Falklands gamble: BBC journalist lifts lid on risky bid to liberate islands from Argentina

Falklands War: Weather threatened UK forces reveals Fox

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But looking back 40 years on, he said far from being a foregone conclusion, the success of the UK’s attempt to liberate the British overseas territory was in doubt almost until the end. Based in the capital of Buenos Aires, Harold, the author of a book about his time covering the conflict and its aftermath, was all-too-familiar with the relentless brutality of the regime of Leopoldo Galtieri. Having been based in South America since 1979, Harold, now aged 91, also understood the important position the remote archipelago Argentinians call Las Malvinas occupied within the national psyche.

However, ultimately it was his sharp journalistic instincts which told him something was about to happen.

Harold explained: “I covered the whole of the dictatorship’s campaign of repression, and they made several death threats against me. From time to time, I felt I had to leave Argentina for my own safety, because they killed 30,000 of their own people, including 120 journalists.

“I got a tip-off from the captain of the British Antarctic patrol vessel HMS Endurance, on which I was going to go to the Falklands that very month, saying that he couldn’t pick me up in Montevideo in Uruguay because he was stuck in South Georgia.

“That’s what gave me the clue that there was something wrong, and I hurried back to Argentina.”

Mr Briley added: “The British government had warnings for 10 years, from their own intelligence services, about Argentina’s aggressive intentions, but for some reason, the Government didn’t realise the risk.

“Argentina had had an invasion plan in place for 20 years previously, and after the war I interviewed the two men who updated that plan so that it was bang up to date. It was no shock to me when it happened.”

The same could not be said for the Iron Lady herself. Mr Briley said: “I interviewed Margaret Thatcher many times. I knew her very well, previously as a political correspondent, and she told me it came as a complete surprise to her.

“The second thing she said was: ‘The worst thing I had to do in my life was to send men to war, knowing some will not come back’.”

Mr Briley believes the timing of the invasion, on April 2, 1982, was no coincidence, stressing: “The country’s military rulers realised that they were in danger of being brought down by a rebellion. In fact, three days before the invasion, there was a huge demonstration outside the presidential palace in the main square in Argentina, Plaza de Mayo, in which they demanded the end of military rule.”

He added: “Within three or four days, the government had given the order to invade. They foolishly invaded several weeks before the planned date, later in the year – with the onset of winter, it would have been impossible for the British to liberate the islands. They brought it forward because they feared they might be brought down by their own people.”

Margaret Thatcher was told by nearly all her advisers, political and military, that it was impossible to retake the Falkland Islands

Harold Briley

Furthermore, then-Defence Secretary John Nott had been in the process of imposing economic cuts on the Navy, which involved selling the two main aircraft carriers, troop-carrying vessels and frigates.

Mr Briley said: “Fortunately, they hadn’t been delivered to the people they were sold to, so they were still available to form the core of the task force.

“Margaret Thatcher was told by nearly all her advisers, political and military, that it was impossible to retake the Falkland Islands. The one man who advised otherwise was the head of the Navy, Admiral Sir Henry Leach.

“He had been in danger of being sacked by Nott because he objected to the Navy cuts. He knew very well the risks of sending a fleet so close to ground-based aircraft, because he himself was based in Singapore during the war, when his father, who was a Royal Navy captain, was killed when a Japanese air attack sank his ship.”

Prior to the invasion, the Government’s policy was essentially identical to that of previous administrations, Mr Briley said.

He explained: “Her policy right up to the day of the invasion was to transfer sovereignty within peaceful negotiations.

“Once the invasion happened, she realised she was in a terrible position. The fact that we had the fleet sailing within three days, which was remarkable. I don’t think it was opportunistic – but it was good timing for her.”

The stakes were high for Mrs Thatcher, under pressure domestically as a result of the ongoing recession and the miner’s strike. Success could transform her political fortunes – but on the other hand, it was a mission which came with no guarantees of success.

Mr Briley said: “If she had failed, she would have been out immediately. It was not clear what the outcome would be. It was a very risky decision. Winter was coming rapidly, and Antarctic winters are awful, and secondly, the task force was running out of ammunition.”

Meanwhile patriotic fervour swept through Argentina as the nation rallied behind the flag.

Mr Briley said: “I watched the demonstration on the morning of the invasion. Galtieri came out on the platform immaculately dressed in uniform, held up his arms to embrace the crowd and shouted ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinas’, (The Falklands belong to Argentina). The crowd went wild with enthusiasm – having three days earlier been demonstrating against him. It transformed the attitude of the population to the government.”

As the conflict wore on, however, the truth began to filter through. Mr Briley’s book, Fight For Falklands Freedom, offers a blow-by-blow account of the three-month war, and his vital role in filing regular radio reports explaining the latest developments in the rapidly evolving conflict in the days before the internet.

He said: “As the news filtered through, partly thanks to the BBC, of course, because they were listening to the BBC throughout my broadcasts, they realised halfway through that they were being beaten.

“Argentina has all the military advantages. They had quite efficient pilots with modern, mainly French-built aircraft with a deadly missile, the Exocet, which sank the Sheffield and the Atlantic Conveyor.

“It was a close-run thing, a very risky thing. But one which was achieved because of the tremendous training, experience, fitness and determination of the British troops. Mission Impossible I called it.”

Since his election in 2019, Alberto Fernandez, Argentina’s President, has made no secret of his intention to push his country’s sovereignty claim, although he has never suggested he would seek to do so via military means.

Nevertheless, Mr Briley believes any such attempt would be doomed in any case, given Britain spends £60 million pounds annually on the security of the islands, with 500 infantry permanently based there.

He concluded: “My opinion is that it’s impregnable. The Argentines could make attempts to take it but they would fail.”

Fight for Falklands Freedom: Reporting Live from Argentina and the Islands is published by The History Press. All profits are being donated to research into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

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