SURPLUS ORDNANCE Episode 32: Tumbledown

Bill Fischer
Associate Professor of History at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, MO;
PhD in Modern Latin American History from the University of Florida

Background to the Argentine side of the Falklands War

The Falkland Islands were variously claimed by Britain and Spain in the 18th century. In the
early 19th century, when Buenos Aires was the new capital of a confederation called the United
Provinces of the Rio de la Plata, the islands, called in Spanish the Islas Malvinas, were claimed
by an agent of the government in Buenos Aires. However, nothing very substantial or
permanent was established there apart from some fishing operations. In 1831, an American
ship dissolved the Buenos Aires-linked government of the islands, and the next year the British
re-took possession. Subsequent governments in Buenos Aires would occasionally protest this,
but it never amounted to much.

Now I'm going to go into the background of the Argentine military's involvement in politics in
the 20th century-- but you can skip to the section that begins on the bottom of page 3 if you

The armed forces in Argentina were very active in Argentine politics throughout the 20th
century. In the 1930s and 40s, there were periods of military rule over the country that were
heavily influenced by anti-Semitism and fascism. Somewhat infamously, Argentina did not
declare war on the Axis powers until 1945. After WWII, the U.S. State Department regarded
Argentina as a serious threat for the return of fascism after it had seemingly just been defeated
in WWII.

But the most important military man to emerge from the WWII era in Argentina was Colonel
Juan Perón, who had served as the minister of labor in the military government. He used this
position to endear himself to labor unions and the urban poor of Buenos Aires, and his
partnership with the charismatic actress Eva Duarte made his political prospects even stronger.

Toward the end of 1945, the U. S. Undersecretary of State for Latin America, Spruille Braden,
became convinced that Perón represented a rebirth of fascism in the Western Hemisphere, and
he pressured the rest of the Argentine military government to arrest him.

This backfired, however, because Perón's fans (cheered on by Eva) massively demanded his
release from prison, and the established government sheepishly let him go.

(This is a bit of an unimportant side-note, but I don't really think that Perón was a fascist-- he
was more of a charismatic populist whose political ideology changed to suit the circumstances)

Perón became president in 1946 and established a long-lasting legacy of "Peronism" as an
important force in Argentine politics. Peronism is a very malleable ideology-- it can be left,
right, or center, but it's always vaguely populist.

And, in general, Peronism was detested by the military (despite the fact that Perón came from
their ranks) and the upper classes. Its ability to mobilize the working-class masses conjured up
fears of social revolution and radicalism.

Perón was removed from power by a military coup in 1955, which is only one of many times
that the military intervened in politics in Argentina.

From then until 1972, Perón was in exile, but Peronism was a strong force that the military
desperately wanted to keep at bay. In fact, in the early 1960s there was a brief civil war in the

Argentine military between two factions that disagreed on whether to allow Peronist
participation in politics at all! Government sort of wavered back and forth between military and
civilian control for about 17 years.

By the early 1970s, some of the Peronists had formed armed guerilla bands, and there were
also Marxist rebel groups with weapons in the country, probably inspired by the Cuban
Revolution and Che Guevara.

In 1972, a critical number of politicians and generals were convinced that perhaps Perón
himself could return and stabilize the political and economic situation, so he returned from
exile and was elected president in 1973 at the age of 78, with his wife Isabel de Perón (Eva had
died of cancer decades earlier) as Vice Presdent.

But Perón died after only 10 months, and Isabel took over as President. Left-wing guerrilla
groups announced that they would continue the armed struggle, while at the same time a right-
wing paramilitary group called the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance was formed.

Isabel Perón intended to use the AAA to defeat the guerrillas and also purge the universities
and labor movements of leftists, but the military hierarchy never trusted her to get the job
done, and she wasn't very politically popular anyway. She was in power until 1976, when the
military overthrew her and set up a new military government.

The junta was led by General Jorge Videla, and the term they used for this government was the
"National Reorganization Process" which has always struck me as the creepiest of bland

Argentina had had military government before, but this one is the most repressive by far. It
prohibited most kinds of political activities, it censored the press, arrested hundreds of labor
leaders, and sent spies into unions and universities.

