In the early 1980s there was a perception that the British Government would give up the Falkland Islands to Argentina in direct opposition to the wishes of the Islanders, who considered themselves British.
In 1981, under increasing economic pressure, Sir John Nott, the Defence Secretary, announced major defence cuts including the axing of Royal Navy assault ships, aircraft carriers and the withdrawal of the patrol ship HMS 'Endurance' from her lone guard over the Falklands.
To the military dictatorship, or 'junta', that ruled Argentina, an opportunity had arisen to be exploited. By retaking the Falklands, or 'Malvinas', the Argentine government hoped to unite the nation.
On 19 March 1982 Argentine ships landed what purported to be scrap metal workers on the island of South Georgia, a dependency 800 miles from the Falklands. The presence of Argentine military forces and the raising of an Argentine flag on the island was enough for the British Government to despatch HMS 'Endurance' on one last mission. News of a British nuclear submarine departing from Gibraltar, a threat to any seaborne invasion, triggered the main Argentine assault on 2 April 1982.
When the crisis hit the headlines, many people had no idea where the Islands were. The 85 Royal Marines garrisoning the island put up a staunch defence against the overwhelming invasion force. Photographs of their surrender shocked the British public and spurred the British Government into action.
'They [the 'junta'] could not even accept the premise that Great Britain, that for so many years had turned the other cheek on anti-colonialist movements, could be willing to risk all for a thousand shepherds on this windswept, barren pile of rocks.'
US Secretary of State, General Al Haig
The reputation of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government was at stake and there would be no hint of negotiation until all Argentine forces were expelled from the Islands. In Britain there was widespread public support for the Task Force that immediately began to be assembled. Demonstrations against war were held but nothing on the scale of protests against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
On 3 April the United Nations Security Council ordered Argentina to withdraw its forces from the Islands prior to negotiation. Argentina ignored the resolution and continued to reinforce its position, constructing defences and flying men and supplies into the airfield at Stanley.
Initially the First Sea Lord, Sir Henry Leach, had offered the Prime Minister a naval solution to the crisis using the Royal Navy and Royal Marines alone. It soon became apparent that it would need all the services to act as one to achieve three major objectives of success: neutralise the Argentine Navy, achieve air superiority and drive the Argentine forces from the Islands.
The initial landing force comprised 3rd Commando Brigade, 'A' Squadron 22nd SAS Regiment and 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment. The 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment followed shortly afterwards and when the size of the Argentine garrison grew to over 6,000 men, the 5th Infantry Brigade with the 2nd Scots Guards, the Welsh Guards and 1st Battalion 7th Gurkha Rifles were embarked.
Britain had seen nothing like it since the Second World War (1939-45). Seconded merchant ships, tugs, liners and tankers were converted for war. On 5 April, three days after the invasion, a force of over 100 ships with 28,000 men set sail from the south coast of England.
Ascension Island, with its American airbase, provided a vital rendezvous and staging post for troops and ships heading south. Troops trained intensively and kept fit as best they could on board the ships. Among the transiting troops was 'D' Squadron Special Air Service Regiment, travelling, according to legend, without permission, but very keen to play a part in the forthcoming operation.
Before the Falkland Islands could be recaptured the island of South Georgia had to be retaken. The horrendous weather that could develop without warning in the South Atlantic soon became apparent. Prior to a main attack two helicopters were lost in the rescue of a Special Air Service (SAS) reconnaissance unit stranded in Arctic temperatures. They were saved by the exceptional efforts of a third Royal Navy helicopter crew. On 26 April, after a naval bombardment, a force of Royal Marines, SAS and Special Boat Service (SBS) went ashore and the Argentine garrison surrendered.
To protect the Task Force and to defy the Argentine claim to the Islands, the Royal Navy set about enforcing a Total Exclusion Zone of 200 miles (321.5 km) around the Islands. Any Argentine shipping or aircraft within this area were regarded as fair game for the submarines, ships and aircraft of the Task Force.
On 1 May an RAF Vulcan flew 4,000 miles from Ascension Island, refuelling several times in mid-air, and bombed the air strip at Stanley. Although the raid caused minimal damage to the air strip it showed the Argentines that Britain was not just reliant on the Task Force and that even the Argentine mainland could be a potential target.
On 2 May the Argentine cruiser 'General Belgrano' was torpedoed by the British submarine HMS 'Conqueror' outside the Total Exclusion Zone with the loss of 368 men. The reality of the war became shockingly clear. Two days later, 20 men died when HMS 'Sheffield' was sunk by an air-launched Exocet missile while defending the Task Force aircraft carriers.
Throughout the campaign the Argentine Air Force, based only 300 miles (480 km) away, was a severe threat and they gained a reputation for reckless bravery. The Royal Navy's key role was to provide air cover for the Task Force. Carrier-based Harrier aircraft were few in number and could offer only limited protection to the ships and the men on the ground.
