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DOMINIC SANDBROOK reveals how Falklands War made UK finally begin to feel good about itself again

For Rex Hunt, Thursday, April 1, 1982 began like any other day. It was a lovely, bright morning, but in his sprawling Victorian house in the little town of Stanley, the Governor of the Falkland Islands had a pile of paperwork to get through.

At the age of 55, Hunt was a bluff, jolly fellow, a career diplomat who had been posted to the South Atlantic only two years earlier.

Some people might have shuddered at the idea of life alongside just 1,800 fellow islanders in a bleak moorland landscape thousands of miles from Britain. But Hunt loved it.

As soon as he and his wife Mavis arrived, they threw themselves into Falklands life. 

Pottering around in their red London taxi, they shook countless hands, judged innumerable sheepdog trials, accepted endless cups of tea and generally made themselves at home.

Welcome home lads! Royal Mariners return to Britain on the SS Canberra flying the union flag

Now, after a few hours at his desk, Hunt had lunch with his family before returning to his work. Then at 3.30pm came a knock on the door.

It was his radio operator, holding a telegram from the Foreign Office. ‘We have apparently reliable evidence,’ Hunt read in horror, ‘that an Argentine task force will gather off Cape Pembroke early tomorrow morning, April 2. You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly.’

Kiss for my hero: A sailor is greeted on his return to Plymouth

Kiss for my hero: A sailor is greeted on his return to Plymouth 

The signalsman said ruefully: ‘They might have added goodbye and the best of British.’

It was one of the most extraordinary moments in our modern history. For Rex Hunt, the Falkland Islanders and the nations of Britain and Argentina, things would never be the same.

Today, it is easy to dismiss the Falklands War as a comic-opera interlude that made little difference to the lives of most ordinary people. In reality, though, this was the single biggest turning point in Britain’s post-war history.

For three decades, the headlines had been dominated by decline and disappointment. 

And, although Margaret Thatcher had promised to reverse the tide of national defeatism, her first three years had been more of the same.

The Falklands War, however, marked a radical change in the national narrative.

A few months after victory had been secured, journalist Simon Jenkins wrote that the war had brought back ‘national self-respect’, banishing for good the hysterical pessimism about a divided, ungovernable nation.

‘A change has come about in Britain,’ agreed the former Conservative politician Enoch Powell. ‘We are ourselves again.’

Yet, as Rex Hunt stood there that afternoon, the shocking news sinking in, he could barely have imagined what was coming.

To his credit, he remained calm, ordering his staff to burn classified papers and alerting the islands’ tiny Marine garrison. He had a last meal with his family and broke the bad news to the islanders on their little radio channel.

Then came a moment that set the tone for the entire conflict.

Taking cover: The Argentine attack began at dawn the following morning, automatic gunfire echoing around Stanley. (Pictured: Argentine troops in Port Stanley)

Taking cover: The Argentine attack began at dawn the following morning, automatic gunfire echoing around Stanley. (Pictured: Argentine troops in Port Stanley)

After his wife and son left to stay with friends, Hunt went to get his shotgun, only to find his faithful driver had beaten him to it.

 ‘I’ve left the flag up tonight, Sir,’ the driver said, ‘and I’ll shoot any Argie b*****d who tries to take it down.’ By his own account, Hunt was so choked with pride that he turned away to hide his tears.

The Argentine attack began at dawn the following morning, automatic gunfire echoing around Stanley. 

The Marines fought valiantly, but were outnumbered. Hunt knew the game was up. He ordered his men to lay down their weapons.

Broadcasting to the islanders one last time before the Argentines sent him into exile, he said sadly: ‘I’m sorry it’s happened this way. It’s probably the last message I’ll be able to give you, but I wish you all the best of luck. And rest assured that the British will be back.’

Mrs Thatcher and husband Denis visit the Falkland Islands after the victory

Mrs Thatcher and husband Denis visit the Falkland Islands after the victory 

But would they? On that question depended Margaret Thatcher’s career — and Britain’s national honour. At first, though, it was far from certain that Britain would dare to strike back.

The crucial decision actually came before the Argentines landed, when Mrs Thatcher learned that their fleet was steaming towards Stanley. In her Commons office, her advisers told her that there was no serious prospect of recapturing the islands once they were taken.

It was, she recalled, the worst moment of her life: ‘I could not believe it: these were our people, our islands.’ She looked around the room, but the expressions were hopeless.

‘If they are invaded, we have got to get them back,’ she said, desperately. ‘We can’t,’ said her Defence Secretary, John Nott.

Then the door opened, and in walked First Sea Lord Sir Henry Leach, still in uniform after inspecting ships at Portsmouth.

He had no doubt — they must assemble a task force at once. ‘Can we do it?’ asked Mrs Thatcher.

‘Yes, we can, Prime Minister,’ said Leach, ‘and, though it is not my business to say so, yes, we must . . . If we do not, or if we pussyfoot in our actions and do not achieve complete success, in another few months we shall be living in a totally different country whose word will count for little.’

Mrs Thatcher smiled. Leach had told her precisely what she wanted to hear. Britain could fight. Britain could win.

Five days later, in Portsmouth Harbour, the aircraft carriers Invincible and Hermes slipped their moorings and made for the open sea.

It was barely ten o’clock, yet the shoreline was packed with tens of thousands of onlookers, cheering for all they were worth, many of them in tears.

Among them was a veteran of World War I, Tommy Mallen. ‘I thought England was done for, spineless, a doormat for the world,’ he told the Daily Mail.

‘I’d pass the war memorials or see Nelson’s Victory and wonder what it had all been for. But I was wrong, thank God. We are still a proud country and we’ll still protect our own.’