The junta reinstated the death penalty and announced it was going on a campaign against
"subversives"-- General Videla infamously said, "A terrorist is not only one who carries a bomb
or a pistol, but also wone who spreads ideas contrary to Western Civilization."

The junta created several groups of officers called "War Councils", each of which had the
authority to pass a death sentence for a variety of crimes. They were separate from one
another, so could carry out their own campaigns of investigation, torture, and execution. The
decentralized nature of this made it difficult to monitor, and if one of their victims happened to
be politically well connected and influential, they'd likely only be able to get one "War Council"
shut down while many others continued to operate.

The years 1976-1979 were the height of the "Dirty War" in Argentina. Leftist rebel groups
fought back at first, for about nine months or so, but were seriously degraded by overwhelming

Typically, the military junta would grab one of their targets off the street and bring them to a
secret site where they'd be tortured until they gave up the names of their compatriots. Then,
they'd be executed without ever having their families informed. This is why they are referred to
as "Desaparecidos" or "The Disappeared." The victims were often pushed into the Atlantic
Ocean rather than buried.

Many of the victims were pregnant at the time they were arrested. What typically happened in
this situation is that they were kept until the baby was born; the mothers would then be
thrown into the Atlantic while the baby would be given to a foster family. These foster families
were sometimes the families of military officers, or humble people who knew not to ask any

By 1979, most leftist opposition to the junta was wiped out; however, an unexpected source of
opposition arose. Middle-aged and elderly women started protesting daily at the Plaza de Mayo
outside of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, demanding the return of their disappeared
children or grandchildren, in the cases where the disappeared person was known to be
pregnant. The junta called these women the "Locas de la Plaza de Mayo"but they attracted
significant and sympathetic international attention as the "Madres y Abuelas de la Plaza de

Lead up to the Falklands War

Despite a program of economic liberalization (pro-free market reforms), the Argentine military
junta saw massive inflation and increase of foreign debt during the late 70s and early 80s. There
was a wave of bank failures in 1980 that made the regime seem incompetent from a financial
standpoint. In 1981, General Videla handed the presidency over to Army General Roberto Viola,
who did not really have the support of other high-ranking officers, particularly because Viola
planned to do some political liberalization. He was forced out after only a few months, and was
replaced by General Leopoldo Galtieri, who was perhaps the hardest of hardliners. He made it
clear there would be no political liberalization, and would go back to full authoritarian control
by the armed forces.

Galtieri's hard right-wing stance was welcomed by the new presidential administration of
Ronald Reagan in the US; in fact Galtieri traveled to the White House twice in 1981, and he
promised to help the USA with its efforts against the left-wing Sandinista government in
Nicaragua. Argentine military assets were sent to work with US intelligence in El Salvador,
Guatemala, and Honduras, where they taught the methods of the "Dirty War" to Contras
(Nicaraguans and soldiers of fortune fighting against the Sandinistas).

But the Argentine economy continued to do very poorly, so Galtieri decided to "Wag the Dog"
by beginning a military takeover of the Malvinas Islands, which is what they are called in

The Argentine military regime had been making noise in international circles since 1976 about
the Falkland issue, but the British just ignored this. In 1981, the British decided to reduce the
number of military assets in the South Atlantic, so the Argentine junta took this as a sign that
the Falklands would be easy pickings. The operation was planned principally by Navy Admiral
Jorge Anaya, and the first Argentine troops landed in the Falklands on April 2nd, 1982.

The desire for an outburst of patriotism did, in fact, happen throughout Argentina for a few
days. There was a massive patriotic rally in one location where only days before an anti-
government protest by labor unions had been repressed with violence. The junta believed that
the British government would quickly enter into negotiations; they also believed that the
United States would look the other way, given how Argentina was acting as the US's ally in
Central America. But that's not what happened; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to
negotiate, and the US publicly supported Britain. Later accounts by officers and soldiers on the
Argentine side indicate that there was no real plan beyond "seize the islands with great pomp
and circumstance"-- they weren't told what to prepare for in case of a counter-attack by Britain
or how to effectively hold the islands.

