The Rainbow Warrior Bombing

Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior
The Greenpeace ship 'Rainbow Warrior' returning from an anti-whaling demonstration. (1977). (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Just before midnight on July 10, 1985, Greenpeace’s flagship Rainbow Warrior was sunk while berthed at Waitemata Harbor in Auckland, New Zealand. Investigations showed that French Secret Service agents had placed two limpet mines on Rainbow Warrior’s hull and propeller. It was an attempt to prevent Greenpeace from protesting French nuclear testing in the Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia. Of the 11 crew on board the Rainbow Warrior, all but one made it to safety.

The attack on the Rainbow Warrior caused an international scandal and greatly deteriorated the relationship between the once friendly countries of New Zealand and France.

Greenpeace’s Flagship: The Rainbow Warrior

By 1985, Greenpeace was an international environmentalist organization of great renown. Founded in 1971, Greenpeace had worked diligently over the years to help save whales and seals from being hunted, to stop the dumping of toxic waste into oceans, and to end nuclear testing around the world.

To aid them in their cause, Greenpeace purchased a North Sea fishing trawler in 1978. Greenpeace transformed this 23-year-old, 417-ton, 131-foot-long trawler into their flagship, Rainbow Warrior. The name of the ship had been taken from a North American Cree Indian prophesy: “When the world is sick and dying, the people will rise up like Warriors of the Rainbow…”

The Rainbow Warrior was easily recognizable by the dove carrying an olive branch at its bow and the rainbow that ran along its side.

When the Rainbow Warrior arrived at Waitemata Harbor in Auckland, New Zealand on Sunday, July 7, 1985, it was as a respite between campaigns. The Rainbow Warrior and her crew had just returned from helping evacuate and relocate the small community that lived on Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

These people had been suffering from long-term radiation exposure caused by the fallout from the U.S. nuclear testing on the nearby Bikini Atoll.

The plan was for the Rainbow Warrior to spend two weeks in nuclear-free New Zealand. It would then lead a flotilla of ships out to French Polynesia to protest the proposed French nuclear test at the Mururoa Atoll. The Rainbow Warrior never got a chance to leave port.

The Bombing

The crew aboard Rainbow Warrior had been celebrating a birthday before going to bed. A few of the crew, including Portuguese photographer Fernando Pereira, had stayed up a bit later, hanging out in the mess room, drinking the last few beers. Around 11:40 pm, an explosion rocked the ship.

To some on board, it felt like Rainbow Warrior had been hit by a tugboat. It was later discovered that it was a limpet mine that had exploded near the engine room. The mine tore a 6 ½ by 8-foot hole in the side of the Rainbow Warrior.  Water gushed in.

While most of the crew scrambled upward, 35-year-old Pereira headed to his cabin, presumably to retrieve his precious cameras. Unfortunately, that was when a second mine exploded.

Placed near the propeller, the second limpet mine really rocked the Rainbow Warrior, causing Captain Pete Willcox to order everyone to abandon ship.

Pereira, whether because he was knocked unconscious or trapped by a gush of water, was unable to leave his cabin. He drowned inside the ship.

Within four minutes, the Rainbow Warrior tilted to its side and sank.

Who Did It?

It was really a quirk of fate that lead to the discovery of who was responsible for the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. On the evening of the bombing, two men happened to take note of an inflatable dinghy and a van nearby that seemed to be acting a bit strangely. The men were intrigued enough that they took down the van’s license plate.

This little piece of information set the police on an investigation that led them to the French Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure (DGSE) – the French Secret Service. The two DGSE agents that had been posing as Swiss tourists and rented the van were found and arrested.

(These two agents, Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur, would be the only two people tried for this crime. They pled guilty to manslaughter and willful damage and received 10-year prison sentences.)

Other DGSE agents were discovered to have come to New Zealand on board the 40-foot yacht Ouvea, but those agents managed to evade capture. In total, it is believed that approximately 13 DGSE agents were involved in what the French termed Operation Satanique (Operation Satan).

Contrary to all of the building evidence, the French government at first denied any involvement. This blatant cover up greatly angered New Zealanders who felt that the Rainbow Warrior bombing was a state-sponsored terrorist attack against New Zealand itself.

The Truth Comes Out

On September 18, 1985, the popular French newspaper Le Monde published a story that clearly implicated the French government in the Rainbow Warrior bombing. Two days later, French Minister of Defense Charles Hernu and Director General of the DGSE Pierre Lacoste resigned from their positions.

On September 22, 1985, French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius announced on TV: “Agents of the DGSE sank this boat. They acted on orders.”

With the French believing that government agents should not be held responsible for actions conducted while following orders and New Zealanders completely disagreeing, the two countries agreed to have the UN act as a mediator.

On July 8, 1986, UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar announced that the French were to pay New Zealand $13 million, give an apology, and stop trying to boycott New Zealand produce. New Zealand, on the other hand, had to give up the two DGSE agents, Prieur and Mafart.

Once handed over to the French, Prieur and Mafart were supposed to serve out their sentences at Hao Atoll in French Polynesia; however, they were both released within two years – much to the dismay of New Zealanders.

After Greenpeace threatened to sue the French government, an international arbitration tribunal was set up to mediate.

On October 3, 1987, the tribunal ordered the French government to pay Greenpeace a total of $8.1 million.

The French government has yet to officially apologize to Pereira’s family, but has given them an undisclosed sum of money as a settlement.

What Happened to the Broken Rainbow Warrior?

The damage done to the Rainbow Warrior was irreparable and so the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior was floated north and then re-sunk in Matauri Bay in New Zealand. The Rainbow Warrior became part of a living reef, a place where fish like to swim and recreational divers like to visit. Just above Matauri Bay sits a concrete-and-rock memorial to the fallen Rainbow Warrior.

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior did not stop Greenpeace from its mission. In fact, it made the organization even more popular. To keep up its campaigns, Greenpeace commissioned another ship, Rainbow Warrior II, which was launched exactly four years after the bombing.

Rainbow Warrior II worked for 22 years for Greenpeace, retiring in 2011. At which time it was replaced with Rainbow Warrior III, a $33.4 million ship made specifically for Greenpeace.