Bombing of the Rainbow Warrior

Photo: Greenpeace

From 1978-1985, the first Rainbow Warrior was Greenpeace International’s main vessel (it’s ‘flagship’). The Warrior and was involved in different activities around the world to try to stop whaling, nuclear testing, and environmental degradation. In 1985, the Warrior was used to fulfil a request from the people of Rongelap Island, in the Marshall Islands, who asked Greenpeace for help to relocate to Mejato Island. The Marshallese were suffering high rates of cancer, birth defects and leukaemia, after their island had been poisoned by nuclear fallout from ‘atmospheric’ (above-ground) US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands from 1948-1956. After the Rongelap humanitarian mission, the Warrior then sailed to Auckland, when her crew were re-supplying in preparation to sail to the French nuclear testing site at Mururoa Atoll, French Polynesia. There, the Warrior was to sail into the French testing zone to try to prevent the tests from going ahead, and bring international public attention to the issue. Greenpeace had taken this type of direct water-borne protest before. In 1972, for example, in collaboration with Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) NZ, they sent the vessel Greenpeace III to Mururoa to protest French nuclear testing. 

In Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour on the night of 10 July, 1985, French government agents bombed the Rainbow Warrior in an operation named ‘Operation Satanic’. The ship was sunk and one crew member, photographer Fernando Pereira, died trying to save his equipment, which included many photos of the Marshallese people. It subsequently came to light that the French government had employed a spy to infiltrate Greenpeace and provide information to France about its operations. In public, however, the French government initially denied any involvement in the bombing. After a swift investigation by the New Zealand police, two of the French bombers were caught and were later convicted of manslaughter in New Zealand courts. The New Zealand government and public were outraged by the bombing. Many New Zealanders felt that it was not just Greenpeace that had been attacked, but the whole country. New Zealanders saw the bombing as a betrayal by its former ally France, a country where thousands of New Zealanders had fought and died in WWI and WWII, trying to free France from occupying armies. The New Zealand government called the bombing ‘aggression, sabotage and state sponsored terrorism’. After the French agents served a part of their sentence in New Zealand, they were turned over to France. This course of action was taken as a result of arbitration by the UN Secretary General, who decided that they should serve out the remainder of their sentences on the French island of Hao. Under flimsy pretences, however, France broke the terms of the deal and the agents returned to France as free and celebrated heroes.

Interview with Peter Wilcox, who was the captain of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 

TV apology from French agent who took part in the Rainbow Warrior bombing

The French government had apparently been seeking to put a stop to the anti-nuclear protests that were gaining momentum across the Pacific and worldwide. In fact, the  Rainbow Warrior bombing had the opposite effect. It helped to further mobilise and galvanise the nuclear-free movement in New Zealand. The result was a significant increase in public support for New Zealand’s nuclear free policy, which the government had clarified in January 1985, by refusing to allow the US warship USS Buchanan to enter New Zealand, on the basis that it might be carrying nuclear weapons. The bombing also significantly increased public awareness of Greenpeace’s environmental activities, resulting in a sharp increase in membership and funding. From 1989-2011, the Rainbow Warrior II continued Greenpeace’s work to educate the public about and defend the natural environment, and to oppose nuclear weapons. In 2011, Greenpeace launched the Rainbow Warrior III, the first ship specifically designed and built for Greenpeace.