Part 6 - The Build-Up to War

Rising Tension Between Britain and Argentina

At a meeting of the International Parliamentary Union in London on 9 September 1975 Argentina reminded delegates of Britain's 'act of international piracy' in establishing a colony in the Falkland Islands.  Falkland Islanders in Britain picketed the meeting.

In 1976 a British Antarctic Survey research ship, 'Ernest Shackleton', was fired upon by an Argentine gunboat and pursued back to Stanley.  Later that year Argentina established an illegal and clandestine military base on Southern Thule in the South Sandwich Islands, a Falkland Islands Dependency lying to the south of South Georgia.  The base was discovered by British Antarctic Survey research ship 'Bransfield' in November 1977.  Britain responded by secretly sending a nuclear powered submarine and two frigates to Falklands waters, but it appears the Argentines were unaware of their presence (which was not made public until the eve of invasion on 30 March 1982), as early in 1978 Argentine warplanes and gunships harrassed several Polish ships fishing in Falklands waters.

The Shackleton Report

In October 1975 the British Government announced that an Economic Mission, led by Lord Shackleton (son of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton) and comprising oil, fisheries, animal husbandry, financial and sociology experts would be going to the Falkland Islands to carry out a comprehensive survey.  The Shackleton Report, issued in July 1977 in two volumes of nearly 500 pages, set out the state of stagnation and degeneration in the Islands.  

It recommended oil exploration, fisheries surveys, the extension of the Stanley Airport runway which would otherwise inhibit tourism and other diversifying potential, the creation of a 'development agency' to fund new enterprises, the expansion of the minimal Camp road network, the construction of a new all-purpose jetty at Stanley, and the conversion and subdivision of the large externally-owned farms into owner-occupied family farming units.  

The Report was largely ignored at the time, although work on subdividing the farms of Roy Cove on West Falkland and Green Patch on East Falkland was put in hand.  A second 1982 Shackleton Report, a desk study update of the first report, was commissioned by Mrs Thatcher during the Conflict and became a blueprint for the Islands' subsequent economic development.  Lord Shackleton's vision of what the Islands might become lay behind most of the economic policies pursued by the British and Falkland Islands Governments for the next two decades.

The Leaseback Proposal

Britain recognised that unless momentum was maintained in talks with Argentina there was a risk that Argentina might initiate a military solution.  In July 1979 the new Conservative government sent Minister of State Nicholas Ridley to visit the Islands.  After his visit Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington put forward three proposals.  His starting point was that 'Fortress Falklands' was not feasible on the grounds of cost - Britain could not afford to maintain a sufficiently powerful military presence on the Islands to deter an invasion.  The first option, 'Sovereignty Freeze', whereby both sides agreed to disagree and take no action to further their claims for a specified time, was seen as unacceptable to Argentina.  The second option, 'Condominium', a joint government, would see the Argentine flag and Union Jack flying side-by-side, with two police forces, two governors, two official languages, but this was seen as unworkable. 

Nicholas Ridley was sent back to the Islands in November 1980 to try to persuade Islanders to accept the third proposal for 'leaseback' whereby nominal sovereignty would be given to Argentina but British administration would be maintained for a fixed number of years until the final handover.  Islanders were unconvinced, and Parliament gave the proposals a hostile reception, pointing out that British peoples should not be handed over against their will to such an unsavoury regime as the Argentine junta.  In the face of this opposition the Conservative government once again reiterated that the Islanders' wishes were 'paramount'.

British Signals to Argentina

In February 1981, with the support of the Islands' Councillors, the British government met with Argentine representatives in New York but the British proposal for a sovereignty freeze was rejected by the junta.  In July 1981 the British Joint Intelligence Committee reported that the most likely Argentine response to the lack of progress on sovereignty talks would be to take punitive economic measures against the Islanders (disrupting transport links, food and fuel supplies, or medical aid arrangements) or even to occupy uninhabited parts of the Falkland Islands Dependencies along the Southern Thule model.  The view was that Argentina would invade the Islands only if it was convinced there was no prospect of eventual transfer of sovereignty.  

