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A COLD WAR…

Churchill’s Falklands War Fear

T

HE JAPANESE ships steamed 

through the rough waters 

of the South Atlantic in 

late April 1942. The amphibious 

assault ship Shinshu Maru, carrying 

a battalion of elite Marines, 

escorted by the destroyers Arashi 

and Natsugumo had just rounded 

Cape Horn and were surging at a 

brisk sixteen knots towards the 

Falklands Islands, now less than 

three hundred miles away. As 

dawn broke two days later, right 

on schedule the destroyers sailed 

into Berkeley Sound and 

shelled Port Stanley with their 

5-inch guns. The islanders were 

taken completely by surprise and 

casualties were heavy, many of 

the little town’s wooden buildings 

being reduced to matchsticks 

by the Japanese guns, including 

Government House, official 

residence of the islands’ Governor 

Sir Allan Cardinall. 

Minutes later the Shinshu 

Maru 

sailed up Stanley Harbour 

and disembarked the Marines, 

who charged into the town. The 

mostly middle-aged members of the 

Falkland Islands Defence Force, the 

islands’ equivalent of the Home Guard, 

did their best. Armed only with 

shotguns and a few ancient rifles, 

however, the outcome was a foregone 

conclusion and after a swift, sharp 

assault the Marines’ commanding 

officer tore down the Union Jack 

hanging limply from the flagpole in 

the grounds of Government House 

and raised in its place Japan’s Rising 

Sun flag, to enthusiastic cheers 

from his men. Scattered around the 

smouldering ruins of Port Stanley 

lay the bodies of over a hundred 

FIDF members and islanders. The 

Japanese had lost just nine men, with a 

dozen more wounded. 

A NIGHTMARE SCENARIO

With the fall of the Falklands on 

28 April 1942 the Empire of Japan 

now stretched from the frontier of 

India into the very heart of the South 

Atlantic. Of course, the Japanese never 

did invade the Falklands.  But, 

as fanciful as it may sound today, 

that was the nightmare scenario 

that haunted Winston Churchill 

in the spring of 1942, and which 

would eventually lead the Prime 

Minister to authorise one of 

the most secret missions of the 

Second World War, to secure 

Britain’s South Atlantic and 

Antarctic empire.    

A COLD 

WAR…

In 1942 the Japanese laid ambitious but largely unknown plans to take the Falkland Islands. here, 

Steve Taylor 

makes a fascnating examination of what the empire of the rising sun planned as its next conquest over the british 

empire and find resonating echoes that chime surprisingly with events which took place there some forty years later.

BELOW: 

The cruiser 

HMS Exeter 

which, heavily 

damaged in 

her battle 

with the Graf 

Spee, was 

repaired in 

the Falklands, 

proving the 

strategic 

relevance of 

the islands 

long after 

steam turbines 

made their 

use as a 

coaling station 

obselete. 

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A COLD WAR…

Churchill’s Falklands War Fear

Churchill’s connection to the 

Falklands dates back to 1914 when, 

as First Lord of the Admiralty, 

he despatched a battle fleet under 

Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee to 

the South Atlantic to deal with the 

German battlecruisers Gniesnau and 

Scharnhorst

, which were sunk off 

the Falklands on 8 December. A 

quarter of a century later he again 

occupied the post of First Lord, and 

again the Falkland Islands played a 

pivotal role in the Royal Navy’s first 

great victory of the war, providing an 

essential resupply base for the cruisers 

HMS Exeter and Cumberland during 

their successful efforts to box in Hitler’s 

mighty pocket battleship Graf Spee 

in Montevideo harbour, forcing her 

captain to scuttle the ship. 

Upon the outbreak of the Second 

World War the Admiralty also feared 

the Germans might try to establish 

refuelling bases for their U-boats 

and surface raiders in the Antarctic, 

after a Nazi expedition under the 

noted polar explorer Alfred Ritscher 

visited the Continent in 1938 and 

laid claim to a portion of Antarctica 

for the Fatherland, christening 

it New Swabia. No secret Nazi 

Antarctic bases were ever discovered 

by the Royal Navy, but by 1942 a 

new potential threat to Britain’s 

colonial holdings in the South 

Atlantic and Antarctica had emerged. 

NO APRIL FOOL

Following its lightning victories over 

Britain and the US in late 1941 and 

early 1942, capturing most of Britain’s 

Imperial possessions in the Far East, 

including Malaya, Singapore, Hong 

Kong and most of Burma, Churchill 

feared Japan’s next move would be 

to seize the Falklands. “It would be a 

very serious thing to lose the Falkland 

Islands to the Japanese,” he wrote on 

1 April 1942 to General ‘Pug’ Ismay, 

his Chief of Staff.  But this was no 

April Fool’s joke; Churchill was in 

deadly earnest. “The Falkland Islands 

are very well known, and their loss 

would be a shock to the whole Empire,” 

he continued. “They would certainly 

have to be retaken.” 

