A REMARKABLE first-hand account of the hours leading up to one of the most controversial episodes of the Falklands War has emerged from a Scottish police constable.
Steve McIntosh was a 17-year-old Royal Navy submariner when he helped hunt down and torpedo the General Belgrano, an action that cost the lives of 300 Argentinian sailors and remains hotly debated 25 years later.
McIntosh, now a community beat officer with Strathclyde Police, was in the control room of HMS Conqueror, the submarine that sank the Belgrano, working in the key role of contact evaluation plotter.
The veteran, in what is believed to be the first personal account of events leading up to the attack, makes a number of extraordinary revelations, including:
• HMS Conqueror was earlier in position to sink the Argentinian aircraft carrier Veinticinco de Mayo - a mission that could have shortened the war - but the British government refused permission to engage;
• The submarine tracked the Belgrano for a week, unsuccessfully seeking permission to fire on several occasions before they were finally given the go-ahead on May 2, 1982;
• The crew's initial euphoria at sinking the Belgrano turned to horror when it emerged Argentinian support ships had fled, leaving sailors to drown;
• The captain of HMS Conqueror, Commander Chris Wreford-Brown, led his crew in a service to pray for the enemy dead only hours after two of their torpedoes had ripped the Belgrano to pieces.
McIntosh told Scotland on Sunday: "I'll always remember the countdown to impact, the captain saying: "Up periscope, hit right of stern, hit centre," and then feeling the explosion.
"It was like a thud and a hollow clap, and a weird tinkling, which was the metal of the ship breaking up. There was also the smell of cordite, the explosive substance coming back up the torpedo tubes."
McIntosh, who was hand-picked by the captain to help the vital tracking operations, added: "We tracked it [the Belgrano] for a considerable period. All the information was getting relayed back to the government in London. We did ask permission to engage her and we were knocked back several times."
After the sinking "the elation was phenomenal", he said. "We had done what we were trained to do. Everything was textbook, even the evasive action we took afterwards was perfect.
"It was only afterwards that we realised that the Belgrano's escort, that was supposed to pick up survivors, had done a runner. You could tell from the captain's face when he looked through the periscope... He was thinking that shouldn't have happened."
After the impact, Wreford-Brown led his crew in a service. "It wasn't just to pray for forgiveness," McIntosh explained, "but to pray for those who were dead and injured. As a churchgoer, that was normal behaviour to me."
More than 300 of the 1,000-plus sailors on board the Belgrano were killed when the ship was controversially hit outside the 200-mile exclusion zone imposed after the British Task Force arrived to retake the Falklands from the Argentinians.
On the vexed question of whether the Belgrano was moving away from the exclusion zone when it was sunk, an issue which has provoked heated arguments over the past 25 years, McIntosh is tight-lipped. But he maintains the ship was a legitimate target.
McIntosh, a father of four, insists that everyone on his vessel was convinced they had done the right thing in order to protect thousands of colleagues on the surface from mortal danger.
He said: "Warships don't go in a straight line, to avoid torpedoes. It was a threat to the Task Force and we had to engage her for the sake of our troops.
"On the sub, it was very clear. I thought it was a shame that people lost their lives but I still thought it was either them or us. I felt sorry for their sailors because they were conscripts and there was no way they were as good as we were."
Then, after a little thought, he added: "If I'm in a war on land and I'm standing in front of the enemy, I don't wait for them to shoot before deciding whether to use my gun."
McIntosh also revealed that the submarine had locked on to an even bigger target, the Veinticinco de Mayo, before the Belgrano finally drifted on to their radar screens. "I don't know why we weren't allowed to engage her," he said. "Without a doubt we could have taken her out, but London said no."
McIntosh served on Royal Navy submarines for another five years before leaving and immediately taking a job as an officer with Strathclyde Police.
'I thought expedition was April Fool'
The historic expedition began in inauspicious circumstances. "It was April 1 or the day after and my brothers, who were also submariners, joked that one of us was going to be called up," said Steve McIntosh. "I went to church and when I got back my dad told me the police had been to tell me to report back to the submarine. I thought he was joking.
"When I got back to Faslane, where the sub was based, we had to wait a while, because a few of the other lads thought it was an April Fool's joke as well."
The brothers' father served in the army and their sister followed suit. But McIntosh became the only member of his family to serve in the conflict, because military rules prevented an entire family of brothers being put in harm's way.
"As soon as they knew I'd been called up, they were very happy, because they knew they wouldn't have to go," he said.