As a locally raised defence unit from a British Overseas Territory, the Falkland Islands Defence Force (FIDF) has been working alongside the British Armed Forces for over a century.
Following British Army doctrine, the FIDF has achieved a respectful position as a qualified and well-trained unit of volunteers.
Some of the fourteen British Overseas Territories are home to military installations of the UK, playing a role in the British expeditionary capabilities. Britain retains responsibility for defence and foreign affairs of its overseas possessions. The country also maintains a military presence in the Falklands, Gibraltar, the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, and the British Indian Ocean Territory.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by J. Vitor Tossini. Vitor is a student of International Relations at the Sao Paulo State University. He also explores British imperial and military history and its legacies to the modern world.
Additionally, some of its territories have their own locally raised personnel. These locally maintained units are generally concerned with ceremonial duties and civil defence. However, the British Army’s training contributes to the units’ professionalisation while expanding the scope of challenges that the local forces can face, including dealing with natural disasters, illicit trade, and home defence.
Since the dissolution of the ‘Royal Hong Kong Regiment (The Volunteers)’ two years before Hong Kong’s handover in 1997, the Falkland Islands Defence Force (FIDF) holds the title of the oldest land force of the Overseas Territories. Officially established in 1892, the unit has its origins in the late 1840s when the first Governor of the Falkland Islands, Richard Clement Moody, formed a small militia force.
Moody’s successor, George Rennie, facing the possibility of aggression from Russian privateers and warships during the Crimean War (1853-1856), supported the maintenance of a volunteer force, which, although not officially named, was known as the ‘Stanley Volunteers’. In June 1892, following the call into port of a Chilean steamer – with roughly 200 soldiers on-board – in the previous year, the unofficial volunteer force would become the ‘Falkland Islands Volunteers’. Governor Sir Roger Goldsworthy considered that the Chilean vessel, owned by one of the belligerents of the Chilean Civil War, presented an example of the security threats that could emerge to the Falklands.
In 1914, after the Great War broke out in Europe, military outposts around the Falkland Islands would receive the mobilised Volunteers. It is worth mentioning that 36 Falkland Islanders – many of them members of the Volunteers – enlisted in His Majesty’s Forces. Ten lost their lives during the war. In December 1914, the seemingly ‘calm’ watching duties of the military outposts around Stanley played a valuable role tracking a German squadron of two armoured cruisers, three light cruisers and three colliers under the command of Vice-Admiral Maximilian von Spee.
On 8 December, the German vessels’ smoke was spotted by one of the outposts and civilians – which were later awarded medals and chivalry – near the Fitzroy settlement and soon after by the outpost on Sappers Hills. The information provided a strategic advantage to the Royal Navy and resulted in the British victory at the Battle of the Falkland Islands. In 1919, the Volunteers were renamed as the ‘Falkland Islands Defence Force’ (FIDF).
During the Second World War, the FIDF was mobilised again to operate the outposts throughout the islands. Additionally, more than 150 Islanders enlisted in the British Armed Forces, of which 26 were killed during the conflict. In late September 1939, volunteers from an Anglo-Argentine community arrived from Buenos Aires; some were rejected on medical ground and returned to Argentina. However, the Anglo-Argentine volunteers left the islands after two months, once the danger of German raiders seemed to have passed. In recognition of FIDF contribution throughout the war, representatives of the FIDF participated in the London Victory Parade.
The British Government maintained a small detachment of Royal Marines in the Falklands from 1952 until 1982. This military presence enhanced the training of the FIDF, forming a special bond between the Royal Marines and the local unit. In September 1966, the FIDF and the Royal Marines worked together to contain a situation that highlighted the diplomatic dispute between London and Buenos Aires over the Falklands’ sovereignty. On 28 September, members of an Argentine nationalist group hijacked a civilian aircraft of the Argentine Airlines (Aerolíneas Argentinas) and forced the captain at gunpoint to land in the Falkland Islands. Soon after the landing, the group demanded the Governor to recognise the Argentine sovereignty while taking four Islanders as hostages.
