|25th anniversary of the Falklands War
Carol Thatcher: My Mother's War
By CAROL THATCHER
24th March 2007
Twenty-five years ago, Carol Thatcher watched with pride as her mother sent British troops to liberate the Falkands. Here she reveals how she told women who lost sons on the Belgrano why her mother was right to authorise its sinking...
Ascension Island was behind us – next stop the Falklands. Flying high above the ocean, I settled down in my seat to read my Lonely Planet guide to the islands.
A fellow passenger was surprised. As the daughter of Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister who sent British troops to recapture the islands from Argentina 25 years ago, didn’t I already know everything there was to know about this windswept outcrop in the South Atlantic? Didn’t I have them etched on my heart and soul?
Fair comment, I acknowledged. But, despite feeling a close connection to the islands and thinking about little else during those traumatic weeks of war, I had never visited, and therefore lacked a bit of local knowledge.
Not that I would be short of assistance when I arrived. I was making a documentary to mark the 25th anniversary of the conflict and was planning to meet islanders and veterans who had promised to show me the battlefields and share their memories of being on the frontline of my mother’s war.
I had hundreds of questions that had been building up over the years and the anniversary seemed like the ideal time to go in search of the answers.
I wanted to know what it was like to be under Argentinian occupation, what the islanders had done to help the British soldiers and what their lives were like now. These people have a special place in my mother’s heart and I wanted to meet them face to face.
But perhaps the most dramatic moment of my trip came when I confronted relatives of those men killed by the sinking of the Argentine cruiser the General Belgrano – an action authorised by my mother.
Visiting the Falklands after all this time, I felt like someone with a slowly-developing Polaroid; finally everything I’d read and heard was about to come into sharp focus.
There are only two ways of flying into the Falkland Islands. One is the weekly flight from Santiago, Chile, which makes various stops along the way.
The other, and the path I took, is a flight from RAF Brize Norton with a stop in Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. From the short transit stop there – in an open-air picnic area alongside the tarmac dubbed ‘The Cage’ – it’s due south towards the South Pole.
In The Cage, a couple of teenage girls who recognised me from the television show I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here!, came and introduced themselves. One played the trombone and the other the sax in their school orchestra and were off to play a series of concerts in the Falkland Islands.
My first reaction was one of sheer astonishment at the exotic nature of today’s school trips in comparison to the rather tame excursions of my generation. Then the trombone player said her father had been posted to the islands and had assured her that, since it was summer there, she wouldn’t be exposed to the notorious biting wind.
This came as a relief and several hours later, as we began our descent into the airport at the capital, Stanley, I noticed how parched and brown the islands looked – quite different from the rain and snow-soaked peat bogs over which the troops had yomped in 1982.
Stepping off the plane, however, the trombone player’s weather forecast seemed somewhat wide of the mark – the wind almost blew me off my feet.
I went straight to Stanley, my base for the next ten days, and checked into my hotel. The town was exactly as my parents, who visited twice, in 1983 and 1992, had described it to me: a small settlement of clapboard houses, with red telephone boxes, six pubs and an unmistakable British character.
The next morning I headed out to the old airport near the town and met Gerald Cheek, 65, who had been the head of civil aviation in 1982. From the control tower he pointed out where the Argentinian invasion force had landed at 11pm on April 1 and described to me how they had advanced towards Stanley. Standing with Gerald, all the turbulent emotions I felt at the shocking news of the invasion resurfaced. It had taken my mother and the Government completely by surprise.
Britain had claimed sovereignty over the islands since 1833 and the local population was composed almost entirely of British stock. Successive military governments in Argentina had stepped up their claims to the Falklands throughout the Seventies and early Eighties, but the Foreign Office had been confident of a diplomatic solution to the row.
Then, without warning, the Argentinian leader General Leopoldo Galtieri lost patience and opted for a military solution.
On the evening of Friday, April 2, 1982 my father Denis was, characteristically, enjoying a gin and t