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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Falklands War

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in The Falklands War.

When did this conflict occur?

2nd April, 1982^ – 21st October, 1982*

^ – Though the 2nd of April marks the beginning of the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, the first elements of the British maritime task force departed three days later on the 5th of April. [1] 

* – Combat operations during the Falklands War ended with the Argentine surrender in Port Stanley on the 14th of June; however, British servicemembers remained eligible for the South Atlantic, the official Ministry of Defence recognition for service in the conflict, until the 21st of October [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

The British presence in the Falklands dates back to 1690, when Royal Navy Captain John Strong made the first recorded landing on the then-uninhabited island. Though a British settlement was constructed in the mid-18th century, the endeavour was soon abandoned, and the Falklands fell initially under Spanish control prior to the Argentinian claim on the islands in 1820. [3] A subsequent British expedition in 1833 succeeded in expelling the Argentine presence; however, the South American state continued to assert its sovereignty over the islands, known as Las Malvinas in Spanish, into the 20th century. These political tensions finally escalated in March of 1982 when Argentinian workers raised their national flag on an abandoned whaling station in the Falkland Islands Dependency of South Georgia; two weeks later, Argentinian amphibious forces landed on the Falklands and South Georgia, seizing both territories and forcing the small Royal Marines garrison to surrender. [4] The initial Argentine belief that the British government would acquiesce to the islands’ seizure proved incorrect, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered the formation of an amphibious task force which departed the United Kingdom for the South Atlantic on the 5th of April. In a brief, week-long operation spearheaded by elements of the 22nd Special Air Service and Royal Marines Special Boat Squadron, the task force succeeded in recapturing the island of South Georgia by the 25th of April. [5] The British effort then turned to the Falklands, with the ensuing air, naval, and special operations campaign setting the conditions for the arrival of the main British ground component on the 21st of May. Landing in East Falkland, the force progressed towards Port Stanley, confronting a deeply entrenched Argentinian defensive force, difficult terrain, and hostile weather conditions. [6] By the 14th of June, nearly one month since the initial amphibious landings by British troops, Port Stanley was recaptured and the Argentinian garrison of approximately 11000 troops was disarmed and repatriated.

What role did British military forces play?

The British military effort to recapture the Falkland Islands was known as Operation Corporate and marked the first simultaneous deployment of the Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, and Royal Marines since the Second World War. At sea, the maritime task force succeeded in assembling a fleet of approximately 127 warships, submarines, and requisitioned merchant vessels, with the first elements departing for the South Atlantic three days after the initial Argentinian invasion. [7]Though initial operations to reclaim South Georgia succeeded with no British losses, the subsequent shift towards the Falklands saw the outbreak of intense aerial and maritime combat: following the sinking of the cruiser ARA General Belgrano, Argentine aircraft armed with Exocet anti-ship cruise missiles succeeded in sinking seven British vessels, including the merchant container ship SS Atlantic Conveyor carrying the majority of the task force’s heavy-lift helicopter fleet. [8] A subsequent British effort to eliminate the threat posed by the remaining Exocets held at the Argentinian mainland airfield at Rio Grande, which would have seen an entire squadron from 22 SAS land directly on the airstrip before targeting Argentinian aircraft and crews, failed to materialise, and the British ground force landing in East Falkland was forced to progress on foot across 56 miles towards Port Stanley. [9] Resistance proved fierce, a reality exacerbated by a lack of British air superiority, with British forces at Goose Green and Mount Longdon being forced to close with Argentine forces in relentless close combat which saw two posthumous Victoria Crosses awarded to members of the Parachute Regiment. [10] The final large-scale offensive of the conflict unfolded on Wireless Ridge, overlooking the capital of Port Stanley, on the 13th of June and resulted in a decisive victory by elements of 3 Commando Brigade. [11] The following day, the remaining Argentine defences collapsed, and the ten-week conflict came to an end.

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

Yes. In total there were 3 civilian casualties as a result of British military action. These deaths occurred in a single incident on the night of the 11th June 1982 during the ‘Battle of Mount Longdon’. The 3 women killed were named: Susan Whitley, 30, Doreen Bonner, 36, and Mary Goodwin, 81 [12]. In contrast to these civilian deaths 255 British military personnel were killed during the conflict [13].  This was the largest number of British military servicemen killed in one year since the Cyprus Emergency in 1956 [14]. 

