LONDON — She called it, simply, the worst moment of her life.
It came in March 1982 during the days before the Falklands War, after Argentina established an unauthorized presence on Britain's South Georgia island amid talk of a possible invasion of the Falklands, long held by Britain.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher realized there was little Britain could do immediately to establish firm control of the contested islands, and feared Britain would be seen as a paper tiger that could no longer defend even its diminished empire. She was told that Britain might not be able to take the islands back, even if she took the risky decision to send a substantial armada to the frigid South Atlantic.
"You can imagine that turned a knife in my heart," Thatcher told an inquiry board in postwar testimony that has been kept secret until its release by the National Archives today, 30 years after the events it chronicles.
"No one could tell me whether we could re-take the Falklands — no one," she told the inquiry board. "We did not know — we did not know."
The assessment is more downbeat than the view offered in Thatcher's memoir, The Downing Street Years.
Thatcher's handling of the Falklands crisis is remembered as one of the key tests of her leadership. The former prime minister, now 87, has been hospitalized since having a growth removed from her gall bladder shortly before Christmas. She has stayed out of the public eye in recent years because of worsening health problems.
Argentina did invade on April 2, and Thatcher launched a naval task force to take back the islands three days later, after the United Nations condemned the invasion. Britain succeeded by mid June. The war claimed the lives of 649 Argentines and 255 British soldiers, along with three elderly islanders.