We suggest listening to Tam Dalyell in our Sound Archive
‘It is becoming clearer and clearer that orders were placed for explosives in the shipyards of the Tyne as far back as February.’ Tam Dalyell (p.77).
In January and February 1982, the Argentine government strenuously endeavoured to warn British diplomats about a pending invasion of Los Malvinos. ‘Short of throwing a brick through the embassy window with maps of the landing plans attached, the warning could not have been plainer.’ (Gavshon & Rice, Sinking of the Belgrano, 19)
It was hoped that this would lead to some strengthening of the British military presence in the south Atlantic. That would in turn assist calls for Argentine national unity, which was greatly lacking in the government of that country. That was the reasoning. But, it didn’t work that way!
Instead the UK made a move to withdraw its principal ship HMS Endurance, which would create an unstable situation. Four out of five of Argentine commanders were not informed of the pending invasion before it took place. (Haig,Caveat, 277)
The Barmaids of Gibraltar
On 3rd of March the British Ambassador in Buenos Aires sent a warning of a likely attack on the Falklands, and on the 7th, Margaret Thatcher wrote in the margin of this note, ‘We must make contingency plans.’
On the 8th March, the Prime Minster spoke to Nott her Defence Secretary and asked him how quickly the Royal Navy ships could be deployed to the Falkland Islands if required. He advised her that it would take 20 days to deploy Royal Navy ships to the Falklands if required (Thatcher’s Torpedo, 27).
Thus, Paul Rogers alluded to;
“…preparations for the task force which appear to have started several weeks before the Argentine invasion of the islands.” (G&R).
Then, on 28 March, the crew of RFA Fort Austin were informed by the barmaids of Gibraltar that they were going not home to Britain after five and a half months in the sweltering gulf – but to the South Atlantic! (TT 32)
Then on 31st March, the Prime minister brazenly told the Commons that the Falklands crisis had come ‘out of the blue’.
HMS Endurance, an Antarctic research vessel, was to be withdrawn and not replaced. Lord Carrington wrote to Nott June 1981 urging a replacement, because it was ‘an important aspect of the maintenance of the British claim to sovereignty.’
In July the British Embassy in Buenos Aires reported such an interpretation in Argentina. A second and third letter from Carrington to Nott warned of consequences for Falklands if it were withdrawn. Carrington therefore resigned upon the invasion, and Francis Pym stepped in instead.
A Black-and-White Issue
We suggest listening to John Madeley in our Sound Archive
For over a decade the ex-inhabitants of Diego Garcia had been languishing in Mauritius where they had been dumped by the British government, with no rights or even compensation for losing their home-island, just taken over by the US military. The entire population of an island kicked out, just like that – and yes, by Harold Wilson.
Then suddenly, on 20th March 1982, British officials flew over and made them an offer – by March 27 the deal had been signed, they got four million pounds: that was the forward planning! The racist contrast between these two sets of British subjects having different skin colour – the Diego Garcians having their home stolen and the Falkland islanders having their wishes ‘paramount’ – would have been too politically damaging (p.143).
Clearly, the barmaids of Gibraltar knew what was what.
Britain Waives the Rules
On 28th it was announced that there would be a Total Exclusion Zone around the Falklands covering aircraft, warships and submarines, effective from the 30th. On that very day, 30th April, the War Cabinet (Thatcher, Pym, Parkinson, Nott) knowing that the Americans had given up on the peace process, decided to try and sink the Argentine aircraft carrier outside the Total Exclusion Zone – without notifying anyone.
The Total Exclusion Zone was set up on the 30th April, yet within two hours of setting it up the Government had decided to take action that extended it.’ Clive Ponting, (p. 85).
They could have given a warning, ie given the option to the 25 de Mayo to withdraw, but chose not to: in the event HMS Splendid supposedly shadowing it, could not locate it.
It might have been a threat because of the range of the planes it was carrying (had the wind blown – they needed wind to get lift-off), whereas its escorting vehicles were not because they were only equipped with Exocet missiles, having a 40 mile radius.
Pym’s letter on 1st warned the PM that sinking the 25 de Mayo would go beyond what was allowed under Article 51 of the United Nations. ‘The total Exclusion Zone was only set up on 30th April, yet within two hours of setting it up the Government had decided to take action that extended it.’