The hijackers’ initial plan involved storming the Government House in Stanley and compelling the Governor, then Sir Cosmo Haskard, to recognise the Argentine sovereignty. Besides, the group expected that their actions would lead the public in Argentina to force the Government in Buenos Aires into an open invasion of the disputed territory.
Their ambitions soon faced the reality of the resistance presented by the Royal Marines, the FIDF, and the Falklands Police. Moreover, the landing took place far from the Government House, the defence forces quickly surrounded the aircraft, and Sir Haskard was not present in the Islands on that day. Despite some popular demonstrations in support of the hijackers, the Argentine President condemned their actions. Thus, ‘Operation Condor’, the codename that the nationalist group used for their activities, ended on 29 September. Britain increased the total number of Royal Marines permanently based on the Islands from only six to roughly forty.
On 1 April 1982, the British Government informed Governor Rex Hunt of a possible Argentine invasion at the next dawn. Sixty-eight Royal Marines, 11 sailors from the HMS Endurance’s survey team and no more than 120 members of the FIDF represented the British forces in Falkland at the time of the invasion. The Royal Marines’ numbers were greater than the usual because the attack occurred during the changing over, meaning that both troops packing to leave the islands and their replacements were in the Falklands. Part of those Royal Marines embarked aboard the Endurance and headed to South Georgia. Concerning the FIDF, many of its members lived in remote or isolated settlements. Considering the limited notice, around 40 of them managed to report for duty, including former members.
Their commanding officer’s first orders included guarding the power station, the telephone exchange, and the radio station. Fearing disproportionate reprisal against the volunteers and the Islanders, Governor Hunt requested that the FIDF not engage with the enemy ‘under any circumstances’. The FIDF barricaded themselves inside Stanley’s Drill Hall. Author Graham Bound, writing about the Falklands War, indicated that: ‘Some, perhaps most, of the Defence Force were unhappy about their early withdrawal and at least one section on guard to the south of the town had sent a runner back to the HQ questioning the order.’ Nevertheless, the British positions deteriorated quickly, and the FIDF’s runner would not reach his fellows before the fall of the Government House.
During the first hours of the invasion, the orders were to concentrate the majority of the British forces in the Government House. After an intense exchange of fire that resulted in the death of one Argentine soldier, the increasingly fragile position of the defenders led Governor Hunt to negotiate ’a laying down of arms’. Most of the FIDF members were captured inside the Drill Hall, some near the Government House, and others after the fall of the Government House. Until the end of the war, the Argentine Army kept part of the FIDF under house arrest. After the invasion, the Argentine Military Junta declared that the FIDF was an illegal organisation.
A former volunteer member of the FIDF, sworn as special constable the day before the invasion, provided the British Armed Forces with valuable intelligence information. An avid supporter of the Falklands association with Britain, Terence ‘Terry’ Peck first photographed the Argentine positions in Stanley and later managed to smuggle them out of the Falklands using British contract workers leaving the islands. However, Mr Peck would soon become a target of the Argentines after the arrival of officers having the detailed files on locals known for their anti-Argentine positions. He planned to escape from Stanley. By 21 April, he had already left Stanley and headed to the countryside. Peck would remain distant from Stanley, receiving help from other islanders and eventually recovering weapons hidden by the Royal Marines. On 21 May, the news he had been waiting for a month came in through a cryptic message over the short wave radio stating that the islanders had just received ’a lot of friends’. Mr Peck reached the British troops near San Carlos and spent three days giving detailed information about the Argentine positions to British officers.
