an interview by Deirdre O’Flinn in
Unarmed Heroes: The Courage to go Beyond Violence
Q1. How did the circumstances of your life come about, for you and in the wider context? How did you feel as various things happened? What affected you?
A1. My sudden decision, aged 8, to join the Royal Navy understandably caused my parents puzzled surprise. My father was a middle-ranking expert on farm building design in the Ministry of Agriculture, having lectured before and after World War II at London University’s Agricultural College in Wye, Kent, where I was born in 1944. I recently discovered that in 1952 a cousin of my father was serving as a Commander RN, but had lost touch with him. In World War II, my father had been a War Department Land Agent with acting rank of Captain in the Grenadier Guards, negotiating compensation for farmers whose land had been commandeered. That was the sum total of my military connections!
When I decided on a career as a naval officer, I was on holiday with my family in a Cornish fishing village. Warships were often faintly visible on the horizon near Devonport naval base, and I fell in love with boats and the sea. My innocent enthusiasm was redoubled by the Coronation Fleet Review at Spithead the following summer. On repeating the Cornish holiday that August, I badgered my father into arranging for me to visit a warship, an elegant old cruiser HMS Euralyus, in Devonport. The second-in-command (a Commander) personally welcomed me aboard the quarterdeck like royalty.
I was dazzled, and never considered any other career.
Being very conventionally middle class, joining meant going for officer. My parents took good advice and sent me to the Nautical College, Pangbourne – now a minor “public” (private fee-paying) boys’ school called Pangbourne College, between Reading and Oxford in Berkshire. The spartan routine and harsh discipline were a shock; but from age 13, I weathered the daily early morning run followed by cold hosing down, corporal punishment, and endless parades in the uniform of Cadet, Royal Naval Reserve. It was a junior replica of the Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth, which made the transition into the Navy effortless.
On joining Dartmouth direct from school in 1962, I discovered I was unusual in having no military pedigree. This meant that I had a relatively detached and enquiring attitude to naval life and traditions. The warships did not disappoint me: I relished my seatime, and was surprised and encouraged to find the Navy seemed to like me when I was awarded a Queen’s Telescope as one of the five top Cadets in my first year.
Towards the end of my second year as a Midshipman gaining sea experience in Malta, my mother committed suicide. A manic depressive, she had also struggled with breast cancer. Her death fired me with a single-minded drive to fulfil her desire for me to succeed in my chosen profession. I went on to achieve a first-class pass from naval training, which put me in the fast lane for promotion to Commander.
Two years later, I found myself press-ganged into the Fleet Air Arm as an Observer, the naval equivalent of navigator. The Admiralty needed to fill vacancies caused by an alarming increase in fatal accidents among jet aircrew. Again to my surprise, I found that I enjoyed it, and passed out top of my course. This meant that I was assigned to one of the Navy’s elite squadrons, flying in Buccaneer nuclear strike jets with a target in Russia.
After my mother died, her elder sister Hilda Murrell filled the void. Despite my youth and inferior education, Hilda and I “clicked”: she became my mentor and a close friend. A former Cambridge English graduate who also showed considerable flair in business and as a plantswoman, she successfully ran the family rose nursery in Shrewsbury, Shropshire from 1949-70. She had an infectious enthusiasm for all forms of life, and their miraculous harmony on this beautiful but fragile planet. She particularly loved the British Isles, their long history and how it had shaped the landscape, architecture and, of course, the gardens. Yet she was seldom nostalgic. On the contrary, she constantly probed the future, always with an eye to protecting humanity’s cultural heritage and increasingly polluted environment.
Having predicted the 1973 oil crisis five years before, she told me: “The next will be nuclear.” She did her homework, and homed in on the nuclear energy industry’s financial profligacy and failure to solve the waste problem.
Meanwhile, I was flying nuclear weapons around in strike jets and then anti-submarine helicopters. I rationalised (wrongly) that it was possible to support the Bomb and Hilda’s views on nuclear energy. This was fortunate when I was promoted Commander in 1978, and sent to the Ministry of Defence as personal staff officer to an Admiral closely involved in recommending the replacement for the Polaris nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine force.
