❚ THE BRITISH WAR CABINET headed by Margaret Thatcher, met at Chequers, the prime minister’s weekend retreat, on this Sunday in 1982 and unanimously agreed to a naval order to sink the Argentine warship, General Belgrano, in the South Atlantic. Subsequently, to its eternal shame, Britain’s biggest selling daily paper The Sun boasted in its most notorious headline: “GOTCHA”.
This rabid jingoism by middle-aged politicians and armchair media generals alike, as they relived memories of World War Two, drove a wedge into the generation gap that has never been equalled. Those of us under 40 — too young to remember WW2 — were appalled that a simmering 150-year-old squabble with Argentina over sovereignty of the Falkland Islands (population 1,800) should now warrant military action by Britain. We were even more appalled at the near-total, gung-ho media hype that blessed it. Neither nation formally declared war on the other, yet the 74-day conflict led to the deaths of 649 Argentine and 255 British servicemen. There were 1,188 Argentine non-fatal casualties and 777 British.
Britain initiated the first naval loss at 4pm that Sunday when the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror fired a pattern of torpedoes at the Belgrano which was patrolling south of the Falklands. Two struck the vintage light cruiser and within 20 minutes its captain ordered his men to abandon ship. It was more than a day before 770 were rescued from the open ocean. Meanwhile 323 crew had died.
In their superbly detailed chronicle The Battle for the Falklands (1983, republished 2010), journalists Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins report the reasoning of a senior British commander: “You have got to start something like this by showing that you’re bloody good and you’re determined to win.” After the sinking, a British destroyer captain said when he broke the news to his ship’s company: “There was a mixture of horror and disbelief. There certainly wasn’t any pride.” The legitimacy of this British action remains the subject of controversy today.
Retribution followed two days later, on May 4. An Argentine Exocet missile struck the British destroyer HMS Sheffield amidships, with devastating effect, ultimately killing 20 crew members and severely injuring 24 others. The ship sank six days later. In the Royal Navy, Hastings reported, officers and men were shocked at the ease with which a single enemy aircraft had destroyed a warship specifically designed for air defence.