For over 150 years Britain and Argentina have contested the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands: also known as the ‘Islas Malvinas’. Argentina had attempted to regain the islands diplomatically, but when the military government of General Leopoldo Galtieri faced increasing economic and social unrest, it decided to take the islands by force to bolster public support at home. On 2 April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falklands; within days a British Task Force was sailing to the South Atlantic to retake the islands.
On 25 May the Merchant Navy supply ship ‘Atlantic Conveyor’ was struck by Argentine Exocet missiles with the loss of its vital cargo of troop-carrying helicopters. This necessitated a complete change of strategy for the conduct of the campaign. The Commandos and Paras would now have to advance on foot to Port Stanley, the capital of the Falklands, some 50 miles (80km) away in the depths of a South Atlantic winter.
The British government was keen for a successful operation to regain momentum. Despite the initial doubts of Brigadier Julian Thompson, commander of 3 Commando Brigade, the decision was taken to capture Darwin and Goose Green, some 13 miles (20km) to the south of San Carlos Water where the British had landed. These two settlements were in the opposite direction to Port Stanley, the main British objective.
There was, however, a substantial Argentine garrison stationed in the area, which could potentially pose a threat to the British advance to Port Stanley. In the early hours of 28 May the 500 men of 2 Para started their advance towards Darwin.
Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert ‘H’ Jones (1940-82) was the commanding officer of 500 soldiers of 2 Para. A veteran of several tours of Northern Ireland, his style of command was to lead his men from the front, to encourage and inspire by example. His daredevil attack, which led to his death and for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), encapsulated his personality.
Lieutenant-Colonel Ítalo Ángel Piaggi (1935-2012) was the commanding officer of Task Force Mercedes, comprising about 1,200 men from the 12th Infantry Regiment and ‘C’ Company of the 25th Infantry Regiment. They were well equipped with mortars, artillery and numerous machine guns. After the battle he was criticised for his defeat and dishonourably discharged from the Argentine Army.
Goose Green was the first land battle of the Falklands War and one where the outcome hung in the balance until the very end. Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert Jones and 2 Para had to complete their mission in darkness and take Darwin and Goose Green ‘before breakfast’. Leaving the majority of their supplies and heavier weapons behind, the soldiers took 24-hour ration packs and large quantities of ammunition in order to be able to move more quickly. They would rely on artillery and naval ships for fire support to suppress enemy positions.
British intelligence had, however, failed to identify the main Argentine defensive positions in the area of Darwin Hill. An intense night battle with rockets, rifles and bayonets then ensued. When dawn broke the attack plan was falling behind schedule. The British troops were now faced with a frontal attack over open ground against a well-entrenched enemy who were expecting them.
When the assault stalled in the face of heavy defensive fire, Lieutenant-Colonel Jones led a daring attack against an Argentine machine-gun position, during which he was killed. His men eventually fought their way through and by midday on 28 May they had taken Darwin.
The battle continued in daylight with air support now coming to the assistance of both sides. Major Chris Keeble was called up from the rear to take command after Jones’s death. After fierce actions in the surrounding area and the airfield near the settlement, the Argentines pulled back to Goose Green. That night Keeble persuaded the Argentines to surrender. The garrison at Goose Green subsequently capitulated at dawn on 29 May. It was only then that the British realised how large the Argentine force at Goose Green actually was. About 1,000 Argentine troops surrendered to fewer than 500 Paras.
The Battle of Goose Green is often remembered as one of the most significant engagements of the Falklands War, but also as the most controversial one. The decision made at the time to commit British troops to what many considered an unnecessary diversion from Stanley, the British key objective, has been the subject of some criticism.
The role of Lieutenant-Colonel ‘H’ Jones has also been surrounded by controversy. Many have hailed him as a hero who, with his courageous death, inspired his men to fight on and win the battle. Others have criticised his single-handed attack on an Argentine position, seeing it as an impetuous action that deprived his soldiers of their commanding officer at a critical time, without having a major impact on the outcome of the battle. Nevertheless, his battalion was frustrated by inadequate fire support and it was essential to maintain the momentum of the assault.
The battle will be remembered as a shining example of an engagement won by the close-quarter combat skills of a single British Army battalion. The determination and fighting spirit of the officers and men of The Parachute Regiment were the crucial factors in determining the victory.
It was a much-needed victory for a British government impatient for a boost to morale at home. It also revived the spirits of the British Task Force following the setbacks it had previously sustained. Goose Green also showed the British troops that the Argentine conscript soldiers were poorly trained, ill fed, and badly supplied, and that they could be defeated if attacked with determination.
With the sizeable Argentine force of Goose Green defeated, the path was now clear for the British to break out from the bridgehead of San Carlos Water and start their advance towards Port Stanley. Two weeks later, after other fierce battles, the war was over and the British had regained control of the islands.
The emphatic victory and the expulsion of the Argentine forces allowed the Falkland Islanders to reclaim British sovereignty under a government of their choice. The islands are now more prosperous than ever and the prospect of oil reserves in their waters will ensure this continues for many years to come, despite the ongoing Argentine claims of sovereignty.
The military success significantly increased support for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in Britain. Soon after she led her party to victory in the general election of 1983. The conflict also precipitated the fall of Galtieri’s military ‘junta’ at the end of 1983. Its replacement by a democratic government was a welcome development that spread across South America with the eclipse of several military dictatorships.