HC Deb 24 May 1982 vol 24 cc647-55 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Nott)

Seven weeks ago when Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister stated that the Falkland Islands remained British territory, that no aggression and no invasion could alter that simple fact, and that it was the Government's objective to see that the islanders were freed from occupation.

On the night of Thursday 20 May, Her Majesty's forces re-established a secure base on the Falkland Islands and the Union Flag is today flying over the settlement of San Carlos in East Falkland—where it will remain. The whole House will have been delighted to see the expressions of delight on the faces of the islanders and their children—published widely yesterday.

The amphibious landing was the culmination of a long period of planning by the force commander and of preparation by the Royal Marine commandos, members of the Parachute Regiment and supporting arms during their six weeks voyage into the South Atlantic. Whilst they sailed south, the Government worked unremittingly to persuade Argentina to withdraw peacefully and honour-ably from the Falkland Islands. But the Government met only with Argentine intransigence.

Last week it became clear that the only possible course left open to us was the repossession of the Falkland Islands by military means. In this the Government have been encouraged—as I think has the country as a whole—that Her Majesty's Opposition and the other main political parties in the House have supported us. Certainly I believe that our Service men have been greatly encouraged by the support that they have received from right hon. and hon. Members of this House.

I will not go over all the details of the amphibious landing; the approach by the task force under the cover of darkness, widespread raids on Argentine military targets, the entry into Falkland Sound and the disembarkment into landing crafts leading to assault in the San Carlos area, but I think I can say that it was an exploit which captured the imagination of our people.

Argentine forces did not interfere to any significant extent with the landing itself. The amphibious ships involved in the first stages of the operation were able to withdraw without incident to safer waters to the east of the Falkland Islands, and I must here pay tribute to the men and women of the merchant marine for their heroism and skill in these dangerous operations; their role is vital.

The landing itself was complemented by attacks in other parts of the Falklands including the airfield at Goose Green and bombardment of military installations south of Port Stanley. Carrier-based RAF Harriers launched attacks against Argentine defences at Port Stanley airfield. These operations were an essential part of the overall plan. I deeply regret, however, that in the course of these operations three Royal Marines were killed when their Gazelle helicopters were shot down and that one RAF Harrier pilot is missing. And as we have announced, 21 men were tragically lost when a Royal Navy Sea King ditched in the sea shortly before the operations began.

To protect the landing operation, the Royal Navy maintained a gun-line of destroyers and frigates in the Falkland Sound. Other warships provided close protection for our amphibious forces; overhead, Sea Harriers from our carriers provided continuous combat air patrols. The waves of Argentine air attacks had to run the gauntlet of these air defences. The Sea Harriers shot down eight of their aircraft, and total Argentine losses that day are estimated at 14 Mirages and Sky Hawks, two Pucaras and four helicopters. These losses represent more than a third of their combat aircraft taking part that day.

During these continuous air attacks the Royal Navy fought with great skill and bravery. Nevertheless, those Argentine aircraft which had penetrated our air defence screen inflicted damage on five of our ships. Of these, the type 21 frigate HMS "Ardent" was severely damaged, but despite the efforts of her crew to control the damage she sank in the course of Friday night. Twenty-two of her crew died and 17 were injured. The injured are now receiving full medical attention in hospital ships of the fleet.

Since that action the task force has been reinforced by the arrival of more, highly capable, warships, more than compensating for those damaged or lost in action so far.

The following day, Saturday, saw a lull in the fighting. Although the weather was good, the Argentine air force launched only one attack by two Skyhawks on our ships, which was not pressed home. Yesterday the Argentine air force resumed its attacks on ships of the task force in San Carlos Water. The aircraft were engaged by missiles from ships, by shore-based Rapier batteries and by the combat air patrols of Sea Harriers. Six Mirage aircraft and one Skyhawk are known to have been shot down—one aircraft more than was first announced—and there have been unconfirmed reports of a further one Mirage and two Skyhawks also shot down. Yesterday's events involved the loss of two-thirds of the Argentine aircraft taking part.

In the meantime, action to make the blockade effective has continued. Sea Harriers from the task force yesterday destroyed two Argentine helicopters and caused serious damage to another. Task force action also resulted in the beaching of a ship used by the Argentines to ferry troops and ammunition around the islands. With the loss of re-supply ships and six helicopters, the Argentine commander has lost all but a very limited capability to supply his forces and move them around the islands.

I regret to confirm that in yesterday's action the frigate HMS "Antelope" suffered severe damage. Our latest information—and this based on preliminary reports—is that one of her ship's company was killed and seven others were wounded. I must also inform the House, with great regret, of the loss of one of our Sea Harriers last night. This aircraft met with an accident shortly after launching from one of our carriers and the pilot was killed. This accident was not as a result of Argentine action, and the cause has yet to be established. Next of kin have been informed.