I watched the powerful nuclear submarine lobby – known in the Navy as the “black mafia” – go ruthlessly for a scaled down version of the huge US Trident submarine system, even though it grossly exceeded UK requirements, introduced a destabilizing first-strike capability with its greater firepower and accuracy, and its massive cost threatened the future of the Royal Navy as a balanced, useful force.
Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister during this time. Addicted to all things nuclear, she forced the British nuclear energy industry to accept the US pressurised water reactor design which had just failed so spectacularly at Three Mile Island. She welcomed the stationing of US nuclear-armed cruise missiles on British soil, in the face of huge public protest. And she decided to have Trident, without consulting her Cabinet. Despite misgivings, the Chiefs of Staff were brought into line.
My main reason for applying for redundancy in the Thatcher government’s 1981 defence review was that, having been promoted to Commander very early after a career spent almost exclusively in aviation, I was ill-equipped to succeed in the fierce competition to command a frigate, without which I would not reach the rank of Admiral. Underlying this, however, was my concern that I could not stay fully committed to the Navy if it had to operate Trident.
On leaving the Navy after twenty years at the end of 1982 aged 38, with a working wife and no children, I trained as a roof thatcher in Dorset where we were living. Enduring many bad puns from friends about the political regime, I thatched for eight idyllic years. This proved vitally therapeutic following Hilda’s bizarre, high-profile murder.
At the time of her death, Hilda was 78 years old. After retiring, her passion for preserving the British countryside led her to campaign against both nuclear energy and weapons. She correctly saw radioactive waste as the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry, and that nuclear electricity generation in its current form was unsafe and could not be sustained without massive government subsidies.
On 21 March 1984, she was preparing to testify as an independent objector on radioactive waste management problems at the first public enquiry into a nuclear power plant in Britain, at Sizewell in Suffolk. At about midday, following a break-in at her home when only a little cash was found to be missing, she was apparently abducted in her own car, which was seen being driven erratically by several witnesses. It was quickly reported abandoned on the side of a lane just outside Shrewsbury; but the police took nearly three days to find her mutilated body in a wood nearly half a mile across fields from the car. Despite one of the biggest police investigations in Britain in the twentieth century, the case remains unsolved. She has been dubbed the “British Karen Silkwood”.
In my pursuit of the truth there have been several attempts to intimidate me, perhaps because of my public criticisms of the police theory that it had been simply a “bungled burglary”. Suspicions grew that some evidence had been either planted or suppressed in order to mislead the police, which is indicative of State interference. Indeed, there is reason to believe that this happened in a State-sponsored abduction of Hilda, using her car as a decoy, to a safe house for interrogation after which she was left to be found as an example to discourage others.
It appears that she became a victim of the paranoia surrounding the Thatcher government at the time. This centred on the controversial torpedoing of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano by the nuclear attack submarine HMS Conqueror during the Falklands War, about which I wrongly came under suspicion for leaking classified information to a very persistent Labour politician, Tam Dalyell, who also happened to be pro-nuclear energy. During that war, I was in the command bunker in Northwood outside London working as Staff Officer (Intelligence) to the Commander-in-Chief Fleet, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse.
A second political motive derived from the fact that Hilda was taking advice from several more radical anti-nuclear activists, including a retired British scientist who had dropped out of the Sizewell Inquiry after a mysterious heart attack. He had been preparing to testify about a design fault in the control rod system of the Three Mile Island reactor which could have been a major contributory cause of its meltdown in 1979, and which was replicated in the UK version under scrutiny at the Inquiry. No-one else raised the issue; but Hilda had met him at his first public lecture after recovering from his heart attack just over a month before she was murdered, and it may have been suspected that he had asked her to present his testimony by proxy (which he did not).
