I should imagine that Iain Dale will be pleased with Andrew Marr’s account of the Thatcher years in his ‘History’ of Modern Britain – and yes I have got the quotation marks in the right place – not least for his slavish adherence to popular myth surrounding the sinking of the General Belgrano, even in the face of the existence of numerous painstakingly and verifiably accurate accounts of the exact events leading to its sinking.
So, for the record – a concept that rather escaped Marr in putting this programme together – the Falklands Conflict did not begin with the sinking of the Belgrano on May 2nd 1982.
If you want an actual starting point for hostilities you can take your choice of the sinking of the Argentinan submarine, the Sante Fe, by a Lynx helicopter from HMS Antrim and three Westland Wasp helicopters from HMS Plymouth and HMS Endurance on 25th April 1982, which immediately preceded the recapture of South Georgia on the same day – this is the occasion on which Thatcher famously instructed the press to ‘Just rejoice at that news’.
Or, if you prefer to stick rigidly to just the Falkland Islands themselves, then your start date is actually May 1st 1982, the date on which the airfield at Port Stanley was bombed first by an Avro Vulcan flying from Ascension Island, and then, along with the airstrip a Goose Green, by Sea Harriers from HMS Hermes – this is the occasion on which Brian Hanrahan famously commented, “I counted them all out and I counted them all back.”
Both events took place, of course, before the sinking of the Belgrano.
Similarly, Margaret Thatcher did not ‘order’ the sinking of the Belgrano, as Marr also claimed. The decision to sink the Belgrano was taken in the field by the commander of the Surface Task Force, Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward, who in doing so unilaterally took command of the submarine – prior to this point Britain’s submarine forces were officially designated as a separate taskforce any were not, strictly speaking, Woodward’s to command.
What Thatcher did do, acting on the advice of the Admiralty and Naval Command at Northfleet, who were notified of by Woodward of his decision, was put her political authority behind Woodward’s decision, altering the Taskforce’s terms of engagement in such a way as to permit the Belgrano’s sinking. For purely logistical reasons relating to submarine communications, neither Woodward, Thatcher or any other member of the Cabinet were aware of the Belgrano’s course change prior to its sinking.
Woodward, as commander in the field, took a ‘battlefield decision’ and Thatcher, sensibly, followed the advice of the Admiralty and back the ‘man on the spot’ – had she not done so then Woodward could, hypothetically, have been court-marshalled for breaking the authorised chain of command.
All this was well documented, after the fact, by several reliable sources not least amongst which is Woodward himself, who later wrote:
The speed and direction of an enemy ship can be irrelevant, because both can change quickly. What counts is his position, his capability and what I believe to be his intention.
Whatever one thinks of her handling of the Falklands Conflict, Thatcher was a politician and not a military commander and should be evaluated on those terms. The false notion that she ‘ordered’ the sinking of the Belgrano is not a historical fact but a piece of political myth-making contrived to cast Thatcher in the heroic mould of Sir Winston Churchill who, unlike Thatcher, did possess the background and experience to direct operations in such a manner.
I suppose that if there is a silver lining in any of this, its that for once we’ll be spared the usual whinging from Dale about BBC bias – Marr’s obvious ahistoricity on this occasion is not a function of bias, I should add, but a reflection of the perils of making ‘popular’ history programmes for television whic, sadly, necessitates a bit too much dumbing down of content and playing to the gallery for my tastes.