LONDON – Wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered troops to the Falkland Islands in 1942 because he feared Japan could invade the far-flung British territory, according to documents at the National Archives in London.
He was concerned that Japan might use the islands as a base to disrupt valuable Allied shipping routes around Cape Horn and from Argentina’s River Plate into the South Atlantic.
A total of 1,700 soldiers were dispatched from Britain to defend the outpost in this little-known episode of World War II.
On April 1, 1942, Churchill, writing to a committee of senior defense officials, stated: “It would be a very serious thing to lose the Falkland Islands to the Japanese and no comfort to say that it would hurt the United States more than ourselves.
“The Falkland Islands are very well known, and their loss would be a shock to the whole empire.
“They would certainly have to be retaken. 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.”
Britain was anxious to retain the islands as they were the only base for its South Atlantic Fleet. There were also fears that if the Panama Canal was closed, then the route around Cape Horn would become critical for supplies from Australia and New Zealand to Britain.
But an examination of the files reveals Britain was slow to wake up to the Japanese threat and some officials were dismissive. Requests for soldiers and weapons were effectively declined until Churchill became involved in January 1942.
In August 1941, Britain’s military attache in Argentina urged the War Office to send troops to the Falklands to bolster local defenses. However, London declined, arguing Japan was too far away and afraid of U.S. retribution.
A few days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Esmond Ovey, Britain’s ambassador in Argentina, wrote that the Japanese ambassador had assured the acting president that Japan “would see that the Falklands are returned to Argentina.”
Japan was worried Argentina, then neutral, would host U.S. troops and threatened the country with reprisals, the files show.
And on Dec. 26, 1941, a secret naval cipher from the Admiralty to the South Atlantic’s commander in chief stated: “The Japanese have given out that they will shortly be running a convoy to Argentina and that they will capture the Falkland Islands and present them to the Argentinians.”
Due to overstretch, Britain was initially reluctant to send its own soldiers and in January 1942 Churchill asked Canada for help. But Canada refused and subtle hints to Washington fell on deaf ears.
In the end, 1,700 men belonging to the 11th battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment were sent to the islands. However, as some suspected, the Japanese threat never materialized and by late 1944 they returned home.
Jim McAdam, editor of the Falkland Islands Journal, said there are several reasons why Churchill feared a Japanese invasion.
“Churchill was very aware of the importance of naval superiority in the South Atlantic, particularly after his First World War experiences,” he said. “When he was Lord of the Admiralty there were two major naval battles: the Falklands and Coronel, which made him realize the importance of the region.
“The Panama Canal could be easily blocked, shipping could have to revert to rounding Cape Horn and the Falklands would be a crucial naval base from which to patrol the region.
“At the start of the Second World War, German disguised raiders — Hilfskreuzers — were soon operating in the Southern Ocean, capturing and seizing Norwegian whalers and their valuable cargoes.
“Churchill’s greatest fear was U-boats and there was real concern that bases could be established around Antarctica and on the southern islands.”
The Falkland Islands, which lie about 500 km east of the Argentinean coast, is a British overseas territory and is self-governing apart from defense and foreign affairs.
Argentina has long held territorial claims over the islands and invaded the territory in 1982. However, after a short war, Britain successfully reclaimed the islands.