Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior: Wikis


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The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, codenamed Opération Satanique[1], was an operation by the "action" branch of the French foreign intelligence services, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE), carried out on July 10, 1985. It aimed to sink the flagship of the Greenpeace fleet, the Rainbow Warrior in the port of Auckland, New Zealand, to prevent her from interfering in a nuclear test in Moruroa.

Fernando Pereira, a photographer, drowned on the sinking ship. Two French agents were arrested by the New Zealand Police on passport fraud and immigration charges. They were charged with arson, conspiracy to commit arson, willful damage, and murder. As part of a plea bargain, they pled guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to ten years, of which they served just over two.

The scandal resulted in the resignation of the French Defence Minister Charles Hernu, and the subject remains controversial. It was twenty years afterwards that the personal responsibility of French President François Mitterrand was admitted.



Moruroa atoll from space

In the 1980s, the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique was developing nuclear warheads for the M4 SLBM, which were tested in underground explosions in the French Polynesian atoll of Moruroa.

Greenpeace was opposed to testing and planned to lead yachts to the atoll to protest, including an illegal incursion into French military zones. The Rainbow Warrior had not previously visited New Zealand, but David Lange's New Zealand Labour Party government opposed nuclear weapons development and had banned nuclear armed or powered ships from New Zealand ports. (As a consequence the United States was in the process of withdrawing from its ANZUS mutual defence treaty obligations.)

Immediately before the sinking, the vessel had returned from 'Operation Exodus', the Greenpeace-led evacuation of about 300 Marshall Islanders from Rongelap, an atoll that had been contaminated by radioactive fallout in an earlier US nuclear test.[2]

Sinking of the ship

Agents had boarded and examined the ship while she was open to public viewing and explosions were calculated to cripple the ship but not take people's lives. A plan was devised to achieve this using two limpet mines. A smaller first explosion would cause the ship to be evacuated allowing a second larger explosion to sink the ship without loss of life. Two limpet mines were attached to the hull and detonated 10 minutes apart at around 11:45 p.m., and the ship sank in four minutes following the second explosion.

However the crew did not react to the first explosion as the agents had expected. While the ship was initially evacuated, some of the crew returned to the ship to investigate and film the damage. A Portuguese Dutch photographer, Fernando Pereira, who had returned below decks to fetch his camera equipment, drowned in the rapid flooding that followed the second blast. The other ten crew members were safely evacuated on the order of Captain Peter Willcox, or were thrown into the water by the second explosion.


Operation Satanique was a public relations disaster. France, being an ally of New Zealand, initially denied involvement and joined in condemnation of a terrorist act.

After the bombing, a murder inquiry was started by the New Zealand Police. Most of the agents escaped New Zealand but two, Captain Dominique Prieur and Commander Alain Mafart - posing as married couple 'Sophie and Alain Turenge' and having Swiss passports - were captured due to a Neighbourhood Watch group. Both pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment on November 22, 1985.

France threatened an economic embargo of New Zealand's exports to the European Economic Community if the pair were not released. Such an action would have crippled the New Zealand economy, which was dependent on agricultural exports to Britain.

Hao atoll

In June 1986, in a political deal with Prime Minister of New Zealand David Lange and presided over by United Nations Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, France agreed to pay NZ$13 million (USD$6.5 million) to New Zealand and apologise, in return for which Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur would be detained at the French military base on Hao atoll for three years. However, the two agents had both returned to France by May 1988, after less than two years on the atoll. Mafart returned to Paris on December 14, 1987 for medical treatment, and was apparently freed after treatment. He continued in the French army and was promoted to colonel in 1993. Prieur returned to France on May 6, 1988 because she was pregnant, her husband having been allowed to join her on the atoll. She, too, was freed and later promoted. As this was in violation of the agreement, the French were required to pay further reparations.

