France and the Falklands War missile: did Paris ‘lie’ to London?

Senior MPs demand answers about ‘kill switch’ on missile that sunk HMS Sheffield 40 years ago

Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterand pictured in 1984
Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterand pictured in 1984
(Image credit: Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

MPs have called for an inquiry into whether France misled the UK over missiles that killed more than 40 British sailors during the Falklands War.

The French-made Exocet missiles “allegedly contained technology to disarm them”, the Daily Mail said, but the then French president François Mitterrand “denied any such feature existed”. Argentina hit three Royal Navy ships with Exocets during the 1982 conflict, of which two – HMS Sheffield and the Atlantic Conveyor – sank.

In a public appeal timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the HMS Sheffield attack, senior MPs yesterday demanded an investigation “into what the French government did or did not share with then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher” and “whether the missiles could have been remotely deactivated”, the Mail reported.

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Deadly attacks

The attack on HMS Sheffield resulted in the first British fatalities of the war. The destroyer was dispatched to the Falkland Islands before being hit by an Exocet missile fired from an Argentinian aircraft on 4 May 1982.

Twenty of the 281 crew members on board died in the attack and another 26 were injured, of whom most suffered burns, smoke inhalation or shock. Only one body was recovered, and the wreck is designated as a protected war grave.

The Atlantic Conveyor was a British merchant navy ship that was requisitioned during the conflict. It was hit by two Exocet missiles on 25 May 1982, killing 12 sailors.

The third ship to be hit by the French-built missiles was HMS Glamorgan, another destroyer that was struck on 12 June 1982. The Exocet was fired from an improvised shore-based launcher and killed 14 sailors.

‘Critical intelligence’

The anniversary of the “deadly attack” on HMS Sheffield has fuelled demands for answers about “whether France lied to the UK”, The National reported.

Tobias Ellwood, Tory chair of the defence select committee, told The Telegraph that the issue of what France knew “warrants further investigation”.

“As we look to future battles we must learn from past events, and that includes how we work with allies and how we share critical intelligence,” he said. “It certainly would have been game-changing had France chosen to share this characteristic of the Exocet.”

Liam Fox, a former Conservative defence secretary, said the government in Paris should be “open and honest” about the information shared with London during the war.

Bob Seely, a Tory MP and former Army captain who sits on the foreign affairs select committee, said: “If Exocets contained what was effectively an on/off switch, the French should have shared that with us.

“If it turns out that information was withheld, that would be one of the most shameful episodes in Anglo-French relations. We owe it to the families of those who died, and to history, to get to the truth.”

Appeal to allies

France publicly backed the UK’s right to defend its territory against Argentinian invasion. As a result, UK officials appealed to their “longterm military ally” for intelligence on how the “missiles worked and whether they could be disabled”, the Mail said.

Experts in the UK believed that “the missiles contained a kill switch”, information they had gleaned “through examining earlier versions bought by the Army”, the paper added. But the weapon’s manufacturer, French company Aerospatiale, “denied the kill switches existed”.

President Mitterand “would not have any trouble summoning” Aerospatiale’s bosses, since his brother Jacques “ran the nationalised company”, said The Telegraph’s associate editor Gordon Rayner. Which prompts the question: “Were the French protecting their arms industry, regardless of the cost to an ally?”

Some believe that the government in Paris “wanted the Exocets to prove their effectiveness in battle”, meaning the intelligence was withheld in an effort to “sell more of them to military powers around the world”.

Forty years on, “Mitterrand, Thatcher and many of the key players in the conflict have passed away”, Rayner added. “But the questions they left behind them still demand answers.”

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