By March 1982, Margaret Thatcher had slumped to an all-time low inthe opinion polls. Then, on the other side of the world, a little-knowngeneral invaded a little-known group of islands and started a war. Like a latter-day Winston Churchill, Mrs Thatcher rose to the challenge and the country rose with her.

IT WAS an epic story of valour and heroics. It elevated Britain in the eyes of the world. But behind the cheering and the waving of flags was the criticism that the Falklands War could have been avoided.

Some cited a similar attempt to invade the islands during the 1970s – averted when the then Foreign Secretary, Labour’s David Owen, sent warships at the first sign of trouble.

Then there was the claim of Captain Nick Barker, from Northumberland, commander of the Royal Navy survey ship HMS Endurance, permanently stationed in the South Atlantic, that he had warned the Ministry of Defence on numerous occasions that Argentina was preparing for an invasion.

Mrs Thatcher claimed there had been no warning.

Captain Barker, whose ship was being withdrawn from the area to save money in a round of defence cuts, said this was not true. The captain made it clear he had repeatedly sent reports to the UK about increased Argentine activity, but these were ignored.

The criticism was stifled behind a roar for blood and victory as the Tory party, the national press and the public, demanded the removal of the Argentine flag from this small and almost forgotten corner of the Empire.

The Northern Echo: Argentinian bomb

MOMENT OF DOOM: HMS Antelope, left, explodes in San Carlos Bay

The nation had been insulted. British citizens were being treated like prisoners in their own land.

British sovereignty had been undermined. There was no alternative, if Britain’s reputation was to be restored, but to take up arms against Argentina’s tin-pot leader, General Leopoldo Galtieri.

On April 5, only three days after the first Argentinian troops set foot in Port Stanley, the Task Force steamed south to the strains of Rod Stewart’s hit song We Are Sailing.

“Failure?” said Mrs Thatcher when asked to contemplate the possible consequences of defeat and international humiliation.

“The possibility does not exist.”

The words were typical of the Prime Minister and boosted her position in the opinion polls, which was rising by the hour.

Statements such as these were the hallmark of the Iron Lady, the lady who was not for turning.

And so our soldiers, sailors and airmen went off to war, faced with the prospect of fighting conscript soldiers in a foreign land, and conscript sailors, some of whom were in ships built by British workers and armed with high-tech British weaponry.

Decades later, the images remain vivid – the Belgrano keeling over, torpedoed by HMS Conqueror outside the exclusion zone; HMS Antelope exploding in a plume of fire in San Carlos Bay; HMS Sheffield drifting helplessly with the bodies of 20 young men in its burning hull. And the names that still, even now, strike chords in the national psyche: Exocet, Super Entendard, Tumbledown, Goose Green, Bluff Cove.

Memories of an earlier age had helped fuel the Argentinian invasion. In 1833, the British warships Tyne and Clio seized the islands from Argentina.

To Argentinians, from that day on they were the stolen Malvinas, territory Argentina claimed but Britain colonised and kept.

The dispute rumbled on for 150 years until General Galtieri, leader of the unpopular right-wing junta controlling the country and feted by the US as an anticommunist ally, recognised the conquest of the Malvinas as a way to gain popular support.

The irony of the situation was not lost on Margaret Thatcher’s critics, who saw in her iron resolve and jingoistic rhetoric an opportunity to boost her own flagging popularity and floundering administration.

Mrs Thatcher’s gamble paid off – for gamble it was – and like the Invincible returning to crowded quays and cheering masses, she sailed into the nation’s history books crying “Rejoice, rejoice” as the most celebrated war leader since Winston Churchill.

Years later, in a Falklands anniversary speech, she said: “Nothing remains more vividly in my mind than the 11 weeks in the spring of 1982 when Britain fought and won the Falklands War and restored the territory and its people to their rightful heritage.

“The memories of those days are still so clear: the days of worry, days of happiness, days of sorrow, days of courage.

“They were the most intensely lived days I can ever remember.

“It is not easy to take a decision which commits your country to fight a war, particularly one 8,000 miles from home. I knew that there would be casualties, I feared that there would be some who would never return. But I also knew that we could not allow the aggression to stand.

“If we had, then a message would have been sent to every dictator and tyrant that the free world was not prepared to defend liberty.

“The Argentinian aggression drew us into a war which we had not sought and which we never thought we would have to fight.”

For the families of the 255 British servicemen who died in the conflict, the pain and loss will always be part of their lives. So too for the families of the 777 Argentine dead, 368 of whom went down with the General Belgrano.

Now, decades later, historians still argue over whether the war could have been avoided if the warnings had been heeded.

One certainty remains, though. For Margaret Thatcher, valiant leader or reactionary opportunist, the Falklands War was her finest hour.