Pressure was growing on the British Government to negotiate and in order to avoid losing international support a quick victory was needed. With the Task Force closing on the islands, and the South Atlantic winter approaching, any thought of relying on a blockade to oust the Argentines was dismissed. The extended supply line and the risk to morale of a lengthy stay in such extreme conditions made invasion the only viable course of military action.
Before the main amphibious landings began British special forces assessed enemy defences, calling in air strikes on military, supply and communications targets. On the night of 14 May a raid was mounted on Pebble Island airstrip, destroying radar, ammunition and aircraft.
San Carlos Water was chosen for the main landing as it was suitable for landing craft and far enough away from the main Argentine garrisons to avoid serious ground opposition. The invasion force was not expected from this direction because of the distance from Port Stanley and the rugged terrain in between. The landings began just after midnight on 21 May. The amphibious force secured the bridgehead but the ships on air defence duty in San Carlos Water came under air attack soon after dawn.
Wave after wave of aircraft took their toll in what became known as 'Bomb Alley'. HMS 'Ardent' was sunk with the loss of 22 men and several ships took direct hits from bombs that did not explode. On 23 May HMS 'Antelope' was bombed. One crewman died, as did a Royal Engineer who was trying to defuse the bombs when the missile magazines exploded. Argentine aircraft were shot down in increasing numbers, but an attack on 25 May sank HMS 'Coventry' with the loss of 19 of her crew. The next loss at sea would have a direct effect on the course of the war on land.
The initial plan was to airlift infantry from the bridgehead at San Carlos to secure the high ground above Stanley. This changed on 25 May with the loss of the supply ship 'Atlantic Conveyor', carrying Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.
The British Government was intent on not negotiating and avoiding the partition of the Islands. 45 Commando Royal Marines and 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment were ordered forward towards Stanley. Without helicopters the troops would have to rely on their feet - in military slang, the Marines would have to 'yomp' and the Paras 'tab' all the way. 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment were ordered to take the settlements of Darwin and Goose Green on the flank of the main advance.
'I should have sent more troops down there, I should have sent armour down there and I should have commanded in person. I didn't give it the attention it deserved because my eye was fixed in the other direction which was advancing towards Mount Kent.'
Major-General (then Brigadier) Julian Thompson, Commanding Officer, 3 Commando Brigade, 1982
On 28 May the attack on Darwin and Goose Green began. Outnumbered by an Argentine garrison dug in with machine guns and artillery, the assault ground to a halt and casualties began to mount. The 2 Para commander, Lieutenant-Colonel 'H' Jones, was killed in an action for which he would receive the Victoria Cross.
Using rockets, rifles and bayonets the paras fought their way for 14 hours across the strip of land towards the Goose Green settlement under artillery fire and air attack. Short of ammunition, yet determined to take their objective, the Parachute Regiment wore down the determined Argentine defenders.
On 8 June an attack by Argentine aircraft took place on the transport ships 'Sir Tristram' and 'Sir Galahad' as they moved supplies and men of the Welsh Guards from San Carlos to Fitzroy and Bluff Cove. 43 men were killed and many more wounded.
'We realised that there was no going back, we had to carry on to Port Stanley. The platoon and everyone in the battalion were physically almost exhausted. It was a case of march or die. The soldiers knew that.'
Barry Griffiths, Platoon Commander 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment
Control of the heights around Stanley was essential. Each mountain was suited to defence. Some of the best Argentine units on the Falklands were entrenched among rocky outcrops. Protected by minefields, armed with heavy machine guns and mortars they were also supported by artillery positioned to their rear. The British troops had advanced many miles over difficult terrain, in freezing conditions. They now faced a bitter, hand-to-hand fight for control of the heights.
Attacking at night, SAS units clashed with their Argentine counterparts on Mount Kent. At Top Malo House, on the route from San Carlos to Mount Kent, a patrol of the Royal Marine Commando Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre killed or captured an entire Argentine commando patrol. The Argentine special forces in the area surrendered soon afterwards.
Two Sisters, Mount Longdon and Mount Harriet were the main targets of the assault on 11/12 June. At Mount Longdon 3 Para fought yard by yard, clearing enemy positions with rifle, grenade and bayonet. 42 Commando Royal Marines negotiated minefields to position themselves south of Mount Harriet from where they successfully assaulted the Argentine positions. The attack on Two Sisters by 45 Commando Royal Marines was delayed by difficult terrain but was also successful. Argentine artillery shelled their former positions causing further casualties.
A delay followed while ammunition was brought up for the assaults on Mount Tumbledown and Mount William. With only intermittent artillery support, 2nd Battalion Scots Guards contended with mines, mortars, night-sighted snipers and sangars (rock defences). In action for several hours, the Guards secured Mount Tumbledown with bayonet and grenade.
