Commons pledge on use of force against island invaders (1982)

Britain’s massive navy task force was in 1982 preparing to go on a full war footing, fresh from its first contact with the Argentinian “enemy” and with Government sanction to go into action even while peace talks were ongoing, reported the News Letter.

By Darryl Armitage
Friday, 29th April 2022, 10:00 am

The fleet, which was expected to be at war readiness by Saturday, April 23, 1982, when it was due to come within strike range of Argentinian aircraft, had had its first eyeball confrontation with the invaders.

An unarmed Argentinian surveillance plane had flown over the carrier HMS Hermes and was intercepted by a Sea Harrier jump jet, which locked deadly Sidewinder missiles on the “spy” – but had orders not to shoot.

The meeting, which was reported to have been “only wing-tips away at 35,000ft”, came as British Foreign Secretary Francis Pym prepared to fly to Washington in the latest stage of the peace process.

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File photo dated 21/05/1982 of steel helmets abandoned by Argentine armed forces who surrendered at Goose Green to British Falklands Task Force troops. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Sunday March 18, 2012. Thirty years ago the Falkland Islands suddenly went from being a forgotten corner of what remained of the British Empire to a dramatic test of the UK's global power status. The remote group of boggy, windswept islands in the South Atlantic, whose 1,800 human inhabitants were vastly outnumbered by sheep, became a battleground between the ambitions of Argentina's military junta and the steely determination of Margaret Thatcher. Simmering diplomatic tensions over the ownership of the Falklands boiled over in the spring of 1982 and Argentine forces invaded the islands they call the Malvinas. In response, Britain launched its biggest naval operation since the Second World War, sending a task force of 27,000 personnel and more than 100 ships to retake the territory. Lasting just 74 days, the Falklands War

But he was setting out for the talks after telling the Commons categorically that he could not rule out the use of force, even while the peace initiative was in train.

His statement – the first time that Britain’s stance had been put so specifically – came amid reports that a section of the taskforce had peeled off from the main convoy and was heading for South Georgia.

The Defence Ministry also reported that an Argentinian naval transport ship trapped in Port Stanley was being treated as hostile and could be liable to attack by British submarines.

Mr Pym, who was to fly to Washington with Britain’s counter-proposals for a settlement, had to correct himself after initially telling the Commons that he would exclude the use of force as long as negotiations were “in play”.

File photo dated 15/06/1982 of Argentinian prisoners of war at Port Stanley in the Falklands. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Sunday March 18, 2012. Thirty years ago the Falkland Islands suddenly went from being a forgotten corner of what remained of the British Empire to a dramatic test of the UK's global power status. The remote group of boggy, windswept islands in the South Atlantic, whose 1,800 human inhabitants were vastly outnumbered by sheep, became a battleground between the ambitions of Argentina's military junta and the steely determination of Margaret Thatcher. Simmering diplomatic tensions over the ownership of the Falklands boiled over in the spring of 1982 and Argentine forces invaded the islands they call the Malvinas. In response, Britain launched its biggest naval operation since the Second World War, sending a task force of 27,000 personnel and more than 100 ships to retake the territory. Lasting just 74 days, the Falklands War claimed the lives of more than 900 people. See PA story H

He returned 20 minutes later saying he might have given the wrong impression and that the use of force “could not at any stage be ruled out”.

While the mistake was being portrayed later as a slip-of-the-tongue, some MPs were astounded that the Foreign Secretary could have made an error of this magnitude.

His retraction only came after journalists questioned officials about what appeared to be a new policy.

Britain’s peace plan had been telegraphed to Washington so that US Secretary of State Alexander Haig could study it before Mr Pym arrived in Washington.

File photo dated 12/04/1982 of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher greeting United States Secretary of State Alexander Haig when he arrived at 10 Downing Street for talks on the Falklands crisis. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Sunday March 18, 2012. Thirty years ago the Falkland Islands suddenly went from being a forgotten corner of what remained of the British Empire to a dramatic test of the UK's global power status. The remote group of boggy, windswept islands in the South Atlantic, whose 1,800 human inhabitants were vastly outnumbered by sheep, became a battleground between the ambitions of Argentina's military junta and the steely determination of Margaret Thatcher. Simmering diplomatic tensions over the ownership of the Falklands boiled over in the spring of 1982 and Argentine forces invaded the islands they call the Malvinas. In response, Britain launched its biggest naval operation since the Second World War, sending a task force of 27,000 personnel and more than 100 ships to retake the territory