Three other agents, Chief Petty Officer Roland Verge, Petty Officer Bartelo and Petty Officer Gérard Andries, who sailed to New Zealand on the yacht Ouvéa, were captured by Australian police on Norfolk Island, but released as Australian law did not allow them to be held until the results of forensic tests came back. Expecting the tests would show they had transported the bombs to New Zealand, the crew was picked up by the French submarine Rubis, which scuttled the Ouvéa. They were never punished.

A sixth agent, Louis-Pierre Dillais, commander of the operation, was never captured and never faced charges, despite acknowledging his involvement in an interview with New Zealand State broadcaster TVNZ in 2005.[3]

As evidence gathered, a commission of enquiry headed by François Tricot cleared the French government of any involvement, claiming that the arrested agents, who had not yet pleaded guilty, had merely been spying on Greenpeace. When The Times and Le Monde claimed that President Mitterrand had approved the bombing, Defence Minister Charles Hernu resigned and the head of the DGSE, Admiral Pierre Lacoste, was fired. Days later, Prime Minister Laurent Fabius admitted the bombing had been a French plot.


Memorial to the Rainbow Warrior, at Matauri Bay in Northland, New Zealand

In the wake of the bombing, a flotilla of private New Zealand yachts sailed to Muroroa to protest against the French test.

French nuclear tests in the Pacific were halted, although a further series of tests was conducted in 1995. In 1987, under international pressure, the French government paid $8.16 million to Greenpeace.

The Rainbow Warrior was refloated for forensic examination. She was deemed irreparable and scuttled at 34°58′29″S 173°56′06″E / 34.9748°S 173.9349°E / -34.9748; 173.9349 in Matauri Bay, near the Cavalli Islands, on December 2, 1987, to serve as a dive wreck and fish sanctuary. Her masts, however, were removed and are now displayed at the Dargaville Maritime museum.

An indirect consequence was to help transform New Zealand's "nuclear free" policy from a minority position to a national icon that even American pressure was unable to alter. The ANZUS treaty was condemned by association, and public opinion polls showed a change to oppose rejoining an alliance with the United States of America. This strengthened New Zealand's resolution to oppose military application of nuclear technology. The failure of its Western allies, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, to condemn what could be considered an act of war on New Zealand by France caused a change in foreign and defence policy.[4] New Zealand distanced itself from its traditional ally, the United States, and built relationships with small South Pacific nations, while retaining excellent relations with Australia, and to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom.[5]

On the 20th anniversary of the sinking, it was revealed that François Mitterrand had personally authorised the bombing. Also in 2005, Admiral Pierre Lacoste, head of DGSE, admitted the death weighed on his conscience and said the aim of the operation had not been to kill. He acknowledged the existence of three teams: the crew of the yacht, reconnaissance and logistics (those successfully prosecuted), plus a two-man team that carried out the bombing and whose identities have never been confirmed.[6]

A memorial edition of the 1986 book Eyes of Fire: The Last Voyage of the Rainbow Warrior,[7] by New Zealand author David Robie who was on the bombed ship, was published in July 2005. He was interviewed by TVNZ on 8 August 2006 about the Court of Appeal judgement.[8]

Also, in 2005 following release of UK government papers, it was confirmed that the French government tried to use French media to imply that the UK's MI6 was involved in the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior.[9] Also on that anniversary, Television New Zealand (TVNZ) sought to access a video record made at the preliminary hearing where the two agents pleaded guilty. The footage had remained sealed on the court record since shortly after conclusion of the criminal proceedings. The two agents opposed release of the footage—despite having both written books on the incident—and have unsuccessfully taken the case to the New Zealand Court of Appeal and, subsequently, the Supreme Court of New Zealand.[10]

On 7 August 2006, judges Hammond, O'Regan and Arnold dismissed the former French agents' appeal[11] and Television New Zealand broadcast their guilty pleas the same day. However, two days later the judges reversed their ruling, temporarily blocking webcasts[12] and further broadcasts of the footage.[8]

In 2006 Antoine Royal revealed that his brother, Gérard Royal, had claimed to be involved in planting the bomb. Their sister is French Socialist Party politician Ségolène Royal who was contesting the French presidential election.[13][14] Other sources identified Royal as merely a Zodiac pilot[15], and the New Zealand government announced there would be no extradition requests since the case was closed.[16]

