HC Deb 24 March 1983 vol 39 cc1100-16 9.52 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

May I start by identifying what I hope may be the eventual outcome of this debate over the coming weeks: either the setting up of an inquiry into the conduct of the South Atlantic conflict in relation to decision-making in London—taking into account the precedent of the inquiry into the Crimean war—or at least an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Belgrano—taking into account the precedent of the inquiry into the Jameson raid during the Boer war.

There is a distinction to be made between types of inquiry. One might call for an inquiry into the actions of troops or sailors engaged in battle—for example, what happened at Bluff Cove. I would not be at all keen—as I gather one of our Welsh Nationalist colleagues is—on trying to apportion blame to commanders in the heat of battle, if indeed blame there be. I was too often on 7th Armoured division exercises in the north German plain not to understand perfectly clearly what can happen even in. exercises, let alone in battle. That type of inquiry, therefore, has no support from me.

The second type is rather different. This calls for an inquiry into an act that was basically political. I take the view that the sinking of the Belgrano was basically a political act.

As was readily accepted by the East of Scotland British Legion central committee, meeting in Bo' ness on Saturday 5 March 1983–1 am one of the vice-presidents of that organisation—my criticism has been reserved for politicians, and at no time has it been extended to soldiers, sailors or airmen in the field.

My general view is that the security and intelligence services, like the Foreign Office and the service defence attaches, performed their task during the months preceding and during the Argentine invasion extremely well. The politicians must bear the responsibility for landing Britain in the mire of the south Atlantic.

I begin with a potentially critical question about MI5 and MI6, and I have no idea of the answer. I have given public and private notice to the Leader of the House of my question. I raised the matter during business questions last Thursday. Is it true that an arms dealer in the south of England, whose name is known to the Government, had telephone numbers for contacting senior levels of the security services, and was given the proverbial brush-off when he told them of the activities of Mr. Klein, an arms dealer in New York, and Mr. Karl Villavicienza, an arms dealer in Hamburg, in abusing the end-users certificate system by approaching a Sudanese politician to sign for a batch of 30 Exocets destined for Argentina? Will the Minister label that point A when he replies?

Could the security services really have been so casual as The Observer investigative journalist, Mr. Peter Durisch—who was smuggled into the arms negotiations—suggests in that newspaper? I simply dread to think of properly fused Exocets or Israeli Gabriel missiles in the hands of some maverick Mirage squadron commander in the sticks some 1,500 miles south of Buenos Aires. That may be the immediate danger, rather than a thought-out plan from Buenos Aires.

I refrain from referring to this afternoon's exchanges on the Argentine loan with the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury about the financing of those hideous weapons. However, I am a little curious about the basis on which the security services apparently hand out their phone numbers. On what criteria do people qualify for such special treatment? Let us call that point B.

On Tuesday 26 October, in answer to a specific question on the Falklands, the Prime Minister confirmed what she had said to George Gale in a major interview in the Daily Express—that the Falklands crisis had come out of the blue on Wednesday 31 March. Note that it was not South Georgia or anything of that kind, but the Falklands crisis. George Gale asked her Did the Falklands crisis come at you more or less out of the blue? "Out of the blue"

said the Prime Minister.

I turn to the events of this month a year ago, and look at how the security and intelligence services, together with the Foreign Office, performed. The Franks report, page 44, paragraph 150, shows that on 2 March the British defence attache in Buenos Aires wrote to the Governor of the Falkland Islands, copying his letter to the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, about the Argentine military threat to the Falklands. Page 45 of Franks, paragraph 152, shows that on 3 March the British ambassador in Buenos Aires reported further comment in the Argentine press on the unilateral communique. When the Prime Minister saw the telegram, she wrote on it: We must make contingency plans. That was written in the right hon. Lady's own handwriting.

The Franks report, page 45, paragraph 153, shows that on 8 March, the Prime Minister spoke to the right hon. Member for St. Ives (Sir J. Nott), the then Secretary of State for Defence, and asked him how quickly Royal Navy ships could be deployed in the Falkland Islands if required.

In my oral evidence to the Franks committee I told Lord Franks, with respect, that he had a duty to make it clear whether he believed that the Prime Minister—to use the phrase which I told Franks I had borrowed from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—not averse from having a fight should the situation develop, lured the Argentines on to the punch". I put it to the House that the following references endorse that cold and rather brutal view of the Prime Minister's behaviour: paragraph 157—personal messages from Carrington to Haig; paragraph 155—draft telegram from Carrington to Costa Mendes, 18 March; paragraph 169—Foreign and Defence Ministers agreed on 20 March that Endurance should sail for South Georgia; paragraph 187—minute from Carrington to the Prime Minister, 24 March; paragraph 153— on 8 March the Prime Minister, for whom the crisis was to come out of the blue on 31 March, spoke to Mr. Nott and asked him how quickly Royal Naval ships could be deployed to the Falklands Islands if required. A Prime Minister who supposed that there was not a possibility of an invasion in the near future would not have asked her Defence Secretary that question.

Consider the reply—incidentally, four days later, mid-week: Passage of time for a frigate deployed to the Falklands, which would require Royal Fleet Auxiliary support, would be of the order of 20 days. That would have taken to 28 March.

What this adds up to is that, solemnly warned of the need to make contingency plans, which she herself had accepted three days before, the Prime Minister could have had frigates and Royal Fleet auxiliaries in the Falklands by Sunday 28 March.

This is all against the background, if we are discussing the security services, of paragraph 95, the final paragraph of the JIC assessment of 9 July 1981, which stated that if Argentina concluded that there was no hope of a peaceful transfer of sovereignty there would be a high risk of its resorting to more forcible measures against British interests and it might act swiftly and without warning. In such circumstances, military action against British shipping or—again the JIC report—of a full-scale invasion of the Falkland Islands could not be discounted.

