On 2 May 1982 the Argentine cruiser ‘General Belgrano’ was sunk by a British submarine. Despite the huge loss of life, the action was applauded in Britain as a shrewd blow in the Falklands conflict; but as the facts began to emerge, disturbing doubts concerning the role of the British government in the incident were raised.
For although it was claimed, at first, that the submarine commander had been acting on his own initiative in firing his torpedoes, it later transpired that the action had been authorized beforehand by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
On 2 April 1982 Argentine forces landed on the Falkland Islands and sparked off the conflict with Britain over the disputed sovereignty of the territory. Britain reacted to the invasion by dispatching a large Task Force to the South Atlantic and on 1 May a Vulcan bomber made the first assault on Argentine positions by bombing the runway of Port Stanley’s airport.
Argentine soldiers patrol the area around Port Stanley the islands largest settlement
Ever since the Argentines had invaded the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982 war had been possible. As the huge British Task Force had lumbered southwards through the Atlantic, the US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, appointed as mediator in the dispute, had been conducting peace negotiations in Washington, Buenos Aires and London, but despite all his efforts the two sides had failed to reach any agreement. By the end of the month the Task Force was in striking distance of the Falklands and on Saturday 1 May it struck: at 4.23am local time, a Vulcan bomber, flying all the way from Ascension Island bombed the runway at Port Stanley, the only sizeable village on the islands; later that day ships from the Task Force approached the shore and shelled Argentine positions and the first troops were put ashore by helicopter. The war it seemed had begun in earnest and yet even at this late stage moves towards a peace settlement were in progress.
Airport hanger engulfed in flames following the bombers raid.
The legend across the flag – a replica of Britain’s Union Jack – reads dirty Pirates’
Shortly after midnight, on 3 May, news of a fresh peace initiative reached London “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,” read the Reuter’s news agency report from Lima. ‘He was speaking at a Press conference here on efforts to end the fighting between Britain and Argentina over the disputed Falkland Islands.’
This was promising news indeed; however, at 1.10am a Downing Street Press Officer issued a statement denying that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher knew anything of any Peruvian peace plan. And at 1.58am, just an hour and a half after the first news of impending peace from Lima, came another, far more sensational Reuter’s report ‘A British submarine torpedoed the Argentine cruiser ‘General Belgrano’ in the South Atlantic last night….’ Throughout the day, further news of the incident emerged. According to the Ministry of Defence, the submarine commander had taken action under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter which allows any country to defend itself and its territory. The commander had acted on his own initiative, it seemed, and the cruiser had been sunk with huge loss of life. There would be no last-minute peace settlement now.
The House of Commons assembled after the Bank Holiday Monday, on Tuesday 4 May. At once Defence Minister John Nott rose to give this statement on the sinking of the General Belgrano: “This heavily armed surface attack group was close to the total exclusion zone and was closing in on elements of our task Force which was only hours away. We knew that the cruiser itself has substantial fire power, provided by 15-inch (38 centimetre) guns with a range of 13 miles (21 kilometres), 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 (30 kilometres), the threat to the Task Force was such, that the Task Force commander could ignore it only at his Peril.” This important statement made not in haste but some forty hours after the sinking, gave the clear impression of a dangerous move by a heavily-armed group of ships that was approaching the Task Force and was only hours away from it.
The most disturbing aspect of the news was that the Belgrano had been sunk outside the 200-mile (320-kilometre) ‘total exclusion zone’ – this maritime exclusion zone, imposed by the British forces had come into effect on 12 April and Argentina had been warned that any ships or aircraft penetrating the zone would be liable to be attacked. Yet the Belgrano had been some 50 miles (80 kilometres) outside the zone when it was fired upon. Nonetheless, in Parliament on 5 May, John Nott and Margaret Thatcher gave further assurances that the cruiser, although outside the zone had posed a major threat to the Task Force and it had been the clear duty of that force to sink it.
