Mururoa Mission

It’s 50 years since I was part of the Mururoa Mission, the New Zealand Government’s protest against France testing nuclear devices in the South Pacific. The milestone anniversary has prompted publication of the story of this most unusual… no, unique… assignment to witness nuclear explosions at Mururoa atoll.

No Ordinary Monday!

My Monday morning in NZBC’s Hamilton newsroom was all-routine until, mid-morning, the local Manager of radio and TV operations, Bren Low, appeared at the door beckoning me along to his office. I hardly had time to ponder what was going on because it was soon evident Bren’s phone was off the hook, a caller left “hanging” while he fetched me. “It’s Peter Fabian in Wellington Head Office,” Bren said and then addressing the phone he said “I have Ric with me now in my office. We are alone”.  I could not see what was coming. I thought perhaps I was in trouble over an editorial matter, or was there a promotion in prospect? Peter Fabian, NZBC’s Editor of News, dispensed with any niceties: he straightaway asked me if I would consider a long-duration, overseas, assignment and then after a brief pause added, almost as a footnote, that it would be aboard HMNZS Canterbury on the Mururoa Mission, the Government’s protest against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. I recalled then that over the weekend our NZBC News bulletins had been reporting that Canterbury would replace HMNZS Otago, already off Mururoa.

Peter said that he had to wait for the weekend announcement before approaching anyone to travel with Canterbury, and now it was urgent: the frigate was being readied for imminent departure. Peter was asking for almost an immediate reply… “normally I would say the Navy and Government aspects of the assignment make it confidential. But what we are asking you to do is a bit different. Like Otago you will be sailing in the “no-go” area declared by the French, there will most likely be nuclear explosions while you are there and, lastly, the assignment’s duration is unknown. It will be weeks, maybe longer, just as long as the French continue this year’s test programme.  We don’t know how long you’ll be away. So because this is a bit different and it’s a big ask, you can talk to family, or whoever you want to get advice from. Do it quietly, though. Can you get back to me before close of play today?”

We spoke briefly about my replacement while I would be out of the office, if I accepted, and other procedural matters and I promised to get back to Peter as requested. “There’ll be a day in Wellington to get briefed by the Government, the Navy and by us, and then there’ll have to be a day’s training at the Auckland Devonport naval base”.

Assessing the Risk

I rang my parents to advise them I had been asked, and that I thought I would go. They asked about the dangers – I acknowledged risks, but reassured them that I thought they would all be well-managed by the Navy.  I looked around for more advice. The difficulty was that few had experienced quite what was being proposed. And certainly no one I knew. NZBC colleague Shaun Brown was aboard HMNZS Otago at Mururoa, not readily contactable. The only naval officer I had any dealing with, PR representative, Lt Cameron Hill, was also aboard Otago so I could not get his viewpoint.

Deciding it was more or less a personal decision, I phoned Peter Fabian mid-afternoon and accepted. I advised Bren Low as a courtesy and then rang my parents to tell them.

Things moved rapidly. By the end of the day appointments had been made for me later in the week in Wellington and there was a booking at Devonport for familiarisation and training.

While contemplating all this I realised that I had not been paying particular attention to New Zealand’s protest against French testing and the background that led to it. I had seen it – as one newspaper had headlined – “David vs Goliath in the South Seas”.

Playing Catch-Up

Trying to get information at that time was difficult. It’s easier in hindsight, many years later, to figure out how it happened. The release of Government papers, diplomatic notes, New Zealand’s protest letters to the French, signals between Wellington and the Embassy in Paris, as well as historian’s accounts, have all contributed to help paint the picture.

France began nuclear testing in her territory, Algeria, in February 1960 at a site in the Sahara Desert. After many detonations the testing had to stop when Algeria gained independence in 1962 and wouldn’t countenance further tests. France needed a new venue for its ongoing testing programme and in September that year there were first indications that a site in the South Pacific was being investigated, a remote  island south-west of Tahiti in French Polynesia.  Within 6 months it was learned that testing would, indeed, continue at Mururoa Atoll and that moves were underway to develop a base there.

Location of Mururoa Atoll.

This sparked the first of many protest notes from New Zealand to France complaining that radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing would inevitably reach New Zealand, and much more likely, its Pacific neighbours, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands, the last for which New Zealand held special responsibilities.

