French Secret Service Sinks the Greenpeace Ship Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

As part of its summer Pacific Peace Voyage, the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was scheduled to take part in a protest against French nuclear bomb tests on an island in the Pacific. While the ship was docked in Auckland, New Zealand, two bombs were attached to its hull by French secret service agents. The bombs exploded, leading to the death of a Greenpeace photographer and the ship’s sinking.

Summary of Event

The environmental organization Greenpeace—which takes political action against whaling, seal hunting, environmental pollution, nuclear testing, and other ecological concerns—was founded by a group of Canadian antinuclear activists who were protesting nuclear testing by the U.S. government in 1969. The tests, conducted on earthquake-prone Amchitka Island in the Aleutian chain in the North Pacific off the coast of Alaska, prompted the group’s slogan “Don’t make a wave. It’s your fault if our fault goes ” because of fears that a bomb detonation could trigger earthquakes and tsunamis. In 1971, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, group members selected the name Greenpeace for their fledgling organization and for the ship with which they mounted a protest against another nuclear test at Amchitka. The word “green” reflects the group’s concern with ecological problems and the word “peace” reflects the group’s commitment to peaceful direct action. [kw]Greenpeace Ship Rainbow Warrior, French Secret Service Sinks the (July 10, 1985) [kw]Rainbow Warrior, French Secret Service Sinks the Greenpeace Ship (July 10, 1985) Pereira, Fernando Sawyer, Steve Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior (ship) Nuclear weapons;testing Pereira, Fernando Sawyer, Steve Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior (ship) Nuclear weapons;testing [g]Australasia;July 10, 1985: French Secret Service Sinks the Greenpeace Ship Rainbow Warrior[02150] [g]New Zealand;July 10, 1985: French Secret Service Sinks the Greenpeace Ship Rainbow Warrior[02150] [g]France;July 10, 1985: French Secret Service Sinks the Greenpeace Ship Rainbow Warrior[02150] [c]Violence;July 10, 1985: French Secret Service Sinks the Greenpeace Ship Rainbow Warrior[02150] [c]Politics;July 10, 1985: French Secret Service Sinks the Greenpeace Ship Rainbow Warrior[02150] [c]Environmental issues;July 10, 1985: French Secret Service Sinks the Greenpeace Ship Rainbow Warrior[02150] [c]Government;July 10, 1985: French Secret Service Sinks the Greenpeace Ship Rainbow Warrior[02150] [c]Murder and suicide;July 10, 1985: French Secret Service Sinks the Greenpeace Ship Rainbow Warrior[02150] McTaggart, David Prieur, Dominique Mafart, Alain Cabon, Christine Huguette

The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior begins to sink in Auckland Harbor, New Zealand, after being damaged by two bombs attached to the ship’s hull by French government agents.


Greenpeace’s early strategy involved the Quaker practice of bearing witness. For Greenpeace, this meant being present at the scene of ecological abuse so that perpetrators would know they were being watched and monitored. The strategy was soon expanded to include peaceful interference such as driving small boats between harpooners and the whales they targeted for killing, and placing boats in the region of expected fallout from nuclear tests, thus preventing a bomb’s detonation. The group continues to publish and to inform the news media—all in an effort to make public the dangers faced by the environment and, thus, the earth’s human population.

Greenpeace groups initially appeared in many countries, with little international unity. However, as the network grew, it coalesced into an international organization during the 1980’s. Even after their unification as Greenpeace International, the regional groups continued to operate independently.

Given that protests often involved marine contexts, the ownership and maintenance of ships, boats, and other watercraft have been important parts of Greenpeace history. One of the first seaworthy ships the organization owned was a former research vessel from the British ministry of agriculture, the Sir William Hardy. Greenpeace bought it, cleaned it up, repaired it, and christened it the Rainbow Warrior. It became a symbol of Greenpeace as the organization’s flagship. The name was inspired by an American Indian legend that assures that after civilization compromises the earth’s ability to sustain life, the warriors of the rainbow would restore that ability to Earth.

During the 1980’s, Greenpeace was active on several fronts. One goal for the organization was to bring an end to French nuclear-weapons testing on islands in the Pacific. One island, Moruroa, was used repeatedly by the French, and Greenpeace demonstrated at the island nearly as often. Another test was scheduled for Moruroa in the summer of 1985. Greenpeace commissioned the Rainbow Warrior to be part of the demonstration. The protest itself was part of Greenpeace’s Pacific Peace Voyage, which also involved moving the inhabitants of the Marshall Island atoll, Rongelap, to another island (Mejato) less contaminated with radioactivity. Rongelap had been contaminated with radioactive fallout from earlier atmospheric nuclear tests. After the Rongelap residents were transferred, the Rainbow Warrior continued its trip to Moruroa. On the way, on July 7, it stopped at Auckland harbor in New Zealand.

On July 10, while the ship was moored at Auckland, Jean-Michel Bartelo and another member of the team from the French secret service placed two bombs with timing devices on the ship’s hull. The two bombs exploded in succession just before midnight. Damage was so extensive that the Rainbow Warrior sank. Only a few crew members were present at the time of the blasts. Steve Sawyer, the director of the Pacific protest effort in 1985, and most of the crew were celebrating Sawyer’s birthday on board. All but one of the crew members on the ship escaped. Fernando Pereira, a Greenpeace photographer, drowned while attempting to retrieve his cameras. The Moruroa demonstration continued as planned, but without the Rainbow Warrior.

