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1 April 2002

Was Mrs Thatcher right?

William Gill, checking old rumours about the Falklands war, talked to an Argentinian ex-captain. Wha

By William Gill

It all started just after the end of the Falklands war, when I had been working as an architect in London for ten years. Among our clients was a most respectable European businessman who, among many other things, owned a large shipyard in the Caribbean. One morning, my partner told me an intriguing bit of gossip. The Royal Navy had approached our client (most discreetly) to check whether his shipyard was large enough to take HMS Invincible, which needed to be repaired before it returned home.

Although it is part of my memory of the conversation, I’m not sure now whether my partner then added that the reason for this was that the aircraft carrier had been hit during the campaign. I had heard so many wild stories whenever I spoke to my relatives in Buenos Aires during the war that it could be that, over time, I had spliced together two separate memories. I had believed some of those stories, but the British recapture of the Islands proved them wrong. My feelings about the war were equally conflicted. I was born in Argentina, and had lived there until I finished university. My family, my oldest friends, the landscape of my childhood, were all there. Although already married to my English wife, I was still an Argentine citizen.

Like virtually everyone else born in Argentina, I considered British sovereignty over the Islands to be a case of “might is right”. On the other hand, I had left Argentina in 1972 because of the looming sense of hopelessness that blighted my generation – and is now cursing the country again. The military dictatorship was the result of that decay, and I detested it. People I knew had disappeared.

My conflict of loyalties, the clash between old and new ties, reason and emotion, reached a peak on the day the Belgrano was sunk. At the time, I was a member of the committee of the Anglo-Argentine Society. With the perversity of real life that seems contrived in fiction, our monthly meeting was scheduled for that very afternoon. It was extremely awkward. The sinking almost divided the committee along national lines – not because of a regret for the loss of life, which was general, but in the perception of its justification. From my point of view, nobody had died during the invasion. “Real” military action still seemed unthinkable. The Belgrano was outside the exclusion zone. It was a relic from the 1930s; the idea that it had posed any kind of threat to a state-of-the-art fleet was hard to entertain. I agreed with those who saw it as a clever, callous political move: Margaret Thatcher had made sure that a war she could not lose became inevitable.

But the war was short, life went back to normal, and my links with Argentina continued to loosen. I didn’t see relatives or friends for a few years. Eventually, one of my cousins came to London in the mid-1980s, when restrictions eased a bit. He told me that Fernando Azcueta, his wife’s cousin, had been in command of the only Argentine submarine active during the Falklands campaign, the San Luis.

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According to my cousin, Captain Azcueta had managed to locate Invincible and had fired two torpedoes at it, although both failed to explode. I remembered the European banker and his shipyard. After I saw Invincible on TV, sailing into harbour as undamaged as when it had left, I had dismissed that story, too. Now my cousin’s account made me wonder if there had been something in that small anecdote, after all. I did not pursue the story, though, until I was in Buenos Aires last autumn, and I heard about preparations for the 20th anniversary of the war. I asked my cousin to arrange a meeting with Fernando Azcueta.

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Like many among the better off in Buenos Aires, Fernando and his wife, Lia, don’t live within the city boundaries, but in a new country club built in the park of a former grand estate, now engulfed by suburbs. As soon as security allows you through the gates, you are in another country, where the grass is always green, and every house has a big swimming pool shaded by splendid mature trees. But this idyllic compound is encircled by an ever-growing ring of shanty towns, where immigrants from Bolivia, Paraguay and the poorest provinces have been joined by recent casualties of the long recession among the city’s working and lower-middle class. In three years, the number of people below the poverty line has trebled, to just over 50 per cent of the population. It is largely on the half-finished, unrendered cement block walls of the sturdier shacks that the graffito “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” can be seen in Buenos Aires. By now, most people – other than veterans, or relations of soldiers who died in the Islands – don’t often think about that war.

Fernando Azcueta has the well-scrubbed appearance not unusual among naval officers, as if all that sea air and spray have rendered them clean for ever. But there is a reticent sadness in his eyes. During the journey, my cousins told me that they had heard through the family grapevine that he had a very hard time after the end of the war. “Tell me about the day you hit Invincible,” I prompt him.

