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.

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