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

  • 11th-12th June 1982: The Battle of Mount Longdon

The ‘Battle of Mount Longdon’ took place during the night of 11th-12th June 1982 between the British Third Battalion, Parachute Regiment and elements of the Argentine 7th Infantry Regiment. 17 soldiers from the Third Battalion were killed during the battle, and 6 later on on the hospital ship SS Uganda,  as well as one royal engineer attached to the Battalion [15]. 

The 3 civilian women were killed when a British shell accidentally landed on the house they were sheltering in in the capital Port Stanley. Susan Whitley was a British citizen whilst Doreen Bonner and Mary Goodwin were native islanders [16]. These were the only civilian deaths that occurred in the entire conflict and as such the British military was responsible for  the only civilian deaths.

There has been some criticism from historians, academics and the Falkland Island community post-conflict that argue that this incident has been largely overlooked in the history books. The Peace Pledge Union describes them as “forgotten deaths” [17]. Indeed, in conducting this research information on the incident was less publicly visible and harder to access than information on military casualties.

Endnotes:

[1] The British Army and the Falklands War, National Army Museum, 2017, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/british-army-and-falklands-war

[2] Sir John Holmes independent medal review 2014 update, Gov.UK, 2014, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/sir-john-homes-independent-medal-review-2014-update

[3] Our History, Falkland Islands Government, 2013, https://www.falklands.gov.fk/our-history

[4] Falklands 40: Recalling Royal Marines’ stand against invasion, BBC News, 2022, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-dorset-60940158

[5] James Sturcke, “The retaking of South Georgia,” The Guardian, 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/apr/25/falklands.world

[6] Raymond E. Bell Jr., “The Royal Navy’s Role in East Falkland Island Land Ops, 1982,” US Naval Institute, 2022, https://www.usni.org/magazines/naval-history-magazine/2022/april/royal-navys-role-east-falkland-island-land-ops-1982

[7] A Short History of The Falklands Conflict, Imperial War Museum, 2022, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/a-short-history-of-the-falklands-conflict#:~:text=The%20Falklands%20Conflict%20was%20a,and%20cost%20over%20900%20lives.

[8] Falklands War: 40 years on from the sinking of SS Atlantic Conveyor, Forces, 2022, https://www.forces.net/falklands-1982/news/falklands-war-40-years-sinking-ss-atlantic-conveyor

[9] Peter Jackson, “Falklands War: SAS role in the conflict,” BBC News, 2012, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17203398

[10] A Short History of The Falklands Conflict, Imperial War Museum.

[11] Train, Harry D, “An Analysis of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands Campaign,” Naval War College Review 41, no. 1 (1988): 49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44636703.

[12] History Is Now Magazine, “ Civilian Deaths in the Falklands War and the Decline of the British Empire”, History is Now, 2019, http://www.historyisnowmagazine.com/blog/2019/1/13/civilian-deaths-in-the-falklands-war-and-the-decline-of-the-british-empire#.Ykdh2G7MI6U=

[13] Royal British Legion, “The Falklands War”,  Royal British Legion, 2022, https://www.britishlegion.org.uk/stories/the-falklands-war

[14] Mills, C. & Torrance, D., “Investigation of Former Armed Forces Personnel Who Served in Northern Ireland,” House of Commons Library, 2022, https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-8352/CBP-8352.pdf

[15] O’Connell, J., “3 Days in June”, Octopus Publishing Group, 2022, https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/3_Days_in_June/uT2LzgEACAAJ?hl=en

[16]. United Press International, “Argentina Blames Britain for Civilian Casualties”, United Press International Archives, 1982, https://www.upi.com/Archives/1982/06/12/Argentina-blames-Britain-for-civilian-casualties/1756392702400/

[17] Royle, S. A., “Escaping from the Past? The Falkland Islands in the Twenty-First Century,” Queen’s University, 2013, https://pureadmin.qub.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/16217465/escaping_from_the_past.pdf