Operation Paraquet: On April 24, 1982, after a three-day delay caused by bad weather, British forces invaded South Georgia, one of the southern Atlantic islands, including the Falklands, that Argentina had suddenly seized after a long diplomatic dispute. After some uncertainty and debate, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had ordered the force to the islands, the start of a turning point for her, and thus for Great Britain. Patrick J. Sloyan, then working for Newsday, witnessed the events that set the invasion in motion.
My second visit to the House of Commons was on the 3rd of April 1982. It was a Saturday morning and Saturday sessions are rare for the Mother of Parliaments. I had first laid eyes of the pea-green leather of Commons 26 years earlier, when the Tory government sent troops to wrest control the Suez Canal from a new Egyptian government. It was as a tourist on leave from the US Army in West Germany. I wandered into the Stranger’s Gallery of Commons. I recall only that the usher wore a splendid boiled shirt and frock coat while I was comparatively shabby. He frowned while seating me.
But I can recall almost everything from my second visit. That happened on the first Saturday session of Commons since the Suez crisis 26 years earlier. By then, I was bureau chief for Newsday, and I craned my neck to glimpse the woman leading the Conservative Party in the eye of a storm.
I had not yet obtained press gallery credentials and once more was plunked down in the Stranger’s Gallery, where it was hard to spot the prime minister. By standing up and leaning over, I could see Margaret Thatcher in disarray. Instead of the soft bouffant she wore on most days, her hair was flat and barely brushed into place. She and her cabinet, along with most of the world, were still grappling with the distant and vague Falkland Islands.
Less than 48 hours earlier, Thatcher, Foreign Minister Lord Carrington, and Defense Minister John Nott were flabbergasted when military forces from Argentina roughly seized these rocky, sheep-infested specks in the windswept south Atlantic. Royal Marines had been whipped, and Fleet Street—including the Tory press—were ready to lynch the government. “SURRENDER!” bleated the Daily Express.
One of Britain’s last possessions—tiny, remote and probably worthless to everyone except the 1,800 British citizens on the islands—had been snatched by a junta in Buenos Aires. The dispute over the islands between Argentina and Britain had bubbled to the surface of their relationship 20 years earlier, but the wrangling had suddenly become a refuge for the junta and its leader, General Leopoldo Galtieri. These right wing military leaders had butchered thousands of left wing opponents. Some say more than 10,000 are among the Argentine “vanished.” Galtieri’s junta had no semblance of a policy to deal with the collapsing economy that was ravaging Argentina. The Malvinas, the Argentine designation for the Falklands, 300 miles from Argentina’s shore, were a handy diversion. The junta decided on March 26 to take them. A suddenly tougher Argentine tone in ongoing negotiations should have been a tip off to 10 Downing Street.
The April 2 invasion came as no surprise to the skipper of Her Majesty’s Ship
Endurance. Captain Nick Barker had heard rumblings of an invasion from his Argentine counterparts while on ice patrol in the south Atlantic. Barker relayed the warnings to London, where they were dismissed by defense advisers. At the time, Thatcher was gutting conventional military forces. Ships, soldiers, air wings, sailors were being sent to the scrapheap. Thatcher had decided in favor of a costly update of Britain’s nuclear forces, which are useless in almost every confrontation. It meant sacrificing the men and hardware needed to deal with remote outrages by tinpot dictators. Captain Barker’s warnings were dismissed as special pleading for the Endurance’s mission.
Defense Minister Nott seemed to be particularly rocky that Saturday. He kept reminding the jeering members that any reply by British forces would be difficult. After all, Nott kept saying, the Falklands were 8,000 miles away. Finally, a member rose to his feet. “I don’t recall Nelson saying how far Trafalgar was,” said Julian Amory. Of all the lacerating cracks that day, that one remains fresh in my memory.