HL Deb 10 June 1982 vol 431 cc307-14

4.9 p.m.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I should like to repeat the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in the other place. It reads as follows:

" Since I reported to the House on 26th 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 29th 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. Whilst 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 8th 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 off-loading, 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 indeed to do so could be of assistance to the enemy and put our own men at greater risk. Meanwhile next of kin are being informed and I will give further information as soon as reasonably possible.

" In another incident, Argentine aircraft attacked a small landing craft. Four Royal Marines and two Naval personnel were killed; 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 which we have sustained in these incidents are tragic ones and as soon as we can give further information to the families we will do so. I would like to express my tribute to the bravery and skill of those who were involved in the rescue of our men, particularly the helocipter 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".

My Lords, that completes the Statement.

Lord Peart

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement. First, of course, the whole House joins with the noble Viscount in expressing our deepest sympathy to the relatives and friends of those who lost their lives on Tuesday. I should also like to pay our warm tribute to the great courage and resourcefulness of all our troops, on land, on sea and in the air.

I should like to ask some questions on this grave incident. In the light of these serious new attacks by the Argentine Air Force, have the Government reassessed the quality of our troops' equipment to deal with such attacks? Secondly, in view of the persistent rumours in the press, is it possible that the Argentines have been reinforced by sophisticated weapons from elsewhere? We were glad to have the noble Viscount's assurance that some losses were made good from stocks ashore, and this we welcome. However, to what extent does the damage to the ships and the equipment affect the progress of operations and the plans to bring hostilities to an end by taking Port Stanley?

As the Government also promised military, economic and diplomatic means to ensure a cessation of hostilities with minimum loss of life, is this not the time for the British Government to table a new resolution to the Security Council? This should be designed to achieve a cease-fire linked with the implementation of the Security Council's Resolution 502, indicating our willingness to achieve a negotiated settlement linked with the withdrawal of Argentine forces and with future negotiations.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that my noble friends and I share to the full the sympathy that he and the noble Lord, Lord Peart, have expressed? I think that we also feel for the Force Commander who, up to this point, had handled these difficult disembarkations with brilliant success in spite of a failing of aircraft early warning for which he himself cannot possibly be blamed.

On the subject of the announcement of casualties, only the Government can judge the operational wisdom or unwisdom of making such an announcement at this time. Is the noble Viscount aware that the whole House would, I am sure, wish that information to be handled so as to minimise distress, not only to next of kin but to relatives and families of all those operationally involved in the Falkland Islands? Nevertheless, I am sure that no one would press the Government to release any information which might in any way increase the dangers to which our servicemen are exposed in the Falkland Islands.

Finally, the task force and the Ministry have sustained a setback operationally and administratively, but this should not lessen our admiration for the magnificent success overall of the military and logistic achievements out there in the Falkland Islands.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for the support which they have given to the task force in their remarks and will, when he has a moment, draw them to the attention of the commander. I believe that we are satisfied, in the main, with the equipment that we have on our ships. It is true to say that in a wide area and outside the range of support from land-based aircraft, prevention against the possibility of sneak attacks by determined pilots in the three dimensions of the air is not really a possibility.

We have followed all the information and all the speculation about the movements of weapons. I do not think that the noble Lord would expect me to say anything in public on that, and we have taken every step that we can to ensure that the weapons of the aggressor are not replaced.

I think that the Statement makes clear the answer to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Peart, as to the degree of setback in two respects: first, that this imaginative move, which was surprised only in its last stages, was designed to cut down the time required in the appalling weather conditions and, I think it is no secret to say, mud that exist in the Falkland Islands.

I doubt whether the House would agree with the thought that this is the moment for a new resolution at the Security Council, though this, of course, is in the field of my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. But that in the end there has to be a settlement, after hostilities, is something that we still all know, and we have talked before in this House with, I think, a good degree of unanimity about the need. It is a question of timing.

I understand and, if I may say so, I would fully endorse the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew's, balance of sentiments in relation to the need to cause the minimum distress to the families who are related to those taking part in the task force, but I am obliged to say that it is the Government's view that, where there is a clash for a period of between that and any possible military disadvantage, with the risk of further casualties, then the latter has to be supreme.

4.20 p.m.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, we on these Benches associate ourselves with what has been said about the loss of life on this occasion, and of course respect the reasons why the Government do not wish to specify in any detail the extent of what appears to have been a rather grave setback. The noble Viscount is always very generous in giving the House information about what are strictly Foreign Office affairs as well, and since this is the first time we have been able to address the matter, even briefly, since the Recess, I should like to raise the question, possibly for pursuit at a later date, about the veto that Britain placed on the UN resolution last weekend.