Angered and radicalised, I took up Hilda’s baton campaigning against the hazards of nuclear-powered electricity generation, especially after the first nuclear explosion in a power plant at Chernobyl in April 1986. The British nuclear energy industry had begun as a cynical by-product of the race to provide Plutonium for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the US-UK nuclear lobby is extremely powerful, secretive and ruthless - and had a motive to move against Hilda, with a Prime Minister who was in thrall to it and had something to hide about the sinking of the General Belgrano. My quest for the truth was driven by a deep sense of betrayal that the British government could sink so low as to order the assassination of one of its law-abiding citizens who, a true patriot like myself, was trying to protect her country. Nevertheless, for as long as possible I steered clear of being drawn into the ultimate step of opposing “the Bomb”.
This happened in January 1991, just before the US-led coalition began its air bombardment of Iraq in the first Gulf War. My military intelligence training had warned me that Saddam Hussein would be given the pretext he needed to attack Israel, in order to split the coalition and become the Arabs’ champion. If provoked enough, he could use Scud ballistic missiles with chemical or biological warheads. If such an attack caused heavy Israeli casualties, Israel’s Prime Minister Shamir would come under massive domestic pressure to retaliate with a nuclear strike on Baghdad. Even if Saddam Hussein did not survive (he had the best anti-nuclear bunkers that Western technology could provide), the entire Arab world would erupt in fury against Israel and its allies; its security would be destroyed forever; and Russia would be sucked in…
The first Scud attack hit Tel Aviv on the night of 17 January 1991, two days after the Allied blitzkrieg began. A week before, I had addressed a crowd of 20,000 anti-Gulf War demonstrators from the foot of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square, of all places. In so doing, I became the first ex-British Navy Commander with experience of operating nuclear weapons to have come out against them. In Israel, for the first time, the second city of a de facto nuclear state had been attacked and its capital threatened. Worse for nuclear deterrence dogma, the aggressor did not have nuclear weapons. The Israeli people, cowering in gas-masks in basements, learned that night that their so-called “deterrent” had failed in its primary purpose. Some 38 more Scud attacks followed.
Seymour Hersh, in his bestseller The Samson Option, recounts how Israel reacted:
“The US satellite saw that Shamir had responded to the Scud barrage by ordering mobile missile launchers armed with nuclear weapons moved into the open and deployed facing Iraq, ready to launch on command. American intelligence picked up other signs indicating that Israel had gone on a full-scale nuclear alert that would remain in effect for weeks. No one in the Bush administration knew what Israel would do if a Scud armed with nerve gas struck a crowded apartment building, killing thousands.All Bush could offer Shamir, besides money and more batteries of Patriot missiles, was American assurance that the Iraqi Scud launcher sites would be made a priority target of the air war. Such guarantees meant little; no Jews had been killed by poison gas since Treblinka and Auschwitz, and Israel, after all, had built its bomb so it would never have to depend on the goodwill of others when the lives of Jews were being threatened.The escalation didn’t happen, however; the conventionally armed Scud warheads caused – amazingly – minimal casualties, and military and financial commitments from the Bush administration rolled in. The government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir received international plaudits for its restraint.American officials were full of private assurances for months after the crisis that things had been under control; newsmen were told that Israel, recognizing the enormous consequence of a nuclear strike, would not have launched its missiles at Baghdad.
The fact is, of course, that no one in America – not even its President – could have dissuaded Shamir and his advisers from ordering any military actions they deemed essential to the protection of their nation.”
Meanwhile, in Britain the Irish Republican Army just missed wiping out the entire Gulf War Cabinet with a mortar bomb attack from a van in central London. A more direct threat to the government could barely be imagined. What if instead they had threatened to use even a crude nuclear device? A counter-threat of nuclear retaliation would have been utterly incredible.
Belatedly forced to research the history of “the Bomb”, I discovered that the British scientific-politico-military establishment bore considerable responsibility for initiating and spreading the nuclear arms race. Having alerted the US to the feasibility of making a nuclear weapon, the UK participated in the Manhattan Project. On being frozen out of further collaboration, in 1947 the UK began to develop its own nuclear arsenal. The UK became Saddam Hussein’s role model: the first medium-sized power with delusions of grandeur to threaten nuclear terrorism. Also the doctrine of nuclear deterrence had always been flawed in terms of its practicality, and was immoral and unlawful; and there were more credible and acceptable alternative security strategies.