Just six weeks later, the Falklands War had been won by the British with relatively few losses. The sinking g of the Belgrano had been by far the most bloody act of the conflict – the 368 crew members who perished made up more than a third of the war’s total losses – but, in general, the decision to sink the cruiser was applauded in Britain as the first shrewd blow in a famous and swift British victory.
Crowds with Union Jack outside Downing Street celebrating end of the Falklands War in 1982
This view was forcefully put by Commander Christopher Wreford-Brown when his submarine The Conqueror – flying the Jolly Roger in accordance with service custom after sinking an enemy ship – sailed up the Clyde on its return to Faslane base in Scotland on 3 July. The captain told waiting journalists that in his view the sinking of the Belgrano had been entirely justified. Then he went on to insist strongly that he had been ordered to sink the enemy vessel, scotching the idea that he and he alone had decided to fire his torpedoes. ‘I will admit, proudly that it was us who sank the Belgrano,’ The Daily Telegraph reported him as saying. “I was under direct orders from Fleet Headquarters and they were confirmed by me before I went into the attack.’
HMS Conqueror Flying Jolly Roger Flag
On 5 may John Nott had stated: ‘The actual decision to launch a torpedo was clearly one taken by the submarine commander.’ But according to the submarine commander himself, the order had come from Britain. From whom! It was not until 4 October that in a rather curious government statement issued to the news agencies it was ‘confirmed’ that the order to sink the Belgrano had come from the War Cabinet – Margaret Thatcher, John Nott, Deputy Prime Minister William Whitelaw and Chairman of the Conservative party Cecil Parkinson – meeting at the prime ministers’ country residence Chequers on 2 May.
Prime Ministers country residence ‘The Chequers’
What were the reasons behind the War Cabinet’s decision and why had they hitherto concealed their part in the attack? One man determined to find out was MP Tam Dalyell, a formidable campaigner on the labour Opposition benches. An old Etonian who had represented the Scottish seat of Linithgow for twenty years. Dalyell had been one of the few dissidents on the Falklands issue. He had travelled widely in South America and had many friends and political colleagues there. He was a bitter opponent of the fascist regime in Argentina but saw himself as a friend of the Argentine people. He knew that one issue that united them all was their claim to sovereignty of the Falkland Islands – or the Malvinas as the Argentines called them. He had regarded the government’s decision to send a Task Force to repel the Argentine invaders as an act of pure folly and clashed fiercely with the Labour front bench over the issue, losing his position as Shadow Spokesman on Science as a result.
As the new Parliamentary session got underway in late October 1982, Tam Dalyell started asking questions about the Falklands conflict in general and about the sinking of the General Belgrano in particular. He had been approached by a member of the crew of the Conquerer who had furnished him with vital and disturbing information about the submarine’s position and course at the time of the engagement and in November, acting on this information, Dalyell asked the Ministry of Defence what the course of the Belgrano had been when it was sunk. Spokesman Peter Blaker replied: “When it was torpedoed, the Belgrano was sailing a course of 280 degrees.’ This meant that the cruiser was not, as John Nott had asserted in the House of Commons the previous May, ‘closing on’ the Task Force. She was sailing away from it in exactly the opposite direction.
In one short sentence Mr Blaker seemed to have demolished the original explanation for sinking the Belgrano. If the ship was not ‘closing on’ the Task Force but sailing away from it, how could it have possibly posed a threat! In firing on the cruiser: ‘Concerned that HMS Conquerer might lose the General Belgrano as she ran over the shallow water of the Burdwood Bank, the Task Force commander sought and obtained a change in the rules of engagement to allow an attack outside the 200-mile exclusion zone.’
The last movements of the General Belgrano appeared in a photograph taken by a crew member from a real life raft
The then Admiral Sir Terence Lewin
Defence Minister John Nott and Admiral Sir Terence Lewin were quizzed at a press conference about the movements and actions of the British Task Force. Nott’s assertion, made in the House of Commons on 4 May, that the General Belgrano’s ‘threat to the Task Force was such that the Task Force commander could ignore it only at his peril’ would soon turn out to be far from the truth
The Sun newspaper celebrates the death of General Belgrano with jingoistic glee.