The reason given out for this was that it did not clearly link an Argentinian withdrawal with the ceasefire, or not clearly enough. But if one reads that resolution the link does appear to be rather clear. While I would not go so far as the noble Lord, Lord Peart, in calling for a British resolution to be introduced at this point, yet I hope that the Government will he careful not needlessly to veto resolutions coming from other quarters when they do quite clearly link a cease-fire with Argentinian withdrawal, as did the last one they vetoed.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for his understanding about the comparatively small amount of detail that we can release at this stage. So far as his point is concerned about the recent veto at the United Nations, yes, indeed, the reason was the lack of a link with Argentine withdrawal. I think I would be able to go further without in any way stepping out of line with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary by saying that one needs, particularly when dealing with the Argentine, a degree of feeling of guarantee that words will be turned into action; and to get that in the time available and at the speed necessary, bearing in mind the weather and conditions in which our forces are operating, is not an easy task. I can only ask the noble Lord to believe, first, that we know that in the end we need settlement and peace in the South Atlantic, but, secondly, that we have to put first the security of our task force and take account of the reliability, in terms of turning words into action, of the people who have invaded the Falklands.

Lord Hill-Norton

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that a large number of people outside your Lordships' House do not share the welcome given by the noble Lord, Lord Peart, and others to the Statement which has just been made? And neither do I. It is my judgment, and that of many other people outside the House, that too many such Statements have been made. I would ask the noble Viscount if he would discuss with his right honourable friends whether perhaps we are not overdoing the amount of information we give, and the amount of opportunity we give for words to be spoken which are deeply resented by those in the task force who have been given a military job to do, and should be given the opportunity to carry it out without constant threats that their efforts may have proved in vain.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I have decided that it is quite impossible for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to please everybody in relation to information in a state of hostilities when the country is not at war. There are those who ask him for more; there are those who ask him for more earlier. There are those who tell him to give less, and to give it later. I am certain that whatever my right honourable friend does he will be open to criticism. There are important factors of every kind. The military ones are supreme, and the safety of the task force is supreme; but there are factors which affect the backing for the operation in this country and abroad, and they are important, and they have to be taken into account in terms of the kind of information that is given.

I take this opportunity of saying that the much publicised suggestion by certain correspondents with the Second Battalion of the Parachute Regiment that the Ministry of Defence revealed a forthcoming attack on Darwin and Goose Green, as far as I can see, is completely without foundation. My right honourable friend caused an inquiry to be made immediately and we can find no evidence of any such revelation. It is true that in all areas of the media, in a situation of free media, there was speculation that the most likely place for a first attack, which one look at the map would reveal, was Darwin and Goose Green, and there was a great deal of speculation, including a World Services BBC programme. I believe that the correspondents concerned have confused speculation with what was issued by the MoD, which in fact was late, was after the event, and we were criticised for the fact that it was late.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, would not the Minister agree that in view of the frequent statements issued by the Ministry of Defence about an imminent assault on Port Stanley and the surrounding area, the events recorded in the last 24 hours are unexpected and exceedingly disturbing? Would he not agree that much of the trouble has occurred because of political intervention not only in the United Kingdom but in the Security Council and the United Nations, and from oscillations in American attitude, and also the frequent mischievous statements that have appeared in the press media?

Although every one of us is agreed that casualties are bound to have occurred in the circumstances, although naturally we do not ask for details, would he not agree that those of us who are disturbed by what has happened and expected events to be other than those that have occurred, would prefer, until the Ministry of Defence inquiry into the circumstances that occurred, the unexpected appearance of sophisticated aircraft, and the like, to refrain from asking questions, however important? Although in the opinion of some of us those questions have to be asked at some time, in the circumstances we had better let the thing pass for the next 24 hours.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, may I start by fully agreeing with, and thanking, the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, for his call for restraint in questions, which I very much appreciate. I do not think, however, that the Ministry of Defence has ever issued statements of imminent assault. I do, however, understand, I believe, what is in his mind when he talks about political intervention and mentions the media also. Certainly we have discussed, both my noble friend and I in this House following these statements, the movements of international opinion and the logicality, or lack of logicality, for them. I do not think it would be helpful for me to go over that ground again today. I should like to say to the noble Lord that although, as the Statement makes clear, this is a setback, my right honourable friend has always warned that there would be casualties, that there would be setbacks, but that we will achieve our objective; and that is still his view and our view.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount some questions and assure him that I ask them in the full knowledge of their implications? Is it not a fact that some of the tragedies which have taken place in the Falkland Islands have been the result of setting aside, for one reason or another, the fundamental military principle that every effort should be made to protect those in the operational area from attack by the enemy by air? May I ask Her Majesty's Government—I ask this in all seriousness and solemnity —for how long they can sustain a policy which appears to grant total immunity to the bases from which those air attacks are made?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, it is not accurate for the noble Lord to say that the military advisers to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of State himself or the Government have for one moment set aside the principle of the need to get the greatest degree of air superiority that is possible in any area of conflict. Indeed, the noble Lord will recall not only the aircraft casualties of the Argentine but the percentages; up to 70 per cent. of the aeroplanes sent out by the Argentines in a day destroyed. I believe it is true to say that, even beyond the range of support from land-based aircraft, we have achieved a very high degree of air superiority. But it is never, or very rarely, total, and, as I have said, an aircraft can always get through. May I ask the noble Lord to remind me of the second part of his supplementary, which was important?

