Tam Dalyell on the Sunday sinking of the ‘Belgrano’

  • The Sinking of the ‘Belgrano’ by Desmond Rice and Arthur Gavshon
    Secker, 192 pp, £8.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 436 41332 9
  • Our Falklands War edited by Geoffrey Underwood
    Maritime Books, 144 pp, £3.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 907771 08 4

Small inconsistencies tend to be part of larger inconsistencies. Seemingly small untruths are often part of larger untruths. The discrepancies of fact and explanation in the Government’s account of the Prime Minister’s actions over the sinking of the General Belgrano are authoritatively considered by Desmond Rice and Arthur Gavshon. In Paragraph 110 of HMG’s own White Paper, ‘The Falklands Campaign: The Lessons’, we read: ‘On 2 May, HMS Conqueror detected the Argentine cruiser, General Belgrano, accompanied by two destroyers, sailing near to the total exclusion zone.’ This was the scenario presented to us, not only in the official White Paper, but in the Commander-in-Chief’s no less official report, and endorsed by the Prime Minister. Indeed, when Denis Healey, from the Opposition Front Bench, and I questioned Ministers, in the Monday and Tuesday Commons exchanges immediately after the Sunday sinking, we were given the impression that one of our submarines had come upon the Belgrano in a threatening position, and had understandably taken immediate action. And this is roughly what Parliament, press and people imagined had happened, until two months later, in early July, when the Conqueror returned home to Faslane on the West Coast of Scotland, and its captain began letting various cats out of various bags by revealing to the Scottish press corps that he had sunk the Belgrano on orders from Fleet Headquarters at Northwood. Now we find the submarine commander, Christopher Wreford-Brown DSO, saying in Our Falklands War:

We were tasked to look for and find the General Belgrano Group. It was reported to consist of the cruiser and escorts. We located her on our passive sonar and sighted her visually early in the afternoon of 1 May. We took up a position astern, and followed the General Belgrano for over thirty hours. We reported we were in contact with her.

Gavshon and Rice in fact assert that Conqueror first picked up Belgrano on signals before 1600 hours on Friday 30 April, and that she then closed in on the Argentine Surface Group. During the forenoon of Saturday 1 May Conqueror was monitoring the Belgrano ‘razzing’ – that is, refuelling at sea – from a distance of 4000 yards. Now the point is that during this period these were sitting-duck targets. If Mrs Thatcher really supposed that the 44-year-old USS Phoenix (for such the Belgrano was), survivor of Pearl Harbour, constituted a threat to our boys, and particularly the carriers, as she claimed on television, why did she not give the order to sink there and then? Why wait for over thirty hours? The answer is embedded in her reaction to the Peruvian peace proposals.

Gavshon and Rice gave the Ministry of Defence and Ministers every opportunity to answer this and eight other sets of questions. I feel it is worth reproducing a Commons Question and Answer from Hansard of 5 March 1984:

Mr Dalyell asked the Secretary of State for Defence why, on 16 January, his Department refused the request originally made on 26 June 1983 by Desmond Rice and Arthur Gavshon, and Messrs Secker and Warburg to interview Rear Admiral Sir John Woodward and Commander Christopher Wreford-Brown DSO, Royal Navy, about the sinking of the General Belgrano; and if he will make a statement.

Mr Stanley: As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said to the hon. Gentleman on 21 February 1984, the circumstances of the sinking of the General Belgrano have been set out both in this House and in another place. This request for interviews was accordingly declined.

The trouble is that the questions posed by Gavshon and Rice have never been answered in the House of Commons, the House of Lords or anywhere else. For example, they recall that the official British warning of 23 April gave commanders on-the-spot discretion to attack any Argentine ship or plane if it displayed hostile intent. If the warning was as valid as Ministers have argued, why, then, the authors ask, was it necessary to seek a change in the Rules of Engagement even though the Belgrano was well outside the Total Exclusion Zone? Again, if the Argentine High Command signals were being intercepted and decoded, as the authors have been assured they were, why was Admiral Woodward not informed as Task Force Commander that all Argentine Fleet Units had, on the night of 1 May, been ordered home? If the Admiral had been aware of this order, would he still have asked for a change in the Rules of Engagement permitting the Belgrano to be destroyed?