The intensive fighting of the last few days has produced tragic loss of life on our side, and the House will join me in conveying the deep sympathy of the whole nation to the relatives and friends of those killed and injured.

We all feel deeply too for the constant concern and worry of the families and friends of our Service men. They are showing great patience and understanding in very difficult circumstances.

Names of casualties will not be released until the next of kin have been informed, although to counter the false propaganda coming out of Argentina we have had to give some general information on the progress of military action as soon as it is confirmed.

Our forces are now established on the Falkland Islands with all the necessary supplies, together with their heavy equipment and air defence missiles. They have mobility with a large number of helicopters at their disposal—and their spirits are high. But I must emphasise that our men still face formidable problems in difficult terrain with a hostile climate. We must expect fresh attacks upon them, and there can be no question of pressing the force commander to move forward prematurely—the judgment about the next tactical moves must be his—and his alone.

But, one thing is certain: the days of the occupying Argentine garrison are numbered and it will not be long before the Falkland Islanders once again have their democratic rights restored.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

The Opposition are very glad that a number of our fellow citizens in the Falkland Islands have now been liberated. We associate ourselves with everything that the Secretary of State for Defence has said about the men of the Services, and we send our sympathy to the relatives and friends of those who have been killed or injured.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the men and women of the Merchant Navy. They have played a tremendous part in this operation, as we always knew they would. We hope that the Government will send a message to the National Union of Seamen, which has responded so magnificently at this time.

This is not the time for questions on the individual handling of the task force; nor, indeed, is it the time to go very deeply into the reasons why the islands were invaded in the first place. The moment for that may well come. However, the two questions that I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman seem to be of some importance at the present time.

First, about a week ago the right hon. Gentleman said on the radio: Even if we are forced to take the military option the process of negotiations will not end". Today, he said: Last week it became clear that the only possible course left open to us was the repossession of the Falkland Islands by military means". I agree that that is so at this moment, but will the right hon. Gentleman reaffirm that the door to negotiations does not now remain shut?

Secondly, a disturbing item of news on the tape concerns the possible supply of arms from South Africa to Argentina. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has any information about that, but I hope that he will at least assure the House that the matter will be investigated and that in due course a full statement will be made.

Mr. Nott

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the "liberation"—I use his word—of some of the Falkland Islanders and for his remarks about our Service men and the Merchant Marine. At the moment we must concentrate on the military aim of repossessing the Falkland Islands. Any question of talks about the long-term future of the Falkland Islanders must be left aside for the moment. The crucial thing is that we should find out the wishes of the Falkland Islanders. We can do that properly when we have repossessed the islands.

I confirm what I said the other day, that eventually some long-term accommodation will be needed between the Falkland Islands and other countries in that area. That must be right. I shall check on the supply of arms from South Africa, as we always do when we hear such reports. I have no knowledge of that.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Will the Secretary of State convey the congratulations of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the Service men and the men of the Merchant Navy for a remarkable operation and wish them every success in the formidable task that still must be done?

In associating myself and my colleagues with the tributes to the relatives and friends of those who have lost their lives or who have been injured, I hope that the House will understand if I mention particularly HMS "Ardent", which is a Devonport ship. I hope that the frigate, which I believe has still not sunk, can be saved.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government's intentions remain as they have always been, namely to use force in this context under the United Nations charter and to accept the dual obligation of self-defence and the pursuance, wherever possible, of a negotiated settlement?

Mr. Nott

I shall convey the right hon. Gentleman's message. HMS "Antelope" is also a Devonport-based ship. I cannot give any further details of her at the moment. She is not in a good condition. She is seriously damaged.

As the right hon. Gentleman says, we have taken our action in the Falkland Islands under article 51 of the United Nations charter. He will know that when we put forward our proposals last week we referred to article 73 of the United Nations charter, which recognises the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of territories are paramount. It is on that basis that we are prepared to discuss the future of the Falkland Islands, when we are aware of the views of the Falkland Islanders. It is wrong to talk in terms of negotiations until we have repossessed the Falkland Islands. We are there and must go forward to achieve our military aim.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to allow questions on the statement until 4 o'clock, according to the digital clocks.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that however much he may be pressed, and however much it may be the will of the House to proceed with speed to recapture the whole of the Falkland Islands, no pressure will be brought to bear on the military commanders in order to make political decisions override proper military judgments in carrying out the campaign? Will my right hon. Friend resist any further pressure that might arise on that score?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend accept that I believe that everyone in the House was proud of what the British forces did, from the top right through to a NAAFI manager who manned a machine gun? Everyone made us proud that we were British.

