She may have been the Iron Lady with a reputation for ruthlessness, but Margaret Thatcher was also fiercely protective of those she felt a responsibility towards.
During a Christmas visit to Northern Ireland in 1982, one thing left the then-prime minister incensed – the quality of British soldiers’ boots.
According to files released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, Mrs Thatcher was fuming after she received complaints from members of the Coldstream Guards that their overboots were not up to the job.
Mrs Thatcher’s visit to Northern Ireland on December 22 1982 came during a period of volatility during The Troubles.
Five months earlier the July 20 bombings of Hyde Park and Regent’s Park in central London by the IRA claimed the lives of 11 British soldiers.
And on December 6, just weeks before her trip, the Irish National Liberation Army also carried out a bomb attack at the Droppin’ Well pub in Ballykelly, Co Londonderry, killing 11 British soldiers and six civilians.
Top secret files show her visit to the country – codenamed Operation Piston – was intricately planned.
Despite the possible security threats, Mrs Thatcher toured shops and chatted with residents in the seaside town of Bangor in Co Down, before meeting staff and patients injured by the Ballykelly bomb at Musgrave Park Hospital and then visiting the Coldstream Guards at Bessbrook Barracks in Co Armagh.
In a message at the end of the day, Mrs Thatcher spoke of her “wonderful” trip to Bangor, of how the visit to Musgrave reminded her “how very much we owe to the courage and bravery of all of those in the security forces who are trying to eradicate terrorism from our lives”, and of the “marvellous” spirit of the armed services at Bessbrook.
But a letter the following day from her principal private secretary, Robin Butler, to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) revealed that during her visit to the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards she had been told of “a shortage of overboots for troops operating on patrols in the border areas.
“The Prime Minister was told that there was not as many as one pair overboots for each man, and also that the overboots wore out very quickly.
“Mrs Thatcher wondered whether anything could be done about this. She gathers that the present overboots are manufactured in Canada. With unemployment at its present level, she felt that it ought to be possible to arrange for overboots of the type required to be manufactured in the United Kingdom, perhaps in Northern Ireland itself.”
On February 4 1983, the MoD’s Jane Ridley wrote that the complaints over serviceability of the overboots were “rather surprising”.
Not a single complaint of poor durability had been received before the prime minister’s visit, she said, and that “if this were a real problem, reports to this effect would have emerged before now”.
Miss Ridley explained that overboots were only required for patrols, so were not issued to every soldier as part of their personal kit, and that checks led them to be “assured that the boots are quite satisfactory”.
The reply left Mrs Thatcher furious. At the top of the letter she wrote: “Seldom have I received a more unsatisfactory letter. A bureaucratic gem. I will show it to Antony Jay” (co-author of the political comedies Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister).
She added: “Send the letter back. The answer won’t do.”
A second letter from the MoD explained that the overboots were used by soldiers in close observation platoons and were supplied as needed, rather than to every man as part of their personal kit.
The Coldstream Guards had been given a further 38 pairs along with another 248 pairs of a different boot, and the battalion’s end-of-tour report said the overboot “proved its worth and was excellent for keeping feet dry and warm”.
This reply appeared to mollify Mrs Thatcher, but she was still scathing of the MoD, writing on a memo from Mr Butler: “May we have a word? The slackness revealed by this incident is appalling.”