‘One thing that twenty years in the House of Commons develops in a man is the instinct to sense when one is being told something that is not quite right.’ Dalyell later wrote. He started making inquiries about the Burdwood bank and discovered that these shoals, which lie south-south-west of the Falklands, were very well surveyed. At its shallowest, the bank is 25 fathoms (150 feet/45metres) below the surface of the sea; most of it is much deeper than that – 540 to 600 feet (165 – 180 metres). The draft of the nuclear submarine Conqueror, when fully submerged, is 55 feet (16.7 metres) and it was specifically designed to operate with all its equipment in the shallow waters of the Baltic. If the Argentine cruiser had sailed over the Burdwood bank, the shallow waters would not for a moment have hindered the ability of the submarine to pursue it.
The southernmost small dotted area is Burdwood Bank.
The revised explanation for the sinking of the Belgrano then seemed less than satisfactory. Suspecting that the Burdwood bank had been thrown into the debate as a red herring, Dalyell again asked the Ministry of Defence the position of the cruiser when sunk. He was supplied with a precise answer; ‘55 degrees 27 minutes south, 61 degrees 25 minutes west.’ But this meant that, when fired upon, the Belgrano was far to the south-west of the Burdwood Bank and steaming on a course that would have missed it by nearly 100 miles (160 kilometres). As Dalyell commented in a powerful speech on 21 December, it appeared that the government and the military were thinking up new excuses for the sinking as they went along. Or, as the New Statesman was to put it: ‘The official story has been constantly changing which is usually a sign that an account of events is being manufactured after the event to meet political requirements.’
The changing story had done little to arouse public concern, however; the picture that had emerged by the end of 1982 was one of a British submarine suddenly encountering an enemy vessel and of the commanders – both of the Task Force and the War Cabinet – deciding to take no chances as to the danger it threatened. The conflict had just begun, nerves were on edge, and there, suddenly, was an enemy ship. If you are involved in war, you have to defend yourself. This theory depended, of course, on the suddenness of the Conqueror’s discovery of the Belgrano. Every reaction of the government and the military at the time had indicated that the General Belgrano had been sighted only a short time before it was sunk. On 4 May John Nott had stated: ‘The next day, 2 May, at 8pm London time, one of our submarines detected the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano…..’
Only minutes later the cruiser had been sunk. Then in November, the government published a White Paper, The Falklands Campaign: The Lessons. Paragraph 110 of the paper stated: ‘On 2 May HMS Conqueror detected the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano.’ But on 6 December Tam Dalyell asked the Ministry of Defence. ‘At what time was contact with the General Belgranofirst made by one of Her Majesty’s submarines?’ and back came the reply, from Peter Blaker. “It would not be in the public interest to give this information.’ The official line was changing again. In May and November the story was that the cruiser had been detected at 8pm on 2 May. But now, in December, disclosure of the time of contact was judged to be ‘not in the public interest.’ Why?
Already various theories and rumours about the incident were circulating.
The book The Falklands War by the Sunday Times Insight Team, published in November, stated that the submarine had contacted the cruiser a full day before the sinking. Then in May 1983, a West Country journalist, Geoffrey Underwood, published the Our Falklands War. Several months earlier when the Conqueror had berthed in Plymouth Underwood had managed to interview Wreford-Brown and in his book he quoted the submarine’s commander as saying ‘We were asked to look for and find the General Belgrano …We located her on our passive sonar and sighted her visually early on the afternoon of 1 May’ – again the day before the sinking. Wreford-Brown went on: “We took up a position astern and followed the Belgrano for over thirty hours. We reported that we were in contact with her…We had instructions to attack if she went inside the total exclusion zone.’ The order to attack outside the exclusion zone did not come, he disclosed, until the following day, 2 May after the submarine had been following the cruiser for more than thirty ours.