Having given up thatching as the Gulf War loomed, later in 1991 I became Chair of the UK affiliate of the World Court Project. This worldwide network of citizen groups helped to persuade the UN General Assembly, despite desperate countermoves led by the three NATO nuclear weapon states, to ask the International Court of Justice (known as the World Court) for its Advisory Opinion on the legal status of nuclear weapons. In 1996, the Court confirmed that the threat, let alone use, of nuclear weapons would generally be illegal. For the first time, the legality of nuclear deterrence had been challenged. Also, I met Kate Dewes, a pioneer of the project living in Christchurch, New Zealand, and we both became members of the project’s International Steering Committee from 1992-96. After we were married in 1997, we established a Disarmament & Security Centre in the South Island branch of the Peace Foundation which she had coordinated from her home for over twenty years.
There is no doubt in my mind that the two traumas involving the violent deaths of my mother and then her sister were pivotal in my conversion from operator of nuclear weapons to campaigner for their abolition. My mother’s death steeled me and lifted me to excel as an Observer, without which I would not have had the experience of operating nuclear weapons. The pursuit of the truth about my aunt’s murder forced me to learn about how the nuclear industry and successive governments had corrupted and abused British democracy and the Royal Navy.
The extreme and unique nature of my family experiences may help to explain why I remain the only ex-British Navy Commander with nuclear weapon experience to have come out against them. I also attribute a major influence to the peculiarly potent tradition, carefully nurtured to carve out and hold down the British Empire, immortalised by Tennyson in his Crimean War poem The Charge of the Light Brigade about an earlier suicide mission. The attitude “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die” was alive and well, especially in the all-volunteer Royal Navy.
However, my father set a fine example as a truly gentle man who did not pressure me in any way to follow any macho tendencies (though I had plenty of that in the Navy!). My first wife was a major factor in my early promotion to Commander, and my rock in the massive shift from naval life to self-employed artisan. In my final transformation to peace activist, I would not have been able to do that without the support base provided by Kate.
Q2. How and when did your involvement or development become greater? Did you make a conscious choice at any moment? What did the experience mean? How did it feel?
A2. My naval career gave me first-hand experience of operating nuclear weapons. As the first British ex-Commander with that experience to have spoken out against them, this has proved to be a unique qualification. Of almost equal importance, I received an excellent training to communicate this.
My specialisation of Observer seems curiously apt to describe my whole naval experience. With no military pedigree, I went through it subconsciously treating the Navy rather like an anthropologist who “goes native” with a tribe in order to study them. That said, the decision to take redundancy was traumatic, as I had no other qualifications and had been sheltered from the real world outside the military.
Thereafter, I feel I have been swept along in a process of responding to huge events. These include Hilda’s murder, Chernobyl, the end of the Cold War, the first Gulf War, being elected UK Chair of the World Court Project, divorce in 1992, re-marriage in 1997, and my father’s death followed by emigration to New Zealand in 1999.
With all these, I made conscious choices. However, I have a sense of following a definite path for which my experiences seem to have prepared me.
Q3. What sources of strength have helped you? Has it changed you? What did you have to deal with that you found support for? What personal resources have you realised?
A3. My life has been blessed, guided and changed by a succession of strong women: my mother Betty, her sister Hilda, my first wife Liz, and now Kate. My father Noel was there for me in quiet support until recently. After I “jumped off the cliff” before the first Gulf War and joined the anti-nuclear movement, one of my inspirations was Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten of Burma, whose last speech against nuclear weapons in May 1979 probably cost him his life three months later – though the cover story was that the IRA bombed his yacht. Among sudden new mentors were Air Commodore Alastair Mackie, Peter Smith, Brigadier Michael Harbottle and Frank Barnaby of Just Defence; Paul Rogers; Bruce Kent; Frank Blackaby; Scilla Elworthy, and Joseph Rotblat.
