This article was first published in the April 2012 edition of BBC History Magazine
When Max Hastings left Saigon in 1975 he promised his wife that his war reporting days were over. Having covered 11 conflicts and “never been scratched” he didn’t want to put himself in the line of fire again. But seven years later he found himself aboard a British task force powering towards the south Atlantic and the newly-occupied Falkland Islands.
“When I heard that Mrs Thatcher was sending a task force I said, ‘I’ve got to go’. Most of my friends thought I was crazy. They told me nobody would fight a war in the south Atlantic in 1982 for a meaningless bit of real estate. All that would happen was that I would sail round and round for weeks and get horribly seasick. But I felt that if there was going to be a war it would be an extraordinary event and I wanted to be there to see it.”
Hastings’ reports from the Falklands would catapult him into the national consciousness, and raise his profile sufficiently for him to land prestigious positions such as the editorship of The Daily Telegraph. Together with his fellow war reporters, Hastings was there to provide the ‘rough draft of history’, that he now looks back on from a distance of 30 years.
Heading into the unknown
Despite his initial enthusiasm for the posting, Hastings was also apprehensive. “I was nervous about my age. I was 36 and although that might not seem very old to me now, in those days it did because we knew that if there was going to be a war, it would be in a bitterly hostile environment. But I thought I might just be young enough to get away with it, so I packed up my old parachute smock and boots and got on the boat at Southampton.”
The islands to where Hastings was heading lay 300 miles from South America, but had been ruled by the British or British settlers since 1833. Tensions simmered as the Argentine government regularly staked what it felt was a legitimate claim to the Falklands (Islas Malvinas in Spanish). Diplomacy had failed to appease Buenos Aires and in the spring of 1982, following British defence cuts, the rightwing Argentine junta decided to act. On 19 March a group of Argentines landed on the British dependency of South Georgia. Then on 2 April the Falklands themselves were invaded in force. The Royal Marines stationed there fought back, but facing insurmountable odds the governing authorities opted to surrender.
For Hastings, the loss of the Falklands represented a major failure of the British government. By neither negotiating for the islands, nor defending them properly the British had given the Argentines the impression that “we didn’t really want them, that we weren’t serious about keeping them”. The Thatcher government was left with little option but to respond. “Thatcher had taken a terrible hammering in the House of Commons. There was talk of national humiliation, of Britain looking ridiculous and of Thatcher looking ridiculous. She had to get the islands back to retain credibility as prime minister.”
Three days after the Falklands had been seized, a British task force set sail. Over 100 ships and 28,000 troops headed south, while the UN and other international players tried (without success) to find a diplomatic solution. As he journeyed towards the islands, Hastings was far from the only one suffering from nerves.
“After the war, I interviewed General Sir Edwin Bramall who was then chief of the General Staff,” he recalls. “He made it plain that he thought the idea of sending a task force was bonkers. To fight a war 8,000 miles away would be incredibly difficult with the resources we had. But he had been bounced into it because the navy had told the prime minister they could do it. When the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach had been asked about reclaiming the islands he suddenly saw this unique opportunity to prove that the Royal Navy could still fight and was still relevant, after years of decline. So he told Margaret Thatcher, without really thinking about the odds, that he could send a task force and recapture the islands. Poor old General Bramall felt that after the navy had said they could do it, the army couldn’t really say they could not. But once this task force had put to sea, those in charge started getting very cold feet because they could see how difficult this was going to be.”
Lacking radar cover and with no airbases nearby, the British forces faced a daunting proposition. Hastings feels it was a desire to level this playing field that led to the most controversial moment of the war. On 2 May a British submarine torpedoed the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano with the loss of 323 lives. “If you are going to fight a war, you’d jolly well better win it,” says Hastings. “The Argentines had all the advantages and we were on the back foot so it was essential to improve the odds. The Belgrano was the Argentine navy’s second most dangerous threat.” When it was sunk, the Belgrano had been outside a British-imposed exclusion zone around the Falklands, and there was an outcry about the number of casualties. While Hastings insists that the sinking was militarily justified, he asserts that by mishandling the fall-out afterwards, the British government ended up in “a bad political place”.
A couple of days later the British destroyer HMS Sheffield was attacked with the loss of 20 lives. The aerial and naval war was well under way. On 21 May the British forces landed on the Falklands at San Carlos and began the arduous campaign to recapture the islands. Hastings was among those who disembarked. “When we got ashore on those barren islands, it seemed an awful long way from home. We felt very lonely and very exposed. Then the Argentine aircraft started attacking and we watched ships going to the bottom in the middle of San Carlos Water. I’d seen lots of things in my time as a war correspondent but I’d never seen ships sinking before.”
The British forces struck out from San Carlos, heading towards the capital Port Stanley. Travelling alongside them, Hastings gained tremendous respect for the troops. “When we started walking across this bloody island it was pretty rough for me, who was not a young man. I was terribly unfit and at times felt pretty miserable, not to mention pretty cold. But I felt so lucky to be there with these terrific guys.
“I remember one incident when the SAS commanding officer Michael Rose took me to the top of Mount Kent, which was then our most exposed position, for a night landing. I was bloody terrified. When we did land there was actually a firefight going on. We piled out of a helicopter in the dark on this icy mountain and could see all this tracer going all over the place. I was about as scared as I possibly could be and I just ran and cowered behind a rock until the helicopter had disappeared. Eventually everything calmed down and the SAS and Royal Marines were so sure of themselves and so sure they knew what they were doing that it was very difficult to stay scared oneself. These were great people, and it was great to be with them.”