This did terrible damage to the government’s original explanation. For if the cruiser was a threat to the Task Force, it was a threat when first sighted and should have been sunk at once. If it was not a threat then, when guns were blazing and bombs were dropping all around Port Stanley, how could it have been a threat thirty hours later after it had sailed away from the Task Force? The official view stated by Nott immediately after the attack and held to by government and military chiefs, seemed at best unlikely, at worst quite wrong. With suspicions aroused, those who doubted the government’s frankness began to examine the events preceding the sinking in greater detail.
Almost all of Argentina’s leading political figures in 1982 have since admitted that they were astonished by the British response to the seizure of the Falklands Islands. They had been led to expect that the British would huff and puff but would never go to war for a handful of people 8000 miles (13,000 kilometres) away. They watched the British armada as it made its way south with mounting apprehension yet they were stuck with the decision they had made. The ruling junta was hated throughout the entire middle and working class of Argentina. Its economic policy was in ruins; its reign of terror had not worked. The Falklands escapade was a desperate attempt to curry popularity and unite the nations behind the dictatorship. To abandon the islands without a shot being fired or a concession being agreed would have humiliated the junta beyond the point where it could survive. Yet all the offers of a peace settlement put to the Argentines by the American Secretary of State Alexander Haig demanded immediate withdrawal of forces from the islands without anything apparently to show for it.
The divisions and demoralisations within the junta increased as the British Task Force grew closer, and the bombardment around Port Stanley on the morning of 1 May created panic. Although the bombardment had caused little damage and the Argentine forces were still capable of defending the islands, the start of a shooting war against an enemy incomparably better trained and better equipped – and an enemy supported by most of the western world including the United States – removed any of the junta’s earlier inhibitions about a settlement.
The immediate, reflex reaction of the hard-liners in the Argentine military, however, was to meet force with force. In their book The Sinking of the Belgrano, published in 1984, authors Arthur Gavshon and Desmond Rice provide a detailed account of events on the afternoon and night of 1 may and report that at 3.55pm local time, the Argentine aircraft carrier Veinticinco de Mayoreceived orders from Vice-Admiral Walter Allara, the Argentine Fleet Commander, to move towards the Task Force and engage it in action. This confirmed by the findings of Dr Robert Scheina, an American academic specializing in naval operations who, in May 1983, wrote a paper on the Falklands War for the US Naval Institute proceedings. The information in Scheina’s paper was based on extensive interviews with the Argentine high command and he managed to describe the Argentine fleet movements in minute details.
Scheina confirmed that on the afternoon of 1 May, not just the Veinticinco de Mayo but all the Argentine warships stationed north of the Falklands moved at top speed towards the Task Force to engage it. But, Scheina goes on to state these movements definitely did not involve the Belgrano; the mission of the Belgrano group was twofold: ‘They were to provide an early warning for the southern mainland and to be in a position to intercept any British reinforcements which might come from the pacific. While on station, the cruiser plied back and forth between Isla do Los Estados and Burdwood bank. Her operating area was outside the 200-mile total exclusion zone.
The Belgrano, then, sighted by the Conqueror early on Saturday afternoon 1 May, was never part of any intended attack on the Task Force but was simply working its way back and forth along a line well south and west of the Falkland Islands to head off any British ships that might come the other way – from the Pacific. Nor, realistically, could the Belgrano be thought to have been forming part of a ‘pincer movement’ with the Veinticinco de Mayo, as Rear Admiral Sir John ‘Sandy’ Woodward, the Task Force commander, and various British ministers have speculated. As the captain of the Belgrano, Hector Elias Bonzo said later, it would have been a pretty odd sort of pincer movement with the prongs 350 miles (560 kilometres) apart. The General Belgrano, it seems, had specific orders to patrol a defense line, and that is exactly what she did.
Meanwhile on the Argentine mainland, there were strong moves for disengagement of hostilities to avoid an all-out war. At a meeting of divisional and brigade generals in the afternoon of 1 May, it was recommended that Argentina return to the negotiating table in an attempt to avert war. And at 8.30pm, report Gavshon and Rice, there was a top-level meeting at which at least two of the three-man junta were present. General Jose Vaquero, chief of the army staff, summed up the mood of the short meeting: “No queremos Guerra abierta’ – We don’t want open war.