In listing the above, I must emphasise that my trauma at speaking out against nuclear weapons was heightened by my fear of being branded as an emotional CND supporter. Apart from having been in an extremely sensitive Navy appointment when the first Thatcher government began to persecute CND, I knew that Hilda had not joined CND. She carefully chose the Nuclear Freeze movement and END – although she had quietly supported the Greenham women and attended the November 1983 CND rally in London. Like her, I saw CND’s approach as too emotional, too pacifist, and alienating the Establishment. I, too, realised that I must not sever my Establishment connections, but rather try to turn them to good use. That is why initially I only joined Ex-Services CND and Just Defence.
Just Defence was important to me because it offered an alternative defence and security paradigm, without which any attempt to get rid of nuclear weapons would founder. Building on the work of the Palme Commission that security needed to be transformed from a win/lose military game to a safety net for all, Just Defence upheld the UN and advocated the OSCE instead of NATO, and promoted preventive diplomacy, minimal non-provocative defence and conversion of the arms industry to peaceful uses.
My own research into the history of Britain’s nuclear weapons and policy led me to single out two aspects on which to focus my energies: the law, and nuclear deterrence. These related closely to my military experience, and especially to the principal difference between military professionals and hired killers or terrorists: military professionals must be seen to act within the law.
Challenging the legality of nuclear weapons brought me into the World Court Project as the British chair of this remarkably successful and innovative international campaign, one of whose pioneers from Christchurch, New Zealand was Kate. I was in the audience when she stole the show at the international launch of the campaign in Geneva in May 1992. Our relationship blossomed after we were appointed as members of the International Steering Committee. Although I spent most of my time in the UK between then and the World Court’s verdict in 1996, I was enormously motivated and sustained by our teamwork from opposite sides of the planet, with frequent meetings in New York and Europe.
After the World Court confirmed that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be unlawful, my work shifted to promoting the Court’s advisory opinion and campaigning to persuade the nuclear powers to comply. Two new mentors emerged following publication of the report by the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons in August 1996. The first, a member of the Commission, was recently retired General Lee Butler USAF; while the other was the Commission’s consultant on nuclear deterrence, Michael MccGwire. Lee is my generation, and his last job had been as Commander-in-Chief of Strategic Command, in charge of all US nuclear forces from 1992-94. In December 1996, he decided to speak out against nuclear weapons, and was the most eloquent and authoritative advocate yet. When he came to New Zealand in October 1997, Kate and I were able to spend several hours with him and his wife, and they gave us huge affirmation and encouragement.
Mike MccGwire and I had both left the Royal Navy prematurely as Commanders after working in naval intelligence. In the 1960s and 70s, he revolutionised the analysis of Soviet naval strategy both in the UK and US. He went on to challenge the established view of nuclear deterrence, and was unusually effective because of his deep expertise on Soviet military thinking. Although his approach was academic, he provided intellectual underpinning for my arguments, and was wonderfully encouraging as a former British naval colleague.
Between them all, my mentors inspired me to write down my findings and hone my arguments. This was the principal resource which I discovered, and on which I am now focusing my work.
Q4. What did you actually do and what has happened?
A4. Covered above.
Q5. What would you say were the benefits and the costs, for you personally and for others? What conclusions would you draw from what happened? What are the values which you believe in now?
A5. Too big a question to answer here – which is why I’m writing a book about it! Suffice to conclude that my life so far has borne out the saying, beloved of Hilda: “To struggle and to understand – never one without the other.” My metamorphosis from nuclear warrior to peace activist has taught me that the only durable security is as a safety-net for all, not a “win/lose” military game. Indeed, the nature of modern warfare is such that, not only do non-combatants make up over 90% of the casualties, but even the “victorious” military are suffering long-term health effects, probably from inoculations against chemical or biological weapons and/or use of toxic materials such as depleted uranium. Besides, the many threats to our security are increasingly seen to be beyond solution by military means. Overarching my work is an urgent need to reclaim patriotism in a new form embracing the whole Earth, before narrow nationalism destroys us all.