The Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was ordered to attack the British fleet the day before she was sunk at the start of the Falklands War, according to secret intelligence reports that are soon to be released.
The sinking of the Belgrano is one of the greatest controversies in modern British military history. The cruiser was outside a 200- mile exclusion zone and sailing away from the British fleet when it was torpedoed, with the loss of 323 lives, by the submarine HMS Conqueror on 2 May, 1982.
A new official history of the war will claim that, according to previously undisclosed intelligence material, the Belgrano was under orders to attack the British navy. Opponents of the war accused Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, of ordering the sinking of the Belgrano although it did not pose a threat at the time. Tam Dalyell, Labour MP for Linlithgow, led a ferocious attack on Mrs Thatcher, accusing her of misleading the House of Commons.
Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, the author of the official history to be published next year, told The Independent on Sunday: "The intercept confirms that the Belgrano was under orders to attack on May 1. It does nothing to confirm the contentions of Mr Dalyell and broadly supports what was said by the government at the time."
Professor Freedman's book exonerates Lady Thatcher, who consistently argued that the warship posed a threat to the Task Force. Signals intelligence intercepted by GCHQ, the security services' eavesdropping centre at Cheltenham, the day before Conqueror fired its torpedoes at the Belgrano, showed that the warship was under orders to attack. It is unusual for such raw intelligence material to be published.
The official history will also contain an account of a near- mutiny by members of the special forces. The commander of the SAS "B" unit refused an order to carry out a search-and-destroy operation of missile bases on the Argentinian mainland because, he claimed, it amounted to a "suicide mission".
Tony Blair commissioned Professor Freedman, director of war studies at King's College London, to write the official account in July 1997. The publication has been repeatedly delayed by rows over what can be included. Intelligence chiefs have now relented on the question of whether the key intercept could be made public. …