2 Para, veterans of Goose Green, secured tanks and plenty of artillery to support their attack on Wireless Ridge. After an initial bombardment some of the Argentine positions were abandoned and those still occupied were gradually cleared with only light casualties. The Argentines on Mount William fled in the face of advancing Gurkhas.
The Argentine Army was in full flight. 2 Para led the way into Stanley followed by 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, 3 Para and 42 Commando Royal Marines. On 14 June 1982 the Argentine commander General Menendez surrendered.
Fought far from home bases, supply was a deciding factor in the conflict. The Royal Navy needed to maintain an extended supply line to support the invasion force. Harsh conditions at sea and on land hampered the movement of men, machines and stores.
The few helicopters available were used for casualty evacuation and ammunition supply. Rations took second place, and troops often went without. It took 45 Sea King helicopter trips to move a battery of six 105mm guns, their crews, and equipment along with 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
There were few tracks and no roads outside the main settlements. Local agricultural vehicles were utilised at the San Carlos bridgehead and along the line of march to Stanley. The terrain and the threat of mines hampered the few tracked vehicles that were available such as the Scimitar and Scorpion tanks of the Blues and Royals.
Without sufficient helicopters or vehicles, infantry had to carry their own support weapons, ammunition, survival equipment and rations. Crossing peat bog, tussock grass and rocky hills was a feat when weighed down with bergens (rucksacks), weapons and ammunition. Weather made operations difficult. Snow, rain and fog could follow sunshine in quick succession, and the wind was constant.
In contrast Argentina could easily build up her forces and defences on the Islands using the airport at Stanley, stockpiling weapons, ammunition and supplies. Despite this advantage, the Argentine forces had piles of kit, weapons and ammunition that were never used in the conflict because of poor logistics.
Commonplace medical problems were faced daily. Lack of cover left nowhere to get dry, and exposure along with the old enemy 'trench foot' were constant threats. Many men used privately-purchased footwear. The natural water available was sterilised but the peaty liquid still caused stomach upsets, nicknamed 'Galtieri's Revenge' after the Argentine dictator. British forces showed a high standard of battle first-aid. Every wounded man, British and Argentine, who arrived at Surgeon Commander Rick Jolly's dressing station at Ajax Bay survived. It was nicknamed 'The Red and Green Life Machine'.
Intense media coverage of attacks at sea led to an unprecedented level of interest in the stories of those wounded by war. Guardsman Simon Weston, badly burned on the 'Sir Galahad', figured for many as a symbol of the fortitude of the common soldier. Other wounds were not as visible. Many of the soldiers who fought in the Falklands are still dealing with the trauma it caused.
Media correspondents were 'embedded' - or allowed to accompany the troops - so they could report the war. They were sympathetic to the men on the ground but resentment has long been felt by service personnel about the publication of key tactical information.
In Argentina and Britain the popular press used provocative language and images that generated support for the war. The pictures of burning and broken ships had a profound effect on people at home. But it was the human cost that the media recorded so vividly - the wounded evacuated from HMS 'Sheffield', the burial of the dead from Goose Green and the burns casualties from 'Sir Galahad' at Bluff Cove. The reality of war was delivered by television to people's living rooms.
Prior to the war, Mrs Thatcher had been one of the most unpopular prime ministers in history, but victory in the Falklands helped ensure a Conservative victory in the 1983 General Election. Political casualties included the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, who resigned with his ministers at the beginning of the conflict.
Controversy over the sinking of the 'General Belgrano' continued. While the achievement of the Task Force was admired, the human and economic cost of war meant that any display of triumph was met with considerable disapproval.
Democracy was restored to Argentina in 1983 after the fall of the discredited 'junta'. To date, Argentina has not given up its claim to the 'Malvinas'.
Proposed defence cuts had been discredited by the rapid and effective response of the Armed Forces. Accusations were common, as they are today, that the Services were not funded effectively to deliver operational requirements.
'The significance of the Falklands War was enormous, both for Britain's self-confidence and for our standing in the world. Since the Suez fiasco in 1956, British foreign policy had been one long retreat. Victory in the Falklands changed that.'
Margaret Thatcher, 'The Downing Street Years'.
Argentina's 'junta' had gambled all on a popular victory, but now faced humiliation. The Argentine dictator, General Leopoldo Galtieri, was forced to resign three days after his forces surrendered.
The Falkland Islanders won a commitment to their sovereignty that any future government would be courageous to question. Economic investment and a much larger military presence also followed. 30 years on, Britain still retains a force on the Falkland Islands.
The Falklands War was the last conflict Britain fought alone. Outnumbered in the air and on the ground, the service personnel sent to retake the Islands triumphed against the odds.
For many who lived through it, the Falklands War was the conflict that defined the 1980s. For some who fought through it, the battle was not over. The close combat fighting seen in the Falklands often resulted in physical disability and long-term trauma. British dead totalled 255 with over 700 wounded, three Falkland Islanders were killed during the final battle for Stanley and over 640 Argentines lost their lives.