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Maggie's war with treacherous Mitterrand over Exocet missile: Archive files reveal 'James Bond' plot to hijack aircraft carrying French-made weapons
Leaders clashed over sale of French Exocet missiles in 1982Strain revealed in files released under 30-year rule by National ArchivesMI6 plan 'appropriate to a James Bond movie' was proposed to steal missiles
11:43 GMT, 28 December 2012
In his memoirs, former Defence Secretary Sir John Nott describes France as Britain's 'greatest ally' during the Falklands War.
But behind the scenes, the relationship between the two countries was strained almost to breaking point over the sale of French Exocet missiles in 1982, newly released documents reveal.
Declassified files show that prime minister Margaret Thatcher warned France that if the weapons fell into Argentine hands, the consequences for British-French relations would be 'disastrous'.
Sir Michael Havers, the
Attorney-General, even wrote a memo on July 1 proposing the hijack of
aircraft carrying missiles to Argentina by infiltrating a cargo airline.
HMS Antelope was bombed by Argentine forces in the bay of San Carlos, East Falkland Island, on the May 6, 1982 during the Falklands War
There was an increasingly strained relationship between Mrs Thatcher and then French president Francois Mitterrand during the Falklands, documents reveal
The elaborate MI6 operation was designed to convince the Argentines that the cell was buying Exocets on their behalf.
He said: 'The risk of resupply to the Argentines of further air-to-sea missiles justifies consideration of all options to prevent this — even the most way-out which may be thought to be more appropriate to a James Bond movie!
'The profits [of an arms shipment] can be enormous and will attract the cowboy carriers in circumstances where the exporting country will not want to risk its own aircraft for publicity reasons.
'If we can discover a situation where the freight is being offered to the cowboys… [My friend can] get the job but with the condition (not unusual) that the 'loadmaster' is a man whom he nominates.
'If this can be agreed, the loadmaster has total control over the flight and, therefore, could redirect the aircraft in transit to (for example) Bermuda. This will cost money (this is an expensive dirty business) but would, in my view, be cheap at the price.'
However, Mrs Thatcher appeared unimpressed, writing on the document: 'Can we have a word MT.'
The files, released today under the
30-year rule by the National Archives in Kew, document the increasingly
strained relationship between Mrs Thatcher and then French president
At the start of the conflict, Mitterrand had declared an embargo on French arms sales and assistance to Argentina and allowed the British fleet to use French port facilities in West Africa.
He also aided British efforts to stop Argentina acquiring Exocets on the world's arms market and provided detailed information about planes and weaponry France had sold to Argentina.
But when Argentina used the French guided missiles against the British Task Force to devastating effect, relations between Mrs Thatcher and Mitterrand soured.
On May 4, 1982, a pair of Argentine navy French Super Etendard fighter planes attacked British ships heading towards the Falklands with air-launched Exocet AM39s missiles.
One hit the Type-42 destroyer HMS Sheffield, crippling the ship which sank six days later, killing 20 crew and bringing home the full magnitude of what the Task Force was up against.
French President Francois Mitterrand gestures — watched by the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — during a joint press conference in London in 1983
Controversial: An Argentian Super Etendard fighter with Exocet missiles
A Wessex helicopter hovers overhead as HMS Antelope, still burning fiercely, slips beneath the water of Ajax Bay
HMS Sheffield after being hit by an Argentine Exocet missile in the South Atlantic. The vessel sank whilst being towed back to safe water
Three weeks later, on May 25, two
more Exocets sank the Atlantic Conveyor which was carrying vital
supplies, including Chinook helicopters which were supposed to transport
troops and equipment.
Twelve lost their lives in the attack and the news badly affected the nation's morale.
The force commander Admiral Sandy Woodward later admitted that if one of the aircraft carriers Invincible or Hermes had been hit the mission would have effectively been over.
Tensions increased still further when the French were initially reluctant to reveal how many Exocet missiles they had supplied to Argentina.
It was only on May 11, a week after the attack on HMS Sheffield, that the British embassy in Paris was told that an order for ten missiles had been agreed, of which five had been delivered.
The files reveal that although France
agreed to delay the completion of the deal, there was concern that they
had agreed a deal to send four Exocets to Peru.
As there was every indication that
they would end up in the hands of the Argentines, Mrs Thatcher raised
the issue with Mitterrand on May 17.
Although he assured her the delivery
would be delayed 'as long as necessary', he phoned Mrs Thatcher on May
29 to say that he was in a 'difficult position' over the deal.
Antelope was a Type 21 frigate which was sunk in the Falklands War on May 24, 1982
The files state: 'Peru had made it known to other Latin American countries that France was declining to execute the contract. Consequently, France's contracts with other Latin American countries were in danger.'
He then demanded a 'precise estimate' of the date by which the missiles would no longer endanger the British Task Force.
REBEL DEAN OF ST PAUL'S WANTED LORD'S PRAYER READ IN SPANISH
The rebel Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral wanted the Lord’s Prayer to be read in Spanish during a thanksgiving service after the Falklands, the papers reveal.
A memo from Mrs Thatcher's private secretary Clive Whitmore on July 2, 1982, also said the Very Rev Alan Webster wanted the order of service to contain a printed translation of the prayer.
Mrs Thatcher responded by underlining almost the entire paragraph and scribbling 'why' next to it.
Although the translation was prevented, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, provoked controversy by telling the congregation they should remember the Argentine casualties as well as the British.
The following day, she sent him a strongly worded telegram which said: 'If it became known, as it certainly would, that France was now releasing weapons to Peru that would certainly be passed on to Argentina for use against us, France's ally, this would have a devastating effect on the relationship between our two countries.
'Indeed, it would have a disastrous effect on the alliance (Nato) as a whole. This is the last thing that either of us would wish.'
The next day the French backed down and said the Peruvians would be told the missiles could not be sent for 'political reasons'.
It was thought the French had supplied around 100 Exocets to air forces around the world, of which 30 to 35 could be available for sale on the international market.
To prevent the missiles ending up in the hands of the Argentines, the Ministry of Defence set up a secret arms traffic cell to prevent the sale of any Exocets.
A letter by then Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers to Margaret Thatcher in which he proposes an elaborate deception plan aimed at Argentinian arms buyers which he himself admitted was 'more appropriate to a James Bond movie'
National Archives handout photo dated 1982 of a map key of British forces
A map showing British forces surrounding Port Stanley, released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule
A map of San Carlos Water in East Falkland
A close up of British military positions around the Falkland Islands