At once, orders went out to the Argentine fleet to withdraw. The most important orders, of course, were to the northern groups where the Veinticinco de Mayo could get its Skyhawks into the air because of the light wind and the darkness. But the order went out also to the Belgranoto head for home.
Robert Scheina agrees with this general view, though he says the orders to withdraw were issued later, in the early hours of 2 May, Rear-Admiral Juan Jose Lombardo, Argentine Naval Commander South Atlantic, appearing on BBC television’s Panorama in 1984 confirmed that orders to withdraw were issued, giving times a little later than Gavshon and Rice’s and a little earlier than Scheina’s. But whatever time the orders were given, the experts agree that signals to withdraw, sent out in code had reached the Belgrano by first light on 2 May.
Consider then the feelings of the leader of the Argentine junta, General Leopoldo Galtieri, at around midnight on that May Day. His short-lived triumph was over; his fleet was withdrawing. His problem, which he contemplated morosely as the night went on and as he helped himself to more and more of his beloved ‘Etiqueta’ whisky, was how to escape catastrophe. At about 1.30am on 2 May, the telephone rang. At the other end of the line was Dr Fernando Belaunde Terry, President of Peru. He offered a lifeline that Galtieri eagerly grasped.
The news that fighting had broken out over the Falkland Islands had caused consternation in the Torre Tagli, the ancient Foreign Office in Peru’s capital Lima. The Peruvian Foreign Service is recognized as being the most able and the best-trained in South America. It has a tradition for peace making between belligerent parties. The civil servants there persuaded the Foreign Secretary, Dr Javier Arias Stella, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Pathologists in London to intervene, in the Falklands crisis, Peru, his staff reminded him, had a long history of close association with the Argentine and good contacts in Embassies in the United States and Europe. Dr Arias Stella had urgent talks with President Belaunde Terry and the two men decided to act. Dr Arias Stella rang the American Embassy and offered the whole diplomatic service of his country in the cause of peace, Belaunde Terry, meanwhile, put through a call to President Ronald Reagan in Washington.
Reagan was out of town and so the call was re-routed to the home of Alexander Haig who had conducted the unsuccessful negotiations between Britain and Argentina over the past four weeks. Haig leapt at the Peruvian initiative. He and Belaunde spent many hours on the phone that evening, talking as Haig later testified, on ‘an open telephone line’. They both agreed that they must find a version of peace plans that might be acceptable to both sides.
The key to the dispute was, of course, sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, which neither side was prepared to concede. Very well, suggested Belaunde Terry, why not leave the matter of sovereignty undecided for the moment and accept that both sides had conflicting claims’ to the islands? Would not such a formula at least allow a cease fire and withdrawal pending further discussions?
The other main problem, said Haig, concerned the fiercely patriotic islanders, Britain could hardly be expected to accept any settlement that did not take their feelings and their future into account. Another clause in any immediate peace treaty would have to deal with ‘the points of view and interests of the islanders’.
By such discussions and concessions, Belaunde and Haig hammered out a new peace plan. It included terms for an immediate cease fire, withdrawal of the entire Argentine army from the Falklands and withdrawal of the British Task Force from the area.
The new plan was a sensible and sensitive one. It gave tiny concessions to both sides without wounding the pride of either. It sought to stop the hostilities and bloodshed at once and to solve the problem of the administration of the Falkland Islands once and for all.
As he spoke to Alexander Haig in Washington, Belaunde was not alone in the presidential palace; with him were Dr Arias Stella and Mr Manuel Ulloa Elias, the then prime minister and by far the most able politician in Peru’s ruling conservative party. Ulloa also spoke to Haig and refined some of the points in the treaty.
Soon after midnight, Belaunde phoned Galtieri with his plan. Galtieri, according to the Peruvians, was extremely friendly, enthusiastic and optimistic. He quarreled with the odd word in the proposed treaty but the matters in dispute, he was sure, could be dealt with in the morning. On three of the four sides of the square, 1 May ended full in hope: in Washington, Lima and Buenos Aires, there was every expectation that a peace agreement could be reached.