“I wish I could say I did. I fired at a number of targets, but none of my torpedoes ever hit anything. We had too many technical problems.”

So, after 20 years, it all amounted to a non-event. Whatever the reason behind the Royal Navy’s inquiries about shipyards, it wasn’t because Invincible had been hit by torpedoes fired by Captain Azcueta. However, by now he is telling me about the war, and his is an interesting story. He took command of the San Luis ten days before the invasion of the Falklands, when he found all sorts of problems and shortcomings due to neglect or bad maintenance. There had barely been time to assess them, let alone repair them, when he was ordered to sail into the exclusion zone and find the task force. San Luis was equipped with wire-guided torpedoes. Each torpedo is attached to a 20-mile-long cable, which uncoils after firing. The on-board computer assesses sonar information about the target, and the direction of the missile is adjusted accordingly, by sending signals to the torpedo’s controls through the wire.

“The on-board computer to guide the torpedoes did not work properly. We tried to repair it, and we tried to correct our aim through manual calculations, without success. I don’t think any of our torpedoes exploded anywhere near the target.”

Fernando Azcueta was at sea for 40 days. He spent much of it lying at the bottom of the sea, with the engines shut down, to avoid detection. He had been spotted, and was being tracked. The temperature within the submarine was a constant 2 C (like the sea outside), warm water for washing was available only once during the campaign, and the computer was not the only mechanical failure: some of the wire leads were faulty, too. On top of this, and the constant tension arising from the cat-and-mouse game with the Royal Navy and the rumbling of depth charges, halfway through the war one of his officers had a religious awakening, and started preaching pacifism to the crew.

However, his worst time was when he was back home, after the Argentine defeat. Like a few other officers, Azcueta did not remain silent about the shortcomings in maintenance, planning and command that had jeopardised the life of his men. His questions and his unique position as the only naval officer engaged in action during the whole campaign (after the sinking of the Belgrano on 2 May, the rest of the Argentine fleet, unable to counter the threat of nuclear submarines, never left port) turned him into a heroic embarrassment for his superiors, already embattled by the collapse of the military dictatorship.

Soon after his return, Azcueta was withdrawn from active service, and sent to Germany as naval attache. Now I understand the sadness in his face; this man was stopped from doing what he loved.

“Where were you on the day Belgrano was sunk?” I ask.

“Trying to find a British ship to fire at,” he replies.

“But I thought hostilities did not start until Belgrano was hit.”

Azcueta smiles faintly.

“I was firing at British ships the day before. That our torpedoes did not explode or were wide of the target is another matter. That day, I was taking part in the same attack as Belgrano. We had located a British task group, including one of the carriers, north of the Islands. The plan was to attack in a pincer movement. Our planes would bomb the task force, and Belgrano, which was an old thing but had good guns, would provide artillery support. It wasn’t so simple, though. Our Skyhawks had to carry a full load of fuel and bombs, and in that case the planes can’t take off unless they are helped by wind of at least 25 knots. At that time of the year, much stronger winds are common in the south Atlantic, but that day the weather was as calm as a summer day. If our carrier had been more modern, it would have been possible to set it at full speed to create its own wind, but the engines were not powerful enough. We waited for the weather to change. After many hours, it became obvious that it wouldn’t, and the attack was cancelled. By then, Belgrano had been spotted by HMS Conqueror. It was struck outside the exclusion zone, on the way back from our aborted attack.”

I remembered that afternoon in London nearly 20 years ago, hearing the news that Belgrano had been sunk on its way to port. Argentina’s version was that it had been patrolling the edges of the exclusion zone. I remembered my anger, and the arguments against the appalling loss of life. After 20 years, I still hadn’t found out the reason why Invincible needed to be repaired. Instead, I had discovered the last thing I wanted or expected to find. Thatcher was almost certainly right in ordering the sinking of the Belgrano.

Its non-belligerence was solely due to high atmospheric pressure and lack of wind.