Marr-ing the historical record

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.

9 thoughts on “Marr-ing the historical record

  1. The prog. was a farce (is Marr’s work ever not?) and I once more find it necissary to congradulate Ministry of Truth for proper and thoughourly penetraiting posting on an important public matter.

  2. Actually I thought the programme wasn’t too bad – I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know, and ultimately had to ask myself “what was the point of that?”, but I can easily imagine that if he’d been talking about a period in our history that I didn’t know anything about, I’d have come away the wiser – though superficial it was also, I thought, a balanced view of the Thatcher years.

    Couple of points though, Unity – I would have said that the conflict began when the first Argentinian special forces landed on the islands on April 1st/2nd. Small point perhaps but a germane one.

    Second, you’re quite correct to say what you do about the operational circumstances behind the sinking, but it hasn’t stopped two or three generations of left-wingers from labelling her as the butcher of the Belgrano, or whatever the phrase is.

    Around 1995 or 1996 I got into a mild argument with a university acquaintance about the Falklands War. He told me that the war was almost his first memory in politics and that he had never forgiven Thatcher for revelling in the slaughter of enemy troops, that we had had no right in international law to do what we did, and that the experience had been a formative one in turning him into a Labour supporter. He then expressed his firm intention to go, when the time came, and piss on her grave (but let’s not get into that argument again…).

    After leaving university around 1997-8 he took up some minor position in the Labour party.

    Last time I saw him, still employed as a party hack, was a couple of years back, in the run-up to the 05 election. He was castigating anti- Iraq war critics for their opportunism and saying that government was about making hard choices and that removing Saddam had been the right thing to do. He was doing this not on a public podium, mind you, but in a private conversation.

    There are hypocrites in every political party. The Tories have more than their fair share. So I just snorted and moved on. I wondered, though, how a genuine Labour man would have felt, seeing this sharp-suited spiv cooly repudiating everything he said he’d believed in growing up, just because that was his party policy.

  3. On the matter of dates, what taxes most people seems to be the date on which we started shooting back – I guess its just not a proper war until we say so. It would, perhaps, have been better to have talked in terms of the date of the first proper military engagement.

    Did Thatcher ever revel in the sinking of the Belgrano? I’m not sure that she did, unless evidence emerges that she personally phoned The Sun to give them the infamous ‘Gotcha’ headline.

    The Tories certainly made a terrible hash of handling questions about the Belgrano in parliament, which is what spawned the whole raft of conspiracy theories surrounding the circumstances of the sinking (I went through this at DK’s the other day)largely because they got rather too caught up in the business of trying to wrap her up in the Churchillian legend, but my understanding is that the most notable thing about her handling of the conflict as a politician is that, lacking experience in such things herself, she took the line of simply backing the judgement of our own military.

    I wonder whether such allegations are a reflection of how time and memory play tricks on people even in the immediate aftermath of historical events, and particularly whether her ‘rejoice’ statement after the recapture of South Georgia has been conflated with the Belgrano to create a false impression of her reaction.

    My own views on Thatcher are in no way predicated on the events of the Falkland’s conflict, but then I may be somewhat atypical as a lefty who has a personal interest in military history/strategy for no better reason than I find the subject fascinating – speaking of which, should you ever come across it, there is a fascinating documentary presented by Norman Schwartzkopf in which he explains the strategic thinking behind the ground campaign in the first Gulf War in terms of its basis in Hannibal’s strategy at the Battle of Cannae. Should you ever come across it, I would heartily recommend you give it a viewing, not least because it strips away much of the medai-generated bullshit and bluster around ‘Stormin’ Norman’ and presents him for what he really was, probably the most talented and astute military commander of his generation and, in terms of strategic/tactical thinking, probably the best since Rommel.

  4. 1. Much as I admire Tam Dalyell, he has been talking utter bull about the Belgrano for a quarter-century. Refreshing reading your views, Unity.

    2. A bit dangerous, isn’t it? Criticising Mr. Marr? Mr.Marr- whose wife Jackie Ashley is close to the Browns. A fact the Beeb knew when they allowed him to get away with this tripe.

    3. Marr is still better than Niall Ferguson, who put down his champagne and Pimms for a few short months to write his own dirge on the Empire the other year. In typical Ferguson stylee, the great benefits of Imperialism were expounded upon in great detail. Sadly leaving on 2 or 3 pages in a book of hundreds to discuss the Irish War of Independence and no time at all to mention Bloody Sunday and Croke Park. Funny that.

  5. It is interesting that, in the ensuing controversy about the sinking of the General Belgrano, everybody took international law as their points of reference. This is in stark contrast to today’s situation where politicians are openly advocating actions that are outside international law.

  6. Indeed, the Falklands can be read as a confirmation of the human (i.e. UN) view of the world (the right of self-determination) against the ideological view (we have a right to what we can grab, because of who we are).

    I’ve never understood the Belgrano as a seminal Thatcher bashing event, and I’m usually rather left wing (and besides, it’s not like there’s a shortage of quality alternatives, such as the way the whole war started in the first place). Mind you, I’ve never understood right-wingers still getting so hot under the collar about things that a few lefties disagreed with them with in university in about 1985. It’s the same ideological blinkers either way, and some of us are more grown up now.

  7. I personally date it from the original landing – they certainly did shoot back, both on the Falklands and South Georgia, where Keith Mills’ party of marines managed to shoot down a pair of choppers and set fire to a ship. Not bad going for a dozen blokes a zillion miles from anywhere.

    You are of course right about Thatch and the Belgrano. There is a constitutional thing that politicians cannot give orders to the military – they can only give or refuse authority to act. It remains up to the brass hats whether to go along with the frocks, which is a useful safeguard against brilliant political ideas (Alan Brooke’s diaries are an excellent example of what a dangerous bugger Churchill could be).

  8. epsilon –

    Much as I think Niall Ferguson is the worst historian one sees on television today, I’m afraid he does mention Croke Park in ‘Empire’. Indeed, he gives it as an example of how “the British lacked the stomach for repression on p.329. However, it isn’t mentioned in the index.

    Better arguments against the book (and they are legion – really, don’t get me started) might be that Ferguson, with a straight face, suggests that the British Empire was, on balance, a good thing for those living under it, because it brought team sports to them…

  9. Nathaniel-

    Thank you for correcting my minor mistake. Put it alongside Tim Pat Coogan confusing the Cairo Gang for the Igoe Gang and having to be corrected- of all people- by Stephen Pound MP.

    I hope you will forgive me for not trawling through the whole book; I’m so sorry you clearly had to delve into this steaming pile of merde.

    What kind of thorough historian fails to put the events of Croke Park in the index? And what kind of person makes the comment-considering that women and children were machinegunned in the stands of a sports ground and a player machinegunned during play- that Britain ‘lacked the stomach for repression’.

    Sounds like fucking bestial repression to me.

    And as for ‘team sports’….sports like soccer, rugby, cricket and hockey were termed ‘Garrison sports’ as a result of being played by the British Army between machinegunning and raping the locals- and consequently were [wrongly] banned from being taught in Irish schools for many many years. The Gaelic Athletic Association still bans them on its land- with the ironic exception of Croke Park, which is acting as a temporary soccer and rugby stadium given the rebuilding of Lansdowne Road,and for which the GAA required a considerable amount of Euros to make them change their minds.

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