Moreover, the Prime Minister knew from the week that she entered Downing Street in May 1979 that the Falklands presented one of the most potentially dangerous situations that she inherited. The Cabinet Secretary of the day briefs every incoming Prime Minister on the really thorny issues and alerts Prime Ministers to Foreign Office and intelligence identification of thorny problems.

Against such a background, why did the Prime Minister not put the Falklands, in early March 1982, on the agenda of the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee of the Cabinet? Was it simply that the Cabinet seemed to be ignored? It is an astonishing fact that from earlyish April the war seems to have been conducted by the Prime Minister, Admiral Lewin, Admiral Fieldhouse and the right hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South (Mr. Parkinson). They, basically, were the troika who seem to have made the decisions in support of the Prime Minister.

Or is there a more sinister explanation—that, knowing what she did—clearly, from the meat for all to read in the Franks report—she was not averse to allowing the situation to run so that she could be able to present Britain as the injured party and have a little war that would rally the nation behind her?

If this is a dreadful allegation and imputation to make against the British Prime Minister, why is it that, knowing what she did, she never at any time, either directly or through the Foreign Office or the intelligence service, as far as any of us know, let Buenos Aires know what would be the consequence, in the form of the task force, of an invasion of the Falklands?

With respect, the Franks committee has not refuted that which I told it in oral evidence it would be expected to refute—that the British Prime Minister lured the Argentines on to the punch. It is, of course, a possible explanation that she had sensibly reconciled herself to the long-held Foreign Office view that if Argentina were to attack we would have to accept the fait accompli with as good a grace as possible, fortress Falklands being untenable in the long term—to give credit to the Foreign Office, it understood that—and that the Prime Minister was panicked by the popular press and Back Benchers.

Considering the litany of occasions that Franks reveals, and knowing what she did, there is no explanation of why the Prime Minister failed to warn and act and was content to allow nothing to be done. It might have been fine had she not contrived to give the impression of taking a malleable attitude and then adopting the astoundingly hard attitude of sending a task force. In life and diplomacy it is accepted that to compromise after a hard line is acceptable. What is bordering on the criminal is to take a hard line, having given the impression of compromise and a soft line. That is what people mean by "luring on to the punch".

Out of the blue, it appears from page 43, paragraph 147, referring to Friday 5 March 1982, that John Ure, assistant Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for North and South America, recorded that the Cabinet office had said that the Prime Minister would like the next defence committee paper on the Falklands to include annexes on both civil and military contingency plans. A Prime Minister who claims that the crisis came out of the blue on Wednesday 31 March was asking for contingency plans 26 days earlier. Again, by what semantics of the English language can that be explained?

Disclosure of the truth, as Solzhenitsyn put it, cannot be wrong. In sum, point C is to ask, what is the Prime Minister's explanation of her behaviour in the light of what Franks says that she knew from intelligence and Foreign Office sources? Her answer on 26 October is a travesty of the English language and a gross, purposeful and wilful misleading of the House of Commons.

Point D is, how does the Prime Minister's answer to the House on 26 October approximate to the truth? Point E is on the related issue of just when the Government knew about the preparations for the Argentine invasion. I am inclined to believe—I say "inclined to believe"—the satement of the Argentine general, Gugliamelli, that the decision to invade was taken on 12 January 1982. Be that as it may, it is certain that the post-Franks notion that the Argentines had not made invasion plans until two, three or four days before the event, and that therefore no one could have foretold the attack and that the British Government must be exonerated, is unreal.

I assert that there were secret reports from MI6 agents in Buenos Aires, whose presence incidentally is referred to in The Scotsman of 17 January by Alexander MacLeod in his truly remarkable disclosure of what was in the Franks report before that was available. The previous day's publication gave a clear picture of the build-up to the invasion, and on that, because of the delicate nature of the question, I ask the Minister simply to acknowledge that MI6 in Buenos Aires performed its task properly.

On 17 January in The Scotsman Alexander MacLeod wrote: In the week or ten days before the invasion, dispatches from the British Embassy in Argentina, secret reports by MI6 agents in Buenos Aires, urgent messages from the skipper of the patrol ship HMS Endurance". That was in the public print.

I refer to the letter of 28 February 1983 from the Foreign Secretary which says: Thank you for your letter of 22 February about a report in the Buenos Aires newspaper La Razon concerning the alleged timing of the Junta's decision to invade the Falkland Islands. I have so far only seen summaries of the article. It claims that, at the meeting on 12 January 1982, referred in The Guardian's article enclosed in. your letter, the Junta secretly set up a military working group to consider the feasibility of such an invasion, that a tentative date later in the year was suggested for an invasion attempt; that this date was subsequently brought forward to May 1982; and that finally in the light of events in South Georgia in the latter part of March, it was decided to launch an invasion in 1 April (then change again to the 2 April). I understand that the newspaper gave no sources for these assertions. It would be unwise to take such a story at face value. But even if the story were true, there would be no inconsistency between it and the conclusion of the Franks Report that the decision to invade on 2 April was taken at a very late stage, and probably (as paragraph 263 states) 'in the light of the South Georgia situation.'—Yours Sincerely, Francis Pym. It beggars belief to anyone who knows South America that the ramshackle Argentine military establishment could have mounted an invasion at a few days' notice even given that there were exercises.

We return to the security and intelligence services, because they gave warnings. I have heard that so concerned were the intelligence services and the Foreign Office that they persuaded, at an early stage, the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) to approach the Opposition Front Bench and plead wath them to support leaseback in the House some days before the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury made the statement for which he was mauled by the House of Commons.