The Argentine forces holding the islands failed to get adequately resupplied and reinforced
despite being much closer to their home base than the British forces. Testimonies from the
soldiers speak to a lack of good information and strategy, and disillusionment among the
conscripted soldiers especially. By the late 1990s, at least 200 Argentine veterans of the conflict
had committed suicide.

The military held onto power for another year, but the June, 1982 defeat in the war destroyed
its credibility. The Navy and the Air Force decided to stop participating in the government junta,
leaving only the Army in charge. And the three branches spent some time blaming each other
for the defeat in the South Atlantic.

The war was expensive and it further drained the reserves of the central bank, and banks
stopped offering Argentina the kind of short-term loans that they had been using to repay their
foreign debt of $35 billion. When the new elections for a return to civilian government were
held in late 1983, the military was not even able to obtain assurances from the civilian political
parties that they would have any immunity from persecution for crimes committed against
Argentine civilians. This really shows how little credibility the military had left, because in Chile,
Brazil, and Uruguay, the armed forces got some guarantees of immunity before the return to
civilian government.

Select sources:

Leslie Bethell, ed., Argentina Since Independence. Cambridge University Press
Gabriela Nouzeilles and Graciela Montaldo, eds., The Argentina Reader: History, Culture,
Politics. Duke University Press.

Dennis Meyers
U.S. Army Intelligence, 1974-1980, BA & MA Economics, Economist for over 30 years for State
of California, Community College Adjunct Faculty

Historical Context:

The Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas to the Argentines, are in the South Atlantic, 480 km east of the
coast of Argentina. They consist of two main islands, East Falkland and West Falkland, and about 700
islets, with a total land area nearly the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut—about 4,700 square miles
(12,173 square km).

Ranges of rocky-topped hills reaching up to 2,300 feet run east-west across the northern parts of the
two main islands. The Falklands have over 1,000 miles of coastline with many drowned river valleys that
form protected harbors. Besides the hills, the inland terrain has small rivers and broad, peat-covered
valleys. There are no natural trees. The vegetation consists of low and dense grasslands.

The population of the Falkland Islands at the time of the war was over 1,800 inhabitants, with about 70
percent living in Stanley, its capital. Sheep farming is the main economic activity with wool sent to Great
Britain being the leading land-based export.


Britain bases its claim on the Falklands on its “open, continuous, effective possession, occupation, and
administration” of the islands since 1833 and to the self determination of the Falkland citizens who
consider themselves part of Great Britain. Argentina claims ownership of the Falkland Islands because of
their geographical proximity and because they believe they inherited the islands from Spain upon
receiving independence.

The roots of the dispute over the Falkland Islands dates back to 1690 when the English captain John
Strong made the first recorded landing there and named the sound between the two main islands after
Viscount Falkland, a British naval official. In addition to Britain, Spain, Holland and Portugal all claim to
have discovered them. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, a French navigator, founded the islands’ first
settlement in 1764 on East Falkland and he named the islands the Malovines. The British established a
settlement on West Falkland in 1765 but were driven off in 1770 by the Spanish, who had bought out
the French settlement in 1767. Threatening war on Spain, the British restored their settlement in 1771.
However, economic pressures leading up to the American Revolution, led Britain to withdraw again in
1774, It did not give up its claim of ownership, though. Spain maintained a settlement on East Falkland
until 1811. When Argentina declared independence in 1816 it assumed that the Malvina Islands were

A dispute over seal hunting rights led lead to conflict with the United States and a raid by the U.S.
warship Lexington in 1831 that destroyed the Argentine settlement on East Falkland. The British
returned in 1833 to reclaim the islands. By 1885 the Falklands supported a British community of about
1,800. Argentina ceased protesting ownership of the Falklands until 1964 when their status was
debated by the United Nations’ committee on decolonization.

THE 1982 WAR

The Falklands war began on 2 April 1982 with amphibious landings by Argentine marines that quickly
overwhelmed a small British garrison of 68 marines, 11 naval personnel and 23 volunteers of
the Falkland Islands Defense Force. On 5 April, the British government dispatched a naval task force to
retake the islands.

