Mario Menendez was the Argentinian military governor of the Falkland Islands who surrendered to the victorious British forces on 14 June 1982. He had arrived on 4 April to take over from Major General Osvaldo Jorge Garcia, the leader of the invasion that had forced an unwilling British Governor, Rex Hunt, and his small contingent of Royal Marines, to capitulate despite a sharply fought battle.
An angry Hunt had been forced to hand the islands over on 2 April at an enforced meeting with Garcia at the town hall in the capital, Port Stanley, at which Hunt drew himself up in defiance, wearing full British colonial uniform with plumed hat. Hunt had insisted on staying inside Government House to the last, refused to shake hands, and declared that the British would be back.
Menendez, at the end of the war, showed far less fighting spirit before the British Commander-in-Chief, Major General Jeremy Moore, when the moment for Argentina to surrender came on the afternoon of 14 June.
“I had not slept for 36 hours,” Menendez recalled. “I was so tired. I made myself presentable, like a German general would… I thought: this is the end. I didn’t argue, since I knew my troops couldn’t give any more.”
Menendez had intended to ask to meet at the former barracks of the Royal Marines at Moody Brook, outside Stanley, so keeping his men in possession of the town for a little longer. A conversation by telephone with the Argentinian President, General Leopoldo Galtieri, in which Galtieri had told him he should fight on until half his troops were dead and three-quarters of his ammunition used up, had shaken him.
“Tactically it was an unsustainable war,” he reflected, and recalled that when Galtieri told him he could not allow him any more boots on the ground or air support, “I ended the call.”
The British entered Stanley anyway soon after, and the barracks being by then in no usable condition, Menendez and Moore met in a corridor in the grey building off the town’s Ross Road that islanders called the Secretariat. Moore told Menendez that the Argentinian soldiers had fought with great bravery, and Menendez replied that the British had fought a good war. Menendez refused to sign the surrender until the word “unconditional” was struck out, and then scribbled his name over the place where the word had been.
The two principal British commanders on land and sea during most of the war, Brigadier (later Major-General) Julian Thompson, who had yomped at the head of 3 Commando Brigade, and Admiral Sandy Woodward, who had commanded the British naval Task Force from the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, came close to meeting Menendez, but each chose not to do so. Thompson, entering Stanley with the men of 2 Para and arriving at the Secretariat, refrained from going in: “Not wishing to provide a distraction which might disrupt the rapport being established in the negotiating procedure, we turned on our heels and left.”
Woodward, on being offered a meeting with Menendez while the general was being held later on HMS Fearless, declined: “I was so bloody angry with him, I could not trust myself to observe the full requirements of the Geneva Convention. The way I felt that day, he seemed to have caused us more damned trouble than any enemy commander since Erwin Rommel; in terms of obstinacy, that is, not military talent.”
More sombrely, Woodward reflected that had Menendez chosen to spin the land campaign out another 10 days, that would have finished the British off, not him.
During his illicit governorship, Menendez had issued postage stamps bearing the legend: “Malvinas Islands, Republic of Argentina”. He was also credited with sneering, on hearing that Prince Andrew would be a helicopter pilot with British forces: “Let the little prince come”. Menendez let the story spread at the time, perhaps not loth to be associated with it, but claimed later that he never said it. He rationed the islanders’ water and changed road driving from the left to the right.
After the war the British held Menendez for a month until Argentina recognised a de facto ending of the conflict. He was delivered on the British former Sealink ferry MV St Edmund with other prisoners of war to Puerto Madryn in Patagonia. The first to come ashore, Menendez was hugged warmly by Major General Garcia. Galtieri had fallen from power four days after Britain’s victory, and Menendez faced an army inquiry. He was arrested and spent 60 days in detention.
In later years he exchanged letters once with Major General Sir Jeremy Moore (obituary, The Independent, 26 September 2007), about reports that had appeared in Argentinian newspapers. In 2012 he was imprisoned briefly after being arrested and charged with offences against human rights allegedly committed in the 1970s.
Mario Benjamin Menendez came from a military family, and was educated at Argentina’s National Military College in Buenos Aires. He graduated as an infantry 2nd Lieutenant in December 1949. In 1955 he married Susana Arguello, and they had a son, Mario, and two daughters, Marta Julia and Maria Jose. Mario became a soldier and fought in the Falklands during the 1982 war. In old age Menendez was afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease.
Before the Falklands conflict, Menendez said of the secrecy surrounding the invasion: “I was not allowed to talk to other people. I did not talk, even to my wife.” At its end, he said, ruefully: “As a military officer, surrendering is something you never want to think about. The other generals passed on the hot potato. They left me there until the end.”
Mario Benjamin Menendez, army officer: born Buenos Aires 3 April 1930; married 1955 Susana Arguello (two daughters; one son); died 18 September 2015.
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