Ridley advised that leaseback remained the only feasible solution and recommended that Britain initiate an education campaign to persuade Islanders, but this proposal was rejected by Lord Carrington who felt that any attempt to put pressure on Islanders would be counter-productive.  However, the cumulative effect of stalled sovereignty negotiations, the British Nationality Act 1981 which would deprive many Islanders of their rights as full British citizens, the announced withdrawal of HMS Endurance, the shelving of plans to rebuild the Royal Marine barracks at Moody Brook, and the proposed closure of the British Antarctic Survey base at Grytviken on South Georgia, was to convince Argentina that Britain had no future interest in the Islands. 

Illegal Landings on South Georgia

On 20 December 1981 an Argentine scrap metal merchant Constantino Davidoff landed without permission at Leith on the island of South Georgia.  He had arrived on board the Argentine naval ice breaker Almirante Irizar,  to survey the old whaling station at Leith.  The landing was reported by a French yacht that happened to be in the vicinity to the British Antarctic Survey base 15 miles away at Grytviken.  When the base commander reached Leith he discovered that the Argentines had gone, but had left behind a chalked message claiming that South Georgia belonged to Argentina.

On 3 February 1982 Britain lodged a formal protest at the unauthorised landing of 20 December 1981.  Davidoff subsequently called at the British Embassy in Buenos Aires to apologise, and to tell them that he would be returning to South Georgia, as he had signed a contract with Christian Salvesen (formerly a major player in the South Georgia whaling industry) to dismantle their property at Leith.  The Embassy informed Davidoff that upon his return he should first report to Grytviken and follow the normal procedure for entry.  

On 9 March 1982 Davidoff notified the British Embassy in Buenos Aires that a groupof his workmen would be leaving for South Georgia two days later on a vessel chartered from the Argentine navy, the Bahia Buen Suceso.    When the vessel reached South Georgia on 19 March it sailed directly to Leith and failed to report to Grytviken.  Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey base observed a large group of men at Leith, and noted that the Argentine flag was flying above the manager's house.  The scientists informed the captain of the Bahia Buen Suceso that the men had entered South Georgia illegally.

Rex Hunt, Governor of the Falkland Islands and its Dependencies (including South Georgia) gave orders that the Argentines were to return to their ship and report immediately to the authorities at Grytviken.  He also informed London.  The British Embassy in Buenos Aires was instructed to tell the Argentine Foreign Ministry that London was taking the affair seriously, and that if the men did not comply with the instructions Britain would be forced to take action.

HMS Endurance was given orders to sail from Stanley to South Georgia with a group of 22 Royal Marines and its Wasp helicopters.  The Bahia Buen Suceso left Leith on 21 March with most of the workmen aboard.  On 24 March the Bahia Paraiso arrived in Leith and unloaded more stores, together with a troop of Argentine marines under the command of Captain Alfredo Astiz.  The Royal Marines kept a watching brief until 2 April, when after hearing of the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands they landed on South Georgia and in a fierce two hour battle damaged an Argentine frigate, shot down a Puma helicopter and damaged an Alouette helicopter, before surrendering to a large force of Argentine marines.

The New York Talks

In February 1982 talks were held in New York between British and Argentine delegations led by Richard Luce, Nicholas Ridley's successor as Minister of State, and Argentina's Deputy Foreign Minister, lawyer Enrique Ros, whom it is now believed was not privy to the junta's invasion plans.  Luce and Ros eventually agreed to a standing permanent commission on the Falklands issue, under alternating British and Argentine chairmanship, attended by two Falklands councillors.  There should be regular meetings, an open agenda, and a review after one year.  The agreement was subject to ratification by the respective governments.  Luce had agreed to nothing but to keep talking, albeit at an increased tempo.  

A joint statement was released on 1 March by Luce and Ros which referred to the 'cordial and positive spirit' of the talks but made no mention of details.  On 2 March the hawkish Argentine Foreign Minister Costa Mendes disowned the communique, apparently objecting to the proposed review in one year's time, and issued a statement saying that Argentina had been negotiating in good faith for long enough and unless Britain ceded sovereignty in the near future, Argentina reserved the right to 'employ other means' to regain the Islands.  Luce reported to the Commons on the New York talks on 3 March, but gave an evasive answer to a direct question from MP Julian Amery, "Will the minister assure us that all necessary steps are in hand to ensure the protection of the Islands against unexpected attack?".  



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