Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
On Friday, 2nd April 1982, Britain woke up to the news that the Argentinian Navy had launched an invasion of the Falkland Islands.
The television images broadcast from the Islands showed a column of Argentine LVTP-7 amphibious assault vehicles heading towards the capital, Port Stanley.
The fortieth anniversary has stimulated a slew of documentaries on the military campaign, but few have examined the Argentine leadership.
Despite the Falklands being a British territory since 1833, Argentina had never accepted their sovereignty. Whilst in the Nineteenth Century the relationship between the two countries was strong, by the Second World War things had deteriorated.
Argentina refused to severe diplomatic relations with the Axis. The Allies feared that the Argentine army, tutored by German instructors, was pro-Nazi. Consequently, Roosevelt imposed an arms embargo, halted credits, and curtailed machinery supplies to Argentina.
In 1942, Churchill garrisoned the Falklands with 2,000 troops to deter invasion. A military coup against the civilian government in 1943 did little to help Argentina’s image with the democracies.
In 1946 there was a notional return to civilian rule under popularist ex-general Juan Peron. Peron, the passionate nationalist, never forgot his military origins. In 1949 he remarked:
“I am a soldier like yourselves, with the same preoccupations, the same problems, the same virtues and the same shortcomings, because we come from the same school.”
Later he declared:
“This is a country which is formed by generals, liberated by generals, led by generals and today claimed by generals.”
The armed forces were all-powerful in Argentina. In 1905, universal military conscription was introduced. Conscripts were told that there first act of allegiance was not to God, the President, the Constitution, or Parliament but to “the flag”.
Between 1930 and 1982 Argentina had 24 presidents, but only 13 were civilians and not one civilian government had survived without having its term interrupted by at least an attempted coup. Unsurprisingly, 50 per cent of government expenditure went on the military.
Argentina exerted continual pressure on the British to relinquish the Falklands. In 1949, Peron staged threatening Argentine naval manoeuvres close by, which were seen off by the Royal Navy. In 1965, Argentina got the United Nations to pass Resolution 2065, calling on the UK to end colonial rule in “The Malvinas”.
The British Government responded by emphasising Article 73 of the UN Charter, and the right to self-determination. Argentina retorted that self-determination was “not applicable” and pledged only to safeguard the “interests” of residents, without the obligation of taking their “wishes” into account.
Shortly before Christmas 1966, an Argentine submarine attempted to land 15 Marines in two dinghies 40 km north of Port Stanley. Their aim was to survey the beach as a future landing site but they were forced to retreat to their submarine when the strong current took both craft off course.
However, the Argentinians believed that this aborted operation proved that they would face little in the way of military opposition.
The Wilson, Heath and Callaghan governments all believed that the islands were indefensible and therefore attempted to pacify Argentina by maintaining trade and cooperation negotiations. Sometimes this bore fruit, as in September 1971 with the signing of The Communications Agreement, improving travel and telecommunications between the islands and Argentina.
On other occasions Argentina lost its temper and demanded the immediate relinquishing of sovereignty.
By the mid-1970s, Argentina was in chaos. Inflation was running at 600 per cent, output had plunged, union unrest was widespread, and the country was plagued by leftist terrorism. In March 1976, the military seized power and instituted a junta comprised of three representatives, one from each branch of the services.
Henceforth, all government ministries were answerable directly to one of these three individuals. Over the next six years the regime embarked on the “Dirty War” against its opponents, resulting in the murder of up to 30,000 Argentinians. Plans were laid within the first year of the regime for military conquest of the Falklands, but they were later shelved.
By 1981, Argentina had its third economic crisis since the coup. The public were demanding a return to democracy. On December 22, General Galtieri, a man who fancied that he looked like the actor George C Scott in the film “Patton”, ousted his predecessor.
Before coming to power, Galtieri had formed a pact with the navy high command. In exchange for their support, he would back their plans for invading the Falklands.
Galtieri believed himself to be a man of action. In reality, he was an improviser, lacking in original thought and without the mind of a statesman. Unlike his hero Patton, he had never commanded a force in battle and was the only trainee to fail a military engineering course that he undertook in 1960. His one speciality was interrogating and torturing political prisoners.
Under his leadership, Argentine strategy for the Falklands invasion was built on two assumptions: Britain would not fight to re-gain the islands and the USA would remain neutral. When those certainties collapsed, Argentina had no Plan B.
Uninterested and poorly read, Galtieri had no insight into the personality of Margaret Thatcher. He was also oblivious to the fact that Britain was the USA’s strongest NATO ally. He even failed to consider the assistance that could be rendered to the British by neighbouring Chile, with whom Argentina had been in dispute over the Beagle Channel Islands.
Devoid of analytical skills, Galtieri was driven only by the belief that the conquest would enable him to stay in power.
Detailed planning for the invasion began secretly in January 1982. Argentine strategists envisaged an amphibious landing of 3,000 troops, most of which would be withdrawn within 48 hours of the British Governor’s surrender. Thereafter, a token military presence of 500 men was believed to be sufficient.
The planners failed to consider that this holding force, made up of inexperienced conscripts, may have to face a professionally trained NATO army. Likewise, no thought went into their troops’ lines of supply on the islands. They planned the invasion like one of their regular coups.
Despite these deficiencies, the planners did draft a blacklist of the most anti-Argentine citizens on the islands. This was not unusual given that the Argentine Army’s main experience was in purging its political opponents.
Argentina proved adept at keeping the invasion secret. Not even British and US intelligence discovered the armada assembling until the last moment.
On April 1 Alexander Haig, the US Secretary of State, alerted his President to the threat. Ronald Reagan then tried to contact Galtieri. Initially, he was told by an aide that he was not available but after persisting, Reagan eventually spoke to him.
The conversation, via an interpreter, lasted 50 minutes. Reagan tried to be polite, but direct. He informed Galtieri that if Argentina invaded, the British would “react militarily”. Reagan also stated that it would “seriously damage” Argentina’s relationship with the USA.
A whisky-sodden Galtieri responded with a slurred emotional diatribe about British colonialism. Reagan tried to get the conversation back on course, but to no avail. Galtieri even failed to detect the President’s multiple references to “my friend Mrs Thatcher”.
As it became pointless continuing, Reagan ended the call, after which he instructed that relevant US intelligence should be shared with the British.
Initially, Argentinians greeted news of the invasion with hysterical joy. One hundred thousand people packed into Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to cheer the junta and chant “AR-GEN-TIN-A!”. They were still going berserk when Alexander Haig arrived on April 10 to mediate. Haig was appalled and remarked that he had not witnessed such fanaticism since the Third Reich.
Unsurprisingly, following Argentina’s military defeat, Galtieri became the figure of blame. His leadership remains uniquely abysmal in the annals of modern warfare.