Rules of engagement. A new history of the Falklands war defends nearly every aspect of the Tory government’s handling of the crisis, including the decision to sink the Belgrano. By Andrew Roberts

The Official History of the Falklands Campaign

Sir Lawrence Freedman <em>Routledge; volume 1 - 253

"Anger at 'pro-Argentine' official Falklands history", ran the headline in the Mail on Sunday of 19 June. According to the report that followed, Tony Blair had been "politically motivated" to authorise an official history of the Falklands war that supports Argentina's claims to the islands, criticises Margaret Thatcher’s decision to sink the General Belgrano and attacks the Conservatives' handling of the crisis.

Yet before New Statesman readers start licking their lips in anticipation, I must warn them that Sir Lawrence Freedman,

professor of war studies and vice-principal of King's College London, has in fact produced a fascinating, balanced, fantastically well-researched and well-written book that fails to deliver on any of the above. Instead, it supports Margaret Thatcher’s account of the crisis in her memoirs in every detail; and if they want to continue whingeing about the war, Falklands conspiracy theorists will be forced to argue that even this distinguished academic is part of an establishment cover-up.

According to Freedman’s exhaustive but never exhausting account of the events of 1982, there was no real need for either the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, or the minister of defence, John Nott, to have resigned over their handling of the Falklands crisis. Far from there having been some breakdown in intelligence about the Argentinians’ intentions, General Galtieri’s junta did not even take the decision to invade "las Malvinas" until 30 March, and the British were apprised of it the very next day. Nor had the Argentinians decided to attack because of anything that Britain had done, but rather from the classic Bonapartist tendencies of an authoritarian regime keen to divert attention from domestic - in this case industrial - unrest. (When in December 1981 the Foreign Office had suggested that Thatcher congratulate the junta on taking office, she replied that British premiers "do not send messages on the occasion of military takeovers".)

As late as 11am on 31 March the Joint Intelligence Committee was of the opinion that Argentina’s "government does not wish to be the first to adopt forcible measures"; by 7pm it was clear that an invasion was under way, and signals intelligence had intercepted an order from Buenos Aires to the Argentinian embassy in London to burn documents prior to hostilities breaking out.

From being roughly 99th on the government’s list of priorities, the Falkland Islands overnight became the sole focus of its thinking and strategic planning. The Pearl Harbor-style nature of the surprise attack can be illustrated by the fact that, on 31 March, the British foreign secretary was in Israel, the chief of defence staff was in New Zealand, the chief of general staff was in Ulster and the chief of naval staff was in Gibraltar.

The speed, effectiveness and indeed ruthlessness with which Thatcher and senior ministers snapped into action will impress all but the most prejudiced readers. A central hero of this book is the first sea lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, who at a crisis meeting at the House of Commons on 31 March immediately pledged - despite Nott’s misgivings - that a naval task force could force Argentina to disgorge the islands, adding that "if we pussyfoot in our actions and do not achieve complete success, in another few months we shall be living in a different country whose word counts for little". (It is a strength of this book that Freedman managed to interview the other principal naval figures, Admirals Terence Lewin and John Fieldhouse, before they died.)

Because a number of the vessels that were needed for the task force had to come straight from an exercise near Gibraltar, and because speed was of the essence to wrest back the diplomatic and strategic initiative, nuclear depth charges were taken down to the South Atlantic on board HMS Brilliant and HMS Broad-sword, although for safety’s sake they were transferred from those frigates on to the two aircraft carriers. However, there was never any intention to use nuclear weapons, and it is a tribute to the Royal Navy’s commitment to secrecy that it is only 23 years later that we are discovering they were there at all.

The help provided to British forces by General Pinochet of Chile and Caspar Weinberger at the Pentagon are given their proper appreciation in this volume, which is refreshingly free from the modish anti-Americanism so prevalent in much of

academia today. Although some prominent Americans such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Senator Jesse Helms profoundly regretted the way that the Falklands dispute was likely to derail the United States’ anti-communist mission in Latin America, the Reagan administration none the less provided invaluable logistical, weapons, intelligence, diplomatic and satellite support to Britain, as detailed by Freedman in chapter 26 (volume 2) and elsewhere.

The sinking of the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano on

2 May 1982, with the loss of 321 lives, caused such an outcry in British political circles because of a disastrous confusion in the way the news was communicated to the public. Freedman makes it clear that the ship was sunk because the navy considered it a threat, and not in order to derail various Peruvian and American peace proposals, as conspiracy theorists have alleged.

If it had been stated clearly at the time that the British submarine HMS Conqueror had sunk the enemy vessel outside the total exclusion zone rather than inside it, and while it was steaming away from the Falklands rather than towards it, but that Admiral Sandy Woodward still considered it could pose a threat to British lives, there would not have been the controversy there was during this war, which was overwhelmingly popular with the British people. The navy was concerned that the Belgrano and its supporting destroyers represented the southern part of a pincer movement that could be neutralised only by sinking the cruiser.

Freedman’s chapter dealing with the incident shows that when, at 11.45 GMT, the war cabinet took the unanimous decision to sink the Belgrano, it had changed course and was steaming towards the shallow water of Burdwood Bank, straddling the exclusion zone south of the islands, where HMS Conqueror might well have lost contact with her. Britain therefore changed the rules of engagement to allow the sinking, in a decision that Willie Whitelaw called among the easiest he had ever had to take in politics. "Particularly compelling," writes Freedman, "was the question of what the politicians would say if they had refused the military request when the Belgrano could have been sunk, and the cruiser then went on to sink a British carrier with hundreds of casualties."

Conqueror received the new rules only as the Belgrano changed course at 17.10 GMT, by which time the decision to sink her was Woodward’s alone. As she had already made no fewer than three major changes in direction over the previous 19 hours, there was no telling whether she might not make a fourth turn back towards Burdwood Bank, to which she was still perilously close when she was sunk at 18.57 GMT. As events turned out, Woodward’s decision proved the correct one, and doubtless saved hundreds of lives on both sides by persuading the Argentinian fleet to stay in port for the rest of the war and not risk a major battle against the Royal Navy out in the open sea.

Andrew Roberts’s most recent book is Waterloo: Napoleon’s last gamble (HarperCollins)

Richard Gott will respond to this article in next week's NS