Naval Operations

The naval task force was tasked with transporting, protecting, and supporting land combat forces that
were to retake the Falklands. It was assembled from vessels that were immediately available; 127 ships
in total. It included 43 Royal Navy vessels, 22 Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, and 62 merchant ships. The
nuclear-powered submarine Conqueror set sail on 4 April. Two aircraft carriers, Invincible and Hermes,
and their escort vessels departed a day later. On 9 April, the ocean liner SS Canberra set sail with 3
Commando Brigade aboard. The ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2 departed 12 May carrying the 5th
Infantry Brigade.

As opposed to declaring war on Argentina as a whole, on 30 April, Britain declared a 200 nautical mile
Total Exclusion Zone in which aircraft and ships of any nation were liable to attack if they were aiding
the Argentinian occupation.

The first significant naval engagement of the conflict was the sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano, the
pride of the Argentine navy. The Belgrano was the former USS Phoenix, a pre-WW2 Brooklyn-class
cruiser that was sold to Argentina in 1951. The British nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine
Conqueror detected the Belgrano on 30 April. On May 1, British Intelligence intercepted an Argentine
signal ordering its naval forces to launch a "massive attack" the next day. Even though the
Belgrano was outside the exclusion zone, Britain decided that the order made it a threat to the task force
and Conqueror was ordered to attack it. On May 2 Conqueror sank the Belgrano with torpedoes.
Approximately 323 Argentinian Belgrano crewmen died—the war’s single greatest loss of life. The
sinking also caused the recall of the Argentine fleet to their bases after which they played no major role
in the conflict.

The principal threat to the British task force was from unguided bombs and Exocet missiles wielded by
Argentine land-based naval and air force jets. Two days after the sinking of the Belgrano, the
destroyer HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Exocet missile strike from the Argentine 2nd Naval Air
Fighter/Attack Squadron. The sinking killed 20 crew members and severely injured 24 others. This was
the first Royal Navy ship sunk in action since WW2.

On 21 May the HMS Ardent was sunk after being hit by nine bombs. Three days later another bomb
strike sunk the frigate HMS Antelope. On 25 May, the merchant navy ship MV Atlantic Conveyor was hit
by an Exocet, which caused the loss of 12 of her crew members, four Chinook and five Wessex
helicopters, a severe loss of troop transport capacity.

Air Combat

The objective of British air forces was to achieve air superiority to protect the task force ships and
ground troops from air attack. The Argentine’s principal objective was to keep the task force and
particularly its aircraft carriers at bay. Neither side fully achieved their goals.

Even though Argentine aircraft greatly outnumbered British aircraft, their inferior quality and
deployment left Argentina at a disadvantage. Argentina had about 240 aircraft, but half were stationed
inland and along the Chilean border; too far away to be effectively employed. For the Falkland campaign
Argentina deployed 48 Skyhawk attack jets that were armed with unguided bombs and lacked electronic
or missile self-defense systems. Overall, these Skyhawks were in poor condition due to a U.S. arms
embargo imposed in response to Argentina’s Dirty War. Despite these limitations, Skyhawks sank
the destroyer Coventry and damaged several frigates and support ships. Twenty-two Skyhawks were
lost in the conflict; eight to British Sea Harriers, seven to ship-launched missiles, four to ground-
launched missiles and anti-aircraft fire, and three to crashes.

Argentina also deployed 16 Dassault Mirage IIIEA long-range strike aircraft. But they lacked air refueling
capability which meant that from the mainland they would have very limited time—up to only 5
minutes—to engage British aircraft over the islands and prevented them from effectively reaching the
naval task force.

A few years before the war the U.S. arms embargo prompted Argentina’s naval air force to transition
from Skyhawks to French Super Etendards armed with anti-ship sea-skimming Exocet missiles. At the
time of the war only five Etendards had been delivered but the computer programming to launch
Exocets had not been completed. With the recall of French engineers, Argentine technical experts had
to complete the integration. Exocet strikes sank the British destroyer HMS Sheffield and the merchant
ship Atlantic Conveyor.

