-It’s very unprofessional.
-Not at all.
-The idea that the first time a prime minister breaks here is a woman …
-Believe me: this is not the first time someone in your position has gone bankrupt here. Historically, this room has served as an office, a living room, a confessional and a psychological office. We even have handkerchiefs.
The dialogue between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II with which the fourth chapter of the fourth season of The Crown is fictitious but not the fact that emotionally bankrupt the Iron lady in that January 1982: the disappearance of his son, Mark, during the fourth edition of the demanding and then rudimentary Dakar Rally.
Trained at the Brands Hatch pilot school, Mark Thatcher did not stand out behind the wheel but his mother’s political rise allowed him to indulge himself some pleasures, like running the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1980 and, two years later, be invited as a navigator of the French Anne-Charlotte Verney in the Peugeot 504 with number 178 – which Jean Garnier attended as mechanic – to participate in the test that Thierry Sabine had created in 1979.
“I have already raced in Le Mans and in other disciplines. The Paris-Dakar is no problem”said the 28-year-old before leaving the Place de la Concorde that January 1, 1982. Eight days later, just one day before the usual Dakar rest day, a mechanical problem in the rear axle took off the car. 178 of the caravan between Tamanrasset and Timeiaouine in Algeria. But the organizers only found out when they reviewed the condition of the competitors at the Gao bivouac in Mali on 10 January.
Mark Thatcher during one of his racing careers. Photo: AFP
The disappearance of Mark Thatcher and his crew it was reported just a day later, when stage 11 started and the competitors left for Mopti, almost 600 kilometers away and still in Malian territory. The uproar was worldwide and Thatcher received messages from the world’s leading leaders, including Ronald Reagan and François Mitterrand, presidents of the United States and France.
Until then it was known that the last registration of the Peugeot 504 was a checkpoint in Algeria. The search area was extended to 200 square kilometers and in the Sahara desert, between Tamanrasset (Algeria) and Tessalit (Mali), although the Swiss pilot Michel Bosi was able to identify that they were 50 kilometers from the marked route.
Although the Prime Minister of Algeria, Ahmed Abdelgani, offered the planes of his air force, as the organization was French, it rejected it and accepted the offer of the President of France, François Mitterrand, who sent a Breguet aircraft and a Nord 2501. “They have water and food for several days”Sabine assured, with the intention of reassuring journalists eager for information about the son of the British prime minister.
Lost. The information on the disappearance of Mark Thatcher in Diario Clarín.
In London, Margaret Thatcher – who was dealing with a worrying economic situation and a looming war in the Falkland Islands, coupled with little popular support – heard distressing news in a test that had already claimed the life of motorcyclist Bert Oosterhuis: since his son had been assaulted by Tuaregs until he was kidnapped by the Polisario Front, which also caused a fight between the national liberation movement of Western Sahara and Morocco.
The tabloid press also speculated that it was about a sham, a publicity stunt to make the Dakar Rally known worldwide. The reality, however, was that Mark Thatcher had turned to a suicide mission: without knowledge as a rally navigator nor preparation to arrive with tools at a complex test without the technology that he enjoys today and makes it (a little) more Sure, she hadn’t been able to tell pilot Anne-Charlotte Verney which way to go in the middle of the desert.
“I did absolutely no preparation. Any. I did half a day of testing and the next day we left the Place de la Concorde in Paris. I was thinking, ‘Okay, I wonder how this is going to go?’ I soon found out. By the third day we were in the desert on long, long stages, spending hours aiming for something very small on the horizon. Unfortunately, the Peugeot 504 was the worst car to make the trip. It was a car with a very long wheelbase, and what you need is a car with a short wheelbase because of all the potholes, “he acknowledged in a column titled “Lost in the desert” who wrote for the English newspaper The Guardian in 2004.
Mark Thatcher lost in the desert. The cover of the Daily Mirror in 1982.
With Margaret Thatcher unable to leave England to find her favorite son – she also had Mark’s twin Carol – it was Denis Thatcher who traveled immediately after learning of the disappearance. He arrived in Algeria with his friend Lord Laing de Dunphail, owner of United Biscuits -multinational food company of the United Kingdom-, who took him in his private plane.
Two days later, on January 13, the help of Algeria was finally accepted, which contributed four planes who joined a helicopter and three other French ships. While a Hercules from the Royal Air Force was diverted to the area to actively participate in the search.
It was a c-130 Hercules of the Algerian army that located the Peugeot 504 on January 14 and its three occupants, who had camped next to the car. “We stopped very close to a salt mine. We knew that because we could see trucks from a mile away. But rule number one is to always keep your vehicle. Never, never leave the car,” Thatcher explained.
The reports of the time assure that upon being rescued, the 28-year-old Briton showed neither relief nor gratitude, but rather discomfort at the time they had been delayed and several demands: a beer, a sandwich, a bath and a razor. In the hit Netflix series, they even realize that his father reproached him for not thanking the rescuers.
Her mother, meanwhile, was speaking in Downing Street: “I am happy to confirm that the rescue mission was successful. Of course, you see me as the Prime Minister but These last few days have made it very clear to me that above all I am a mother“Her other concern was that her son could profit from the story by telling it to the press, something that would eventually happen a few decades later.
Found alive. The information of the appearance of Mark Thatcher in Clarín.
“I don’t think I ever realized that they didn’t know where we were. However, when they didn’t come back for us on the first day, I remember I planned to be there for five days and then a week. After the first night I planned it for two weeks. Because I had planned in my mind how long we could be there, that was very important psychologically. I was never afraid for my life. We would have had to be there four weeks before we were really in danger. Second, we still had all the water from the radiator. Also, he had removed the tires and was ready to burn them when we saw a truck heading towards the salt mine, “Mark recounted in that 2004 note.
There, he said that they must have “hit something” that broke “the trailing arm links” which finally damaged “the rear axle”. “We stopped. The others also stopped, took note of where we were and continued. But those dumb bastards, instead of telling everyone we were 25 miles east when they finished the section, they told them we were 25 miles west.“, he denounced then, 22 years later.
Mark’s disappearance was not only a mental blow to Margaret; also political. The newspapers denounced that “millions of pounds had been spent to rescue a playboy“, which was finally discarded only in 2012, when Downing Street file declassified which specified that the prime minister had paid £ 1,784.80 for the search – some expenses were considered as official diplomatic activity and others paid for by the Algerian government – and thus avoid a public reaction for the use of taxpayers’ money.