Point F—this has to be cleared up—is either true or untrue. If it is true, who was approached? Was it those who had considered the Falkland Islands in the Labour Cabinet sub-committee, and what, if it is true, did they say? I have been told that the passage in my book "One Man's Falklands", dealing with the Ridley initiative, which I submitted to Lord Franks at his request, is incomplete in that it omits the then Minister of State at the Foreign Office having approached the official Opposition to ask for their support on leaseback. For the sake of the officials involved, if for nobody else, this matter ought to be cleared up.

Before going on to March 1982 it is necessary to ask questions about the control of nuclear weapons in the light of the following facts. First, on 28 March, three days before the Prime Minister told the Commons that the Falklands crisis had come out of the blue, the crew of the RFA Fort Austin were informed by the barmaids of Gibraltar that they were going not home to Britain after five and a half months in the sweltering Gulf but to the south Atlantic. Secondly, on March 29, ships and RFA vessels on Exercise Springtrain were ordered south. Thirdly, a number of those vessels carried nuclear weapons. Fourthly, some of the ships left Portsmouth in early April carrying nuclear weapons. Fifthly, there was a row of gargantuan proportions about this in parts of Whitehall, as a result of which some, though not all of the nuclear weapons were offloaded from the ships when they were at sea, before they got to the western approaches. Sixthly, the Stenor Inspector and the Stenor Seasearch have been trying to retrieve nuclear devices from the tombs of HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry.

Seventhly, there is also the problem of lost nuclear depth charges from two lost Sea King mark 4 and two lost Sea King mark 5 helicopters. Eighthly, the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed), the former Navy Minister, who lost his post, opined on "News Night" that he would be most surprised if the fleet were not carrying nuclear weapons.

Point G is whether our security services let our American allies know in advance that we British were taking nuclear weapons into their hemisphere against protocol 1 of the treaty of Tlatelolco of which both Britain and the Americans are signatories. The related question is, what do we now say as British people to the non-aligned nations which, meeting in Delhi, asked us to remove nuclear weapons from land and sea areas around the Falklands? It is all very well to say that we would never have used nuclear weapons. That seems to be the received wisdom. However, can we be quite sure? Let us suppose, heaven help us, that Invincible, Hermes or Canberra, hit by a torpedo which actually exploded, had gone down with a loss of life comparable to the sinking of the Belgrano. There might have been an irresistible demand, in a losing situation, to go ahead—as was, indeed, discussed in certain quarters—to bomb granaries and airfields in Argentina. Those who have nuclear weapons in desperate situations may be tempted not to be choosy about how they use them. The whole operation was a hideous gamble, with no long-term prize for this country.

Point H asks, first, what British policy is on explaining taking nuclear weapons to the south Atlantic in the first place and, secondly, what British policy is on the current existence of nuclear weapons in and around the Falkland Islands.

Before turning to the crucial question of the sinking of the Belgrano, which moved the war from second to fifth gear and is the source of many of the lasting, seemingly intransigent problems that we now face, I should point out that there has been no ministerial attempt to answer, point by point, the issues that I first raised on 21 December and have raised several times since then. Had Ministers seen fit to give a point-by-point candid response to that debate at any time in the past three months, either in the House or by detailed letter or written answer, they might have saved themselves a good deal of trouble. Late in December I wrote to the previous Secretary of State as follows: Dear John, It was nice of you on 21st December to tell me that you had read my book, 'One Man's Falklands' and to make courteous comment. However I do not agree that in any sense I went 'over the top' in my speech that evening. In column 903, you interrupted this speech to say, 'I think I should say to the hon. Gentleman as he is making these charges that a very, very large proportion of what he has said is just totally and completely untrue.' Now, without trying to be clever, clever about it, because these matters are far too serious for cheap point scoring, a very, very large proportion of what I said came directly or indirectly from Parliamentary answers, given by MoD, the Foreign Office or the Prime Minister. When you interrupted, and I gave way, it occurred to me to ask you there and then IN WHAT PARTICULAR RESPECTS you thought what I said was totally and completely untrue. I was only deterred by Pat Duffy, fuming away, wanting to be called and the fact that I had already spoken for 25 minutes. I concluded the letter by saying: But before the Cabinet re-shuffle that we read about, I would like to invite you to write to me, specifying exactly what you had in mind. He never did so. I shall not start criticising individuals, or the former Secretary of State for Defence. However, on 29 December The Scotsman contained an article by Mr. Keith Aitken saying: Mr. Dalyell has now written inviting Mr. Nott to specify which of his claims were based on false information. Apart from the horror of what happened over the Belgrano, which has been revived by Argentine parents coming to Europe—a horror, incidentally, shared by many sailors in the Royal Navy—and the political consequences that rumble on throughout Latin America to Britain's disadvantage, the Prime Minister's action on Monday 2 May reveals that the Prime Minister is not a fit person to lead a British Government. If that is thought to be extreme, hon. Members should consider the facts.

First, we are told that the Belgrano was sunk under the rules of engagement. That is what Parliament, the press and the public were led to believe on 4 and 5 May. Indeed, at the bottom of c. 900 on 21 December I referred to the statement of 5 May in the Official Report at c.156: The actual decision to launch a torpedo was clearly one taken by the submarine commander".—[Official Report, 21 December 1982; Vol. 34, c. 900.] Yet on 5 July Commander Christopher Wreford Brown returned to Faslane and let the cat out of the bag. He did it, he said, on instructions from Northwood. He was a first-time submarine commander.

What is the explanation of the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence on 4 and 5 May? It contains a litany of lies. The first was that the Belgrano had been sunk under the rules of engagement. No, it was sunk on orders from Northwood. I shall go into this in detail. The second is that the Belgrano and escorts were converging on units of the task force. No, not at all. It was going "West-north-west". No units of the task force or task group—I understand the difference between the two—were to the west of where the Belgrano was sunk.

