On April 2, 1982, Argentina invades the Falklands Islands, a British colony since 1892 and British possession since 1833. Argentine amphibious forces rapidly overcame the small garrison of British marines at the town of Stanley on East Falkland and the next day seized the dependent territories of South Georgia and the South Sandwich group. The 1,800 Falkland Islanders, mostly English-speaking sheep farmers, awaited a British response.
The Falkland Islands, located about 300 miles off the southern tip of Argentina, had long been claimed by the British. British navigator John Davis may have sighted the islands in 1592, and in 1690 British Navy Captain John Strong made the first recorded landing on the islands. He named them after Viscount Falkland, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. In 1764, French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville founded the islands’ first human settlement, on East Falkland, which was taken over by the Spanish in 1767. In 1765, the British settled West Falkland but left in 1774 for economic reasons. Spain abandoned its settlement in 1811.
In 1816 Argentina declared its independence from Spain and in 1820 proclaimed its sovereignty over the Falklands. The Argentines built a fort on East Falkland, but in 1832 it was destroyed by the USS Lexington in retaliation for the seizure of U.S. seal ships in the area. In 1833, a British force expelled the remaining Argentine officials and began a military occupation. In 1841, a British lieutenant governor was appointed, and by the 1880s a British community of some 1,800 people on the islands was self-supporting. In 1892, the wind-blown Falkland Islands were collectively granted colonial status.
For the next 90 years, life on the Falklands remained much unchanged, despite persistent diplomatic efforts by Argentina to regain control of the islands. In 1981, the Falkland Islanders voted in a referendum to remain British, and it seemed unlikely that the Falklands would ever revert to Argentine rule. Meanwhile, in Argentina, the military junta led by Lieutenant General Leopoldo Galtieri was suffering criticism for its oppressive rule and economic management, and planned the Falklands invasion as a means of promoting patriotic feeling and propping up its regime.
In March 1982, Argentine salvage workers occupied South Georgia Island, and a full-scale invasion of the Falklands began on April 2. Under orders from their commanders, the Argentine troops inflicted no British casualties, despite suffering losses to their own units. Nevertheless, Britain was outraged, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher assembled a naval task force of 30 warships to retake the islands. As Britain is 8,000 miles from the Falklands, it took several weeks for the British warships to arrive. On April 25, South Georgia Island was retaken, and after several intensive naval battles fought around the Falklands, British troops landed on East Falkland on May 21. After several weeks of fighting, the large Argentine garrison at Stanley surrendered on June 14, effectively ending the conflict.
Britain lost five ships and 256 lives in the fight to regain the Falklands, and Argentina lost its only cruiser and 750 lives. Humiliated in the Falklands War, the Argentine military was swept from power in 1983, and civilian rule was restored. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s popularity soared after the conflict, and her Conservative Party won a landslide victory in 1983 parliamentary elections.