The sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War was arguably the most controversial event during that conflict and one that haunted Thatcher for years. The Belgrano itself was an ancient bit of kit, launched in the 1930s, used by the US in WWII and then sold to Argentina in 1951. This would have been one of the last engagements for this warship had it not been hit by a missile fired from a British nuclear submarine.
The question that Thatcher struggled to answer – and we see her here getting an uncharacteristic roasting from a member of the public – was whether the Belgrano was sailing towards or away from the Falklands. Interestingly, Thatcher doesn’t claim that it was either inside the Exclusion Zone or even sailing towards the islands (in fact, she infers it was sailing away).
The Belgrano sinking became as notorious as the sinking of the Lusitania in WWI. That said, sympathy was in short supply among the majority of the population after the attack by Argentina on HMS Sheffield. But for the left, this issue became a stick to beat Maggie and this video certainly makes compelling viewing.
Papers just released under the 30 year rule show that Thatcher was completely amazed when Argentina invaded the Falklands. I remember seeing the first news of the war broadcast on ITN and it was a bit surreal. There was the footage of Argentine ships heading towards the islands with some admiral on deck with his binoculars.
We look back on the war from the post-1982 world where the Iron Lady looks utterly resolved to defeat the damned Argies. Don’t believe a word of it. The government was caught in headlights. Foreign minister Lord Carrington resigned. There had been warnings about Argentina’s intentions since 1977 and the British embassy in Buenos Aires had been alerting London for months. But when Argentina struck – the Tories initially reeled.
Students of the Thatcher years may wish to investigate what the Tories would have done to the Falkland islanders if the war hadn’t happened. President Reagan and the US establishment wanted Britain to reach some kind of accommodation with the then military dictatorship in Argentina. In those days, the US had installed anti-communists military juntas in Chile, Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America – no talk of democracy back then!
Also, the idea of the British sending troops into the Americas made many in Washington feel a little queasy – wasn’t this what 1776 had been all about stopping?
Here’s some of the stuff that came out during the Falklands War from my extensive archive…