General Belgrano (Sinking)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:02 pm on 13th May 1983.

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Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian 12:02 pm, 13th May 1983

Yes. In addition, Paul Foot went through the Reuters telegrams and discovered that on 3 May at 10·9 am the Downing Street spokesman was distraining all knowledge of the negotiations, which strengthens my hon. Friend's point.

The Prime Minister's third point shows what a limited person she is. The idea that negotiations could go on meaningfully reveals someone who does not understand much about South Americans and less about human nature among foreigners. I campaign because at home she appeals to the worst jingoistic elements of the English. I am entitled to say that in view of the amendment to the motion on the conduct of the Prime Minister. The bravery of the armed forces has never been in dispute, but anybody who reads the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) will see exactly what I am getting at.

In dealing with the military threat, I want to refer to the interview with Lord Lewin on 30 January. It is curious that in a reference on 2 May last year to the sinking of the Belgrano, the chief of staff said that the vessel was sailing towards the task force whereas the Ministry of Defence has admitted that it was sailing away from the task force and towards Argentina on a 280 degree course. Lord Lewin said that it was a threat to the task force whereas in reality it was an obsolete status symbol whose guns had a range of seven miles less than the Exocets fitted to the 15 ships of the task force. He said that Argentina had escalated the conflict the previous day with an air attack on task force ships whereas that attack, which injured one sailor, was in response to Vulcan and Sea Harrier attacks and a substantial naval gunnery bombardment of the Stanley airbase earlier in the day which killed 19 and injured 37 Argentines.

Lord Lewin claimed that the General Belgrano and its escorts represented one part of a co-ordinated attack on the task force which also involved Argentina's only aircraft carrier, whereas repeated parliamentary questions seeking information on this attack have been met with the response that it would not be in the public interest to disclose the extent of the Government's knowledge of Argentine naval activity.

In addition to Lord Lewin's reasons, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces stated Concerned that HMS "Conqueror" might lose the 'General Belgrano" as she ran over the shallow water of th Burdwood Bank, the task force commander sought and obtained a change in the rules of engagement."—[Official Report, 29 November 1982; Vol. 33, c. 104.] When it was sunk the General Belgrano was 45 miles outside of the Burdwood bank, known depth 25 fathoms, and heading away from the bank towards its home port.

Is it true that the submarines were directly responsible to Northwood and were not at that time under the control of the task force commander? My understanding is that the submarines operated direct from Northwood. The sinking of the General Belgrano is seen as one of the pivotal events of the Falklands war. As we are faced with a tissue of contradiction from Government sources, should there not be a public inquiry? The evidence goes against the Prime Minister's assertion that the sinking of the General Belgrano took place for military reasons. Do the Government still maintain that HMS Conqueror first contacted the General Belgrano on 2 May? An inquiry should examine people such as Commander Wredford-Brown, Surgeon-Commander MacDonald and Petty Officers Billy Guinea and Billy Budding. As a result of talking to two members of the crew of HMS Conqueror, it became clear that the General Belgrano was detected not on 2 May but on 1 May. That information has not just arisen from my gossiping with the crew. It is in the Sunday Times book and in the book by Hastings and Jenkins. Furthermore, it is accepted in the corpus of knowledge. Do the Government still maintain that the Belgrano was detected on 2 May, because they are now saying that the Belgrano was detected some hours earlier. On 4 and 5 May, the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott), made clear that the Belgrano had been initially detected at 8 o'clock London time on 2 May. The radio programme "The World at One" recently broadcast that clip in Mr. Ted Harrison's programme.