Arthur Gavshon is not some sensational young writer out to make his name. Ministers know perfectly well that for over thirty years he was the highly respected diplomatic correspondent of the Associated Press in London. In October 1964, when I became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the late Dick Cross-man, one of the instructions he gave me was that if ever Mr Arthur Gavshon wanted to see him, I was to make sure that his Principal Private Secretary at the Ministry of Housing made a slot for Gavshon within 24 hours in the Ministerial timetable. Gavshon had immediate access not only to Crossman but to Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland and other Cabinet Ministers, as he had to Ted Heath, Alec Douglas-Home and Harold Macmillan. The questions on the Belgrano came from a man who has had interviews alone with Presidents of the United States and other leading Americans. As Crossman put it when I asked why Gavshon was so important to him: ‘You should understand that what Gavshon puts over will be taken up in the United States and round the world.’ Senior British politicians of all parties have used him as such an outlet. Desmond Rice was formerly the president of the Royal Dutch Shell Company in Argentina. Like Gavshon, who has written excellent books on Africa and on ‘the last days of Dag Hammersjöld’, he is an experienced author. Furthermore, the fact that the book was published by Secker should surely have persuaded Ministers either to answer or to allow Naval officers to answer questions which could not conceivably have had any security relevance, eighteen months or more after the event. (The excuse for reticence – that we have to prevent the Argentinians from knowing the extent of our information – was exposed the moment the former Minister of State at the Foreign Office, Ted Rowlands MP, announced to the House of Commons on 3 April 1982, during the notorious Saturday debate, that he had news for us – we had been reading the Argentine telegrams for years!) One of the reasons Ministers may not feel able to answer questions, or allow service officers to do so, may be that the knowledge of ship movements deployed by the authors is detailed and precise, and therefore the questions are detailed and precise, and far more awkward to answer if there is a perceived need to hide the truth. The authors have been scrupulous about not revealing their many sources, but I know at first hand that men of the Task Force are beginning to talk more and more about their experiences. I believe that the increasing propensity to talk is not simply to do with the fact that as time goes on tongues get looser, or that the military insistence for secrecy fades, or that the men involved leave the Service. Servicemen are starting to talk for a quite different reason. They are starting to wonder more and more precisely what the reason was for which Britain spent so much treasure, and for which they and their friends were asked to risk their lives. It is now dawning on many of them that if Mrs Thatcher really cared about the Falklands or the Falkland Islanders she would have come to some arrangement with a country that will always be only 18 minutes away by Super-Etendard. Servicemen are tumbling to it that the Falklands War was not about Queen and Country or the British national interest, that from a very early stage the sending of the Battle Fleet had far more to do with domestic politics and the political reputation of the occupant of 10 Downing Street. As the cost mounts to £6000 million, and it becomes clear that a long-term solution to the Falklands/Malvinas problem, without discussion of Sovereignty, is as far away as it was on 2 April 1982, there is mounting resentment in sections of the Armed Forces. Some of these people have clearly provided Gavshon and Rice with material for their account of events.

About no single incident of the Falklands War have Servicemen been so uneasy as that of the sinking of the Belgrano. Even those who take a very different view from myself about the conflict as a whole have told me: ‘Of course, Mr Dalyell, we think that the decision to sink the Belgrano wasn’t quite cricket.’ Others more and more resent the fact that their mates would be alive today if Mrs Thatcher had opted for a diplomatic outcome, as the Americans begged her to do, rather than a military solution, where there was no long-term military solution to be had. It is in relation to the Peruvian peace proposals, and the opportunity available for political leaders to avoid a full-scale fighting war, that Servicemen display mounting curiosity, and it is to this question that Gavshon and Rice devote the prologue of their book. At 17.44 Lima time (19.44 Argentine time) on 2 May 1982, after a press conference announcement by the Peruvian President Belaunde Terry of a new development in the confrontation between Argentina and Great Britain, the Associated Press agency man in Lima filed the following message to his New York headquarters:

President Fernando Belaunde Terry said today that Great Britain and Argentina would tonight announce the end of all hostilities in their dispute over the Falklands. The basic document was drawn up by US Secretary of State Alexander Haig and transmitted to the Argentine Government by the Peruvian President. He said that long and continuous contacts between the two sides began yesterday, continued last night and early this morning and will be published tonight. Belaunde said that he was unable to make known the terms of the agreement in advance except for the first, about which there was no discussion: immediate cease-fire.

