HC Deb 10 June 1982 vol 25 cc399-405 3.51 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Nott)

Since I reported to the House on 26 May, British forces have moved forward to positions surrounding Port Stanley, and are in firm control of high ground on an arc surrounding the town.

Earlier on 29 May, 2 Battalion the Parachute Regiment, supported by units from the Royal Marines, Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers, captured Darwin and Goose Green. This action, against a greatly superior force, was a remarkable feat and our forces displayed great determination, valour and fighting skill. At the same time, units of 3 Commando Brigade liberated the settlements at Teal and Douglas. While these actions were in progress, 5 Infantry Brigade came ashore without incident and the QE2, which carried them, is due back in Southampton tomorrow.

In order to move forward elements of 5 Infantry Brigade as rapidly as possible to the Port Stanley area, and given the appalling weather which was making the logistic problems difficult for helicopters, the force commander moved some forces with heavy stores and equipment around the coast by landing ships.

When the weather cleared on 8 June all but the last elements had moved forward successfully, but the sea movement coincided with better weather and the Argentines at this time renewed their air attacks on our forces. Our latest assessment is that during these attacks at least seven Argentine aircraft were destroyed and maybe another four making 11 in all.

One air attack was launched against two landing ships, "Sir Galahad" and "Sir Tristram". Both ships were hit. The "Sir Tristram' had virtually completed offloading and she was not severely damaged. The "Sir Galahad' had already started unloading but still had some men embarked.

Having consulted the military authorities, I am not prepared at this stage to give the total numbers of our casualties, and to do so could be of assistance to the enemy and put our men at greater risk. Meanwhile, next of kin are being informed and I shall give further information as soon as is reasonably possible.

In another incident Argentine aircraft attacked a small landing craft. Four Royal Marines and two Naval personnel were killed, and their next of kin are being informed. In this incident all four attacking Mirage aircraft were intercepted by our Sea Harriers and were shot down.

HMS "Plymouth" sustained an attack on the other side of East Falkland, in the Sound. Five Royal naval personnel were injured and their next of kin have been informed. The ship was damaged but she remains operational.

The losses that we have sustained in these incidents are tragic, and as soon as we can give further information to the families we shall do so. I should like to express my tribute to the bravery and skill of those who were involved in the rescue of our men, particularly the helicopter pilots and crews who, in extremely hazardous conditions, were responsible for saving a great many lives by removing men from the damaged ships.

I must tell the House that the task force commander's plans have not been prejudiced by these attacks and the losses of stores and equipment are already being made good from other stocks held ashore.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

Despite the skill and valour of our forces, which is one of the bright spots in this continuing story, it is disturbing news that we have received from the Secretary of State. The Opposition wish to add their tribute to that of the Government and should like to send their sympathy to the relatives and friends of those who died and suffered in these attacks.

However, it is rather more than sympathy that we should be sending There is practical help that we can give. I should like the Secretary of State to tell us that the Ministry of Defence will resume the emergency telephone procedures that it had until recently, and perhaps improve on them. If one is at the other end of a telephone and is worried about one's next of kin in the Services, and one hears stories or rumours, it is important to be able to get on the telephone to talk to someone who is sympathetic, even if there is no news. May we have the Secretary of State's assurance that the relatives and friends of our forces in the Falklands will be saved that needless amount of anxiety?

Secondly, we owe the nation the feeling that we are doing everything possible to avoid needless danger to our forces. I am not probing any further than this, but, in the light of the renewed Argentine attacks, can the Secretary of State assure us and the nation that every possible opportunity is being made to re-assess our defensive equipment?

Thirdly, without prejudice to the task force commander's plan—I keep saying that this is no business of ours; it is his concern—can the Secretary of State reassure us that Britain will be willing to table a resolution at the United Nations so that diplomatic pressure can continue at the same time as military and economic pressures are being reinforced on Argentina?

Mr. Nott

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his first remarks. I give him an absolute assurance that as soon as we can resume emergency telephone facilities for the families, we shall do so. I assure the House that the next of kin and the families of the men involved are of overriding concern to us. Where possible, we try to tell them before every announcement is made.

Our problem is that we have to counteract Argentine propaganda, which greatly exaggerates the successes that they have. We need to say something in answer to that. Where we can, we are as specific as possible about any units that have suffered damage as a result of an Argentine attack. However, I also have to give every consideration to the overriding operational value to the enemy of any information that we announce. That is why, I regret, I came to the decision, having consulted all the relevant military authorities, that I should not at this stage give our latest estimate of the numbers of casualties from the "Sir Galahad" and "Sir Tristram".

