South Georgia was occupied by Argentine forces at the same time as the Falkland Islands were occupied. South Georgia had no intrinsic value, as it was an old whaling station. But the symbolic status of South Georgia was such that to the Argentine government its possession meant nearly as much as possessing the Falkland Islands. As a result on April 3rd, 1982, Argentine forces occupied South Georgia. There were no British forces in place to oppose the landings.
On April 20th, a RAF Victor flew over the region to record details of the coastline and one day later the hunter-killer submarine ‘HMS Conqueror’ was sailing off the coast of South Georgia. On the same day, May 21st, a team from the SAS (Special Air Service) landed by Wessex helicopter at Fortuna Bay in South Georgia. However, the weather turned while they were there and they had to endure blizzards with all that this entailed physically. One day later on May 22nd, they were extracted from Fortuna Bay. One Wessex helicopter was lost in this extraction but all the men were brought off safely. At the same time as this, a SBS (Special Boat Service) observation post was established at Grytviken.
Between April 22nd and April 24th, more flights over the island detected no Argentine shipping around the ‘main’ areas of South Georgia and it seemed as if the government in Argentina had left their men on South Georgia very isolated and without any support.
On April 23rd, an Argentine submarine, the ‘Santa Fé, was seen by Task Force ships based around South Georgia. The ‘Santa Fé had previously been the ‘USS Catfish, commissioned in 1945, which was a Perch class diesel driven submarine. These ships immediately moved away from what was perceived as a threat while the warships ‘Brilliant’, ‘Plymouth’ and ‘Antrim’ were sent to destroy the submarine.
On April 25th, the ‘Santa Fé’ tried to leave harbour. It was seen and attacked. As a result of damage sustained in this attack, the ‘Santa Fé’ returned to Grytviken. While in harbour, the submarine was attacked by helicopters from the Task Force. These damaged the submarine even more and it was abandoned by the crew.
However, this presented the Task Force with a problem. The crew of the ‘Santa Fé’ increased the number of men defending South Georgia to 140, all of whom were armed to some degree. On April 25th, protected by gunfire from the 4.5inch guns of ‘Plymouth’ and ‘Antrim’, 75 men from the Royal Marines, SAS and SBS landed by helicopter at Grytviken. The Argentinean defenders surrendered without a shot. One story relates how the Argentine defenders were shocked when Special Forces men ran through a minefield unscathed before reaching the Argentine positions.
A small Argentine force at Leith refused to surrender on May 25th and claimed that they would fight to the death. On May 26th, they surrendered and South Georgia returned to British rule – though to all intents this had happened the previous day. The news was announced in Britain and led to the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stating:
“Just rejoice at that news and congratulate our forces and the Marines.”
However, the commanders in the Task Force knew that the Falkland Islands themselves would not be so easy.