On 21 October 1983, at my own expense, I went to Lima and spent 75 minutes with Belaunde in the Presidential Palace. There was no question whatsoever in his mind that the Peruvian proposals were communicated at every stage to our excellent Ambassador in Peru, Charles Wallace, and that the step-by-step discussion was passed on to the British Prime Minister. (Belaunde told me of the friendship which had existed between his family and that of Charles Wallace’s Spanish wife, and remarked that relations with Charles Wallace were unusually close. Wallace has not been sacked for failing to keep the Foreign Office in London informed, but has indeed been sent to the key post in Montevideo – from which many Foreign Office officials would like to see a mending of fences with Argentina.) In the house of Manuel Ulloa, Prime Minister of Peru at the time, and Chairman of the Development Committee of the World Bank, I was assured that Mrs Thatcher knew of every move in Lima. Yet she tells the House of Commons that she did not know of the Peruvian proposals until three hours after the Belgrano had been sunk. With so many problems of their own in Peru, I can understand that the Peruvians do not want to become involved in a British dispute. But they were not lying, any more than Commander Wreford-Brown has been lying in his version of events. As in the discrepancies surrounding the time of detection of the Belgrano (and as in the case of her claim that the Falklands crisis came ‘out of the blue’ on Wednesday 31 March, though she had written that ‘we must have contingency plans’ over the despatch of Ambassador Williams from Buenos Aires on 3 March 1982), so, over the Peruvian peace plan, the emerging facts point the finger of deception at Mrs Thatcher. This is why Gavshon and Rice are justified in suggesting an investigation under the procedures laid down in the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act of 1921.

The next round in the argument will come on 25 March when the Sunday Telegraph starts serialisation of Al Haig’s Memoirs. He is one of Mrs Thatcher’s admirers, and will doubtless have many good things to say about her. But there is an all-important question Haig ought to answer. Did he think that the Peruvian peace proposals were vague, or did he think that they formed a basis for peace, and were about to be accepted? If so, did London and Mrs Thatcher know of his assessment? Gavshon and Rice take the view that Pym in Washington acted as if he required a formal treaty to sign, and reckoned that there was little substance to the Haig-Belaunde proposals. Whatever the Peruvians had to say could wait for days – at a time when every new hour could see more men killed. They point to the contrast with the mood of Belaunde in all the conversations which they have quoted. Haig is purported to have described Pym to Belaunde as ‘a man who has no interest in peace but simply in obtaining greater facilities to continue the war’. When British television commentators get the opportunity of examining Haig on his Memoirs, they should establish whether Haig did or did not make such a statement. According to the British account, nothing reached London from the British Embassies either in Washington or Lima about any of the intense diplomatic activity which went on over the weekend of 1-2 May. Yet diplomats in both Peru and the United States have told Gavshon and Rice that they are convinced there were close and regular exchanges between the Foreign Office and both embassies. It was the flawed and contradictory accounts of the reasons for sinking the Belgrano which stimulated my own interest, and the flawed and contradictory accounts of the circumstances surrounding the Peruvian peace proposals shout out for a full explanation long before the end of any 30-year rule. There will otherwise be a stain on the behaviour of our country. And if the truth about the past is not exposed, who will force the Prime Minister to negotiate? The infant civilian government in Argentina is vulnerable – the Argentine military have been humiliated, but they have not gone away. Should the Argentine economy fail to recover, the Falklands/Malvinas could be the pretext for a military coup and for further international conflict of highly uncertain outcome. Time is not on the side of peace. If we are to avoid the destabilisation of the civilian Argentine Government, and the spectacle of two civilised nations fighting like bald men over a comb, the truth about the past must be established. If it is established, then seldom in recent times will so much have been owed to the pens of two meticulous authors.