Argentine Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez and the president Leopold Galtieri were ready to accept the Peruvian peace proposals – but unknown to them any hopes of peace had already been sunk with the loss of the Belgrano
But what was the British attitude? The only open sign that came from the British was Foreign Secretary Francis Pym who flew to Washington on 1 May arriving early in the evening. At once Pym gave a press conference to waiting journalists who found him, as they reported in the next day’s papers, ‘in ebullient mood.’ Why had he come? To see if there was a final chance of peace by negotiation, Pym stated. What chance was there of that following the recent bombardment of the Falklands, he was asked. Every chance replied Pym. The bombardment had been carried out in order to ‘concentrate the minds’ of the Argentines on reaching a settlement (in which, as we have seen, it was extremely successful). He went on: No further military action is envisaged for the moment, other than to make the exclusion zone secure.
For the journalists at the press conference – as, indeed for everyone who read them, Pym’s words could have only one meaning. As the Daily Mail correspondent reported on 3 May: ‘It was clear that the British fleet would not fire unless provoked by and Argentine attempt to breach the 200-mile exclusion zone.’
When Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, Chief of Staff of the British armed forces, and his other senior officers arrived early in the morning of Sunday 2 May at their command centre at Northwood, Middlesex, what did they know of the seemingly successful peace discussions of the previous evening? Nothing, they reply, Lord Lewin, as he now is, has consistently asserted that he had no idea of any of the dramatic events in Buenos Aires, Lima or Washington on 1 May. Yet in December 1983, a year and a half later, Tam Dalywell heard from what he claims in an impeccable source that the British government’s crack signals intelligence unit at Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) at Cheltenham had picked up the orders to the Argentine ships to withdraw and had decoded them in two minutes. (In April 1984 MP Denzil Davies attempted to confirm this story with a written question to Mrs Thatcher. He was told that information gathered during the conflict regarding the movement of the Argentine fleet was classified ‘in the interests of national security’.) GCHQ, Dalywell was assured, had also intercepted the discussions between Balaunde and Haig on that ‘open telephone line’ and passed the received information on to the chiefs of staff.
Whether they had received news of the fresh peace initiative or not, by midday Sir Terence and his armed service chiefs were bowling along to Chequers where the prime minister was presiding over the War Cabinet. The military had a simple request; the Task Force had, they told Mrs Thatcher, John Nott, William Whitelaw and Cecil Parkinson, sighted an Argentine cruiser the General Belgrano and although the vessel was outside the total exclusion zone, it might pose a threat to the Task Foce, Lewin later stated ‘ It didn’t matter what direction the Belgranowas going. She might just have been wasting time so as to be able to attack the Task Force at night. Critics who say she was steaming for home have no idea what they are talking about. I went straight to Chequers and called the War Cabinet into a side room and told them the situation. I said we could not wait. Here was an opportunity to knock off a major unit of the Argentine fleet.’
So the service chiefs asked for permission to alter the rules of engagement and sink the enemy cruiser outside the total exclusion zone. It was a request the prime minister and her War Cabinet colleagues, given the information that the Belgrano posed a major threat to the Task Force, could hardly refuse. The War Cabinet’s unanimous decision was arrived at in a matter of seconds and the chiefs of staff hurried on their way back to Northwood.
The War Cabinet had agreed to the chief of staffs’ request at 1pm yet the General Belgrano was not attacked until seven hours later. If, as the chiefs of staff had reported to Thatcher, Nott and the others, the cruiser posed a threat to the Task Force, why was it not sunk at the earliest available opportunity? There was no problem with communications; Lord Lewin has said publicly that Northwood was in direct and almost instant communication with the Conqueror. Yet a member of the crew of the Conquerer has said that the order to fire did not come until just over an hour before the sinking. Why, if the cruiser was such a threat and the Cabinet had given permission, to sink it did the chiefs of staff wait at least six hours before relaying the attack orders to the submarine?