Lord Chalfont

The second part contained the whole point of the question, my Lords; namely, that one of the elementary ways of achieving air superiority is to attack the bases from which the air attacks are made. I recognise that there are difficulties but I am asking a serious question. For how long can Her Majesty's Government sustain that policy?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, my right honourable friend and I have replied to a similar question before and I really have nothing to add to the statement that we shall keep all military options open, and we shall continue to do that. The practicality of the course of putting an airfield of any kind, even a small one with one airstrip, out of action is well known to the military experts on each side. It is not an easy task. Thus, the military practicalities of the course, leaving out any question of an extension of the conflict, have to be very carefully considered.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, it is only as a former wartime pilot in the Fleet Air Arm that I presume to ask the noble Viscount some questions. Are not the disasters of Tuesday one more piece of evidence of the folly of sending the task force to the Falklands with the protection of no more than 20 fighter aircraft?—no more than I personally commanded on one small carrier in 1945. Apparently those were the only aircraft available for the purpose in the Fleet Air Arm, and they have now had to be supplemented by RAF planes. Is he aware of the extraordinary stresses under which the pilots of those planes have been operating and the extremely high rate of casualties they have suffered—perhaps two dozen, I do not know how many; two dozen pilots to fly 20 aircraft was about what we used to have—and that those casualties are now approaching perhaps 50 per cent? Can he assure the House that he is fully appreciative of the extreme gallantry and devotion to duty shown by the pilots of the Fleet Air Arm who flew those Harriers, which was in the highest tradition of the service?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the noble Lord does not have his facts right, and I am not prepared to put them right. There has been mention of reinforcement of Harriers by one ship or another going to the South Atlantic. We have never given total numbers and I assure the noble Lord that his facts are not right in terms of numbers. Furthermore, he will be aware that these days aerial warfare is fought not only by aeroplanes but by missiles also, and we have inflicted very heavy losses on the enemy by surface to air missiles. I would remind him that we have not lost a single Harrier in air combat, although the Harriers have shot down the greatest proportion of over 60 combat aircraft which the Argentines have lost. My previous statement—that we have achieved a fair measure of air superiority—is accurate. Of course, we do pay, and always have paid, the highest tribute to the pilots of the Harriers and to all of those who have been manning the missile systems under attack on Her Majesty's ships.

The Earl of Selkirk

Whether or not we are making too many statements, my Lords, would my noble friend agree that we should leave the task force in no shadow of doubt of our deep and profound admiration for the manner in which they have conducted their affairs, the hardships they have endured, the courage they have shown and the skill of the commander in carrying out an extremely difficult campaign, as well as of our profound assurance that they will be supplied with all they require in order to bring the campaign to a successful conclusion?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I would merely say, "Hear, hear".

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, may we assume that, before any decision is taken, if it should be taken, to bomb the bases on the mainland of the Argentine, Parliament will be consulted as to the advisability of so extending the war?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I have nothing to add to what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and I have said before on the subject.

Lord Lovat

My Lords, what steps, if any, have been taken to seek out and destroy the Argentine aircraft carrier, the "Vienticinco de Mayo"? If we are not to attack the mainland bases, is it not possible that a good many aircraft are flying from that carrier?

Viscount Trenchard

Again, my Lords, I would rather not go into military details. I believe we have taken every practical step to date to safeguard our task force in all practical ways that the military have advised.

Lord Hankey

My Lords, before we leave—

Lord Denham

My Lords, I know the House would not grudge any time to the seriousness of this occasion, but I wonder whether any more questions would be helpful to the task force, and whether possibly we might leave it there?