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.
Except for an opening statement, Thatcher relied on her cabinet to respond during most of the debate. The loss of the Falklands seemed another loss of confidence in this woman. Her inability to revive Britain’s economy had eroded popular support and revived hopes for the Labor Party in the next general election. She was heading for the Tory chopping block. Now the Falkland’s fiasco made vaunted Iron Lady seem hapless and vulnerable. Certainly, she would mount some sort of shaky military thrust, but the likely outcome would be negotiated by American diplomats. Peter Carrington, who would resign as foreign minister the next day, appeared to rule out a recovery of the Falklands by force. “Gunboats very often settled things in Victorian days but its no good swimming about in nostalgia,” Carrington said in one of his last interviews as a cabinet member. It was all very depressing.
Compromise never interested the Prime Minister. Thatcher knew that what she called the “Suez fiasco” had finished off Tory Prime Minister Anthony Eden. Now she was in the grips of her own blunder. “The skies are growing darker,” Thatcher said of the moment in her memoirs. But that very day, Thatcher decided to reclaim the Falklands—with a naval sortie and an infantry invasion that stunned everyone, perhaps most of all the sailors and soldiers assigned the task.
The next day, Sunday, I had taken a subway into the city. As I was climbing the stairs of the tube station I saw a notice that had been hastily glued to the wall. “3 Para Report To Your Unit.” It could have been leftover from World War II, when many in Britain lacked telephones. This alert for a Royal Army paratroop regiment caused my blood to race. It was the subtle beginning of war fever that soon would grip Britain.
On Monday, April 5—three days after the Falklands had been seized—the world understood that Thatcher would not give up the islands without a fight. I traveled by train that day to Portsmouth, the historic port of the Royal Navy where HMS Victory, Lord Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, was in drydock. A cheering crowd had assembled on the dock next to the HMS Invincible, a pocket carrier that launched Harrier vertical take-off fighter-bombers from a ski-jump on the bow. Among the crew was Prince Andrew, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, later King George VI, who was on deck at the World War I battle of Jutland. Many of the sailors and combat troops aboard had dismissal notices in their kit from Thatcher’s budget cutbacks. The Invincible herself had already been sold to Australia, with final delivery the next year. Civilian dockworkers had been laid off by the Royal Navy with redundancy notices. But with warships on the tide, all that seemed to be brushed aside.
On Sunday, the longshoremen had loaded the ships with food, fuel, and ammunition. They produced a human chain that filled the ship in record time. Weddings were cancelled as young men raced to their posts. The Invincible’s skipper, Captain Jared Black, had not permitted the frenzy to interrupt the ship’s tradition of Sunday christenings, though. “We turn the ship’s bell over and make it a baptismal font,” Black said. “We christened five babies.”
The band was still playing when the Invincible’s basso horn sounded a farewell and ropelines were cast off. The crew, looking like dark blue icing on an iron gray cake, doffed hats to a cheering crowd. The ship’s bugle blew and then a bosun’s pipe: 10,000 men on 38 ships were underway to the Falklands.
With the vanguard gone, Britain had weeks to mull the situation. The Argentine junta was quickly demonized as the brutal swine they turned out to be. Suddenly, the British press was thick with ethnic slurs that would never make the pages of an American newspaper. I remember the Guardian, an arch-critic of Thatcher, with columnists frequently referring to the Argentine as “dagos.”
Instead of wallowing in dismay, Thatcher began transforming a blunder into a benefit. She quickly lined up the Americans. President Ronald Reagan sided with Thatcher and that meant US facilities in the south Atlantic. American bases on Ascension Island provided communications and supplies for the advancing armada.
Maintaining American support also meant coddling the US press in London. The American lobby—as press groups are designated—always had a weekly encounter at 10 Downing Street. But now, Thatcher became downright chummy with daily briefings for the Yanks. Soon, the Defense Ministry was giving American-only backgrounders where details often surpassed handouts to the British press. Thatcher put on a dazzling performance at a dinner hosted by the American correspondents in London. Glib, witty, informed, articulate, charming: These were just some of the adjectives from my colleagues. We were in her pocket.
Most importantly, the population that had united against the Nazi blitz came together once again. At every turn, the embattled Thatcher became more steely and determined in public. She seemed to harden even more after the first wave of killings.
The nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Conqueror, would attack the Argentine cruiser, Belgrano, on May 2. Of the 1,000-man crew, 368 Argentine sailors perished. A controversy lingers: Was it not bloodthirsty to sink the warship, since it was outside the exclusion zone set by Thatcher for enemy vessels? Personally, I always thought Thatcher acted responsibly. It was up to her to protect what really was a small British force that was very vulnerable.
Proof of that would come two days later, with the May 4 attack on the destroyer, HMS Sheffield. It was the Argentine debut of the French-made sea-skimming guided missile, Exocet. The official announcement said the ship had been, “seriously damaged.” That was an understatement. I had an office in the Guardian building, where the editor, Peter Preston, often served as a translator. “That means the Sheffield has been destroyed,” Preston said. He was right. It later sank.
Preston’s reporters were among those ordered to return to ship when the land invasion began, on April 24. Reporters who had accompanied the fleet to the Falklands soon learned that that media friendly to Thatcher gained instant access and front row seats for the campaign. Critics were dubbed unfit for combat coverage. Thatcher’s efforts to manipulate coverage of the Falklands ground attack came to be imitated by American presidents seeking to stifle grisly combat footage of later conflicts. That’s what President George H.W. Bush did while seeking a higher approval rating during Desert Storm, the first Persian Gulf war. More recently, Russian acting president Vladimir Putin kept reporters at bay while his troops ruthlessly destroyed Chechnya.
Years later, Thatcher revealed to my colleague, Chris Ogden, that she frequently wept in private for the 236 British sailors and soldiers who died during the campaign. There was some regret but no tears for the 750 Argentines who died. Her voice was low and controlled when she spoke to the House, when Galtieri finally surrendered and fled from office.
“We have once again restored the dominance of Britain,” Thatcher told the respectful members on June 15. “Never again shall we be the victim of aggression.”
She sustained that attitude, that single-minded determination, that overwhelming certainty of her convictions right into a landslide reelection one-year later. Her personal strength resulted in her being the longest serving prime minister of the 20th Century. Of all the leaders I have seen on the world stage in the past 40 years, none projected the clarity of vision and confidence to match Mrs. Thatcher.
Her uncompromising policies won dramatic victories but created bitter political and cultural divisions in Britain that still survive today. The men in Tory Party finally screwed up their courage enough to oust her in 1990. Many reporters who covered her final days were convinced the prime minister had become unhinged.
Sometimes I wonder if, without the brief conflict in the South Atlantic, she might have ended up an eccentric footnote, a short-lived prime minister who ran afoul of her own colleagues.
But Margaret Thatcher’s strength of character and personal courage was something to behold in the spring of 1982. You may search the world’s political leadership today and find such traits in short supply.
Patrick J. Sloyan covered nine presidents between 1960-2011. He is the author of The Politics of Deception: JFK's Secret Decisions on Vietnam, Civil Rights and Cuba.
Tags: Argentina, Falklands War, Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher