Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Secret task force sent to defend Falklands in 1977

Details of how a mini-Royal Navy task force was secretly despatched to the Falklands to defend the islands from Argentinian attack are revealed in documents made public for the first time yesterday.

The tiny flotilla, led by the nuclear-powered hunter killer submarine HMS Dreadnought and accompanied by a pair of frigates and two support vessels, was credited with deterring a full scale invasion in 1977.

The then Foreign Secretary David (now Lord) Owen later claimed that if Margaret Thatcher’s government had taken similarly robust action, the Argentinians would not have invaded five years later in 1982.

James Callaghan’s Labour government ordered Operation Journeyman, as it was codenamed, after a party of 50 Argentine “scientists" landed on the island of South Thule prompting fears of a wider attack.

The papers, released to the National Archives, show Owen had insisted the mission was conducted in intense secrecy, with not even the crews being told where they going.
“There is no need for anyone to know the destination of the frigates. They should be sent on exercise in the Atlantic," he said. “Only at sea need they know they are going south, even then I cannot see why anyone, other than the captain, should be told their purpose."

While the Argentinian government was privately warned by the British that there was a nuclear submarine in the area, the rest of the world was unaware of what was going on.

The papers show a high degree of nervousness within Whitehall over the operation - not least about the legality of what they were doing. Ministers wanted to be able to declare an “exclusion zone" around the islands - as was done in 1982 - but the suggestion was met with concern among officials. A handwritten note by one warned it could be “politically escalatory, probably illegal and could set an unwelcome precedent" as well as possibly requiring British ships to fire the first shot. The “problem" with this, he warned, was that it would be “dependent on intelligence" that an actual Argentine invasion force was approaching the islands. He suggested they could get round some of the difficulties by not calling it an “exclusion zone" and not making it public, with the Argentinians being told only when they were informed about the presence of the submarine.

In the event, the issue was “deliberately fudged" while the Attorney General Sam Silkin was only asked for his advice on the legality of the operation after the ships had sailed.

The concerns were such that HMS Dreadnought was told in its rules of engagement that if it was attacked by Argentine anti-submarine weapons it should “surface or withdraw at high speed submerged, whichever will be of least risk to life".

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