Mr Mallen’s words captured the mood. The Falklands War was one of the most popular campaigns in British history, uniting Tories and diehard Labour voters.

Back in London after being kicked out by the Argentines, Rex Hunt was astounded to find ‘ordinary people from all walks of life, young and old’, writing him letters of support or coming up to him in the street.

On one occasion, he was even accosted under Charing Cross Bridge by a tramp who insisted on shaking his hand with the words: ‘Well done, Guv!’

And in Lancaster, one diarist overheard a group of elderly, working-class men discussing the war. ‘She’s a grand lass,’ one said of Mrs Thatcher, to general approval. ‘We’ll show ’em we’re British, eh?’

On the ships steaming south for war, few of the 10,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen who went down in history as Maggie’s ‘boys’ had any doubts.

‘Let’s get it done and over with,’ thought one paratrooper, Vincent Bramley. ‘We love Maggie for giving us the chance.’

On May 17, as their troop ship neared the islands, Bramley’s platoon commander called his NCOs together. ‘Gents,’ he said, ‘it’s the green light.’

When Bramley told his men, they were wide-eyed with excitement. ‘This is going to be one hell of a f***ing exercise,’ he said, drily.

Silently, through thick fog, the fleet sailed on towards San Carlos. At last, at midnight on May 20–21, they were in position. In Bramley’s cramped cabin, the intercom crackled into life. This was it.

After so long below deck, the first thing that hit them was the shock of the sea air. Their landing craft moved towards the shore, the motor throbbing, bursts of tracer fire lighting up the darkness overhead. ‘Sweat ran down through my hair,’ wrote Bramley. ‘My mouth was dry with nerves. I was longing to land now, even if we had to fight.’

But the landings were a triumph. Even as the Argentines realised what was happening, British troops were moving through the tiny village of San Carlos, where the local farm workers greeted them as liberating heroes. 

In one farmhouse, the settlement manager opened the door warily, then exclaimed: ‘You’re British! We’ve been expecting you these last two or three nights.’

‘We were getting fed up of waiting for you!’ his wife joked. ‘Every morning, we’ve been saying: ‘Perhaps it’ll be today!’ ‘

Not far away, an elderly farm worker was offering soup in a Silver Jubilee mug to the war correspondent John Shirley. ‘You a reporter?’ asked the man. ‘Tell me, did Leeds United get relegated?’

It was, in its way, the most British reaction imaginable.

For the young British soldiers on the islands, the first few days ashore were as cold, wet and miserable as anything they had ever known. Before long, many were suffering from trench foot, their socks sodden, their toes blue and aching.

But, somehow, they kept going. What drove them, Vincent Bramley recalled, was their dread of ‘letting the side down’, of disappointing the ‘lads you fight and work for . . . That fear kept me walking’.

There was, of course, plenty of killing to come, as Argentine missiles streaked forwards the British ships in Bluff Cove and as Mrs Thatcher’s boys fought their way to the top of Mount Longdon, Mount Tumbledown and Wireless Ridge.

But, by June 14, the Argentines’ resistance had been broken.

At nine that evening, Margaret Thatcher got the call she was waiting for. She went across to give the news to the Commons, where cheers echoed around the chamber. Then she went upstairs to her room, packed with well-wishers.

Her loyal deputy, Willie Whitelaw, proposed a toast. ‘I don’t think anybody else but you could have done it,’ he said. At that, one observer remembered, ‘she wept, out of sheer relief’.

It was a genuinely historic moment. But its real significance was far greater than the transformed reputation of one woman.

As the Mail’s Robin Oakley wrote at the time, the war was one of those ‘moments which can lift a nation’s mood and alter its history’, marking the ‘restoration of Britain’s pride and self-confidence’.

Nobody, though, put it better than Mrs Thatcher herself. For decades, she told an audience a few weeks later, Britain had been sunk in introspection, gloom and self-doubt.

But now, she said, ‘we have ceased to be a nation in retreat. We have instead a new-found confidence, born in the economic battles at home and tested and found true 8,000 miles away’.

Her words captured a fundamental shift in the national narrative. After the summer of 1982, few people talked any longer about inevitable decline.

Instead, the war had revived a deep-rooted popular patriotism, a belief in our exceptional history and unique destiny.

As Mrs Thatcher put it: ‘Britain is not just another country; it has never been just another country . . . It was Britain that stood when everyone else surrendered.’

In that sense, Sir Henry Leach was right. This was a decisive test of Britain’s national spirit. And if we had lost, or had refused to fight, then we would indeed be a very different country today, just as he had argued.

Indeed, there is surely a good case to say that had we lost in the Falklands, we would never have remained aloof from the course of European integration. Perhaps it was in the summer of 1982, then, that the road to Brexit began. No Falklands, no Brexit.

Finally, what of Rex Hunt, whose plucky reaction to the Argentine invasion had made him an unlikely cult hero?

When the war was over, he wasted little time in flying back to his post. After a ceremonial welcome in driving rain, he went straight to Government House, where he found that the Argentines had drunk all his wine.

But there were compensations. The Argentine commander, he discovered, had left behind his scented pink lip-balm and a pair of pyjamas. ‘As they were thicker and warmer than mine,’ Hunt recorded, ‘I had no compunction about wearing them.’

And, in its way, that was the most British moment of them all. 

  •  Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982 by Dominic Sandbrook is published by Allen Lane on October 3 at £35. © Dominic Sandbrook 2019. To order a copy for £28 (offer valid until October 6, 2019; p&p free), call 01603 648155 or go to


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