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Today in history... Falklands War ceasefire agreed

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Addressing a packed House of Commons on June 14th, 1982, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced a ceasefire had been agreed between British and Argentine forces on the Falkland Islands.

Although it would be another six days before hostilities officially ceased, Mrs Thatcher's announcement effectively marked the end of the brief but bitter Falklands War, which cost more than 900 lives.

Argentina had long disputed the sovereignty of the Falklands, a group of islands in the South Atlantic governed as a British Overseas Territory. Lying only 300 miles off the coast of South America, Argentina claimed the islands – which it called Las Malvinas – were part of its territory. 

However, Britain had governed the islands since 1833 and almost all the approximately 1,800 native islanders were of British descent, speaking English and identifying as British Citizens. The UK Government said they had the 'right of self-determination' – in other words it was up to the islanders to decide who they 'belonged to'.

In 1982 Argentina was under military rule, but its leader, General Galtieri, was increasing unpopular. When his forces invaded the Falkland Islands on Friday April 2nd, his popularity soared overnight on a wave of patriotic fervour, but it was to be short-lived.

Three days later the British Government dispatched a naval task force to confront the Argentine navy and air force in the South Atlantic. In many ways it was a game of bluff on both sides. Galtieri had hoped Britain would accept the annexing of a group of insignificant and lightly-inhabited islands 8,000 miles away and finally give up its sovereignty claims. For Thatcher – nicknamed the Iron Lady – that was never an option. She in turn hoped that as the task force neared the Falklands, the Argentines would back down.

Neither of those happened and when the first British warships reached the Falklands on April 22nd, hostilities quickly began. Although neither side ever officially declared war, the islands were designated a 'war zone' and both nations recognised a 'state of war' existed between them.

The first major naval loss was the sinking of the Argentine light cruiser General Belgrano, torpedoed by British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror on May 2nd. While more than 700 of her crew were rescued from the icy waters, 328 died, accounting for more than half of Argentina's losses during the 10-week war.

Crucially, the rest of the Argentine fleet, unnerved by the presence of nuclear submarines, headed for their home ports and stayed there for the rest of the war. Instead Argentine fighter aircraft targeted Britain's ships anchored off the islands, sinking several with French-made Exocet missiles, including HMS Sheffield. Only after effective anti-aircraft batteries were established did the threat from the air begin to diminish.

On land though, the outcome of the conflict was sealed almost as soon as British forces set foot on the islands. The majority of the occupying Argentine troops were young and inexperienced conscripts. In contrast Britain had sent her most experienced and highly trained fighters, including Royal Marine Commandos, the Parachute Regiment and the elite troops of the SAS and SBS.

Although the fighting on land was brutal, it was usually brief, British troops overwhelming the occupying Argentine forces. By early June the Falklands capital, Port Stanley, was surrounded. A series of intense battles commenced to capture the mountains around the capital, including Mount Tumbledown.

As each one fell, Argentine troops in Stanley became more despondent. Orders were given to occupy every house and fight to the last man, but the realisation of their hopeless position meant most Argentine troops simply laid down their weapons and raised white flags of surrender. Thankfully it meant civilian losses were minimised, with only three Falkland Islanders killed throughout the entire conflict.

Mrs Thatcher's June 14th announcement of the surrender and ceasefire was cheered by MPs of all parties in the House of Commons and jubilant crowds cheering and singing outside. The 74-day conflict had cost the lives of 655 Argentine and 255 British servicemen, and left many more injured.

In Argentina, General Galtieri was deposed and served three years in prison for military incompetence. The country returned to civilian rule the following year but full diplomatic relations were not restored with Britain until 1990.

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