Mr. Nott

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. I repeat that no pressure will be brought to bear on the military commanders in the way that my hon. Friend fears. It is for them to make the tactical decisions about the next move.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

While all this is going on, why is the Foreign Secretary still permitted to continue to use language that is plainly incompatible with our continued possession of the islands in the long term?

Mr. Nott

I do not believe that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made any statements that would imply that.

Dr. John Gilbert (Dudley, East)

We read that the instruction to the task force commander is to proceed with as much speed as possible with the other objective of minimising casualties. Subject to his tactical discretion, can the Secretary of State say which of these two objectives the task force commander has been told is supreme? Is it to move ahead with the maximum speed, or is it to minimise casualties?

Mr. Nott

We want the task force commander to move forward as rapidly as is reasonably possible. I do not think that I or any right hon. and hon. Member need to give any advice to the task force commander about minimising casualties. I am sure that that will be his overriding aim.

Sir Frederick Burden (Gillingham)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that until the Argentine troops have been removed from the Falkland Islands, either by surrender or by diplomatic terms through their Government, which is unlikely, the best way to minimise casualties on both sides is to ensure that overwhelming force, wherever, we possess it, is brought to bear against the enemy? It is overwhelming force that brings about defeat earlier and ensures that there are fewer casualties.

Mr. Nott

I would confidently leave it to the task force commander to decide the manner in which he fights this battle. I can be sure that he will use as much force as is necessary to achieve his aims.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

Will the Secretary of State accept that, as a former Merchant Navy seaman, I am grateful for his complimentary remarks about the Merchant Marine? Will he further accept that the bellicose and belligerent statements emanating from the extremely anti-British Government in Dublin are not representative of the Irish people, who do not see Britain as the aggressor in this conflict?

Mr. Nott

I am gratified to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments. I share with him great admiration for the Merchant Marine. Several of our merchant ships were brought right in to San Carlos water and were in great danger for a period. I am glad to say that most of them are now in greater safety. I share with the hon. Gentleman great admiration for what the Merchant Marine has achieved in this affair. I also once again welcome what the hon. Gentleman said on the other topic.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

To stop the growing casualties, will the Secretary of State now ask the War Cabinet to consider a ceasefire or at least a truce by both sides for 48 hours? Would that not also give a chance for United Nations negotiations now rather than later, when they are bound to come?

Mr. Nott

The casualties have arisen as a direct result of the illegal aggression by Argentina and her failure to comply with resolution 502—a mandatory resolution—of the United Nations. There is no question of a truce. We are now established firmly on the island. We shall go through with the necessary means of repossessing the islands as a whole.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that while it would be wrong to differentiate between the achievements of one element of the task force and another, all observers of what has happened over the last week have been astounded by the achievement of the Sea Harrier pilots and their supporting staff and believe that that achievement against overwhelming odds once again represents what can be done by a few against the many?

Mr. Nott

I agree with my hon. Friend. The performance of both Sea and RAF Harriers in the contest has been remarkable. They have been extremely successful. The attrition of the Argentine air force has been huge as set against the small number of Harriers that we have lost. The skill of our pilots has been immense and the Harrier has proved itself to be an exceptional aircraft.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that anyone with an inkling of the operational environment of the South Atlantic will be moved to sorrow at the loss of our Service men who have fallen victim to it and feel deep pride at the achievement of our Service men and members of the National Union of Seamen who have met its severest challenges and gone on to execute a brilliant and humane landing? Will he say something about any further Etendard platform Exocet attacks which may have been mounted against the fleet since the loss of HMS "Sheffield"?

Mr. Nott

As the hon. Gentleman says, the whole House shares a feeling of great pride for our Service men and the Merchant Marine. I do not wish to be drawn into saying which Argentine aircraft have been involved in action. That would be unwise. However, I note the hon. Gentleman's interest in the matter.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Liberal Party wishes to express its admiration for the courage and skill of our forces and the Merchant Marine in this enterprise? We also wish to extend our sympathy to the Merchant Marine. In that connection, will the right hon. Gentleman comment on an article in The Guardian, which suggested that the bereaved would not have full pension rights because we are not technically at war? Will he also comment on the status of Merchant Navy mariners who die?

Mr. Nott

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for expressing those wishes on behalf of the Liberal Party. I have not seen the article in The Guardian to which he refers. It sounds wrong. I cannot believe that it is right. Nevertheless, I shall of course check on the matter and let him know. I sounds wrong to me.

Mr. Anthony Buck (Colchester)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the vast majority of our constituents are enormously proud of the achievements of our armed forces? Is he further aware that they reserve their anger for the Fascist junta and the, fortunately, small number of people throughout the country who make utterances against the junta but refuse to support the actions against it?