Hastings was moved by the spirit of co-operation that he encountered. After arriving cold and exhausted on to a landing craft on his way to send a despatch, he was greeted by a Royal Marine, who “popped out of the hatches and said, ‘You look a bit miserable and hungry, would you like some bacon and eggs?’”. It was a moment that made him feel “unbelievably grateful”, and one that was given added poignancy when he discovered a few days later that the same landing craft had been sunk by an aircraft, killing all on board.
Having formed such a close affinity with the troops, Hastings had no desire to remain neutral as a reporter. “I don’t think I’d have pretended to be impartial,” he says. “I was criticised by some people after the war was over for being too jingoistic in my reporting. But this was Britain’s war. Once it was over we could have a good argument about whether the conflict was a good idea or not. At that minute those were our guys, I was with them and I wanted them to win.”
On 14 June the British assault on the islands reached its conclusion. The Argentine defenders of Port Stanley were overwhelmed, leading to the surrender of their forces. After a two-month campaign, the Falklands had been liberated for the cost of 255 British servicemen, 655 Argentines and three islanders. It was a victory that was far from inevitable, according to Hastings. “The luck could have gone the other way. If one or two more Argentine bombs had worked and if one of their Exocet missiles had hit a British aircraft carrier then we would have found ourselves in a hell of a hole.”
In the end, it was the calibre of the British troops, compared to what Hastings describes as “wretched Argentine conscripts,” that told. “The Argentines weren’t very good, it’s no use pretending that they were,” he says. “Late in the war I was with a Royal Marine commander who had captured one of the mountains around Port Stanley. He looked at this terrific mountain, which the Argentines had been defending and said that with 50 Germans he could have died of old age holding the place. So we shouldn’t pretend that the Argentine army was the Wehrmacht; it was pretty pathetic. The real difficulty was fighting this campaign at such very long range.”
At the time of liberation, Max Hastings was famously the first man to enter Port Stanley. This story, he says, still makes the British army “rather cross”, as they “had won all the battles that enabled me to walk in without getting my head blown off”. Years later, Hastings met the Argentine officer who had been in command in the area at the time, and asked him why he hadn’t fired when he’d seen him walking alone towards their position. “He laughed and said, ‘You didn’t look very military and as far as I knew there wasn’t a lunatic asylum on the island, so I assumed you had to be a journalist’.”
The last popular war?
For Hastings, his war reporting made him a household name. The Falklands conflict also helped to shore up the position of Margaret Thatcher, who had been struggling in the polls and with critics in her own party. “Back in 1982 many had real doubts about whether she was going to win the 1983 general election,” Hastings recalls. “Of course the Falklands absolutely transformed all that. Suddenly she had an authority as a world statesman. It contributed significantly to enabling her to win the next election. It also gave a terrific boost to British self-confidence in the short term. After so long when we’d all felt so glum about British decline, we found that even if we couldn’t make a decent motorcar, we could fight a jolly successful little colonial war. That perked everybody up for a season.”
Hastings believes that this was a genuinely popular war − “maybe the last really popular war that Britain will ever fight”. The Falkland Islands “belonged to us and a lot of foreigners had gone and invaded them, so we had to chuck them out. Everybody could see the case. Everybody could also understand what winning meant. We all knew that we just had to get to Port Stanley and after that it was all over. Compare that with Afghanistan where it has gone on for years and defining what is victory or defeat is very difficult.”
In recent months tensions have increased between Argentina and Britain over the Falklands, whose future remains very much contested. A war of words has developed, prompting the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon to warn against what he sees as an “escalation” of the dispute. Hastings is certain that Britain will remain resolute in its defence of the islands. “There is a sort of battiness about Britain maintaining this tiny community at vast cost at the other side of the world over all this time. Yet somehow we’ve got sentimental about the Falkland Islanders. It may be illogical but British people feel very strongly about it. No British government would dare to negotiate to hand them over to Argentina, certainly not while the Falklands generation is still alive. We will probably have to keep on spending tens of millions of pounds defending the Falkland Islands until the end of time.”
1982: The war for the Falklands
19 March A group of Argentines (purportedly scrap metal workers) land on South Georgia
2 April Argentine forces invade the Falklands, capturing the islands after a brief fight
3 April The UN Security Council calls unsuccessfully for an end to hostilities and an Argentine withdrawal
5 April The British task force sets sail for the south Atlantic
25 April South Georgia is recaptured by British commandos. Meanwhile the main task force has reached the vicinity of the Falkland Islands
2 May Argentine cruiser General Belgrano is torpedoed by British submarine HMS Conqueror, resulting in the deaths of 323. Aerial and naval combat is stepped-up
21 May After the failure of several international attempts to mediate, British troops land on the Falklands at San Carlos and establish a bridgehead
29 May British troops attack the Argentine positions at Darwin and Goose Green, inflicting heavy losses
8 June Argentine aircraft raid the British supply ships Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad, killing 48 and injuring dozens more
14 June Having captured important defensive positions, British troops arrive in Port Stanley, compelling the Argentine garrison to surrender
Sir Max Hastings is a journalist, author and historian. As a war correspondent he covered numerous conflicts across the globe including the Falklands War. His latest book is All Hell Let Loose (HarperPress, 2011). Find out more at www.maxhastings.com
Books: The Battle for the Falklands by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins (WW Norton, 1983); The Official History of the Falklands Campaign by Lawrence Freedman (Routledge, 2005)
TV: The Falklands Legacy, presented by Max Hastings
On the podcast: Max Hastings reflects on the Falklands conflict on our podcast