During those six hours the peace negotiations rushed along without faltering to what seemed like almost the perfect conclusion. At 1pm London time, as Mrs Thatcher was authorizing the sinking at Chequers, it was 8am in Washington and Francis Pym and Alexander Haig were just getting up. At 10am the two men met for three hours of talks and then they had lunch.
Meanwhile President Belaunde was pursuing his initiative in Lima. He had to attend a ceremonial parade for an hour and a half in the morning but for the rest of the time he kept the telephone lines to Washington and to Buenos Aires buzzing.
Galtieri and his advisers had decided that they did not like the expression ‘points of view and interests’ of the islanders in the Belaunde-Hague initiative. The wording was changed, therefore, to ‘needs and aspirations’. There were lengthy arguments about which four countries would be appointed to administer the islands. Galtieri rejected the idea that the United States should be in the group since America had come out in support of Britain over the original conflict. He suggested Canada instead, Venezuela was chosen as a second country, West Germany a third and the fourth was left open.
During the morning a draft treaty was drawn up by foreign office officials in Lima; its clauses kept being erased and amended as the day wore on. ‘We really thought peace was at hand.’ To the Peruvians, the two belligerent parties appeared to be negotiating with enthusiasm and purpose at only one remove. Belaunde and Mr Manuel Ulloa Elias, the Peruvian prime minister, were acting, in effect, as agents for Galtieri and the junta while Haig was ‘acting for’ Pym who was in the same room for most of those vital six hours. At one time Ulloa remembers telling Haig not to allow the British to do anything rash that might break what he called (and what most parties now accepted) was a defacto truce’. Haig replied that he would do his best.
At midday General Galtieri told Belaunde that he and his co-members of the junta accepted the seven points of the peace plan. The three of them, he said, would recommend the terms to the council of generals that was meeting at 5pm that afternoon. Success at the meeting, he said, was a formality; indeed, the feeling for peace in Buenos Aires at this stage was even stronger among the second rank officers than it was in the junta itself.
The meeting, Galtieri supposed would take about two hours and after that he could instruct his ambassador in Lima to initial a temporary treaty while he announced a cease fire.
Although many of the civil servants involved in Lima remained skeptical, feeling that Britain showed few signs of accepting any peace proposals, the Peruvian politicians themselves were confident of success. President Belaunde calculated that a ‘paving’ peace treaty could be signed in his own palace at about 7pm Lima time (9pm Buenos Aires time). He ordered the preparation of the Peace Room, where peace between Honduras and San Salvador had been signed the previous year, and shortly before 5pm, a beaming Belaunde, flanked by Ulloa and Arias Stella threw a press conference in the presidential palace.
The language Belaunde used in his opening statement showed just how sure he was that the proposals would bring peace: ‘Before the journalists’ first question about this proposal may I say that it’s an instrument by which there would be an immediate end to hostilities. The document is not a capitulation for either party, I think it has the merit of being a testament of victory for both sides…The proposal which Peru has put forward with the firm support of the US government is to get peace very quickly, if possible tonight…’ Belaunde’s confidence in the peace proposal was shared by Alexander Haig and the Argentinians. In Buenos Aires the politicians united the generals in their hopes; at 1pm the Argentine Foreign Minister told reporters: ‘We’re on the brink of an agreement. The difference is about a single word.’ Alexander Haig confirmed that a satisfactory treaty was near completion when he told Panorama on 16 April 1984: ‘We had progressed rather well on the telephone. We were down to words, single words and specifically in two paragraphs….’
Early in the evening of 2 May the Argentine Military Committee held a crucial meeting to discuss the treaty. Paragraph by paragraph the generals analysed the proposal and their mood was sympathetic. Then, shortly after 7pm Admiral Anaya strode into the room with terrible news. The General Belgrano, a long way south of the exclusion zone and heading for home, had been torpedoed. She was sinking. There was heavy loss of life.