After British ground forces landed, the Argentine air forces kept up attacks on the British fleet, sinking
two frigates, a destroyer, a container ship (Atlantic Conveyor), and a landing ship disembarking troops.
However, Argentina did not damage either British aircraft carrier nor sink enough ships to jeopardize or
impede British land operations.

In total Argentina lost 75 fixed-wing and 25 rotary-wing aircraft during the war, 45 of which were
destroyed in the air with the remaining destroyed on the ground, by accident, or captured.
Most British air combat sorties were carried out by 26 Royal Navy Sea Harriers flying from
HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes. The Harrier was a subsonic naval short take-off and vertical
landing/vertical take-off and landing jet fighter designed for strike, reconnaissance and fighter
missions. Sea Harrier squadrons shot down 20 Argentine aircraft in air-to-air combat but suffered no
air-to-air losses. Two Sea Harriers were downed by ground fire and four were lost in accidents.
While they successfully protected the aircraft carriers, British air forces were not able to achieve
absolute air superiority. Thus, Argentine air forces were a threat throughout the conflict.


By late April, Argentina had stationed more than 10,000 troops on the Falklands, although the vast
majority of these were poorly trained conscripts who were not supplied with proper food, clothing, and
shelter for the approaching winter. Some soldiers were quickly disillusioned when they learned that
rather than liberating people from a colonial power, the Falkland Islanders were contented British folks.

The terrain of East Falkland dictated that nature of land combat. The lack of tress or even bushes gave
the defending Argentinians extensive fields of fire from the rocky mountaintops they had dug into.
Concealment for the British was nearly nonexistent. Thus, British assaults were primarily conducted at
night, usually with no preparatory barrages and no armored support. This led to violent and brutal
infantry combat often involving hand-to-hand combat and the use of bayonets.

Given the long and irregular coastline of East Falkland, Argentina could not hope to prevent a British
landing. Thus, the Argentinian ground-forces commander, General Mario Menéndez, centralized his
forces to defend Stanley and its airstrip. Rather than assault Stanley directly, the British navy task-force
commander, Rear Adm. John Woodward, and the land-force commander, Maj. Gen. Jeremy Moore,
decided to make the initial landing on the northwestern coast of East Falkland at San Carlos Bay. During
the night of 21 May, 4,000 troops of 3 Commando Brigade landed and quickly overwhelmed the few
Argentinian troops positioned there. The bay was later nicknamed Bomb Alley as it was repeatedly
attacked by Argentine jets.

From the beachhead at San Carlos Bay, the British divided into two forces. One, including 2 Para moved
southward through forced marches under extremely adverse weather toward Goose Green. On 27 and
28 May 2 Para approached and captured Goose Green and Darwin after a brutal fight. Eighteen British
and 47 Argentine soldiers were killed, and 961 Argentine troops were taken prisoner. The other force,
45 Commando and 3 Para marched across East Falkland towards the settlement of Teal Inlet.

To continue the southern advance toward Stanley, 2 Para advanced and occupied Bluff Cove where they
were bolstered by 5,000 new troops delivered by troop transport ships on 8 June. However,
disagreements over how the landing would proceed led to a delay in unloading during which the
troop ships were attacked by two waves of Skyhawks. The ship Sir Tristram was struck by two bombs
which killed 56 British servicemen and wounded 150. This was the greatest loss of life among British
forces in a single incident since World War II.

Beginning on the night of 11 June, British forces launched a night attack on the high ground surrounding
Stanley. Supported by naval gunfire, ground troops simultaneously attacked and captured Mount
Harriet, Two Sisters mountain and Mount Longdon. On the night of 13 June Mount Tumbledown was
assaulted and captured by the 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards. Combined with the simultaneous captures
of Wireless Ridge and Sapper Hill, British troops controlled all the heights overlooking Stanley.

On June 14, a ceasefire was declared, and negotiations culminated with the surrender of the Argentine
garrison in Stanley on the same day.