Churchill’s fears were 

shared by many of his 

senior commanders. If 

the Falklands fell to 

the Japanese, their 

navy would gain 

control of the South 

Atlantic, completing 

their domination of the entire Pacific 

Ocean and cutting off the important 

shipping route around Cape Horn. The 

threat to the islands posed by the 

Japanese had first been raised seven 

months earlier (before Japan’s attack 

on Pearl Harbor) by the British 

military attaché in Buenos Aires, 

Colonel Russell. “The reaction in 

Argentina to a successful Japanese 

raid on the Falkland Islands would 

be entirely unfavourable to us,” 

Russell cabled London in September 

1941. “Almost the only success of 

[enemy] propaganda in this country 

has been the stirring up of the 

old controversy over the ownership of 

the Falkland Islands.” 

A COLD 

WAR…



ABOVE: 

Winston 

Churchill 

prepares to 

broadcast to 

the nation. 

The legendary 

wartime leader 

feared the loss 

of the Falkland 

Islands. 

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A COLD WAR…

Churchill’s Falklands War Fear

Alarmed, the War Cabinet demanded 

that the Falklands’ defences, which 

at the time amounted only to around 

300 poorly-armed local volunteers 

of the Falkland Islands Defence 

Force, be strengthened. But in the 

spring of 1942 British forces were 

seriously overstretched. Where 

would the reinforcements come 

from? General Ismay’s initial thought 

was to approach the United States. 

But this didn’t find favour with the 

Colonial Office, a senior official 

writing to the General: “We feel 

that suggestions for garrisoning 

a British colony with US troops 

may raise important and possibly 

embarrassing political issues which 

ought to be considered before the 

American government is approached.” 

The Chiefs of Staff then briefly 

considered despatching South African 

or Indian troops to the islands, before 

abandoning the idea on the grounds 

that soldiers from these warmer 

climes would be ill-suited to the 

chilly Falklands. Next, the Canadian 

government was approached, but Prime 

Minister MacKenzie King pointed out 

that his country’s forces were already 

fully committed elsewhere. 

A BRITISH TASKING

Ending any further argument over 

the matter, Churchill stepped in and 

insisted the Falklands be defended 

by British troops, even if this meant 

drawing off a unit from one of 

the fighting fronts. “The islands are a 

British possession and responsibility,” 

he wrote to General Ismay. “A British 

battalion should certainly be found.    

“The object of the reinforcement 

would be to make it necessary for the 

ABOVE & 

BELOW: 

The Japenese 

destroyers 

Natsugumo 

('Summer 

Cloud', above) 

and Arashi 

('Storm'). 

Arashi was 

sunk during 

the Battle of 

the Vella Gulf, 

August 1943,  

but famously 

was part of 

the convoy 

where the lead 

ship rammed 

PT-109, 

commanded 

by John F. 

Kennedy. The 

Natsugumo 

was sunk by 

US aircraft 

in October 

1942. In this 

scenario, they 

bombard the 

Falklands.

“The object of the reinforcement would 

be to make it necessary for the Japanese to 

extend their attacking force to a tangible 

size. This might well act as a deterrent.”

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A COLD WAR…

Churchill’s Falklands War Fear

Japanese to extend their attacking 

force to a tangible size. This might 

well act as a deterrent.” 

And so 11

th

 Battalion, West 

Yorkshire Regiment, who at the time 

were sailing for India, were diverted 

to the South Atlantic, docking in 

the Falklands in June, where they 

immediately set about strengthening 

the islands’ paltry defences, moving 

two 6-inch naval guns dismounted 

from the cruiser HMS Lancaster 

in 1916 to Sapper Hill, in order to 

cover the approaches to Stanley 

harbour. But no sooner had the men 

of the West Yorks disembarked than 

the balance of naval power in the 

Pacific shifted dramatically in the 

Allies’ favour, when the Japanese 

Navy suffered its crushing defeat at 

the hands of American airpower at 

the Battle of Midway on 4 June, losing 

four aircraft carriers and halting their 

relentless advance across the 

Pacific. By January 1943 the Chiefs of 

Staff felt confident enough to report 

to Churchill that there was now “no 

likelihood of a Japanese attack on the 

islands,” although a reduced garrison 

would be maintained there until the 

end of the war. 