Thirdly, he said that contact would be lost over the Burdwood bank. Again, that was false. The shallowest area of the Burdwood bank is 25 fathoms—that is 150-odd feet of water—and the average is 90 fathoms—540 feet of water. The Belgrano was sunk outside the Burdwood bank going in the other direction by at last 50 nautical miles. That is 59 miles outside any conceivable limit of the exclusion zone. So that is not so.

Fourthly, it is said that it was a threat to the task force. It was not. We knew that the range of the M38 Exocets, because we were part manufacturers, was 20 miles. I refer to the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) was putting this afternoon about arms.

The fifth explanation was the pincer movement involving the carrier, the 25 De Mayo. No, the carrier and escorts were in port. I assert that American and our intelligence knew that to be so. I shall go into this matter in detail.

Sixthly, it is said that the Conqueror detected the Belgrano on 2 May. That is contained in paragraph 110 of the White Paper. No, it was on 1 May or possibly 30 April. Members of the crew, with whom I have been in contact, say that The Sunday Times book and the Jenkins and Hastings book is correct on this crucial point.

One wonders why there is that inaccuracy in the White Paper and in Admiral Fieldhouse's report. Confronted with half a dozen significant and substantial deceptions and one excuse after another that is being produced when the previous excuse has failed, one begins to wonder. Between the siting of the Belgrano on 1 May or possibly 30 April and the order to sink, the Prime Minister was confronted with a peace compromise that most of the world and the Labour Opposition would have expected her to accept. What was at risk at that moment were not the ships of the British fleet but the Conservative party's leadership.

I quote King Lear: Truth is a dog that must to kennel, where the lady bitch untruth may stand by the fire and stink. Point I: why are there such discrepancies in the parliamentary answers? I understand that Simon Jenkins has written to that most excellent and serious publication the London Review of Books quarrelling with my review of his and Max Hastings' important and well-written book "Falklands War", but even Simon Jenkins in his letter concludes that Ministers have not yet given a detailed response to what he calls the damaging accusation that I and others have made.

It is not sufficient to say that the admirals asked for permission because they were worried about Belgrano, during amphibious landings or because they were worried about the carrier 25 De Mayo. Given the Nimrod information and the other circumstances set out in detail on 21 December, that will not do. On 25 May the carrier and the Santissima Trinidad, the Hercules and her escorts never left Puerto Belgrano, the naval base, and Northwood and the Prime Minister knew that from the Americans, MI6 and, as I shall show, from Nimrod.

I take the solemn responsibility of charging the Prime Minister with a particular specific war crime and high misdemeanour. She gave the orders pre-lunch at Chequers on Sunday 2 May 1982 for HMS Conqueror to unleash its mark 8 torpedoes against the Belgrano, behind the back of her Foreign Secretary, without consulting our allies, the American Government, in the knowledge that the Belgrano and her escorts were at that time no conceivable threat to the task force and in the knowledge that Galtieri had ordered the withdrawal of the army from the Falklands-Malvinas on the evening of Saturday 1 May on the basis of the Peruvian-American United Nations peace terms. My detailed account in Hansard of 21 December of how the Government's excuses for sinking the Belgrano are different in explanation after explanation and exposed as false has never been answered.

New and damning evidence is coming to the light of day. Members of the task force are beginning to talk. I believe that Britain had cracked the not very sophisticated codes by which the admirals in Argentina communicated with their ships at sea and, on May 1 and 2, knew precisely what were the orders to the Belgrano and her escorts, the Piedra Buena and the Hippolito Bouchard. A not very difficult task was made easier by the fact that senior and middle-ranking officers of the Argentine navy had been regular attenders at courses run by the Royal Navy at Portsmouth and elsewhere.

One recalls my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands), a former Foreign Office Minister, blurting out, in the now notorious Commons debate of 3 April, Last night the Secretary of State for Defence asked 'How can we read the mind of the enemy?' I shall make a disclosure. As well as trying to read the mind of the enemy, we have been reading its telegrams for many years." [Official Report, 3 April 1982; Vol. 21, c. 650.] Writing in The Times on Saturday 15 January 1983, my hon. Friend wrote: Their action"— this refers to 1976 in South Thule— created a dilemma for the Government. Preparations were already well in hand to launch a major new initiative involving my visit to the islands and to Buenos Aires to work out the terms of reference for fresh negotiations. The problem was compounded by intelligence received from sources close to the head of the Argentine Navy, Admiral Massera. Massera was the naval equivalent to Galtieri—a populist with consuming political ambition—and we knew that he would seek to use the Falklands issue to further that end". The former and responsible Foreign Office Minister makes clear what was our understanding of Argentine intelligence and how well placed were our contacts. That is all in the public print, let alone what I have been told privately. I assert that for many years we have had excellent intelligence from Buenos Aires and, given the nature of the Argentine population—the present air force commander has the name of Hughes—it would be surprising if this were not so.

Point J is this. Was my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil in any way wrong? In the land of Mr. Juan McCafferty, a leader of the Scottish community in Argentina, of Mr. Pablo LLewellyn, a leader of the Welsh community, of Brigadeer Hughes, the current air force commander, or of Jock MacDonald, the Argentine ambassador to Tokyo, it is not difficult for M16 to operate.

