The spy story

A beret, a bottle of Beaujolais and a baguette

Page - July 10, 2010
Nothing is ever true, so the saying goes, until it has been officially denied. The French Government terrorist bombing of the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior is a classic case.

French Secret Service agents killed Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira in the attack, in an operation that would have made the bungling Inspector Clousseau look slick. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary gathered within days of the attack France continued to deny responsibility for over two months. Here we trace the events that led to the eventual reluctant admission of guilt and the disappearance of those responsible.

Rainbow Warrior

Rainbow Warrior, sunk by two underwater mines placed by agents of the French Government in Marsden Wharf, New Zealand.

July 10, 1985. Dishevelled, and numb with shock, the crew of the Rainbow Warrior stood, staring into the dark waters of Marsden Wharf, the smallest of three commercial piers piercing Auckland's Waitemata Harbour. Before them, lying crippled and half submerged in the water was the Warrior - their home and an international symbol of peace.

Several hours, but what felt like a lifetime, earlier there had been an explosion. Some had been stirred from sleep by a dull, muffled thud, as though something heavy had been dropped on the deck above. Those still awake, and clustered around the small mess room table, were suddenly plunged into darkness.

Rainbow Warrior Crewmembers

Crewmembers of the Rainbow Warrior in happier days before the bombing of their ship. Left to right: photographer Fernando Pereira, campaigner Hans Guyt and mate Martini Gotje.

Everything happened at once. The steady drone of the generator, that formed a constant backdrop to life on board, ceased abruptly, the darkness was marginally lifted by the eerie glow of the emergency lights, the moment of silence was almost instantly replaced with the sharp crack of breaking glass and the sudden ferocious roar of water. Their immediate thought had been that something, possibly a tug, had hit them.

Two minutes later a second explosion: a flash of blue light streaked through the cloudy waters around the ship. Those already on deck scrambled up the ladder or leaped to safety on the wharf. In a matter of minutes they watched as the twin steel masts of the ship tilted towards them.

Their crew mates Hanne Sorensen and Fernando Pereira were both missing.

Three hours earlier, at around 8pm, the Rainbow Warrior had been in party mood and bustling with the business of the ship. Fellow Greenpeacers from Pacific-rim countries had come to Auckland to discuss the upcoming "Pacific Peace Voyage." Among the new arrivals were American Steve Sawyer and Greenpeace New Zealand's directors Elaine Shaw and Carol Stewart. In the three short days that the Warrior had been in Auckland, the crew, together with New Zealand volunteers, had been  patching up the wear and tear the ship had suffered during recent months in the Pacific Islands. They had been evacuating the Rongelapese people to another island, Majeto. Their tiny island of Rongelap, had been severely contaminated with radiation from American nuclear tests on nearby Bikini Atoll and despite repeated requests to be moved no one, until Greenpeace came along, was willing to help. July 10 was Steve Sawyer's birthday and Margaret Mills had baked a cake, boasting a jelly bean rainbow, for the occasion.

Hanne Sorenson

Hanne Sorenson, Rainbow Warrior deckhand, 1985.

There was still business to attend to, though. The 'Greenpeacers' and the skippers of other yachts were preparing to sail together to Moruroa in a 'Peace Flotilla', to oppose French plans for a series of underground nuclear tests. The group agreed their plans. They also agreed that they would inevitably face stiff opposition or perhaps even interference from French navy patrols. None even began to imagine what kind of interference had been sanctioned in Paris and was already being put into action that very night in Auckland.

Soon after 11pm, the meeting broke up. Accompanied by some of the crew, the Warrior's visitors left. Some of those still on board, - including captain Pete Willcox, radio operator Lloyd Anderson, Margaret Mills and engineer Hanne Sorenson - wished their friends good night and went below to their cabins. On a whim that may even have saved her life, Hanne went back above deck and decided to take a brisk walk in the night air. Seven others, including photographer Fernando Pereira, remained chatting around the mess-room table, sharing between them the last two bottles of beer. Checking to see whether the bars would still be open, they noticed the clock read ten to midnight. Then the lights went out…