However, Mr Peck’s contribution to Britain’s efforts to retake the Islands did not end at San Carlos. Major Roger Patton of the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, offered him a position as a guide of his troops – attached to the 3 Para’s D patrol company -, which Mr Peck quickly accepted. He guided troops during night patrols sent out to identify enemy numbers and positions and gathered assistance from local farmers to minimise the lack of military transport vehicles. On 11 June, Terry and a member of the FIDF, Vernon Steer, participated in the Battle of Mount Longdon, advancing alongside the British troops. He only left the 3rd Battalion after they finally marched into Stanley. Mr Terry Peck was awarded an MBE in 1982 and honorary membership of the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment. Later he became a member of the Falklands’ Legislative Council. In addition, he dedicated years of his life to the South Atlantic Medal Association, established to provide care and support for British Falklands veterans. Mr Peck’s story demonstrates the efforts and resistance of the FIDF and other Islanders during and after the Argentine invasion.
Since its reformation in 1983, the Falkland Islands Defence Force is entirely funded by the Falkland Islands Government and follows the British Army doctrine in training and operations. After the British victory in 1982, the professionalisation of the FIDF increased as the British military presence expanded and the military infrastructure received a significant boost in the 1980s. Following the war, the training involving the FIDF occurs once a week, with additional extended training weekends throughout the year. Moreover, serving members of the FIDF conduct training with the British soldiers on the Islands. The joint exercises generally witness the FIDF acting as ‘enemy’ forces against the British garrison.
Additionally, training with Royal Navy establishments in Britain in the operation of autocannons and fisheries protection duties expanded the local force’s action scope. Subsequently, the training in Britain has given the Falkland Islands Government the possibility of mounting armed deterrence against illegal fishing. At least one Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) of the Royal Marines is deployed to the Islands as a Permanent Staff Instructor.
The FIDF operates as an – light role – infantry company, with mobility and flexibility as its main strengths. The mentioned rapid deployment and local knowledge give the force a special role in the search and rescue duties throughout the Falklands, reinforcing their importance to the local community. According to Major Peter Biggs, Commanding Officer of the FIDF from 2002 to 2016, some modernisations included expanding the FIDF’s configuration into a sniper/reconnaissance force capable of handling machine guns, close combat, and supporting amphibious units while co-ordinated by a central command. The FIDF currently uses assault rifles (L85A2, which has been replacing the Steyr AUG assault rifle), light support weapons system, general-purpose machine guns (L7A2) and 0.50-inch heavy machine guns. Since the late 2010s, the local force also uses the ‘L129A1 Sharpshooter’ semi-automatic rifle. The advanced supporting equipment includes night vision capability and secure communication systems. As Major Biggs noticed back in the 2000s, the FIDF is ‘very well equipped’.
According to the Falkland Islands Government, supported by a ‘small permanent cadre’ the Reservists from the local community form the FIDF. Recruitment occurs once per year. The recruitment process is open to women and men that are ‘ordinarily resident in the Falkland Islands, who hold a British or Commonwealth passport and meet the selection criteria’. Once admitted, the new members have the opportunity to attend military courses in the UK. In 2010, the costs of the FIDF did not exceed the mark of £400,000. Considered as a military’ reserve force’, the size of the FIDF is roughly 100 ‘Primary Reserve Personnel’ plus another 100 ‘Secondary Reserve Personnel’.
Besides working alongside the troops supplied by Britain to ensure the defence and security of the Falklands, the FIDF also played a role during UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme for the Falkland Islands. In February 2021, the FIDF’S headquarters was adapted as a Covid-19 Vaccination Centre, and its members supported the medical staff. This task leads to the other function of the FIDF: supporting their local community.
Therefore, being the oldest British Overseas Territory unit, the Falkland Islands Defence Force has a long history of volunteer service and dedication to the defence of their community. The FIDF contributed to the British war effort in the First and Second World Wars, Britain’s bloodiest conflicts.
They participated in handling the 1966 landing of the hijacked flight from Argentina, when some of its members were taken as hostages by the hijackers, and bravely resisted the Argentine invasion in 1982 even though the large-scale invasion left little time to call all of its members into service.
Since 1982, the FIDF has increased and expanded the scope of its military training and readiness, becoming a force adjusted with the islands’ harsh weather and geography while maintaining its essence as a force created to defend their local community.