Greenpeace chairman David McTaggart’s first thought was that the French government was involved in the blasts. Greenpeace and McTaggart had a long, contentious history with the French. He dismissed the idea, however, unable to believe that they would be so foolish. French government personnel who were at the harbor at the time of the explosions condemned the bombing and swore their innocence, but overwhelming evidence of their involvement in the violent action quickly came to light.

Near where the ship was moored and on the day of the bombing, witnesses had seen two men transfer a package from a small boat to a Toyota van, in which they drove away. The van’s registration number was traced to a rental company and to French secret service agents Dominique Prieur and Alain Meaford, who had rented the van using aliases (Sophie Turenge and Alain Turenge, respectively). The agents had dumped, into harbor waters, the oxygen tanks and the outboard motor of the boat used to approach the Rainbow Warrior, and they beached the boat near the scene as well. All items were found, and all indicated a French connection.

One agent, French army lieutenant Christine Huguette Cabon, had volunteered at the Greenpeace Auckland office under the alias Frederique Bonlieu before the Rainbow Warrior’s stop, passing information about Greenpeace plans to other members of the sabotage team. Abundant evidence implicated the French, and even included accusations against President François Mitterrand.

Whereas most of the dozen or so perpetrators disappeared, Prieur and Mafart were arrested when they returned the van to the rental agency. Although they were not involved in placing the explosives, they were sentenced to ten years in prison for aiding the saboteurs. They served less than three years of their sentences, however, and continued their careers with the French military. Each wrote a book about the affair.

The Rainbow Warrior was too badly damaged to be repaired. It was moved to Matauri Bay off the Cavalli Islands near New Zealand’s North Island. A Maori (native New Zealander) burial ceremony accompanied the ship’s scuttling. The sunken ship transformed over the years into a reef, enhancing the structure of the marine environment in the bay.


The Rainbow Warrior burial site became a memorial, and has been visited frequently by divers. Four years after the ship was buried, the Grampian Fame, an old fishing ship, was refurbished by Greenpeace and renamed Rainbow Warrior II. It carries the wheel and bell of the original Rainbow Warrior and has played a critical role in Greenpeace protests.

The French response to the first Rainbow Warrior’s attempt to demonstrate at Moruroa suggests that France feared the effects of the protest on their nuclear-testing program. The immediate impact of the bombing was profound. On one hand, Pereira’s children lost their father and his wife lost her husband. Greenpeace lost a crew member and photographer, as well as a symbolic ship. On the other hand, membership in the organization increased rapidly, as did public sympathy for Greenpeace.

France was ordered to compensate Pereira’s family, Greenpeace, and the government of New Zealand for their losses in the attack. At least one French official lost his position, and the affair was probably a factor in the Socialist Party’s loss of positions in the 1986 legislative election. That election reduced Mitterrand’s effectiveness for the rest of his first term because he had to deal with a strong opposition majority in Parliament. The bombing also likely played a role in Mitterrand’s defeat in the election of 1995 and in the French abandoning their nuclear-testing program in 1996.

Furthermore, the bombing strained France’s relationship with New Zealand for several years. It was the first terrorist attack in New Zealand’s history and perhaps helped New Zealanders realize that their geographic isolation no longer protected them from such acts. Pereira, Fernando Sawyer, Steve Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior (ship) Nuclear weapons;testing

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bohlen, Jim. Making Waves: The Origins and Future of Greenpeace. Tonawanda, N.Y.: Black Rose Books, 2001. Memoir by one of Greenpeace’s founding members describes the organization’s earliest days and its evolution into a worldwide force for environmental activism. Includes an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Michael, and John May. The Greenpeace Story: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Dynamic Environmental Pressure Group. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1991. Gives the bombing context and perspective; two chapters cover the specifics of the Rainbow Warrior and the bombing. Illustrations, maps, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dyson, John. Sink the Rainbow! An Enquiry into the “Greenpeace Affair.” London: Gollancz, 1986. Analyzes the actions and motives of the primary participants. Includes illustrations and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robie, David. Eyes of Fire: The Last Voyage of the Rainbow Warrior. 4th ed. Philadelphia: New Society, 2005. Describes the use of the Rainbow Warrior to transfer the population of an island contaminated with radiation to an island with less contamination, as well as the bombing and its aftermath. Illustrations, maps, index, and further readings section.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sheehan, Sean. Greenpeace. Chicago: Raintree, 2004. Written for young readers, this book briefly outlines the history of Greenpeace, including the role of the Rainbow Warrior and its destruction in that history. Illustrations, glossary, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallace-Bruce, Nii Lante. The Settlement of International Disputes: The Contribution of Australia and New Zealand. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1998. Pages 189 to 197 explore the Rainbow Warrior incident as an example of an international dispute. Includes an index and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weyler, Rex. Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 2004. Comprehensive biographical account of the founders and evolution of the organization, its political divisions, and its campaigns. Includes photographs and an index.

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