Louis-Pierre Dillais is now an executive in the US subsidiary of Belgian arms manufacturer FN Herstal and lives in the U.S. state of Virginia.[3] Ironically the New Zealand government has been buying arms from FN Herstal.[17] Greenpeace are still pursuing the extradition of Dillais for his involvement in the act.[18]

Cultural influence

  • Opération Corned-Beef, a French spying comedy, was produced with a storyline strongly based on the events, but with a lighter tone.[19]
  • Vanille Fraise, another French spying comedy, was produced with a storyline strongly based on the events, but with a lighter tone too.[20]
  • In the 1997 movie Grosse Pointe Blank, John Cusack's character, a hitman, declines to respond to a contract offer from the French Government to blow up a Greenpeace ship, on moral grounds.
  • In 1992 Sam Neill and Jon Voight starred in the film Rainbow Warrior with Neill playing chief inspector of police in Auckland and Voigt as Greenpeace group leader Peter Wilcox. The film is about the bombing and sinking of the ship.[21]
  • The 1989 song Little Fighter by rock band White Lion is about the incident.
  • The sinking inspired the song Hercules by Australian band Midnight Oil.

See also


  1. ^ "Mitterrand ordered bombing of Rainbow Warrior, spy chief says".,,3-1689202,00.html. Retrieved 2006-11-16.  
  2. ^ The evacuation of Rongelap (from the Greenpeace website. Accessed 2009-11-07.)
  3. ^ a b Rainbow Warrior ringleader heads firm selling arms to US government Guardian, accessed May 26, 2007
  4. ^ A History Of New Zealand, Professor Sir Keith Sinclair KBE, Penguin Books, New Zealand, 1991
  5. ^ Nuclear Free: The New Zealand Way, The Right Honourable David Lange, Penguin Books, New Zealand, 1990
  6. ^ 'Third team' in Rainbow Warrior plot - 02 Jul 2005 - NZ Herald: New Zealand National news
  7. ^ South Pacific Books
  8. ^ a b Tuesday August 8 | BREAKFAST | ONE NEWS |
  9. ^ French tried to blame Britain for sinking Greenpeace flagship - Times Online
  10. ^,2106,3487761a11,00.html
  11. ^
  12. ^,2106,3760746a12855,00.html
  13. ^ ""Presidential hopeful's brother linked to Rainbow Warrior bomb"". New Zealand Herald. 2006-09-30. Retrieved 2006-10-01.  
  14. ^ "NZ rules out new Rainbow Warrior probe". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2006-10-01. Retrieved 2006-10-01.  
  15. ^ Guerres secrètes à l'Élysée, by Paul Barril, ed Albin Michel, Paris (1996)
  16. ^ Kay, Martin (2006-10-02). "French frogman slips the net; Paper identifies bomber, but PM says the case will remain closed". Dominion Post, Wellington, New Zealand. pp. A1.  
  17. ^ NZ trades with Arms Company whose US chief executive was a lead agent in the Rainbow Warrior bombing NZ Green Party, accessed May 26, 2007
  18. ^ Greenpeace gunning for the leader of Warrior bombers, accessed May 26, 2007
  19. ^ Opération Corned-Beef at the Internet Movie Database
  20. ^ Vanille Fraise at the Internet Movie Database
  21. ^ Rainbow Warrior at the Internet Movie Database


  • Michael King, Death of the Rainbow Warrior (Penguin Books, 1986). ISBN 0-14-009738-4
  • David Robie, Eyes of Fire: The Last Voyage of the Rainbow Warrior (Philadelphia: New Society Press, 1987). ISBN 0-86571-114-3
  • The Sunday Times Insight Team, Rainbow Warrior: The French Attempt to Sink Greenpeace (London: Century Hutchinson Ltd, 1986). ISBN 0-09-164360-0

External links


Coordinates: 36°50′33″S 174°46′18″E / 36.842405°S 174.771579°E / -36.842405; 174.771579



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