The release of a witness account detailing the “folly” of an operation in which 56 service personnel died on ships off the Falkland islands – the deadliest day for the British military since 1945 – has prompted fresh calls for the government to unseal all files relating to the tragedy.
Attacks by Argentinian Skyhawk planes against the landing ships Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad killed dozens of service personnel on 8 June 1982 and left more than 150 injured, including Simon Weston, the Welsh guard whose disfigured face became a defining image of the conflict.
An official board of inquiry, held in private, found in September 1982 that the tragedy in the freezing waters between Bluff Cove and Fitzroy, west of the capital, Stanley, was not due to “error” but could be put down to the “ordinary chances of war”. Some in the military and elsewhere later blamed the Welsh guards who were on the ships for not disembarking quickly enough.
A trove of witnesses statements and summaries put before the inquiry were not made public at the time, nor since, as the government said they had been given in confidence. The documents are due to remain sealed until 2065 despite efforts since by MPs on behalf of the survivors to find out more.
One key statement has now been disclosed after a freedom of information request by Crispin Black, a retired colonel who was among the survivors of the attacks on Sir Galahad and who has since written a book about the events of the day, Too Thin for a Shroud.
In the released account, given 10 days after the attack, Capt Robin Green, who commanded Sir Tristram, recounts in a six-page statement how he had strongly warned against the “folly” of the attempted landing of men via his ship and Sir Galahad.
Green, who died in 2009 aged 74, recalled in his statement how he had raised concerns two days before the ill-fated operation about the lack of protection being afforded to the two landing vessels against potential attacks from the Argentinian air force.
He further described the operation as “hastily mounted without sufficient thought or planning”.
Green wrote: “I was not too happy about the operation and felt that it was ill-advised to send an LSL [landing ship logistics class ship] round unescorted, and to remain there without protection for at least one day if not two seemed to me to be folly … The whole operation struck me as being hastily mounted without sufficient thought or planning.”
He claimed in his statement that he did not receive the extra air raid ammunition requested before the operation. “I also said I wanted 20 more Blowpipe AA missiles and these were promised but never arrived,” he said. Green recounted how the weather that day was “fine and clear and we were fully exposed for enemy air attack”.
Black, who was 22 at the time of the disaster, said the newly released statement offered a compelling reason to open up all the sealed statements relating to the events leading up to 8 June in order to clear the name of the Welsh guards.
He said: “I think the document does a number of things. Probably most shockingly it gives the captain of Sir Tristram’s view of the plan that he was being asked to carry out: it was a folly and ill-advised.
“He also makes clear there was no air defence and he obviously feels very aggrieved about that. The other thing that it makes absolutely clear is that his order changes a number of times. I think you begin to get an idea of the kind of – how should we say? – planning shortcomings behind the whole of this. It’s not surprising that things start to go wrong.”
There were 14 annexes of evidence to the 1983 board of inquiry, of which 12 have been made available fully or in redacted form. “Two files remain closed – they are annexe E9 ‘first battalion Welsh guards’ and annexe E10 ‘offload of Sir Galahad,’” Black said. “It is a bit like Hamlet without the prince. I think ultimately people just want to know what was going on.”
Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who has been campaigning on behalf of his constituents for transparency, said the ministry of defence should make public all the documents relating to the 8 June 1982.
He said: “It is infuriating that the government continues to hide behind spurious arguments. The families concerned really want to know the truth – and it’s time they were given it.”
A government spokesman said the ministry of defence stood by the 1982 inquiry findings.
He said: “The loss of RFA Sir Galahad due to enemy action was a tragedy. The sacrifice made by those onboard will not be forgotten, and we remain grateful to all the armed forces personnel and civilians who bravely served in the Falklands conflict.
“A Board of Inquiry was convened in 1982 to investigate the loss of RFA Sir Galahad. Under government legislation (the Freedom of Information Act) we reserved the right to withhold documents as appropriate. We remain confident in the board’s findings and recommendations.”