On 8 June, enemy aircraft attacked the landing ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram at Bluff Cove, and, tragically, 50 men were killed. We wished to conceal the extent of the casualties'", Sir Terence Lewin stated on the record, because we knew from intelligence that the Argentines thought that they were very much higher. Indeed, Lewin praises the intelligence. I simply say that I believe those who tell me that I can take it that on 8 June, as over the period to which my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil referred, we had no difficulty in picking up and decoding the messages between the Argentine mainland and their ships at sea. I am told that for hours there had been no imposition of radio silence between the Belgrano and her escorts before the sinking as they imagined that they were going home and that peace was breaking out.

I had better be clear and produce evidence about the Nimrods. They did 111 sorties. It is all here in Sir John Fieldhouse's supplement to the London Gazette. He refers to four Nimrods on page 16111 in the London Gazette on 14 December 1982. On page 16112, Sir John says: Nimrods mounted 111 sorties from the Island". On page 16119, he gave the following important information: Nimrod aircraft were the first to be based on Ascension Island, on 6 April. They were immediately involved as communications links for the transitting nuclear submarines and thereafter they continually provided direct support and area surveillance to every major element of the Task Force to the limit of the aircraft's range. All deployments of small aircraft were provided with airborne search and rescue cover and, after the fitting of refuelling probes, Nimrods converted for air to air refuelling provided long range surveillance of the sea areas between the Falkland Islands and the Argentinian mainland prior to and during the main amphibious landing. The Nimrods have twin Marconi AD 470 HF transceivers, which are easily able to intercept radio messages. The Nimrods also have encryption facilities for sending coded messages in flight. Therefore, they could have transmitted the messages between the Belgrano and the mainland back to Northwood, the task force and thence quickly to the Prime Minister.

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to fly in a Nimrod from St. Mawgan. I marvelled at the search capability of this flying electronic laboratory. What I am saying is well known. Flight International of 15 May 1982 says the following: On May 8 a further 20 Harriers and Sea Harriers were air-refuelled direct to Ascension Island in a record nine-hour flight. A number of Nimrod Mk 2s have been fitted with in-flight refuelling probes, and after a hasty evaluation at Boscombe Down have deployed to Ascension. With in-flight refuelling and fuel conservation by shutting down two engines, the Nimrods should have a useful five or six hours on station in the Falklands area. There was no difficulty from the Ascension base because of the refuelling. They were almost as good as the American AWACs.

Point L is: were we reading the signals between the Argentine mainland and the Belgrano? If we were, did we know that they were under orders to return to Uschaia? If we did know, when was that knowledge made available to responsible Ministers?

I also believe that the Hipolito Bouchard knew well for many hours where the SSN was. The sonar equipment on that ship is the extremely sensitive SQS 30 and the SQA 10. There is nothing secret about this. Jane's Fighting Ships says that the sonar of the Piedra Buena and the Hipolita Bouchard is the SQS 30 and the SQA 10 (VDS) and that their radar is the SPS 6 and the SPS 40. It is inconceivable that the Argentine officers did not know of the presence of the huge SSN, which is not as silent as the 0-class, a mere 4,000 yards away. That is the distance when the mark 8 torpedo was fired. Furthermore, most of the victims were in the ship's canteen or in the sleeping quarters, according to page 34 of The Sunday Times of 17 October 1982. Does not that show that Captain Hector Bonzo of Belgrano believed that the war was over? That would be consistent with the orders.

We now know what the orders from Argentina to its ships were, not least because Admiral Inaya—the navy member of the junta—has been bitterly and publicly rebuked by the pilots of the Aviacon Naval, the Argentine equivalent of the Fleet Air Arm, who showed courage and skill in the conflict, for his treachery in issuing orders. They were that the Belgrano, the Piedra Buena and the Hipolito Bouchard should return to their home port of Uschaia, and that is precisely what they were doing, on a 280 deg. course west-north-west towards the entrance of the straits of Magellan, when the Conqueror struck some 50 miles outside the exclusion zone.

In making the charge that Northwood had deciphered and could read the instructions from Inaya, given in the belief that peace was certain, I am not saying anything that I have not said before to Ministers' faces. During the public expenditure debate on Wednesday 9 March, when we dealt with MI5 and MI6 under the Foreign Office Vote, I made similar statements. No reply was given in the windup—I do not complain too much about that—and no reply has been given since then. Point M is, why has there been no response to my speech in the House on 9 March and not a cheep out of Ministers?

At a meeting on Tuesday of last week with some of my hon. Friends and myself, at the request of Ambassador Luebbers, to explain the position of the United States of America in Guatemala and Nicaragua, he let the cat out of the bag by saying, quite nicely, that the British should be grateful not only for Sidewinder—without which the Falklands war might have been a military defeat for Britain—but for intelligence. Ministers' references to pincer movements by the carrier 25 de Mayo and her escorts the Santissima Trinidad and the Hercules are codswallop, because we knew from satellite pictures that they never left port during the period that the Belgrano was being followed by HMS Conqueror.

The White Paper statement that Conqueror detected the Belgrano on 2 May is simply not right. Members of the crew have confirmed that both The Sunday Times book and Hastings and Jenkins are right to say that the Conqueror had Belgrano in her sights from 1 May, or even 30 April.

Point 0 is how do the Government explain Ambassador Luebbers' comments? Can we make any interpretation other than what has been said frequently: that we had access to American satellite data? I visited the university of East Anglia recently. Using computational geometry, it is very easy, from satellite pictures of such quality, to build up pictures of where ironclad ships are.

The crime of the Prime Minister is that she ordered the sinking of the Belgrano, not out of military necessity or even for military advantage but because she was faced with a political compromise involving the withdrawal of all forces from the Falklands, which the rest of the world would have expected her to accept. The paramount threat was not to the fleet but that the present Foreign Secretary might replace her in Downing street. Now, as the weeks go by, it becomes clear in Delhi, at the United Nations and elsewhere that Britain will not be forgiven for the Belgrano and that, in the absence of negotiations about sovereignty, there will, probably in 1984 or 1985, be what one might call, dreadfully, a "replay", with yet more young British and Argentine blood spilt. Responsibility for such a tragedy will lie in the ruthless domestic politicking of the Prime Minister.