Mururoa Atoll. Nasa

This first protest from the Holyoake Government also set the tone for many others that were to follow over the years – muted, carefully written, and diplomatically-couched so as not to anger the French. It was widely believed among officials in Wellington that, if provoked, France might retaliate with trade sanctions or unfavourable treatment when it came to EEC, Common Market, negotiations with a risk of restricting New Zealand’s agriculture exports.

France responded, pointing out that other countries were also testing bombs. China, Russia, United Kingdom and United States all had programmes: the U.S, it was noted, had a facility in the Pacific at Johnston Island. Ignoring the geographical proximity of its tests, France asked why it had not heard New Zealand protests about these other tests.

Indifferent Help from Friends

Despite protests, France established the base at Mururoa and, ignoring renewed protests from New Zealand, declared a danger/exclusion zone around the atoll… a “no-go zone”.

One would have thought that Australia would have shared New Zealand’s concern about France moving the testing site to the Pacific and the resulting danger from radioactive pollution. Australia, however, initially thought that no protest was necessary. It was guarded in its views in case it upset France and allies, principally the U.S. But later Australia considered taking France to the International Court of Justice questioning the legality of her nuclear testing programme, an idea New Zealand was at first cool about. Wellington approached London for assistance to show a shared- concern. But out of consideration for an essential continuing cordial relationship with France, the UK was indifferent to New Zealand’s anti-nuclear protests and turned down requests for logistical help. It turned out that the Royal Navy had always planned to be in the South Pacific during the tests, and, indeed, quietly monitored the situation from international waters.

Testing Begins at Mururoa

By the time testing began at Mururoa in July 1966, the New Zealand Government had established a series of monitoring devices in Pacific Islands enabling air samples to be taken and analysed. Thus, soon after the first tests it was announced that increases in radioactivity had been detected across the South Pacific, including New Zealand, but well below danger levels – “no cause for concern”.

Tests continued: at first New Zealand sent a protest note to Paris after each one, then it more or less gave up on that approach, pursuing instead condemnation at various international organisations, including the United Nations’ General Assembly. The Holyoake Government continued a restrained approach in all its actions, all the time fearing economic or trade back-lash from France.

Frank Corner – well used to putting New Zealand’s views.       N. Z. Government

As far back as 1963 Frank Corner, New Zealand’s permanent representative in New York, sent a signal to Wellington putting the idea of New Zealand sending a couple of frigates to protest at Mururoa to enforce South Pacific residents’ protests against this new hazard.  Receiving Corner’s novel suggestion, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alister McIntosh, had reservations – he could see some risks that might cause the scheme to back-fire, ridiculing New Zealand. The Labour Party, in opposition, kept up a barrage of news releases protesting against the French tests. Leader Norm Kirk mentioned that, if elected in November 1972, a Labour government planned to send a navy frigate as a protest ship on behalf of the nation. One or two yachts plus a Greenpeace ship, had already sailed to Mururoa in protest… Kirk couldn’t see why a frigate shouldn’t be sent.

Labour Government Elected

Labour took the Government benches in a landslide and in his first post-election speech, Prime Minister Norman Kirk recalled the proposed “frigate” protest. He said if other measures failed, a navy ship would be despatched to Mururoa as soon as the French resumed testing for their 1973 programme. A Minister of the crown would be on board… (Kirk said he wouldn’t mind going himself!) … and there was an invitation for a member of the National Opposition to accompany the mission.

Within weeks of Kirk taking office there was also a change of government in Australia. Gough Whitlam led his party to victory: there was now a Labour Government both sides of the Tasman.  Both governments were up for protesting against the French tests: it was only a matter of how.

Expressing a Viewpoint

Among the “other protests” mentioned by Kirk, was a last-ditch stand to Paris asking that the tests be abandoned. President Pomidou was inflexible “on a matter of French sovereignty”, as he put it, so Australia and New Zealand took the next step: they joined to take a case before the International Court of Justice. It was an uneasy alliance because of each country’s differences in approach towards legal arguments. Australia wanted to emphasise offence against General Terms which outlawed nuclear testing under the principles of international law. New Zealand, on the other hand, wanted to add focus on possible radioactive fallout from testing, asking the Court to make an interim order restraining France from further testing until the Court could hold a full hearing and deliver its deliberative judgement. In June 1973 the Court, by the slimmest of majorities, found in favour of the plaintiffs, Australia and New Zealand, and, until it could hear full legal arguments, ordered the parties not to take any prejudicial, nor escalating, actions. “In particular,” the Court said, “the French Government should avoid nuclear tests causing deposit of radioactive fall-out on the territory of New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Niue or Tokelau Islands”.   Prime Minister Kirk welcomed the Court’s finding but in subsequent weeks, despite his pleadings to France to observe the decision, noted that testing was still going ahead at Mururoa. Kirk then announced New Zealand’s protest – a navy frigate would sail to the test area off Mururoa.

