Shots across the bows: The images that defined the Falklands War

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It is 30 years since Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. Rupert Cornwell reflects on the conflict and looks back at some of its defining images.

Looked at one way, it was an absurd anachronism: a colonial quarrel between two normally friendly countries, over a moorland at the other end of the world, the size of Wales and inhabited by just 1,800 humans and 400,000 sheep. But the Falklands conflict was also a 'good' war and the last, surely, that Britain will fight essentially alone. It was a remarkable feat of arms of which we can still be proud, with the extra boon of hastening the fall of an odious military dictatorship.

It began 30 years ago, when Argentina invaded the islands they called the Malvinas and considered theirs, even though the tiny population was entirely of British stock. Like many wars, this one came about through miscalculation: the impression inadvertently given by Britain that it did not greatly care what happened to the Falklands, and the mistaken belief by the junta in Buenos Aires that a sure-fire military success abroad would divert attention from deepening economic and political difficulties at home.

Between that day and the recapture of the Falklands' capital Port Stanley by the British Task Force on 14 June, 1982, 10 weeks elapsed. In the fighting, more than 900 lives were lost, two-thirds of them Argentine and a third British. But the dispute was not laid to rest. Today, a democratically elected government in Buenos Aires is again demanding sovereignty over the islands, and once again the British are maintaining that it is a matter for the islanders to decide themselves – just as they did 30 years ago.

The Falklands was a very British war. It was one of the very last times a Cabinet minister (the then foreign secretary Lord Carrington) instantly accepted responsibility for the mistakes of his department and resigned, even though the public was not baying for his head. That was how a peer of the realm behaved.

The war made an improbable celebrity of Ian McDonald, the erudite Ministry of Defence spokesman whose fastidious and lugubrious briefings provided most of the available news of a conflict 8,000 miles from London to which media access was tightly controlled. It provided, too, a perfect military hero, in the dashing parachute regiment commander Lt Colonel Herbert 'H' Jones, who died at the battle of Goose Green, and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. A simple cairn on the treeless upland marks the spot where he fell.

Like many wars, the Falklands also made celebrities out of weapons. The vertical-take-off Harrier jet gained the mystique of the Spitfire 40 years earlier, its prowess matched – alas – by the 'fire-and-forget' Exocet missiles used by the Argentine airforce, one of which sank the destroyer HMS Sheffield.

Back on the home front, heart in mouth, we watched the television and listened to the radio, only too aware of the magnitude of the task, of the razor-thin line between triumph and disaster. A couple more lost ships, a direct Exocet hit that disabled one of the two British aircraft carriers, and the outcome might have been very different. When Brian Hanrahan of the BBC described the Harriers' return from a mission, "I counted them all out, and I counted them all in", our spirits soared.

We learnt about exclusion zones and how our commandos 'yomped' across East Falkland to Port Stanley. Nor will anyone who followed the war's progress forget the place names, with their exotic banality: San Carlos where the Royal Marines first landed on 21 May, 1982, then Darwin and Goose Green (the islands' second 'city' but in reality a hamlet of 70 people), then Fitzroy, and finally Stanley itself.

Today, if anything, the Falklands are more British than ever. The population now stands at around 3,000 and, some say, fabulous reserves of fish and oil lie in and beneath the surrounding waters. But the war and all that went with it – the Argentine soldiers and personnel carriers in Stanley's streets, the planes and ships destroyed, the lives lost – will never be forgotten.

And in this assembly of photos, the happiest one is perhaps the most ominous. Not since the Second World War has there been patriotic joy to match the moment when the returning carrier HMS Hermes sailed into Portsmouth. The British garrison in the Falklands has been greatly expanded. But if the Argentines were to capture the islands tomorrow, no Task Force could ever take them back. The Harrier force has been sold to the US, and Britain will have no aircraft carrier in service until 2020.

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