HL Deb 24 May 1982 vol 430 cc967-74

3.40 p.m.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Viscount Trenchard)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence in the other place.

The Statement was as follows:

"Mr. Speaker, Seven weeks ago, when Argentinian forces invaded the Falkland Islands, my right honourable 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, 20th 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 Commanders, members of the Parachute Regiment and supporting arms during their six weeks' voyage into the South Atlantic. While they sailed south, the Government worked unremittingly to persuade Argentina to withdraw peacefully and honourably 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 re-possession 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 servicemen have been greatly encouraged by the support that they have received from right honourable and honourable Members of this House.

"Mr. Speaker, 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.

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

"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 have penetrated our air defence screen inflicted damage on five of our ships. Of these, the Type 21 frigate HMS 'Ardent' was severely damaged and, 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 their attacks on ships of the task force in the 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.

"Mr. Speaker, I regret to confirm that in yesterday's action, the frigate, HMS 'Antelope', sustained severe damage. Our latest information —and this is 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.

"Mr. Speaker, the intensive fighting of the last few days has produced tragic loss of life on our side, and the House will join with 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 servicemen. 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.

"Mr. Speaker, 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 ".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Peart

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement. On behalf of the Opposition, I should like to endorse the tribute paid to the force commander and to all members of the British task force, including the Merchant Navy, for the great skill, courage and determination they have shown in the most difficult conditions. May we express the hope that the operation will be brought to a swift and successful conclusion. May I further join with the noble Viscount in conveying our deepest sympathies to the families of those who have sacrificed their lives, and our best wishes to those who have suffered injury.

Before the final phase of the reoccupation starts in earnest, may I ask the noble Viscount whether the Government will consider giving the Argentinian troops every opportunity to surrender peacefully so as to avoid further unnecessary bloodshed, and to accompany this with an assurance that all facilities will be afforded by the British Government for the quick return of Argentinian soldiers to their homes and families? The Secretary of State for Defence said last week: Even if we are forced to make the military option, the process of negotiations will not end". Do the Government still hold by that view?

3.53 p.m.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, my noble friends and I share to the full the heartfelt sympathy that has been expressed for the relatives and friends of those who have been killed or wounded in this action. That need not, I think, prevent us from taking note of the success with which the task force has pursued its objectives with the minimum loss of life. I think it is fair to say that too.

We also join in paying tribute to the courage and determination of all those who took part in this brilliant military success. We pay tribute also to those responsible for the logistics, administration and planning of this operation, since there can seldom have been any military campaign in which the "teeth" have owed so much to the "tail". As for the future, the noble Viscount said: … there can be no question of pressing the force commander to move forward prematurely". My noble friends and I neither expect nor wish that on this kind of subject at this kind of time Government Statements should be in the least bit informative—not in the least—and in this respect we congratulate the noble Viscount on his forecasts for the future. Indeed, I think we would forgive Ministers if, in the interests of the forces, some of their statements were positively disinformative at some time. It may be that before the invasion some of the official statements and official briefings were disinformative. If, on the other hand, the force commander decides to make a quick end to the campaign with a vigorous and immediate advance, he will certainly get nothing but support from my noble friends and myself. It is when the islanders have been liberated that the time will come to speak of a cease-fire.

3.55 p.m.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Leader of the Labour Opposition and the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, for those sentiments. I am quite sure that the task force and all those engaged in this operation will be well supported by the unanimity of this House on essential matters. I can assure the noble Lord that'the commander will encourage surrender by any possible means. Indeed, this we have always wanted to achieve, in order to ensure that bloodshed is kept to an absolute minimum. I can also assure the noble Lord that there will always have to be a place for negotiations and that this dispute in the end, from whatever position, can only be settled by negotiation.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, mentioned that never has there been an operation where the "teeth" have owed so much to the "tail". Indeed he is right, and the Statement pays tribute to the tail. Over 40 civilian ships have been taken over from trade and industry, totalling over 500,000 gross tonnage; nearly 400 sorties have been flown to Ascension Island by air, lifting over 4,000 tonnes of freight and 4,000 passengers. But let us remember the teeth as well and particularly the Royal Navy, who took the brunt of the air force counter-attack while our troops consolidated their essential positions ashore.

I can tell the noble Lord that our statements will continue to be factual. The timing of them and the complete details and how soon they are revealed will, of course, pay first attention to the security and success of the task force.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, we on this Bench join the Government and the other Opposition parties in expressing our grief at the dead, our sympathy with their families and our congratulations for the outstanding success of this operation so far. Indeed it is the case, and it is the measure of our success, I believe, that the Government now enjoy the support of the United Nations, of NATO, of the European Community, whose members have renewed their sanctions indefinitely today, and of all the Opposition parties in the country. May I ask one more question which is not of operational significance? Have the Government anything to say about the reports that New Zealand has made available a frigate for duties hitherto carried out by a British ship elsewhere in the world?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for his remarks. As far as international support is concerned, the noble Lord will be aware that the Security Council, as far as we know, is still debating the situation, but we believe and hope that their eyes are being kept fully focused on the fact that this incident started through unprovoked aggression by the Argentine.

As far as international support of the EEC and NATO is concerned, we have welcomed that, and I can confirm to the noble Lord that it is correct that the EEC today have confirmed that they will extend their sanctions for the time being and they have not fixed a date for renewal. We are very much encouraged by the firm renewal of their support in this way, even though we know that two of their members have certain reservations.

