French Sink Greenpeace Ship, 1985

How on earth did Greenpeace get mixed up in the seedy world of covert operations to result in one of its ships getting mined? Read about how the world-renowned conservation group annoyed the French so much they launched ‘Operation Satanique’ against them.

Sticking to the shadows, sheathed in black and deadly with any weapon, the men and women who staff the world’s most active covert action agencies are experts in surveillance, subterfuge and sabotage; they’re the guys that governments turn to when they tire of fighting fair, and no blow is too low.

Little else than the noise of sloshing water gently slapping the bow of a small ship intruded on the peace of approaching midnight that set the scene in Auckland Port, New Zealand. The silhouette of the ship was barely perceptible against the faint rays of harbour lights in the distant background and it barely revealed the superstructure of the Rainbow Warrior.

This 418 tonne converted trawler with a thick brushstroke of rainbow down its otherwise black hull was serving as Greenpeace’s flagship in their dogged, decades-old campaigns to resist whaling, seal hunting and nuclear testing in the southern Pacific’s seas and atolls.

Previously the ship had set sail to the Mururoa Atoll, where the French Government were drenching the region in radioactivity in its pursuit to develop its arsenal of nuclear weapons. The Greenpeace crew had become old hands at monitoring and obstructing the French and making thorough nuisances of themselves.

Yet be careful what you wish for; Rainbow Warrior was about to become a victim of her own success. She’d become such a thorn in the French Republic’s side, its government’s patience had run out and the order was given to teach the eco-warriors a lesson they wouldn’t forget.

Unseen, an unnatural burble of bubbles reaching the water’s surface betrayed a sinister presence; two divers had left the cover of shadows to enter the jet black water.

Their tools, limpet mines, and they were about to perform the coupe-de-grace to ‘Operation Satanique’; a mission to sink the Rainbow Warrior. The two divers, operatives of none other than the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) — France’s highly covert spy agency — so formidable its name is spoken only in hushed tones among her enemies.

The clock was ticking. The two frogmen dived to place a mine each on the starboard hull, setting them to detonate 10 mins apart.

The doomed ship’s crew were thrown violently awake at the violent jolt of the 1st explosion. They clamoured to clamber off the ship and onto the cold jetty with whatever belongings they could snatch.

The operation was going to plan like a well-conducted theatre piece until one actor veered from the script; photographer Fernando Pereira felt safe enough to reboard the vessel to retrieve his precious camera equipment when the 2nd mine detonated. It delivered the ship its death blow and Periera, trapped below, joined her.

He was the operation’s sole fatality. The ship slipped under the harbour’s murky waters as the two men in black slipped away. DGSE’s mission was reported successful.

The DGSE sank the ex trawler with two limpet mines (earthisland.org)

In the aftermath, however, the French suffered a PR disaster; the two frogmen were caught after New Zealand’s police launched their biggest ever manhunt to discover the two saboteurs were in fact a man and a woman. They’d posed as a married couple in the run-up to the operation.

Although initially trying to deny involvement, France apologised and paid millions of francs in compensation to both Greenpeace and Fernando Periera’s family.

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