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must do nothing to put our men in needless danger. Clearly that is the principal concern of the task force commander. I am satisfied that he made the right decision to send round the final equipment and men in these landing ships. There are Harrier combat air patrols active the whole time and there are ships deployed—I cannot say more than that. I regret that some Argentine aircraft got through on this occasion. That may always be the case, however effective our air defence may be.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered a question from the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition on the subject of a resolution at the United Nations. I have nothing to add to what she said then.

Mr. John Silkin

Will the Secretary of State think again about his first reply? I am asking him to arrange for someone to be at the end of a telephone who can say to a lonely and frightened relative or friend "I have no information for you at the moment, but please telephone again, whenever you like." That is all I am asking for—a sympathetic voice at the end of a telephone.

Mr. Nott

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Of course we shall do that. The families of the men in the Royal Navy live primarily in the Devonport and Portsmouth areas, where the Service authorities are in contact with them the whole time. I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman is seeking.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that the House will agree with me that if I bring questions to a conclusion at about 4.15 pm in view of the statements from both Front Benches, that will be too long rather than too short.

Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)

As many of the casualties that have, unhappily, occurred have been my constituents, is my right hon. Friend aware that the commander and others at the Royal naval air station at Yeovil have carried out a very careful and understanding operation to let the next of kin know as soon as possible and to relieve everyone of anxiety where that has been possible?

Mr. Nott

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I know that all the units of the three Armed Services are pursuing the matter as sympathetically as they can.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Why were relatives advised on television last night not to attempt to telephone the usual numbers at the Ministry of Defence? Would it not be helpful for them to be able to hear a sympathetic voice? Does the Secretary of State agree that, whenever operational requirements permit, there are two reasons why information should be given as soon as possible? There is a need to ease the minds of relatives, and to counter Argentine propaganda.

Mr. Nott

Those are two reasons why we try to release information as soon as we can. When such an incident happens, men are rescued by helicopters and ships and they are dispersed around the fleet. They may even be taken to the many units on the mainland and it takes some time to retrieve the information, which is scattered in different places, in order to provide it to the next of kin. That is our problem, but within those contraints we inform the next of kin as soon as possible, and we shall continue to show the sympathetic consideration that the House wishes.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

With considerable candour the Secretary of State said that, of course, aircraft will always get through. In those circumstances, are we not slipping into a British Vietnam in the South Atlantic, and before we go any further into the mire should not the task force be withdrawn?

Mr. Nott

With few exceptions, the House believes that the dispatch of the task force, the manner in which our forces were landed on the Falkland Islands and our successes since they arrived have been remarkable. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, any analogy with Vietnam is entirely false. There has been a series of major victories, with some setbacks. I have told the House about those setbacks when they have occurred, but our forces have been magnificent and will go forward to another victory soon.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

Although I recognise that there will always be times when my right hon. Friend cannot give the House the information that he might wish—this is undoubtedly one such occasion—can he reassure the House about a matter that is certainly in the minds of every hon. Member and of people outside, namely, that our ships and the gallant men who serve in them are receiving every protection possible, whether at sea, in the air, or on land, from early warning radar systems?

Mr. Nott

Our two aircraft carriers and every ship in the fleet have the most modern radar and communications systems. One element that we lack in the task force, because we are operating from 8,000 miles and outside the reach of a land base, is an airborne early warning system. We are giving urgent consideration to how we can create one. Apart from that, the radar and communications systems of the fleet, together with the Harriers, have worked magnificently. The record of the Harriers in shooting down Argentine aircraft has been outstanding. they would not have intercepted those aircraft had not the radar arrangements been working well.

Mr. Richard Crawshaw (Liverpool, Toxteth)

On behalf of my party, I express our sympathy to the relatives of the casualties. I am sure that every hon. Member knows that, whether casualties are large or small, even one casualty is a tragic loss to a family. Can we not take comfort from the fact that until now in the operation losses have been much less than could have been conceived when the operation was started? At such a time, when losses may be greater than they have been until now, should we not steel ourselves to carry through our resolve in what we believe to be a righteous cause in the full knowledge, that, whatever the losses, failure to do so would bring much greater losses to Britain?

Mr. Nott

Most hon. Members share the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman. I agree with everything that he said. Every soldier, sailor and airman that we lose is a tragedy, not just to his family, but to everyone. With 25,000 people involved in the task force, and with well over 100 ships there, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is remarkable that we have not had more casualties and sustained greater losses. We have been remarkably successful, but of course nothing will bring back lost lives.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

Although the House will be grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he said about keeping families informed, the reality is that much worry stems from media speculation and partial reporting of incidents. Although I appreciate that considerable problems are attached to the matter, can my right hon. Friend reconsider the matter to see whether the present availability of news can be improved?