Admiral Jorge Anaya
Suddenly there was pandemonium in the room. Many of the officers at the meeting had sons, brothers or other relations on the Belgrano and peace, now was unthinkable. The terms of the treaty were rejected. The war was on. As ‘Argentine rejection of the Belaunde peace proposals was due to the fact that Argentina had been attacked with the torpedoing of the Belgrano at the moment that Peru was trying to find a dignified way out of the contest.’
Francis Pym heard the news of the sinking as he was sitting down to supper with the General Secretary of the United Nations, Perez de Cuellar, in New York. Pym was a member of the War Cabinet and yet, he claims, no one had consulted him about the decision to attack the Belgrano.(He would later undermine this claim by telling an interviewer that although the news of the Belgrano had come as a total surprise, he had been consulted about the change in the rules of engagement. Had he not asked the reason for wanting the rules changed?) His version of the events of 2 May is strikingly different to that given by Haig and the Peruvians. Haig says the discussions had come down to ‘words, single words’; Pym says there was ‘no actual text.’ He insists that his discussions with Haig that day were vague and that nothing like a peace treaty had ever been suggested to him. ‘If the Peruvians had prepared a treaty ready for signature on the evening of 2 May they certainly gave no indication of this in Lima,’ he was to state. Yet at his press conference that afternoon, President Belaunde had told journalists: ‘In the palace we’re in direct contact with Buenos Aires and Washington where Foreign Ministers Pym has spent the whole day in the State Department.’ But why, argues Pym, would he have left Washington for New York that evening if a peace treaty was so near at hand.
General Perez de Cuellar
One answer to this could be that the United Nations would clearly have played a crucial role in the settlement in setting up the four-country control group and monitoring the troop withdrawals. And the UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar, with who Pym was dining, is himself a Peruvian and perhaps the best person in all the United States to assess the proposals of his own country’s political leaders.
Like Francis Pym, the British chiefs of staff and the members of the War Cabinet have all consistently denied knowledge of the Peruvian peace moves prior to the sinking of the Belgrano. On 4 April 1984, in reply to a written question by MP Denzil Davies, Margaret Thatcher stated: ‘The first indications of the possible Peruvian peace proposals reached London from Washington at 11.15pm, London time and from Lima at 2am London time on 3 may.’ The Peruvians, however, find this very surprising. “We understood that Pym and Haig’s contact was so close that whatever Haig accepted was all right with Pym.’ Atias Stella was to say. ‘That is, Pym passed it on at once to London, Pym spoke with the voice of London.’ But London, according to Margaret Thatcher, received no word from Pym in Washington. He sent no messages about the peace proposals because he knew nothing about them. But even so, wouldn’t London have heard about the peace plans from Lima itself?’ President Belaunde, Manuel Ulloa and Arias Stella have all stated that they kept the British Ambassador in Lima, Charles Wallace, fully informed hour by hour and were certain that he was reporting back to London. And yet according to Mrs Thatcher, he made no contact until 2am on 3 May.
It was not six hours after the War Cabinet at Chequers had granted lord Lewin’s request for a change in the rules of engagement in order to sink the Belgrano that Commander Wreford-brown received the order to attack. Why was the order not sent at once? During the six hour delay the old cruiser moved perhaps 70 miles (112 kilometres) further away from the Task Force and then suddenly, without warning she was sunk. The result was to scupper the Peruvian peace plans and so bring on the Falklands War. Why did the War Cabinet not know of these plans? Was there really any justification for sinking the Belgrano – and if so; what? The constantly changing official stories, the conflicting accounts and the air of secrecy can only add to doubts. Many questions remain unanswered ‘in the interests of national security,’ many more have simply been avoided. The truth behind the attack on the General Belgrano has yet to be revealed. And for 360 Argentine sailors the truth no longer matters.
On the first anniversary of the sinking of the General Belgrano, relatives of the dead crew members aboard the argentine ship lago lacar, cast flowers onto the waters of the South Atlantic. The destruction of the Belgrano proved to be by far the bloodiest conflict of the short Falklands war. But if the cruiser had not been sunk, war might have been averted altogether – there might have been no losses on the British ships Sheffield, Atlantic Conveyor, Ardent, Antelope and Coventry