30 years ago, France sank the Rainbow Warrior


30 years back, Pete Willcox was captain of the Rainbow Warrior, which had started out as a trawler but later been converted to Greenpeace’s flagship. At 11:38pm and 11:45pm on July 10 1985, a pair of frenchmen working for French intelligence detonated limpet mines they had attached to the vessel at Marsden Wharf in Auckland Harbour, where it had docked en route to French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll, around 750 miles southeast of Tahiti.

Minutes later, the ship was on its side, with a smoking hole visible, and minutes after that it was underwater. France sank the Rainbow Warrior. One of the 12 people aboard, 35-year-old Fernando Pereira, a Portuguese photographer, died having gone below deck to fetch some of his camera equipment after the blasts. Pereira’s two children were left fatherless – per Willcox, it “blew a hole in their lives that can never be patched up.”

Willcox was also upset to have lost a crewmember. The next day, it was clear that a bomb had been responsible. Rather than anyone thinking that France sank the Rainbow Warrior, the episode was blamed on “local ratbags who didn’t like hippies.”

The venture was known to the DGSE, the French intelligence service, as Operation Satanique. New Zealand’s prime minister, David Lange, called it “sordid” rather than “satanic.” It was the bombing of a peaceful protest vessel sans warning in the territory of a friendly country which was, incidentally, nuclear-free. A one-time senior French intelligence officer who wished to remain anonymous called it “a fiasco” which “would be unimaginable today.”

In his book, Eyes of Fire, which has been updated for the anniversary, David Robie, a Kiwi journo, explained that France sank the Rainbow Warrior because, with the Cold War in progress, the movement was encouraging calls from France’s Pacific territories for independence.

At first, New Zealand police dismissed the suggestion of French involvement as one of those wacky conspiracy theories while French officials deplored the idea as an anti-French slur. Two months later, it was clearly apparent that this vile calumny was in fact true.

A source within the DGSE informed the Washington Post that when France sank the Rainbow Warrior, it had “left a trail so Gallic that the only missing clues were a baguette, a black beret and a bottle of Beaujolais.” A French-made dinghy and diving gear had been left in the water. There were records of phone calls from the suspects to the French defence ministry in Paris. In Northland, northern Auckland, French agents had aroused enmity in the course of their pursuit of local women.

Veteran DGSE agent, 33-year-old Christine Cabon, had infiltrated Greenpeace’s Auckland office in the guise of a scientist and spent two months working and living amongst Greenpeace volunteers before departing for Israel, having also infiltrated the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Lebanon. She infiltrated a lot. She had passed her information to two other agents, Major Alain Mafart, 34, and Captain Dominique Prieur, 36, whose fake passports described them as a Swiss couple. The registration of their rented campervan had been noted shortly prior to the explosion when an onlooker thought its occupants might have been robbing boats. They were arrested two days after the explosion in the act of returning the van, anxious to secure a refund of NZ$130 for bringing the vehicle back early.

When it became apparent that France sank the Rainbow Warrior, the French government was rocked. Defence minister, Charles Henru, resigned while DGSE head, Pierre Lacoste, was sacked. The president, Francois Mitterand, enjoyed a lucky escape – in 2005, Lacoste released a memo stating that Mitterand had personally authorised the escapade.

Mafar and Prieur were initially charged with murder but pled guilty to manslaughter. They were packed off to gaol for 10 years each. Within three years, they were repatriated to France and then set free under a much-criticised deal acceded to by the New Zealand government when France threatened to halt trade access to the markets of Europe.

New Zealanders were outraged, anti-nuclear sentiment in the Pacific was energised, and France’s reputation was soiled in the vicinity for decades. Greenpeace attracted much more by way of donations and members and was able to become part of the mainstream. It adopted the slogan, “You can’t sink a rainbow.”

Willcox revelled that “a bunch of hippies in an old steel boat” could make the French government so fearful that it had to resort to murder. He concluded, “Yet they did, and we took it as a sign that we must be doing something right.”

A monument in Auckland has been proposed. It will be on Quay Street, across the road from Marsden Wharf.

About the Author Timothy Chilman

Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”

Leave a Comment: