Caught between his English heritage and sense of Argentine nationalism, Jorge Luis Borges cleverly compared the Malvinas War to two bald men fighting over a comb. Basically, in many ways, the conflict made no sense. It belonged more to the 19th century than the 20th: a “third world” country with outdated military equipment and a conscript army taking on a nuclear-armed world power with a modern fleet and an experienced professional army, all over minimal strategic and material stakes.
Listed here are five curious events that took place during the dispute. Many of these may seem unbelievable, but they all actually happened.
1) Psychological Warfare: The Radio Cases
Using the Tokyo Rose as its inspiration, Radio Liberty — created by Argentine intelligence — sought to demoralize British troops by making them remember how far they were from their homeland by playing Beatles songs and other classics. The leading broadcaster was Silvia Fernández Barrio, or “Argentine Annie,” as she was nicknamed by the British troops. “She was fluent in those days, but she talked with a strong American accent. So we had to hire an Irish translator to help her sound more Victorian,” recalled the radio producer.
Radio Atlántico del Sur, the British equivalent of Radio Liberty operated by the British Ministry of Defense, was tasked with persuading Argentine troops on the islands to surrender with minimum resistance. The two speakers, a man and woman, happened to be Foreign Office employees who had learned Spanish from a Colombian and thus spoke with pronounced Colombian accents… which obviously had Porteños laughing hysterically back home. The program ended up garnering quite a following in Buenos Aires for being unintentionally hilarious.
2) Operación Aerolíneas: The Middle East Connection
What do former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi have in common? Very little I would say, aside from the fact that they both decided to supply Argentina with tons of weapons during the Malvinas conflict.
The Argentine Air Force launched Operación Aerolíneas, which consisted of flying entirely stripped-down 707 jets belonging to Aerolíneas Argentinas to Tel Aviv or Tripoli, crossing the Atlantic near Ascension Island, a major British stronghold. Naturally, the planes always flew with their lights switched off and prior to each flight, pilots were given envelopes with US$40,000 “just in case” and a set of binoculars so that they could spot and report British warships in the Atlantic Ocean.
Begin agreed to supply key equipment to the rather antisemitic Junta due to a long-standing hatred of the UK. According to Israel Lotersztain, the deputy of Israel’s munitions factories in Buenos Aires, when he first approached the prime minister to discuss Argentina’s sovereignty issue, Begin interrupted him to say: “I don’t need you to talk badly about the British. Is this going to be used to kill British soldiers?” The arms shipments were sent to Peru and then safely transferred to Argentina.
The negotiations with Gaddafi’s regime began at the end of April when an Argentine mission met the chief of the Libyan army, a bearded general who said, “To start a war against the UK, your country must have really powerful friends, and if it doesn’t, you guys are fools.” The Argentine delegation left the general speechless when they answered, “No general, we’re just fools.” In a later mission, a letter professed to Gaddafi’s regime that, “We’re convinced that this war is our national jihad.” As ridiculous as it sounds, the mission was a success and the Libyan leader filled four 707s with Soviet-made weapons as a present for La revolución de Mayo.
3) Operation Mikado
The Dassault Super Etendard and the Exocet anti-ship missile — along with the courage and professionalism of our airmen — was most likely responsible for Argentina not being defeated earlier in the war. Following the daring attack on the HMS Sheffield, the British Task Force became well aware of this threat. The attacks needed to be stopped no matter what, and so the British Special Forces — the fearsome SAS — were called in. Inspired by an Israeli hostage-rescue mission in Uganda, they devised the daring Mikado mission that would see 60 SAS in two C-130 Hercules aircraft land directly on the runway of the Rio Grande Airbase at Tierra del Fuego and destroy any aircraft and Exocets present. After the attack, the SAS would then escape to friendly Chile. But before the attack, a reconnaissance mission was needed.
A small SAS team was sent to Tierra del Fuego to send back information on the defenses. But the helicopter in which they came only had enough fuel to make it to the mainland, so the patrol knew it was a one-way mission. The helicopter was able to make it to Chile allowing the team to move off on foot towards Argentina. The crew attempted to sink the helicopter in a lake but was unable to do so. They instead set the helicopter on fire on the lake’s shore and then proceeded to carry out an escape and evasion plan. In the meantime, the SAS reconnaissance mission was called off.
By this time, Operation Mikado, already considered a suicide mission, was determined to be impossible to pull off and was canceled.
4) The Soviet Connection: In Bed with the Enemy
That a fiercely anti-communist regime desperate to get closer to the US ended up being assisted by the Soviet Union reveals not only the pendulum-like dynamic of the Cold War but also the military dictatorship’s out-of-touch foreign policy. But somehow, a few of their bets paid off. In his book Fidel, Football and the Malvinas, Sergey Brilev explains how Moscow handed the Junta crucial satellite information despite the risks of provoking a NATO power.
According to Brilev, the strategic aid to the Junta was a decision taken by the soviet military command without Gorbachev’s consent. Argentina, along with being the USSR’s “enemy of its enemy,” was one of the few countries that didn’t join the 1979 US-sponsored embargo on the Soviet Union.
Indeed, the Argentine Air Force was able to locate and sink HMS Sheffield thanks to data from Soviet satellite Kosmos 1365. Brilev also explains that the Soviets used TU-95 intelligence gathering aircrafts to follow the Task Force as it sailed South through the Gulf of Biscay towards the Equator. Sometimes these aircrafts would fly as low as 40 meters above the Royal Navy vessels.
5) The American Role: Latinistas vs Atlanticists
Since the end of WWII, the US had a tendency to assume it led an alliance of entirely like-minded governments against the Soviets. The conflict over the islands produced a fracture in this mentality since Washington considered both Britain and Argentina important partners in the Cold War struggle. Naturally, US policy makers unanimously favored a diplomatic solution to a military one. Some soon realized, however, that the UK as well as Argentina had made public commitments and taken actions which made a mutually satisfactory diplomatic solution improbable. Once the issue forced itself onto the US foreign policy agenda, the question of whom to support if diplomacy failed became a pressing issue.
There were two schools of thought. The first – known as “atlanticism”– felt that the US should support Britain out of principle and prudence. This group included the US President, the secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger; the secretary of state, Alexander Haig, as well as a majority of officials at all levels in the foreign policy establishment. They particularly cherished the Churchil-era “special relationship” with the UK. The second school – known as “latinistas” – held that the US should maintain strict neutrality. Few among the “latinistas” sympathized with the Argentine claim for moral or legal reasons, but many were certain that US interests in Latin America would suffer greatly if the US openly supported the UK. To the policy makers in Washington, it was clear that the first group was more powerful, not only due to its numbers and the seniority of its members, but also because it had broader popular support. But everyone still favored a diplomatic solution. Accordingly, the US made a decision to openly support the UK once all diplomatic solutions were exhausted.
US resources and intelligence proved to be essential to the British war effort.