May 2, 1982: ARA General Belgrano lists heavily to port in the Atlantic Ocean, while its crew abandon ship. Sailor’s picture via Press Association
❚ TODAY WAS THE DAY 30 YEARS AGO that prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took Britain to war in the South Atlantic Ocean, all because a repressive dictatorship in Argentina had occcupied a tiny island with a handful of marines posing as scrap merchants. Since the 1800s, Britain had asserted sovereignty over the Falkland Islands (population 1,800) and its neighbouring dependencies, while Argentina repeatedly claimed its sovereignty over the colony it knew as the Islas Malvinas. They lie 300 miles away from Argentina and 8,000 miles from the UK.
Neither nation formally declared war on the other, yet the 74-day conflict led to the deaths of 649 Argentine and 255 British servicemen and 3 Falklands Island civilians. There were 1,188 Argentine non-fatal casualties and 777 British. The whole tragic saga was made more complex when the US declined to intervene because its Central Intelligence Agency had supported the military junta of Leopoldo Galtieri, the President of Argentina, against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
One month to the day after the Argentinian invasion, Sunday May 2, the British war cabinet headed by Margaret Thatcher, met at Chequers, the prime minister’s weekend retreat, 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 should now warrant military action by Britain. We were even more appalled at the near-total, gung-ho media hype that blessed it.
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 2012), 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.
On June 8, at Bluff Cove on East Falkland, Argentine aircraft bombed Britain’s civilian-manned landing ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram, causing the biggest loss of British forces in the conflict. A total of 32 Welsh Guards died, and 150 men suffered burns and injuries.
Britain’s civilian-manned vessel Sir Galahad ablaze after the Argentine air raid on East Falkland, June 8, 1982. This videograb comes from newly unearthed footage shot by guardsman Tracy Evans, which is viewable on the BBC news website
➢ Welsh Guard’s film shows Falklands War scenes for first time (above)
➢ Falklands War 30 years on — by Simon Jenkins who co-authored the most detailed account of the conflict: “How British PM’s lucky gamble turned Thatcher into a world celebrity, not only repelled the Argentinian invasion but also paved way for her ideological reforms.”