The British captured over 11,000 Argentine prisoners during the war, all of whom were released
afterward. Argentina announced that about 650 lives had been lost—about half of them in the sinking of
the General Belgrano. Britain lost 255 troops and 3 Falkland Islanders.


There was no widespread abuse of the population during the occupation. Personal food supplies,
alcohol and private property were generally left alone. Several officials and residents that were critical
of the Argentines were expelled from the islands. Several residents thought to be potential troublemakers
were imprisoned or placed under house arrest. Only 3 Falkland Islanders died during the war.

The Argentine governor of the islands stated that he would not engage in any combat in Stanley itself.

Vehicles were told to drive on the right. Street signs and traffic signs were changed to match
Argentina’s, including the use of the metric system.

The Argentine-appointed chief of police, however, was infamous for overstepped his authority,
disrespecting the islanders, and for arbitrary house searches, arrests, and questioning.

After the Argentine forces surrendered, Stanley’s infrastructure—electricity, water and sanitation
systems—were overwhelmed by the demands placed on it to accommodate and process thousands of
cold, weary, hungry British soldiers and the Argentine prisoners of war. This suffering was dubbed
Galtieri's revenge


With the victory Margaret Thatcher's popularity, that had been lagging, recovered and the popularity of
her Conservative government skyrocketed. It went on to win the following year's general election by a
landslide. The war was a psychological boost for Britain that had been languishing in a post-colonial

The Falklands enjoyed a period of post-war prosperity buoyed by record levels of aid money from
Britain. Residents were granted full British citizenship.

However, the war didn’t finally resolve the dispute over the competing claims to the islands. The
disagreement continues even though in a 2013 referendum 99.8% of islanders voted to remain British.


Robert Lawrence was nearly killed by an Argentine sniper during the fight for Tumbledown Mountain.
The wound destroyed over 40 percent of his brain and caused lifelong paralysis down one side of his

He was born in 1960 into a family with a history of military service. His brother, father and grandfather
had all been in the military. After attending boarding schools, he joined the army and ultimately
graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He was then commissioned as a second
lieutenant into the Scots Guards in 1979. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1981.

On 14 June, Lawrence led two platoons of the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards along the west flank towards
enemy positions atop Tumbledown. In a fierce fire-fight Lawrence shot 14 Argentinians, before running
out of ammunition. He continued the attack, stabbing three more with his bayonet. At the pinnacle of
Tumbledown Lawrence was struck by a round that passed through the rear of his skull and exited at his
hairline above his right eye. Ninety minutes later the Argentinian garrison in Stanley surrendered.

Because of the severity of the wound that was assumed to be mortal, he waited hours for evacuation
from Tumbledown and waited more hours for treatment at a hospital. Asked about this years later, he
said he bore no ill will to the medical personnel as it was logical to assume his wound was fatal and that
it made more sense to treat less severely wounded soldiers first.

He was awarded the Military Cross in October 1982 and was discharged in 1983.

He ran afoul of the Army and the Ministry of Defense when he openly criticized the way the military
establishment stoked patriotic fervor after the war while turning a blind eye to the unglamorous
brutality and consequences of the war. He later worked in the film industry and eventually established
Global Adventure Plus, a project to help rehabilitate British ex-servicemen. He coauthored the book
When the Fighting Is Over : A Personal Story of the Battle for Tumbledown Mountain and Its Aftermath
that was adapted into the BBC television play Tumbledown in 1988.


Falkland Islands ,,
Falkland Islands War,,
The hardest fight of all for a Falklands hero, The Guardian,
The Real Story Of The Falklands War | The Untold Story | Timeline, Youtube
The Falklands War – The Land Battle Part 1 – The Landings, Youtube
The Falklands War – The Land Battle Part 2 – Towards Stanley, Youtube
The Falklands War – The Land Battle Part 3 – The Final Battle, Youtube
Wikipedia articles: Falklands War, History of the Falkland Islands, Battle of Mount Tumbledown, Robert
Lawrence (British Army officer), United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, Argentine air forces in the
Falklands War, FMA IA 58 Pucará, Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard, British Aerospace Sea Harrier,