Mr. Nott

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for what he said about our Service men.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

What is Washington saying to the Government about the continued shooting? Is it true that the Americans have asked for the shooting to stop?

Mr. Nott

I do not need to comment on communications from Washington. Washington is perfectly clear that the shooting would stop immediately if the Argentines had agreed, during the preceding seven weeks, to obey the mandatory resolution of the Security Council and withdrawn their forces.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

I pay tribute to the skill and bravery of the men on the two Plymouth ships, HMS "Ardent" and HMS "Antelope", on which such heavy casualties have been suffered. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that all decorations for gallantry for which the men would be eligible in a state of war will be available in present circumstances? Does he agree that an operation such as this, which has drawn the professional admiration of Services all over the world, deserves a campaign medal of its own for which both the Service men and civilians taking part will be eligible?

Mr. Nott

I assure my hon. Friend that awards for gallantry for the present campaign will be made in the normal way. A campaign medal will be considered. We will almost certainly agree to such a medal for the Falkland Islands.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

Is the Secretary of State aware that yesterday I had the unfortunate experience of visiting two families in my constituency—the Hughes family of Pwllheli and the Roberts family of Llanberis—who had lost sons in the preceding 48 hours? Is he aware that the reaction in such areas is to question whether the end justifies the bloodshed? In the light of that, will he reconsider his earlier remark that the so-called exploits have caught the imagination of the people?

Mr. Nott

I agree that, for a family, nothing can replace a lost son. In general terms, however, the British people support what the task force has achieved and understand why it was necessary to send it.

Sir Frederic Bennett (Torbay)

My right hon. Friend said that he will not be deflected by pressures from any source to complete our declared aims. Will he confirm that that also applies to the considerations of our EEC partners when, with their varying degrees of support, they shortly decide whether to renew sanctions?

Mr. Nott

My hon. Friend will learn shortly that EEC Foreign Ministers have agreed, informally and subject to the decision of the Council, to renew sanctions on the same basis as those which were renewed at Luxembourg last week.

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there are two ways to repossess the Islands? Does he agree that the first is a military solution which leads to unconditional surrender, and the second is a military solution, combined with a political solution, which could lead to a ceasefire sooner than the right hon. Gentleman implies? Does he agree that it would be better to opt for the second? If he agrees, will he speak to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and ask her to leave on the table the five articles about which she talked last Thursday?

Mr. Nott

I understand the hon. Gentleman's feelings on the matter. However, the proposals that we advanced last week in good faith to avoid further fighting cannot any longer be relevant. We are now firmly established on the islands. The position is new. There is no way in which the points to which the hon. Gentleman refers can remain relevant.

Mr. Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that most people in the House and the country believe that he has expressed fully the views of the country about our pride in the achievements of our task force and our sorrow at the losses that have been sustained?

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind a point which affected his constituency not long ago—the Penlee lifeboat disaster? Does he agree that it seems likely that there 'will be a vast upsurge of people wanting to contribute to some form of fund? Does he agree that that would be better coordinated from the centre, through acknowledged bodies such as the Royal British Legion or SSAFA, rather than have appeals springing up in diverse areas for the benefit of isolated groups of people? Does he agree that our Service men, nor merely in the Falklands, but in Northern Ireland, should be dealt with equally and that all contributions should go through a general fund and not through isolated ones?

Mr. Nott

My hon. Friend has made an interesting and important point, which I shall consider, in the form of- an appeal that funds should be given to the British Legion and other existing forces' charities. I take note of what my hon. Friend has said and I shall consider it.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Does the Secretary of State agree that because of our support for the Armed Services and the value that we put on the Service men's lives, many of us are opposed to their being used in present circumstances? Is it now Government policy to recapture the Falklands, regardless of the loss of young British and Argentine life?

Mr. Nott

Yes, it is the Government's intention to repossess the Falkland Islands and to return them to full British Administration.

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn and Hatfield)

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to remind the world and, I am sorry to say, some Opposition Members, that the Union Jack flying again on the Falkland Islands is not merely the symbol of our sovereignty but is the front-line banner for international freedom, justice and democracy?

Mr. Nott

I agree with my hon. Friend. We are doing more than repossessing the Falkland Islands, which are British territory, peopled by British people. We are standing for a principle which is vital for the future peace of the world.

Mr. Bidwell

As we often hear conflicting stories of the state of morale of the Argentine forces on the islands, particularly the conscript element, has the Minister anything to impart to the House today on that subject, as it will greatly determine the amount of blood that is shed?

Mr. Nott

I do not believe that the morale of the Argentine forces on the island is high. They are clearly suffering from a shortage of supplies and, in some cases, a shortage of food. It would be wrong to assume from that, however, that the Argentine forces will not fight—and fight hard. I emphasise that we may still have a very difficult fight on our hands.

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