“You have landed unlawfully on British territory and I order you to remove yourself and your troops forthwith.”
With these stirring words, Sir Rex Hunt, who has died aged 86, expressed his contempt for the Argentinian troops who had invaded the Falkland Islands, and made his reputation as the islands’ most famous governor.
Hunt’s death recalls one of the most extraordinary episodes in post-war British history. As I recounted in my blogpost marking the 25th anniversary of the Falklands war, it was a huge shock in 1982 to find Britain at war. Especially against a country with which we shared very close links. As an 18 year old who had a typically boyish interest in the second world war (put that down to Thames Television’s magnificent The World at War and endless Airfix kits), I was fascinated by that Falklands spring.
There were many links between the 1982 conflict and the second world war. Argentina’s cruiser, General Belgrano, was an American warship that survived Pearl Harbor as USS Phoenix. (It wasn’t so luck in May 1982.) Argentina’s aircraft carrier Veinticinco de Mayo was launched in 1943 as HMS Venerable. The flagship of Britain’s naval task force, HMS Hermes, was also laid down during the war. And the RAF’s extraordinary feat in bombing Port Stanley airport was assisted by the Vulcan V-bombers’ H2S radar – first used in the RAF’s deadly firestorm raid on Hamburg in 1943.
The sight of Harrier jump jets taking off into the South Atlantic mist sealed the nation’s love affair with this amazing aircraft, echoing the previous generation’s affection for the Spitfire and Hurricane. I delayed my walk to school one morning as the BBC promised the first film from the South Atlantic – naturally featuring the Harrier. (“At last! BBC Brian Hanrahan film from Hermes, shown at 8.50am. Go in to school slightly later,” I recorded in my diary.)
Rex Hunt’s defiance in the face of impossible odds burnished the legend of ignominious defeat turned into honourable retreat. Britain’s victory in the ensuing war led to his return in triumph later in 1982 – and his happy place in history.