Rainbow Warrior

July 10th, 1985.

The sinking of the Greenpeace protest ship, Rainbow Warrior, was particularly significant in New Zealand's history. For the first time on New Zealand soil we felt the effects of terrorism as France planned and executed the sinking of the organisation's flagship.

The Rainbow Warrior had been docked in Auckland harbour for three days while preparing for a protest voyage to the French nuclear test site at Moruroa Atoll. 

There had been a birthday celebration on the Rainbow Warrior that night. Those on board included several of the crew and a number of locals. All the skippers of the peace flotilla were there. By 11.30 p.m. some members were asleep in their cabins while the others had either left the ship or were up in the mess talking over strategies and plans. 

11:38 and a blue flash lit the water beside the Warrior, quickly followed by a loud explosion. Confused members of the crew tried to think what could have happened with some considering an explosion in the engine room as the most likely possibility or maybe a tug had hit the ship. It dawned on others more familiar with bombs that the ship had been sabotaged. 

The crew sensed her going down, not fast, but steadily. A check in the engine room showed it was already well submerged with sea water hurtling into the ship through an enormous hole in her side. Captain Pete Willcox gave the order to abandon ship as the Warrior keeled over towards the wharf. The lights had gone out and the crew were groping their way onto deck.

A flash of light was seen to streak through the water, another explosion erupted beneath the stern of Rainbow Warrior, the ship lurched. As the lower accommodation instantly flooded everyone took to the safety of the wharf. 

Model Of Rainbow Warrior (Loadstar Copyright 1999 ©)

A model of the Rainbow Warrior. Unseen is the dove of peace which flew on her bow. 

With everyone off the ship there was panic when it was realised two crew members were still missing. One had gone for a walk earlier. The other, Fernando Pereira, had last been seen in his cabin quickly packing away his valued camera equipment. Since then no one had seen him. 

Four minutes after the first explosion, and barely two minutes after the second, the Rainbow Warrior listed further and then settled on the bottom. 

By 4 a.m. divers had recovered Fernando's body. He had drowned, trapped in his cabin, the straps of his camera bag tangled around one leg. The force of the explosion had caused the floor beneath him to bulge upwards. An autopsy showed the victim had died of drowning. Yet what exactly happened during the last moments of his life will never be known. Did the inrush of water after the second explosion simply overcome him or did the force of the explosion leave him stunned and disoriented in the darkness so he became lost? 

An examination of the ship a vast hole in the side of the hull. It was 6 1/2 feet by 8 feet -- as big as a garage door. The steel plates on the ship had been pushed inwards by the blast, something that could not have happened had the source been from something inside the ship. Had the second explosion detonated a few minutes earlier it would have trapped five people in the lower accommodation. Had the ship turned turtle everyone on board could have been trapped and all may have been drowned. 

There was little doubt in the minds of Greenpeace as to who was responsible. Only two days after the bombing the French Embassy in Wellington issued a statement echoing the flat denials being sent from Paris. "In no way is France involved. The French Government doesn't deal with its opponents in such ways." Yet, only a few days later  police arrested French secret service agents Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur. Meanwhile, the charter yacht Ouvea, carrying another team of agents connected with the bombing, sailed to Norfolk Island and then disappeared. Her crew may have been picked up by the French nuclear submarine Rubis, which appeared in Tahiti on July 22nd - this was the  first known time a French nuclear submarine had entered the South Pacific. 

With things looking bad the French Government set up its own inquiry. After less than three weeks the head of the inquiry announced that, "On the basis of the information available to me at this time, I do not believe there was any French responsibility." The story from France was that any agents in New Zealand were there only to watch Greenpeace, not to commit any act of terrorism. 

When it was claimed President Mitterrand had known of the bombing plan French Defence Minister Charles Hernu resigned and Admiral Pierre Lacoste, the director of France's intelligence and covert action bureau, was sacked. Within days Prime Minister Fabius admitted French secret service agents had bombed the Rainbow Warrior under orders. 

Rainbow Warrior Memorial (Don Hadden hadden@ihug.co.nz Copyright ©)

The Rainbow Warrior Memorial situated at Matauri Bay.

Mafart and Prieur were charged with murder and pleaded guilty in the High Court at Auckland to lesser charges of manslaughter and wilful damage. The two agents were shocked to each receive sentences of ten years in prison. In June 1986 a political deal was arranged. This came after the French government applied unofficial trade sanctions on New Zealand and made threats to campaign against New Zealand trade access to the European Economic community. France agreed to pay compensation of NZ$13 million (US$6.5 million) to New Zealand and 'apologise', in return for which Mafart and Prieur would be detained at the French military base on Hao atoll for three years. 

Neither of the agents served their full term on the atoll, both were gone in less than two years, Mafart having been smuggled out. The final insult was the revelation that the only sin the agents committed in the eyes of the French was that of getting caught. In 1994 the French promoted Marfart to the position of full colonel.

Two years later the Rainbow Warrior was refloated, towed out to just off the Cavalli Islands and scuttled in 27 metres of water. Today she has formed an artificial reef which is an evergrowing host to marine life. The wreck is splendid with many-coloured anemones clinging to the rails and provides a home to schools of Golden Snapper, Kingfish and John Dory. Divers flock to dive on one of the world's most famous wrecks. 

The name  Rainbow Warrior was inspired by a North American Indian legend. This prophesies that when man has destroyed the world through his greed the Warriors of the Rainbow will rise again to save it. The name now lives on in another ship, the Rainbow Warrior II which replaced the original sunk by the French secret service agents. She was launched on July 10th, 1989, the anniversary of the sinking of her predecessor.