Mr. Nott

We are criticised both for giving too much information and for giving too little. Every hour of every day we must make a decision on whether to release information. The maximum amount of information is, rightly, required by the British public and we are not withholding any information that does not damage the operational objectives of the task force and that is not upsetting to the families. However, the more information that we can give, the better.

There have been some misunderstandings in the task force. The suggestion has been made that my Department has released information that will damage our forces on the ground. I have carefully checked every such suggestion and I can find no evidence that any damaging information has been given by the Ministry of Defence. What has sometimes happened is that reports have been based on speculation here at home rather than on actual information.

Mr. Reginald Freeson (Brent, East)

Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how he could say in his opening statement that the losses that had been suffered would not alter the plan of campaign and yet go on to say that, for operational reasons, the information to which the House and the country were entitled would not be forthcoming? Some of us will not be satisfied and will be worried about what appears to be an unnecessary retention of information.

Mr. Nott

I am conscious of the fact that day by day we are criticised for giving too much or too little information. The criticism comes from different quarters, and sometimes from the same quarter but from different directions. However, no one is entitled to information that puts any life at risk. In making that difficult judgment in each case, it is right that we should rely largely upon the advice that we receive from the operational commanders on the spot. In the last resort they are the people best able to judge whether information is likely to be damaging to their actions.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

As the Leader of the Opposition seems to distinguish between unconditional surrender of the Argentine forces, which he is against, and our forcing them to withdraw from the islands, of which apparently he is in favour, can my right hon. Friend confirm that our military objective is to remove the Argentine invader from the Falkland Islands—no more and no less?

Mr. Nott

Yes, I can confirm that.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

Can the Minister inform the House of the number of casualties among Falkland Islanders, men, women and children? How many are concentrated in the Port Stanley area? Was not the objective the liberation of the islanders, not their annihilation? To avoid their death or wounding, will the right hon. Gentleman now do what our Front Bench has asked and resume negotiations at the United Nations?

Mr. Nott

With regard to casualties among the islanders, we are doing everything that we can through the force commander on the spot to keep these to an absolute minimum. We are in constant contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross to see whether we can find some means whereby islanders who may be in a difficult situation in the town can, with Red Cross assistance, be brought out. The Red Cross is working with us on this. So far we had not had a satisfactory response from the Argentines. Our concern for the islanders is very great, and we share that concern with the hon. Gentleman.

I have already commented on the United Nations. Our objective in the short term is the removal of the Argentines from the Falkland Islands. There is nothing more that the United Nations can do to bring that about. It can be brought about only by British forces on the ground. We have given every opportunity to the Argentines to withdraw. They have turned down every chance, and we must now remove them by force.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Will the entire Government be mindful of the reported words of a Royal Marine colour sergeant in the task force, that since the Falkland Islands are worth dying for they are worth keeping?

Mr. Nott

I noted that remark by one of our men, a Royal Marine commando. I am sure the vast majority of the House share his views.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in offering sympathy and condolences to a family in my constituency on the death of Sapper Prabeen Gandhi? Does he recall that during the passage of the British Nationality Bill 1981 many voices behind him cast doubt upon patriotism and the nature of our multiracial society? Will he therefore make it clear that some of the first deaths, certainly in relation to my constituency, were of members of the Indian ethnic minority?

Mr. Nott

I know of no one on my side of the House who would feel anything but praise for the ethnic minorities. I may not have got quite the right phrase, but I am thinking, for example, of the Hong Kong Chinese, the Indians and, indeed, all those serving with the task force many as members of the Merchant Marine. They have done a magnificent job. Their patriotism is not in doubt. Of course I join the hon. Gentleman in offering condolences to Sapper Gandhi's family.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings)

Without casting any reflection on the professional skill and, indeed, bravery of the British press men in the Falklands, may I ask the Secretary of State to examine the way in which their personal dispatches are issued? Can he tell us whether there is any monitoring of these reports before dispatch, bearing in mind that often, inadvertently I am sure, targeting information is given to the Argentines, such as the location of a damaged British Royal naval vessel today?

Mr. Nott

The reports coming from the journalists in the Falkland Islands have, generally speaking, been magnificent. They have been vivid and have given the country much information, which has been of great value to us. I have nothing but praise for what the journalists there have done.

All the journalists' dispatches are looked at on the ground down there. Of course, the lives of the journalists themselves are involved. We do not seek to censor or change their dispatches here. Sometimes we hold them back if we feel that a dispatch has slipped through inadvertently, perhaps in the heat of the battle when no one has had proper time to look at it. We have held back some for a day or two because we felt that it would be wrong for them to go out. We have done that in co-operation and agreement with the press and the newspaper or television company concerned. Generally speaking, the journalists have done a magnificent job. Of course, we are vigilant to ensure that no information is released through them that would damage our forces.

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