I never expected Britain to be at war when I prepared to sit my A levels in 1982. Let alone at war with Argentina over a group of islands 8,000 miles away.
Yet that was the reality as I woke on the morning of Friday 2 April 1982. Barely awake at the start of the last day of the school term, I heard on Radio 4’s Today programme some armchair general talking of nuking Buenos Aires. Later that day, we learned that Argentina had invaded the Falkland islands, one of the few remaining British overseas territories. Margaret Thatcher’s British government was stunned.
Contrary to popular belief, the invasion wasn’t a complete bolt from the blue. Two days earlier. I noted in my 1982 diary: ‘Falkland island crisis worsening: Guardian front page lead’. Yet the legend holds that many people in Britain were shocked, thinking the Falklands were off the coast of Scotland. Recovering them would have been a lot easier had that been true.
Going to war was a novel and shocking experience in 1982, almost 40 years after the end of the second world war. Yet it felt like an echo of the past. I described it in my 1982 diary as Britain’s last colonial war, a description that has stood the test of time. (Although there was no doubt that the islanders wanted to live under British rule.) Several of the warships involved in the Falklands took part in or were laid down during the second world war: the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano, sunk by the Royal Navy, survived Pearl Harbor as USS Phoenix. In 1982, it was not so lucky. HMS Hermes, the Royal Navy’s Falklands flagship was laid down in 1944. And the RAF Vulcan bombers that flew 8,000 miles to bomb Stanley airfield relied on an updated version of the wartime H2S navigation radar system to find their target.
Royal Navy takes a beating
Back in 1982, I remember talking to our neighbour Jean Bates about the shock of the sinking of cruiser HMS Hood during the war. Jean came from Portsmouth, and the loss of 1,415 men on Britain’s best-loved warship in the pursuit of the Bismarck was deeply traumatic for the naval town. Little did we imagine how costly a price the Royal Navy would pay in the battle to recover the Falklands. It was deeply shocking to learn of the loss of HMS Sheffield and the death of 20 of its crew on the evening of 4 May, the news seeming even more freighted with foreboding thanks to the funereal tone of Ian MacDonald, the Ministry of Defence spokesperson who announced the news.
HMS Sheffield was just the beginning of the toll of naval losses. Who would have thought that the half time talk in the FA Cup Final would be the loss of HMS Ardent (following Britain’s landings in the Falklands), rather than football talk from Jimmy Hill and Lawrie McMenemy? Soon after came the death of HMS Antelope, after an unexploded bomb detonated when attempts were being made to defuse the device.
I had a minor part in the story of the navy’s Falklands ordeal. As I revised on Sunday 13 June 1982 for the following day’s Economics A level exam, I answered the phone to a reporter from the Daily Mail. He was asking my father Bob Skinner for an official reaction from South Glamorgan county council to the news that HMS Glamorgan had been hit by an Exocet missile. The warship had been targeted by a shore-based missile unit on the Falklands, and 13 men died. ‘Exocet’ was one of the words etched on the memory of those who lived through the Falklands war. My wife Karen still describes something as ‘faster than an Exocet’.
A just war
War represents a failure of politics and diplomacy. Margaret Thatcher’s government had given strong signals to Argentina that Britain was keen to offload the Falklands, possibly through a leaseback arrangement. It also announced the withdrawal of Britain’s only warship in the region, HMS Endurance. The close ties between Britain and Argentina had unlikely consequences: in 1982, the Royal Navy faced warships Britain had sold to its future enemy. HMS Sheffield, the first British warship to be lost since 1945, had two sister ships in the opposing navy.
Argentina’s invasion changed everything. Margaret Thatcher had a stark choice: go to war to recover the islands or resign. The brutal Argentine junta rejected a Peruvian peace plan, making war inevitable.
The Falklands conflict was a just war. Regardless of any historical claims from Argentina over the Malvinas, the simple fact is the people living on the lonely, windswept islands wanted to live under British not Argentine rule. Self determination was the right way to decide whose flag flew over Port Stanley. Argentina, like Russia in 2022, found that invading another country was the worst possible way of winning over its inhabitants.
A spectacular story
As the war began, a new national newspaper was launched: the Mail on Sunday. It was fortunate to have as its launch story an extraordinary feat of arms. The previous day, a force of ageing bombers set out on the boldest British air mission since 1945. Vulcan V bombers just months from retirement raided Port Stanley airfield, destroying Argentinian hopes of using it for fast jets. It took 15 Victor tankers and 17 separate in-flight refuellings to get one Vulcan to the target. The sheer effrontery of the operation showed that Britain was in deadly earnest. Rowland White’s book Vulcan 607 tells the dramatic story of the raids.
Reporting the Falklands war was like no recent war – not even the second world war. The distance and isolation of the war zone meant film took weeks to get back to Britain for transmission. My diary on 12 May proclaimed: ‘Increasing criticism of lack of British film out of south Atlantic.’ The following day I added: “At last! BBC Brian Hanrahan film from HMS Hermes, shown at 8.50am. Go in to school slightly later.” Amazing to think that I delayed my school day to watch it.
Yet that rare film had an extraordinary evocative quality. The sight of Harrier jump jets tearing into the mist captured the imagination of the British people. We weren’t foolish enough to think this was a re-run of 1940 – Britain would have survived defeat, although our pride would have suffered badly – but the Harrier briefly became a latter-day Spitfire in the nation’s heart.
Tory MPs expected the BBC to act as a voice for Britain, and shouted loudly about the corporation’s more measured approach. The final straw for them was when Newsnight presenter Peter Snow started a sentence with, “If we believe the British…” BBC chairman George Howard and soon-to-be director general Alasdair Milne were verbally beaten up by over 100 Tory MPs at a bad tempered meeting about BBC war coverage soon afterwards. But, as so often is the case, the BBC was trusted by the people to tell them what was happening.
A Welsh connection
There was a strong Welsh flavour to the war. The Welsh Guards suffered terribly in the bombing of Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Galahad during the war. Simon Weston from Nelson, Glamorgan, became famous as the BBC followed his traumatic story as he rebuilt his life following the terrible burns he suffered in the bombing. Yet the Welsh fighting for the British in 1982 were opposed by some of the descendants of Welsh settlers in Argentina. Milton Rhys from Patagonia was conscripted into Argentina’s occupying force. As the Daily Telegraph reported in 2012:
“In April 1982, as a young conscript of 19, he was called in by his colonel and told he was going to the newly conquered Falkland Islands, due to his good English, his father being an English teacher. Wearing civilian clothes, with one uniform in his bag, he stepped off the plane in Port Stanley and took up residence in an outbuilding at Government House, the home of expelled governor, Rex Hunt. By accident, Milton Rhys was to find himself at the centre of events, witness to the unfolding disaster that was the Argentine occupation.“
Unlike many in Britain, I knew exactly where the Falklands were before April 1982. My sister’s mother-in-law was from Buenos Aires and I spoke to her a few times about the islands. After the war ended, Isuggested to Maria that it was hard not to feel sorry for General Galtieri, who had good reason to think that Britain simply didn’t care about these wind-swept islands. “No, I can never feel sorry for Galtieri!” Maria reminded me of the evil nature of the Argentinian junta, who killed thousands of their own people.
When we think of the Falklands war, it’s worth remembering that it ended one of the most brutal regimes in the world.
Some of the stories in this post featured in my blogpost about the 25th anniversary of the Falklands war.