It was tragic and terrifying but it gave Britain back it’s national pride


Falklands War

May 21st, San Carlos Bay. A general landing point for supplies and equipments (Image: PA)

“I’d been walking half the night, and felt almost at the end of my tether,” he recalls ahead of today’s 40th anniversary of the Argentine invasion of the islands. “Suddenly a head popped out of the engine room of the landing craft and a cheery Royal Marine voice said, ‘Ere, you look all in, would you like some bacon and eggs?’ I almost burst into tears.”

For Hastings, then 36, who had managed to bag a place with the British Task Force on behalf of the London Evening Standard, this act of random kindness amid the uncertainty of war was deeply moving.

“What was so wonderful was that we were all so accustomed to ordinary life at home where we’re all competing against each other and jostling on the Tube,” he explains. “And the overriding mood of everybody down there in the South Atlantic was trying to help and support each other. Those were the most delicious bacon and eggs I’d ever eaten.”

He pauses: “I was even more moved a few days later because that landing craft was sunk by Argentine aircraft and its entire crew was lost. But the comradeship was enormously real. It was something I’d never experienced.”

Today aged 76, he is Sir Max Hastings, a bestselling historian and widely regarded as one of the finest foreign correspondents of his generation. He recalls his time in the Falklands as the “greatest adventure” of his life and, in June, will be helping the Royal British Legion mark the anniversary. Its commemorations will honour the service of 30,000 sailors, marines, soldiers, airmen and merchant mariners, and the 255 British personnel who lost their lives before the Argentine surrender of June 14, 1982.

To this day, the campaign remains an incredible feat.

Despite Army misgivings, not least that 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic, the Falklands had little strategic importance, the head of the Royal Navy, Sir Henry Leach, convinced Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher the islands could be retaken.

A task force including aircraft carriers Hermes and Invincible, destroyers, frigates, supply ships and two amphibious landing platforms, Fearless and Intrepid, steamed south. It was joined by the cruise liners Canberra and the QE2, carrying Royal Marines and Paras.

Remarkably, despite devastating setbacks, including the sinking of six ships by Argentine aircraft, and difficult conditions ashore, the land campaign lasted just 24 days. Even the Americans, our closest allies, were not convinced Britain could win a war so far from home.

“I felt an enormous sense of privilege at being a spectator at a time when Britain seemed to have been locked into failure,” says Sir Max.

“We didn’t seem to be able to build a motor car that anyone would buy. We didn’t seem to be able to do anything right. And suddenly in the South Atlantic, we saw British armed forces doing something supremely well.

“At every turn, every day, in the Falklands you were seeing things that were almost unbelievable – the scenes as we yomped across the island and the air attacks at San Carlos Bay. I’d seen plenty of planes shot down but I’d never seen a ship sink before. “

Falklands War

British troops arriving in the Falklands Island (Image: PA)

Max is reluctant to relive the moment when, somewhat controversially, he became the first journalist to walk into Port Stanley on the day of the surrender, much to the chagrin of colleagues in the embedded Press corps.

“It was a journalistic stunt,” he admits. “I’m not ashamed I did it but I think after 40 years we’ve got better things to talk about.” Some of his dispatches were criticised for flying the Union Flag “too overtly”, he admits. “But think of where Britain would have been if we hadn’t won that war. The humiliation, at a time when the morale of the British people was already pretty fragile.

“If you were being completely objective, the Falkland Islands didn’t matter to Britain in the last 20 years of the 20th century. That might be true strategically but, morally, in terms of the self-respect of the British people, the price would have been terrible.

“At that time, I’d already reported a lot of wars but because it wasn’t my country in those other places, I don’t think I’d ever felt quite so emotional. One felt an increasing sense of dogged bloody-mindedness, ‘We’ve got to win this thing’.”

Comments he had made to the politician Kenneth Baker – that the expedition was “madness” – came back to haunt him during the journey south.

“That’s absolutely right and I’ve been teased many times about that,” he laughs. “It’s perfectly true and, I have to say, not unique to me; an awful lot of the Royal Marines and Paras saw the absurdity of going to fight a colonial war in this remote bit of real estate at the other end of the world.”

“But once the shooting started, and people started fighting and dying, I remember very consciously thinking to myself, ‘This is the moment we all stop thinking, is this war a good idea? Is it justified?’

