LONDON -- The Ministry of Defense today said a breakdown in communications probably caused a Royal Navy ship to shoot down a British army helicopter during the 1982 Falklands campaign, killing an officer and three soldiers.
The admission came two weeks after the Ministry of Defense confirmed press reports that use of satellite communications by the captain of the H.M.S. Sheffield to telephone London allowed an Exocet missile to penetrate the ship's temporarily weakened defense system and sink it.
A board of inquiry set up to investigate the shooting down of a British army Gazelle helicopter on June 6, 1982, six days before the war's end, reached an inconclusive verdict that it was hit by 'an unknown missile.'
The board heard that the helicopter was heading in the direction of Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, while the town was still occupied by Argentinian forces.
The Gazelle was hit while British troops were advancing on Port Stanley, apparently causing the H.M.S. Cardiff to mistake it for an enemy aircraft preparing to attack them.
'Somewhere along the line there was a tragic mistake,' a Ministry of Defense spokesman said.
The spokesman said movements of friendly aircraft were usually reported to a central control but the Cardiff did not apparently receive this information, thus mistaking the Gazelle for an Argentinian aircraft.
The spokesman said that while recovered fragments of the missile still do not conclusively prove that the Gazelle was hit by a British ship-to-air medium range Sea Dart missile, 'evidence about the firing of the missile and the time the Gazelle was hit point to the (H.M.S.) Cardiff.'
The spokesman, who denied press charges of a coverup, said the next of kin of the four men were then told that Ministry of Defense officials believe a British ship shot their helicopter down.
A government report published after the Falklands campaign pointed to the lessons to be learned from the war.
'Mistakes are made in every war and the Falklands are no exception,' a government official said.
'But our deficiencies have been analyzed in books and reports since 1982, so there is nothing new in these recent press reports.'
The London Evening Standard Friday in banner headlines said: 'Navy's fatal blunder.'