I cannot confirm the offer of the New Zealand frigate, but certainly our allies and our NATO allies have shown major co-operation in taking over roles done by the ships which are normally in the North Atlantic and which are now in the South Atlantic.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that while all of us share the admiration which has been expressed for the courage and skill of our forces, the number of lives lost in this tragic affair if, sadly, things continue on their present course, looks likely within a few days to approach the total number of the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands? In these circumstances, is he aware that those of us who disagree with Government policy in this matter, even though we are a minority at present, are entitled to be heard? Will he provide an early opportunity for that?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, as far as opportunities are concerned, they will be discussed through the normal channels. I have before in this House suggested that the number of Falkland islanders is not a relevant point.

Several noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Viscount Trenchard

All dictatorship aggressors start with fairly small aggressions and all appeasement in the past has started with small appeasements; but the example that would go out to the world if we gave in to this aggression would have repercussions all over the world, and in the end this loss of life and liberty would far exceed the number of the Falkland islanders.

Lord Monson

My Lords, in order to minimise casualties among British servicemen, which must be our prime concern, will Her Majesty's Government consider giving an ultimatum to Argentina to cease her air attacks upon the British Fleet forthwith, or risk the possibility of having the bases from which these attacks are being mounted taken out?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has before now answered questions on the case for a possible attack on land bases of Argentina. The Government, while not closing any options for the future, have not regarded that alternative as one which would be fruitful in terms of the task before us. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, should take note of the progress of the air fighting over the Falkland Islands. I very much doubt whether the losses which have been sustained by the Argentinians over recent days, and since the beginning of operations—which amount to some 35 combat aircraft—can be sustained with the same vigour. Certainly, if the Argentinians suffer losses of more than 70 per cent. of the aircraft taking part in a raid, then I think we are winning that battle without recourse to a major extension of the hostilities.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he is concerned about penetration into military intelligence by the media, who subsequently make it public? This morning the BBC announced a figure for the number of troops on the Falkland Islands which was at variance with what the Secretary of State has said. Is it really wise that those figures, whether accurate or not, should be made public when lives are at stake?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the media has been a problem in this situation of hostilities and not war. While we have noticed the exceptions where things have gone wrong, I believe that, on the whole, the Government's decision to leave a free media and to ask the media to take its own steps to be responsible, and the policy of issuing statements ourselves as early as we can of the true figures, have kept the position under control. It is the view of the Chiefs of Staff that we have not given information to the enemy which is valuable to them. The Secretary of State has announced the battalions which are ashore and the approximate numbers of those, with their supporting equipment, can be worked out by different commentators; but they are of the order of the reports which the BBC have given.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, may I ask this of my noble friend: would it not encourage the Argentinians to surrender if we told Argentina's Chiefs of Staff that if they did not surrender within a certain time, we would send in our Vulcans to bomb the Argentinian positions around Port Stanley?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, all of us enjoy being armchair strategists, not least an old soldier from the last war, but I think I will leave it to the commander as to how he should deal with the airstrip at Port Stanley.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Minister whether it is not a little worrying that accounts in certain newspapers—and particularly in the Guardian—about the reaction by Governments at the United Nations were very hostile in relation to the whole business of the Falkland Islands?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I believe that we still retain a great deal of support across the world, as I have said. I believe it is true to say that a public international forum—when hostilities which we all dislike are in progress—is bound to be taken up by those who say, not unnaturally, "For goodness sake, case the hostilities now". Nobody more than Her Majesty's Government have wanted, first, to avoid hostilities, and then to bring them to an end as fast as possible. We shall be doing our best to make sure that the vast majority of nations realise that the aggressor left us with no alternative.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, is the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, aware that the Government themselves deserve congratulations for the speed and force with which this blow has been struck? Is the noble Viscount also aware that, quite apart from the fighting ships, the tail of this expedition alone is of considerably greater tonnage than that of the entire Spanish Armada? It has been sent on its way over many thousands of miles in the course of a few short weeks. Is the noble Viscount aware that the whole world is amazed at what we have managed to do?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I am not an expert on the Spanish Armada, but I will tell the noble Viscount that we have no intention of ending up the same way.

Lord Balfour of Inchrye

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend one brief question? Our thoughts and our prayers are with those who have suffered losses. Can the Government give an assurance that service facilities, charitable facilities and, if necessary, public money also will go at once to those bereaved people so that their standards of living and family life can continue during their time of grief?

Viscount Trenchard

I am grateful to my noble friend for raising that subject, my Lords. I believe that standard practice does provide for what he has mentioned and that papers and instructions to all concerned have been got out. As to what the final form of help will be, that will have to be judged as time goes on.

Lord Balfour of Inchrye

It is an immediate need, my Lords.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that in so far as this whole business did not start with military action, it will end with military action, and that it is vital that, regardless of how few in number the Falkland islanders are, they are not to be sacrificed to a fascist military junta—and that is the basis of the authority of our action? After that, is it not also sensible that at some time, perhaps when the battle is ending, the Government will start thinking of the connections which end the battle and the commencement of a new era for peace in all of that area?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, that is our hope—and I am delighted to be able to say that to the noble Lord, Lord Molloy.