I had a two-hour conversation this week with German Sopena the Paris correspondent of La Piensa, who is reported in The Sunday Times under the heading "Torpedo sank peace hopes": The President of Peru, Belaunde Terry, has confirmed that his attempts to prevent the Falkland War failed because the British torpedoed the cruiser General Belgrano, killing 368 Argentinians, as negotiations were taking place. Speaking for the first time of his intervention, he has told an Argentinian journalist, German Sopena, how shocked he was at hearing the news. The rest of that is in The Sunday Times, 20 March 1982.

The whole sequence of events in the Peruvian peace plan was outlined in my book "One Man's Falklands". Although the Foreign Office was sufficiently interested to send a dispatch rider to the home of my publishers Cecil Wolf and Jean Moorcroft Wilson to get a pre-publication copy ostensibly for a Cabinet Minister, no one has yet dented my account of the interlocking between the Peruvian peace plan and sinking of the Belgrano.

Sopena told me that President Belaunde Terry told him that both he and the Americans suggested that after Sheffield had been sunk, in a sense, tit for the Belgrano tat, his peace plan could have been reactivated. However, by that time, Buenos Aires did not want that because of the shock at the loss of young life, and the British just wanted to continue to fight.

When I say that the British wanted to fight, I do not refer to most of the service men who had to do the actual fighting. Read Lieutenant David Tinker on that. It was the Prime Minister, the loudmouthed idiots on the safety of these green Benches who yelled her on, and some equally strident and shallow journalists operating from the safety of Fleet street. Those were the people yelling her on, not those down in the south Atlantic.

Thirty years ago, in a tank crew in the Rhine Army, I was only too conscious of what it would be like to be brewed up in a tank by shells from guns that one could not see. No sailor, soldier or airman wants to take part in an Exocet war if he can avoid it, and the Falklands could easily have been avoided. The conditions for a just war were not met, and the conditions are that every step taken by the politicians should avoid war. Furthermore, the whole concept of proportionality became absurd, considering that the issue now is 1,800 people, and numbers do matter.

We should have at least let the Peruvian initiative run to the end. If it is thought that I am off beam and an eccentric in what I am saying, I just quote Hugo Young in The Sunday Times, who said that a Cabinet Minister had explained to him that the purpose of the apparently intense search for peace was to make the British understand that they had to go to war. On the whole, the Minister said that it was a great relief to the Cabinet that, by the time that the British settlement offer was made, the Argentinians were in no mood to talk. How serious and sincere were the Government in their attempts to avoid having to regain the islands by force?

From a very early stage, the Prime Minister perceived an opportunity, having established Britain as an injured party, to test our military preparedness. Reconciliation is not a word in the Prime Minister's vocabulary. Before anybody sneers, I point out that I was one of the very few Members of Parliament on either side of the House to take the trouble to see the right hon. Lady when she properly made the offer on 20 April to see hon. Members. I went to see her on 21 April.

There have been differences of judgment on the Falklands between some of us on the Opposition Back Benches and some of the members of the shadow Cabinet. There should be no differences about the need to establish the veracity of the, Prime Minister. An investigation would have been mounted from the Floor of a previous House of Commons—which my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and I can possibly remember 20 years ago—by some of the old friends of myself and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot). I wonder what Dick Crossman or Sydney Silverman, George Wigg or Leslie Hale in their heyday would have done to stop a Prime Minister from getting away with so many unanswered questions and with such an unconvincing interpretation of events. I remember what some of my hon. Friends did over Hola. My first Opposition leader, Hugh Gaitskell, would have interrogated any Prime Minister in such a position. So would my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) in the years 1963–64. In circumstances that I believe to be more disreputable than Rambouillet or Suez, I ask the shadow Cabinet to make sure that these allegations get at least a proper reply. Silence by the Government throughout the recess can only be construed now as assent to what I am saying.

If all this were simply a matter of history, if relations between Britain and Argentina were on the way to being patched up, if there seemed to be any prospect of a return to normality, there might be a case for saying that I and others should let bygones be bygones and let sleeping dogs lie. Alas, far from improving the British situation, predictably and predicted, foreseeably and foreseen, it is getting worse. The £880 million for Stanley airport is only the most dramatic item of expenditure in a horrendous list of costs associated with Fortress Falklands. The outcome was rightly perceived by the Foreign Office, and in my view rightly perceived by Lord Carrington.

As with the Americans in Vietnam, the facts of geography are against us.

I am glad, at a time when the rest of the political life of this nation has its eyes fixed on Darlington, not Westminster, to place this considered proposition before the House of Commons. The circumstances, the facts and, in many cases, the hard evidence that I have placed before the House are of such a nature that an inquiry into the conduct of the Falklands conflict, taking into account the precedent of the inquiry into the Crimean war and the inquiry into the Jameson raid during the Boer war, is warranted.

The picture that emerges is that of a Prime Minister who opted for war on occasion after occasion. I think just of 7 April, when Alexander Haig was actually mid-air on his way to see us, when she declared the military exclusion zone. That was a provocative act. She might at least have waited until the American Secretary of State had had his say. I think, too, of South Georgia and all that, and Jenkins and Hastings with their description of Goose Green. If ever there was a politicians' battle, Goose Green was it. Again and again the Prime Minister opted for war, when she should have had peace with honour. We see a Prime Minister who, for domestic political reasons, wanted military victory just as Galtieri, for his own discreditable reasons, wanted to invade the Falklands, in a situation where there was no military solution to be had in the long term.