And the crucial point is they did not issue a public warning – as far as the Argentines were concerned action was still restricted to within the Exclusion Zone. And that indeed was the public position that the British Government was taking.’ (Ponting, p.85)
Before that meeting, a ‘Mandarins Committee’ met in order to brief ministers: ‘Such a meeting occurred before the change of Rules of Engagement on the 30th April which allowed our forces to attack the Argentine aircraft carrier 25 de Mayo and which hinged on the range of the carrier’s weapons, that is its aircraft. It excluded the carrier’s escorts because in the words again of Admiral Lewin to the Foreign Affairs Committee they were ‘only armed with Exocets and would not be a threat until they came within about 40 miles.’
That evening Pym met with Michael Havers, the Attorney General, together with the senior Foreign Office legal adviser, and he sent a letter concerning UN Article 51 asking the PM to reconsider: ‘at no time was any consideration given to it.’
Pym was unhappy with this decision and wrote another letter: as Lewin stated before the Foreign Affairs Committee:
‘I know Mr Pym and the Attorney General wrote a letter to the Prime minster afterwards, and I think their concern was that if the submarine did find itself in a position to attack the aircraft carrier 25 de Mayo, in public perception and the international opinion perception, this might be going further than Article 51.’ UW 73.
Pym flew to Washington on May 1st, and he must have known this, but seemed not to! He ‘was still saying at a press conference after the attacks on Port Stanley, that no action was contemplated by the British other than to enforce the Exclusion zone’. CP
Let’s hear from Wade Tidbury, who was on board HMS Alacrity.
At 1500 hours SAT on Saturday, one hour after the Belgrano had been identified, it [The Alacrity] was instructed to leave the main group ‘and carry out the bombings of the Island’s Argentine encampments, not the airfield as you have been told: it was the Argentine encampments which we bombed with shrapnel shells… I suggest that it was a co-ordinated plan to sink any peace plans.’ (p.135)’
There were several thousand Argentine troops on the islands. One may take a different view here, that it was the impact of actual warfare that induced Galtieri to start seeking rather suddenly for some viable exit route, i.e. a peace plan.
It was the view of Jim Prior in his memoirs that
‘if General Galtieri had accepted either the Haig or Peruvian peace proposals, the United Kingdom would have had to go along with them and this would have split the Conservative Party.’
It then had a majority of 35 in the House.
Tony Benn’s View
On May 4th in the House of Commons, Tony Benn said:
The majority of Britain will not be rejoicing with the Prime Minster at the loss of life when the ship was torpedoed – without any declaration of war, well outside the Exclusion Zone.
- Pym, Foreign Secretary: ‘certainly against military action most of the time, trying to seek a diplomatic solution.’
- Whitelaw: ‘there as somebody whose judgement she trusts.’
- Nott: the feeble Defence Secretary.
- Parkinson: ‘put there not only to handle the public relations side but also as a strong supporter of the Prime minister to back her up in Cabinet if it got rough.’ (Ponting, UW 65)
These were swiftly moved out of office so they would not have to answer embarrassing Parliamentary questions: Whitelaw was elevated to the Peerage after the general election of 9 June 1982. Nott quit politics in December 1982 and was knighted. Pym was deprived of his Foreign Secretary office following the June elections. Cecil Parkinson remained in office as Trade and Industry Secretary, in which capacity he could not take questions on the Falklands.
The Harriers – Star of the Show
The huge commercial success of the Harrier was due solely to its success in the Falklands war. Prospective buyers had expressed much scepticism when this vertical take-off and landing aircraft was first developed, back in the 1950s. Prior to the Falklands War, it was shunned by most of the world’s air forces. As Harrier Chief Designer Dr John Fozard commented:
For years and years we’d said what we really want is a small, local war where the Harrier can show itself to advantage – not many people killed, you know .. and we had one. And it was called the Falklands.
No other British aircraft could have fought such a war, because Britain no longer had aircraft carriers large enough to accommodate the take-off runs of conventional fighter aircraft. In total 24 Harriers took on more than 200 French-built Mirages – and won. 23 Argentine fighters were shot down in aerial combat while only 2 Harriers were lost. These were due to bad weather, not combat.
Following its unprecedented success in the South Atlantic, foreign sales of the Harrier doubled and redoubled. Soon it became the first-choice frontline attack aircraft in air forces the world over.