I have received a letter from a relative of a member of the crew of HMS Conqueror asking if I undersood how exhausted those boys were when they returned and that they had, naturally been extremely frightened and had a rough time. I understand all of that. I am not criticising the crew or our service men. I am criticising the political direction of the war. Was the authorisation to sink Belgrano given before or after it was known that peace was in the bag? My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) has referred to telegrams that are printed in the New Statesman. The telegrams are important and I will refer to them. Lima, May 2, Reuter — Peruvian President Fernando Belaunde Terry said today that peace negotiations between Argentina and Britain were under way and that both countries had agreed in principle to cease hostilities. He was speaking at a press conference here on the efforts to end the fighting between Britain and Argentina over the disputed Falkland Islands. That telegram was sent at 00.30 hours.

The next telegram reads: 0045: Falklands—Belaunde 2 Lima. President Belaunde said that both parties would be willing to accept peace proposala set out by Secretary of State Alexander Haigh who conducted a peace shuttle mission between London and Buenos Aires before fighting broke out.The President said that he could not go into further details but added: negotiations are under way and that in a short while total peace can be established in the South Atlantic and there is a will on both sides to cease hostilities. The next telegram reads: 0054: Falklands—Belaunde 3 Lima. As President Belaunde made his announcement Argentina's ruling miltary junta are meeting in Buenos Aires to discuss the Falklands crisis.0109: Falklands — Belaunde 3A Lima: In London, a spokesman for the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's office said he knew nothing of the reported negotiations or agreement in principle. As the Foreign Secretary was in America doing precisely that and was presumably in contact with ambassador Charles Wallace in Peru — a very able diplomat—it is mind-boggling and astonishing that such statements can be made. Again— 0123: Falklands — Belaunde: President Belaunde said Argentina and Britain were studying a seven-point peace plan drawn up by Mr. Haig. He said that at present General Galtieri was discussing this with Argentine leaders, adding: 'If this effort fails it will be a tragedy for Latin America and perhaps for the world."' once more— 0158 … snap: London, May 3, Reuter … A British submarine torpedoed the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano in the South Atlantic last night, the British defence ministry said today. The cruiser was believed to have been severely damaged, the Ministry said. Given what was going on, how could such an order have been given by people seriously interested in peace? If the spokesman was inaccurate or did not know, we should be told about that. The questions that I asked yesterday as reported in col. 109 of Hansard are important and fit into the argument. We need a point by point denial and not the blanket denial that we received last night. Did the Foreign Secretary have a working breakfast with Al Haig in Washington? Do the Government deny—I have cross-checked this again—the statement that Peter Snow made on 29 April? I reiterate that I am talking about journalists who are very careful. The Newsnight transcript states: At breakfast time in Washington Haig and Pym had a long meeting. Did they or did they not have a long meeting? The transcript continues: Our American source tells us that it was now clear to Haig that Mr. Pym wanted a settlement"— I do not doubt that for a moment— and was working hard for it"— I do not doubt that either.

We're told that Mr. Haig personally phoned Mrs. Thatcher. Is that accurate or inaccurate?

So, according to the Peruvians and the Americans Britain was aware—at the highest level—of all that had developed at the time they were getting up from lunch at Chequers Is that accurate or inaccurate? The transcript continues: now what no-one is telling us is exactly when the war cabinet at Chequers made its decision to give the Navy the green light for the Conqueror to attack the Belgrano. Perhaps we could have an answer to that. The transcript goes on: whether or not the full reported details of President Galtieri's alleged acceptance of the plan were known to Mrs. Thatcher when she finally said Yes to Commander Wredford Brown there should have been time to attempt to call the mission off in the intervening five hours. If there was no contact, why did not the whole Foreign Office machine at least contact the Foreign Secretary to find out what he was up to in America? That is the astonishing thing. Yesterday I quoted the reaction of Sir Nicholas Henderson, who went white when he heard what had happened to the Belgrano. People are beginning to talk and we should establish why consultation did not take place with his own boss. Why did not consultations take place with the Foreign Secretary, Sir Anthony Parsons, Sir Nicholas Henderson and our ambassador in Lima over that crucial decision? By what means did the Peruvian proposals reach London, and was the ambassador in Lima negotiating with the Government of Peru with the approval of Her Majesty's Government before any information on those proposals reached London?