In particular, the burden of proof is now on the Prime Minister to refute the charge, supported by fact and in detail, that knowing the orders to the Belgrano to return to port, knowing the seriousness of intent of the withdrawal of forces by Argentina and of their orders, knowing that there would be huge casualties among young men, without telling—let alone consulting—our American allies, without warning the Foreign Secretary—possibly egged on by Lewin and Fieldhouse, I know not, who must have known perfectly well at the time of the sinking of the Belgrano that it was no threat to their task force—for the sake of her own political position or reputation she let loose a slaughter the effects of which are still reverberating around the world, to the disadvantage of our country.

Quite quietly tonight I say to the House that the Prime Minister must seek a parliamentary opportunity to reply to the charge of war crime and high misdemeanour. When I gave oral evidence to the Franks committee, Lord Franks said that some tangential comment, referring to events after 2 April, could not be taken into account. Even last week when I went to Independent Radio News I was asked why I went on about the Belgrano, since Franks had exonerated the Government. If the IRN commentators do not realise that Franks did not cover the Belgrano, how many others who are not commentators are in the same position?

A commission of inquiry should be set up into the conduct of the Falklands war, taking into account the precedents. Such an inquiry would perhaps reveal that the Prime Minister has misled the House of Commons to an extent that it has never been misled before. If it had been Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister when I came into Parliament, or Alec Douglas-Home or the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), it is exceedingly unlikely that I would ever have been making a speech of this kind.

I do not think that anything like this episode has happened during the parliamentary lifetime of any of us. It has probably been established that the security services and the Foreign Office performed properly. Is not the evidence that the head of Government misled the House of Commons sufficiently disturbing to warrant an inquiry? If the Prime Minister is innocent of all this or of most of it, she should in her own self-interest institute an inquiry. That is what the debate asks for.

10.51 pm
Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock)

I intend to make only a few brief remarks. Both during and since the Falklands war the Opposition Front Bench has made various accusations against the Government's conduct of that war. The accusations start with the claim that the announcement of the withdrawal of the Endurance was a grave error and that Argentina was bound to interpret that in a way that was perhaps not intended by the Government but as a sign that Britain was prepared to give up sovereignty of the Falklands.

The Front Bench spokesmen, among whom I include my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), have all in their various ways criticised the Prime Minister in particular and her Government for what could be summed up as negligence during the events leading up to the Falklands war.

The claim has been throughout that the Prime Minister should have responded at an earlier stage to all the signs that Argentina was preparing to invade the Falklands. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East drew on his experience in government in 1977 and argued that the Government should have adopted a similar method of dealing with the threat.

Those criticisms, which are best summed up by the word "negligence", are different from the claim made this evening by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). His claim, both on the decision to respond to the invasion by sending the task force and the consequent war with Argentina, is that the Prime Minister deliberately used or engineered that opportunity to strengthen her political position. My hon. Friend stated that the sinking of the Belgrano was basically "a political act"; I have quoted the words that he used.

If that is true, it is an extremely serious charge. It is a charge that the Prime Minister is guilty of a war crime. If it is true, it perhaps puts the sinking of the Belgrano on a par with the sinking of the Lusitania in the first world war. My hon. Friend makes that accusation conscientiously and honestly. He has assembled a great deal of information which he regards as conclusive evidence for his claim. He has provided us with a tour de force of the various aspects of the events leading up to and occurring during the Falklands war. Nevertheless, I am not clear that they support the serious accusation that he has made that the sinking of the Belgrano was a political act. In spite of all that we have heard this evening, that claim has not been substantiated, though I am aware of the honesty and hard work that have gone into my hon. Friend's speech.

On the other hand, the Government have claimed from the start, for example in the statement made on 4 May 1982 by the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for St. Ives (Sir J. Nott), that the sinking of the Belgrano was a military necessity. That follows from all that is set out in columns 29 and 30 of the Official Report for that day. The right hon. Gentleman claims that the General Belgrano, although outside the exclusion zone—which was admitted from the start— was closing on elements of our task force, which was only hours away … We knew that the cruiser itself has substantial fire power … and Seacat anti-aircraft missiles. Together with its escorting destroyers which we believe were equipped with Exocet anti-ship missiles with a range of more than 20 miles, the threat to the task force was such that the task force commander could ignore it only at his peril."—[Official Report, 4 May 1982; Vol. 23, c. 30.] Therefore, the Government claimed both on 4 May 1982 and, in a sense, in the Franks report in paragraph 110, where the sinking of the Belgrano is described in the description of the moves from South Georgia to San Carlos, that their action was a military necessity. However, in view of the serious nature of my hon. Friend's charge, perhaps there has to be a departure from the principle of "innocent until proved guilty." Perhaps the Government should say more to justify their claim that the sinking of the Belgrano was a military necessity.

10.57 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jerry Wiggin)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) for her brief intervention. I am concerned that she should say from the Front Bench things that are based on no greater evidence that the words of her hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), whose arguments I seek and hope to demolish.

The hon. Gentleman has regaled the House again with his personal version of just about everything to do with the whole Falklands conflict. Like all good tales, his acquires fresh embellishments each time it is told. I know that the hon. Gentleman is well educated. He went to the best of all possible schools, as I did. His quotation from Shakespeare in relation to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was not worthy of him. I hope that he will think with care about whether he owes her an apology.