In the absence of a Japanese 

invasion, as the months 

passed boredom became the greatest 

enemy for the soldiers of the 

West Yorkshire Regiment. There 

were even several reported cases of 

attempted suicide, the Regiment’s 

medical officer recording that 

“the remote situation of the 

Falkland Islands, combined with 

constant high winds and general 

bleakness and monotony, induces a 

depressed mental outlook.” 



ABOVE:

Two images 

of Operation 

Tabarin 

operatives, 

posing for a 

shot, and later 

surveying, 

the British-

controlled 

island of South 

Georgia

CENTRE:

Spotter 

aircraft, like 

HMS Exeter's 

Walrus', would 

have been 

vital in any 

attempt to 

track Japanese 

movement had 

they attacked 

the Falkland 

Islands. 

BELOW:

 The Shinshū Maru in 1938. The pioneering Japanese Army assault ship was the first purpose 

built type in that role. She carried 54 landing craft, four gunboats and 12 aircraft (though they could not 

return to the ship). She was torpedoed by USS Aspro on 3 January 1945, after barely surviving air attack.

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A COLD WAR…

Churchill’s Falklands War Fear

THE HIDDEN ENEMY

But plans were being prepared for an 

invasion of the Falklands in 1942 - not 

in Berlin or Tokyo, but in Buenos 

Aires. In September 1941, with Britain 

occupied fighting Nazi Germany and 

Italy, the Argentine government saw 

an opportunity to finally recover 

‘Las Malvinas’, ordering naval officer 

Captain Ernesto Villanueva to draw 

up plans for an invasion, which 

were unearthed in 2013 in the archives 

of the Argentine Navy. Despite 

the lack of defences on the islands, 

Villanueva’s detailed 34-page plan 

called for an impressive invasion 

force comprising “a battalion of 

Marines distributed in two battleships, 

two heavy cruisers, a light cruiser, 

twelve torpedo boats, a tanker 

and mine-laying vessels.” The flagship 

of the task force would be the 30,000-

ton, Great War-era battleship ARA 

Rivadavia

, the pride of the Argentine 

fleet. The plan was to sail the ships 

into Berkeley Sound, just north of Port 

Stanley, and land the assault force at 

Cow Bay. The Argentine Marines, 

suggested Villanueva, would then 

“take control of Puerto Argentino [the 

Argentine name for Port Stanley] in 

a surprise action.” But Villanueva’s 

plan encountered opposition 

from the army, Colonel Benjamin 

Rattenbach pointing out that while 

seizing the Falklands would pose few 

problems, defending the islands in 

the event of a British counter-invasion 

would prove far more difficult, if not 

impossible. (Ironically, forty years 

later, at the age of 85 Rattenbach 

would be brought out of retirement 

to chair an inquiry into the failures 

of the Argentine military during the 

1982 Falklands War). Frustrated in 

its ambitions to take the Falklands by 

the army’s opposition, the Argentine 

Navy instead embarked on a campaign 

to assert its sovereignty over disputed 

British territories in the Antarctic, 

sending the polar exploration vessel 

Primero de Mayo to Britain’s most 

remote colonies in February 1942 and 

laying claim to the land. 

Churchill responded by authorising 

Operation Tabarin, a secret expedition 

of scientists and Royal Navy 

reservists, under the command of 

Scots polar explorer and Royal Navy 

officer Lieutenant-Commander 

James Marr, a veteran of four 

previous Antarctic expeditions, whose 

job was to visit each territory in 

turn and remove any illegal Argentine 

presence. The team set sail from 

Avonmouth in December 1943 aboard 

the troopship Highland Monarch and, 

after transferring to the elderly vessels 

Fitzroy and William Scoresby in 

Port Stanley, spent the next two 

years travelling between Britain’s 

various Antarctic outposts around 

the Graham Land peninsula, planting 

Union flags on each as a symbol of 

British sovereignty. 

Only on one occasion did the British 

team come face to face with the 

Argentines - a group of meteorologists 

in early 1945 - but the confrontation 

passed off peacefully. In March 

1946 the Operation Tabarin team 

quietly returned to the UK, having 

achieved their objective of reasserting 

Britain’s sovereignty over her 

dependencies in the South Atlantic 

and Antarctic, and deterring any 

further Argentine aggression in the 

region. Until 1982, at any rate.  

ABOVE: 

James Marr 

on South 

Georgia. The 

Lieutenant-

Commander 

led the secret 

mission to 

monitor 

and defeat 

Argentine 

challenges of 

UK soverignty. 

TOP RIGHT:

The Argentine  

dreadnaught 

ARA Rivadavia. 

Although 

aging, her 

dozen 12in 

guns would 

have made her 

a fearsome 

asset if turned 

against the 

defences of 

the Falkland 

Islands. 

BELOW:

The Fitzroy, 

which carried 

the Tabarin 

expedition.