service programme Calling The Falklands. It used to be a music show but has been turned into a programme carrying special news bulletins and messages from public figures, such as the Governor of the Falklands, Rex Hunt, who was ejected from the islands on the first day of the invasion.
Presenter Peter King ends with his normal payoff: ‘Keep your heads down and your hearts high!’
The night attacks begin. The new targets are Argentine positions on three hills — Tumbledown, Mount William and Wireless Ridge. The Scots Guards, who just a few weeks ago were patrolling Buckingham Palace, storm the most vital target — Tumbledown, a long, narrow ridge with a sheer drop on one side.
Their password to identify friend from foe is ‘Hey Jimmie’, as the Argentinians have a very different pronunciation of ‘J’. Defending Tumbledown is the elite Argentinian 5th Marine Battalion, who outnumber the British two to one. At one point they taunt the British and call on them to surrender.
A photo taken from the battlefield as British soldiers strived to retake Port Stanley from the invading Argentines
Monday, June 14
On Tumbledown, Scots Guardsman Jim Mitchell sees a flash out of the corner of his eye, then blackness. He has been hit in the head. As Jim is carried away on a stretcher, a sniper opens fire and he is dropped to the ground. He manages to take cover among rocks before being led to a field ambulance.
The Scots Guards have outmanoeuvred the Argentinians, who are surrounded and also now being attacked from the air. They are fighting for their lives. Private Jose Ojeda recalled: ‘It was murder. There was no way to keep fighting.’ When he hears the British call to surrender, he and his comrades obey.
Michael Nicholson of ITN is with the Gurkhas on Mount William. It’s so cold his cameraman Bernard Hesketh, who fought on D-Day, has wrapped his coat around the camera to stop it freezing. Three frigates fire more than 500 shells at Argentine positions. The British push on doggedly and soon Argentine troops are fleeing towards Stanley in their hundreds.
The islanders wake up to thick snow on the ground. It’s clear the Argentine front has collapsed: a stream of soldiers is coming down from the hills and they’re throwing their weapons into ditches. One officer runs out of a building and starts firing in the air, ordering them to stop and fight. They ignore him.
Close to Government House is a Chinook helicopter which the islanders assume is for General Menendez, the Argentine military governor, to leave the island. When he took charge, he decreed that all traffic should drive on the right-hand side of the road, that Spanish would be the official language taught in schools and that pesos would replace pounds sterling. Port Stanley had been renamed Puerto Argentina.
Lance-Corporal Denzil Connick, of 3 Para, has been hit by artillery fire and is being flown to SS Uganda. He is taken to intensive care and, to his delight, placed in a bed next to a platoon mate, Michael ‘Mush’ Bateman, who has been shot through the throat. They make weak thumbs-up signs to each other.
The head of the military junta in Argentina, General Galtieri, telephones General Menendez and tells him to ‘use all means at your disposal and continue fighting with all the intensity with which you are capable’. Menendez replies that he has ‘no means at his disposal, no troops, no high ground, no ammunition’. Galtieri gives him permission to negotiate with the British.
The overnight snow is melting and gunfire has mostly stopped. Word spreads among the troops above Port Stanley that white flags have been seen over the capital. A Gurkha major surprises ITN’s Michael Nicholson with the news — but his crew weren’t ready to film, so Nicholson asks the major to do it again.
Reporter Max Hastings is with 2 Para, the unit closest to Stanley. Although the men have been told to halt, Hastings decides to walk into the capital. He takes off his camouflage jacket, dons a civilian coat and sets off. In Stanley, Hastings bluffs his way to speak to an Argentine officer, then returns to British lines to transmit the story of the victory back to Britain as soon as possible.
Prince Andrew, a Sea King pilot, brings casualties from HMS Glamorgan on board SS Uganda. He is the first member of the Royal Family since 1945 to have fought in a war.
At the outbreak of the conflict, when a Buckingham Palace spokesman was asked if the Queen wanted to keep her son out of the war, he replied: ‘Prince Andrew is a serving officer and there is no question in her mind that he should go.’
Not realising the British troops are almost out of ammunition and the task force ships are depleted, General Menendez believes he must surrender. He sends a message to Major-General Jeremy Moore asking for ceasefire terms. Soon, the British chief negotiator arrives by helicopter at Government House.
The Union Flag is flying once again over Government House. Firefighter Neville Bennett sees a man walking along a pavement shouting: ‘I’m British! I’m British!’ so the locals know he’s friendly. The man is BBC correspondent Brian Hanrahan, and soon a crowd gathers round him.
On May 1, when based on HMS Hermes, Hanrahan had not been allowed to say how many Sea Harriers had taken part in a raid, so he famously said: ‘I counted them out and I counted them all back.’
Max Hastings arrives on HMS Fearless with his scoop, only to be told by a Ministry of Defence PR man: ‘I am afraid there is a complete news blackout.’ The War Cabinet want news of the surrender to be given first in the House of Commons.
Hastings argues that Argentine radio is already carrying the news, but the MoD team is unmoved. Hastings goes to bed ‘to lie sleepless with rage towards the system which had so effortlessly thwarted me’.
Michael Nicholson shares Hastings’s frustration. In the UK, News At Ten will begin in ten minutes and he is desperate to make a live telephone call to the programme to tell viewers the war is over — but he, too, is denied permission.
It takes three weeks for TV pictures to reach British screens, so most news from the Falklands has been relayed by an MoD press officer in London named Ian McDonald, whose delivery is so flat he has been nicknamed ‘McDalek’.
In the Commons, Mrs Thatcher says: ‘After successful attacks last night, General Moore decided to press forward. The Argentines retreated. Our forces reached the outskirts of Port Stanley. Large numbers of Argentine soldiers threw down their weapons. They are reported to be flying white flags over Port Stanley.’
The House cheers. In the Lobby, Alan Clark catches up with Mrs Thatcher: ‘Prime Minister, only you could have done this; you did it alone, and your place in history is assured.’ She looks startled, while Home Secretary William Whitelaw looks irritated at Clark’s outburst.
General Jeremy Moore arrives by helicopter at Government House to sign the surrender document. Moore refuses permission for TV cameras to film, so the historic event goes unseen by the wider world. ‘I felt that if there was half of a tenth of a 1 per cent chance that having the thing filmed might put Menendez off surrendering, it would be a risk it could not be proper for me to take.’
The surrender document is signed. Clutching a bottle of whisky to celebrate, General Moore heads to the storehouse where many islanders have gathered for safety. He tells them: ‘I’m sorry it has taken us so long to get here.’
In Downing Street, which is filled with cheering crowds, Mrs Thatcher goes to bed contented. ‘I felt an enormous burden had been lifted from my shoulders and future worries would be small compared with those which had been with us constantly for 11 weeks.’
News of the surrender reaches the intensive care ward on SS Uganda. Lance-Corporal Denzil Connick pulls his bedsheet over his face and sobs. He said: ‘I wept for my friends, I wept for myself, but most of all I wept with relief that further suffering might at last be over.’
The Falklands campaign cost the lives of 255 British servicemen, 649 Argentines and three Falkland islanders. Few men came home without some psychological scars.
The war is estimated to have cost £1 million for every island resident. Governor Rex Hunt returned to Government House to find the wine cellar and freezer had been emptied, and that General Menendez had left a pair of pyjamas in his bedside cabinet.
Hunt wrote later: ‘As they were thicker and warmer than mine, I had no compunction about wearing them.’
Hunt took down pictures of General Galtieri from the drawing room and replaced them with a picture of the Queen.
Jonathan Mayo is the author of D-Day: Minute By Minute, published by Short Books.