The hon. Gentleman is well educated enough to have heard of the worthy Baron von Munchhausen, a gentleman of the eighteenth century, of whom his biographer says: and of his adventures among the Turks, he told the most extravagant stories, till his fancy so completely got the better of his memory that he believed his own extravagant fictions. One of the hon. Gentleman's endearing characteristics —though some of my long-suffering right hon. and hon. Friends might resort to a less kindly epithet—is the way in which, through thick and thin, he manages to pursue his pet theories long past the point at which anyone else would have realised that he might have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

The hon. Gentleman's modus operandi puts me in mind of that well known brigand from Greek mythology, Procrustes. Travellers unlucky enough to run into him were forced to lie in his bed: if their legs were too long he chopped them off; and if they were too short they were stretched until their feet reached the bedposts. The hon. Gentleman's obsessions are like Procrustes' bed, and facts the travellers: if they fail to fit, they are either ignored or misinterpreted. At all accounts, they must be made to fit the theory. In the end, Procrustes got his comeuppance.

The hon. Gentleman is made of sterner stuff. Not content with asking 60 or so questions about the sinking of the Belgrano, he made a lengthy intervention on the subject in last December's debate on the Falklands White Paper. He has written a book. And now he has once again returned to the charge and treated us to his idiosyncratic reconstruction of the sequence of events. I see no option but, once again, to take him through the explanation already given him.

Before I do so, I should like first to say a few words about the treatment of security and intelligence matters in the press and in this House. This area has been the source of more ill-found rumour and unprincipled speculation than almost any other. Take, for example, the series of imaginative allegations about prior warning of the Falklands invasion which have been made, and which I am glad to say the Franks report has completely scotched. I commend the hon. Gentleman to annex A of that report: it makes sobering reading for anyone who, like himself, is concerned to stir the pot of rumour and speculation without access to the facts and to chase any hare raised by the press so long as he sees political advantage in doing so.

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that it is not the custom of this House to go into detail about intelligence sources or organisations. There are very good reasons for that which have nothing to do with bureaucratic reticence. It must be obvious to anyone who gives the matter a little thought that if we reveal how much we gain from intelligence, let alone how we gained it, that would represent an immense advantage to our adversaries in their ability to thwart our methods of collection, to misinform us deliberately, and to exploit to the full those areas in their plans and capabilities with which they could judge we were not already conversant. There could hardly be a surer way of undermining the effectiveness of our armed forces and of succouring the Queen's enemies than by broadcasting the extent of our intelligence knowledge. I make no apology, therefore, for declining to enter into discussion about what we did or did not know about the Argentine military dispositions and capabilities or why we are not prepared to reveal certain facts.

Intelligence played a vital part in the Falklands conflict. It was a well-conducted operation with a fruitful two-way exchange between our headquarters and the task force. It was an essential element enabling both Ministers and military commanders to reach decisions. It most certainly saved British lives. We would do well to reflect on that fact. I know of no better justification for maintaining the secrecy which is the prerequisite for effective intelligence. We have a highly professional intelligence organisation which did a first-class job in the conflict.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House on 25 January, opening the debate on the Franks report, We have to remember that anything we say on this subject is certain to be studied very closely by foreign Governments. We have therefore to be sure that nothing we say makes the tasks of our own security and intelligence people harder, or those of our adversaries easier."—[Official Report, 25 January 1983; Vol. 35, c. 805.] That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces have already made it clear that, in the public interest, they are not prepared to discuss the intelligence aspects of the Belgrano affair. The hon. Gentleman must not expect me to do otherwise just because he wishes to air his latest theory. It is no good his pouting. He knows the convention, and he knows, too, for all his protestation, that it would be wrong for me to depart from it.

The hon. Gentleman is convinced that the decision to torpedo the General Belgrano was taken deliberately to undercut moves to bring about a peaceful end to the crisis precipitated by the Argentine invasion of the Falklands. The initial act of aggression was theirs, not ours, although anyone reviewing the hon. Gentleman's stream of criticisms over the past months might be forgiven for thinking that he felt that it was us and not Argentina who made the first move. As I have said, there is no truth in the hon. Gentleman's assertions, and I shall therefore once again take him through the facts.

Our task force was operating with limited air cover thousands of miles from home. Although less powerful than the Royal Navy, the Argentine navy was still a force with which to be reckoned. It had the support of land-based aircraft. It undeniably had the potential to inflict serious losses. On 2 May there were signs that our ships and men were threatened by a pincer attack involving the cruiser General Belgrano and her escorts to the south and other Argentine warships to the north, among them the carrier 25 De Mayo.

The hon. Gentleman may speculate as much as he likes. All I shall say is that on 2 May there were signs that an attack was to be expected. The military appreciation was that the threat was serious. The Belgrano group was operating close to the total exclusion zone around the Falklands. The rules of engagement approved by Ministers prior to 2 May did not permit an attack outside the total exclusion zone. The task force commander, worried that HMS Conqueror might be unable to follow Belgrano over the shallow waters of the Burdwood bank, sought a change to the rules of engagement to permit an attack outside the zone. In view of the threat to the task force, this was agreed.

The Argentine Government had been warned on 23 April that any approach on the part of Argentine warships, including submarines, naval auxiliaries or military aircraft which could amount to a threat to interfere with the mission of British forces in the south Atlantic will encounter the appropriate response". Establishment of the zone did not give the Argentines licence to operate freely outside it if in so doing they threatened British forces; and they can have been in no doubt of this.

The loss of life resulting from the torpedoing was indeed tragic, as was all loss of life, Argentine as well as British. But the tragedy stemmed directly from Argentina's unprovoked aggression in seizing British territory by force of arms. The opportunity to withdraw under a peaceful settlement before the task force reached the area was not taken. The Argentine Government must bear that heavy responsibility. I assure the House that the military situation thoroughly justified the attack on the cruiser General Belgrano. We have nothing of which to be ashamed.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to accept—much as it may go against the grain—that he is, not for the first time, utterly wrong.

Mr. Dalyell


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. The Minister has sat down.