 “There were plenty of times when it looked as if we could lose.”

“At one moment we were watching a ship sink and a young Royal Marine next to me said, ‘Co,r if it goes on like this we’re going to have to get the Yanks down here to help.”

“I always hesitate to use the word adventure because so many people died and for so many people it became a tragedy. But when I meet Royal Marines and Paras from the Falklands, you can’t not use that word – it was a stupendous adventure.”

” Ironically, on the day of the Argentinian invasion, Sir Max had been sitting at home in his warm study writing a book on the D-Day landings and trying to put himself in the place of the men heading towards the Normandy beaches in bucketing landing craft.

Some six weeks later, on May 21, he was wading ashore at San Carlos, his boots around his neck, carrying his battered typewriter in one hand and a case of mortar bombs, courtesy of the Royal Marines, in the other.

He says. “It was all words. One ITN crew’s cameras went wrong on about day one and they had to sit on their hands for the rest of the war. There’s virtually no authentic footage of the fighting.”

Many of the more experienced war correspondents had not joined the Task Force, calculating that either diplomacy would prevail or they could fly down in time for hostilities.

“I was worried that any minute there was going to be a triumphant boatload of journalists from London,” smiles Sir Max.”It was a fantastic moment when we sailed from Ascension and one realised it was going to be us, and only us, who did this thing.” Having come under fire several times, he came closest to death just a few days before the surrender when two Argentine aircraft attacked the 3 Commando brigade headquarters and a bomb landed close by.

“I didn’t believe it was possible to be 35 yards from a 1,000lb bomb and for nobody to be touched. The peat deadened it. But when that exploded I thought it was the end.

Earlier this week, the Help For Heroes charity claimed the Falklands risked becoming a “forgotten war”, with one in four 18 to 24-year-olds unaware of the conflict.

Philippa Rawlinson of the RBL says of the commemorations: “There are veterans of the Falklands War who still struggle with physical and mental scars. The RBL remains committed to ensuring service and sacrifice are recognised and all generations of the Forces know the RBL is here to support them.”

For the current Ukraine crisis, Sir Max is happy to be at home. “One or two people have said to me, ‘Don’t you wish you were in Ukraine?’ and I’ve said, ‘You’re mad. I’m so grateful another generation is doing it.”

The historian, whose next book, The Abyss, will examine the Cuban Missile Crisis, adds: “I’ve always thought the Falklands was worth it because it gave Margaret Thatcher the authority and impetus to transform Britain. We really did feel we’d come back to a different country. The spirit was so completely transformed.

“Of course, mistakes were made – I could sit here all day cataloguing them – but they are made in every war. This was something the British did well and I still think after 40 years it’s right to take pride in it.”

Individuals and groups that would like to attend the RBL’s event at the National Memorial Arboretum on June 14 should register their interest.

Find out more at RBL.

Lord Chamberlain

INTELLIGENCE FAILURE THAT SPARKED A WAR

Argentine forces were able to capture the Falkland Islands against minimal British opposition because of serious intelligence failings in the build-up to the conflict, one of the few remaining senior ministers from the time has admitted.

Margaret Thatcher’s former foreign minister, Richard Luce (below), reveals on a new podcast – Battleground: The Falklands War – that even a month before the invasion, UK diplomats were claiming an Argentine build-up was mere sabre-rattling.

“The advice we got from senior diplomats was quite clear. We’ve seen all this before,” Lord Luce tells podcast hosts and historians Patrick Bishop and Saul David.

“We were told by the advisers there was no evidence of anything serious emerging, that there was no need to take any action.”

Afterwards, according to Lord Luce, it became apparent the Foreign Office hadn’t received the full picture from its ambassador in Buenos Aires and military intelligence.

The announcement that HMS Endurance, the last remaining Royal Navy ship in the South Atlantic, would be withdrawn was, Lord Luce believes, a “signal” to the Argentines.

“If you withdraw the last remaining symbol, then the message to the Argentine must be, ‘We’re not really bothered. And that was part of the whole story. A misreading of each other. How often has this happened in history, and it’s happening today in Ukraine.”

Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington and Lord Luce himself subsequently stepped down as a matter of honour over the invasion.

The first episode of Battleground: The Falklands War will be available from Monday on podcast platforms.



Source link