(The International Court delivered its final decision in December 1974 finding that the case “no longer had any object” on the grounds that several French Ministers had announced the end of atmospheric testing: future explosions would be underground. Kirk was not to see this diplomatic, face-saving, decision: he had died suddenly on 31st August 1974)

Back to November 1972

The new Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, thought it would be an operational matter for the Navy to sail one of its frigates to Mururoa, standby off the atoll to witness the explosions as a protest, and return. He was astounded when told that New Zealand frigates could not travel to and from Mururoa without refuelling, let alone enduring the weeks, maybe months they would be “on station” maintaining watch, and protest, in the waters off Mururoa.  Worse, the PM was acquainted with the fact that New Zealand did not have the means to refuel a frigate, nor did it have a ship capable of carrying fuel and sailing so far from base.

Mururoa is a remote spot on the globe, an atoll some 25 kms long and 10 kms wide, about 1,250 kms from Tahiti and 4,200 kms from Auckland.

Notwithstanding the fuel replenishment conundrum, the Navy faced other considerations when formally asked by Minister of Defence, Arthur Faulkner, to send a frigate. The Navy, understandably, had not been on a protest mission before so planning began with a blank sheet of paper. There were whispers that some senior officers did not like the frigates being converted to politically-motivated protest ships. There were claims of obstruction by Defence Chiefs. The Government’s wish that civilian journalists accompany the mission were also worrisome: reporters weren’t welcome on warships, especially given that some parts of the ship and its equipment were top-secret, out-of-bounds. Once it was accepted that journalists would definitely be on board… the Prime Minister had insisted… there was rapid realisation that it was intended by the Government that the ships were to be the “media hub” for New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance, French tests in particular.

While the Navy was sorting out which ship would be available the question of refuelling the frigate off Mururoa seemed resolved when the President of Australian Trade Unions, Bob Hawke, told Prime Minister Norm Kirk that Australia would provide a tanker: “don’t you worry!”

Trade Unions in New Zealand sided with the anti-nuclear stand and, like colleagues overseas, took selective protest action refusing to handle French ships and aircraft and goods made in France. International groups of trade unions followed, urging France to stop the tests.

HMNZS Otago.

HMNZS Otago was chosen to be first-in: available after it was decided to curtail her refit and cancel a joint exercise with Australia. She would be relieved on-station at Mururoa, if required, by HMNZS Canterbury which, until early July, was on manoeuvres out of Pearl Harbour.

This would be the first time a Government anywhere in the world committed navy ships to join the  protest against nuclear bombs and probably he first government-sponsored nuclear protest of any kind.

Which Minister?

Great speculation was raised about which Minister of the Crown would be travelling on Otago. The wags were saying the Minister of Tourism, Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, would be named, threatening to put a woman amongst the all-male crew! A good few Ministers opted out of the opportunity to go to Mururoa, saying they were too busy, had important legislation to usher through the House or were about to undertake “sensitive matters”. Yet others claimed they weren’t good sailors, one or two had urgent public business overseas… other than at Mururoa. Only one or two agreed “they were available and could go”. News media speculated on the contenders, and so did the Navy, putting the smart money on the Minister of Maori Affairs, Matt Rata.

Hon. Fraser Colman, MP

In the end the Minister of Mines, Fraser Colman, was chosen, his name picked out of a hat, some suggesting each piece of paper in the ballot had Mr Colman’s name on it!

True to Bob Hawke’s word, the Australian navy came up with a supply ship to travel to Mururoa, enabling the New Zealand frigate to be re-fuelled on-station. Appropriately named HMAS Supply, this ship was to become the life-line of the mission in coming months.

HMAS Supply. RAN.

The New Zealand frigates, it was decided as a matter of policy, must have half-full fuel tanks at all times in case of any contingencies, so frequent top-ups were going to be needed.

After hurried maintenance and preparation at Devonport, the Otago was ready. She had sufficient crew despite an offer that personnel could opt out for political or personal reasons. Otago undertook a few rapid working-up trials – and was ready for deployment.

Otago Sails

France refused to accept and obey the injunction by the International Court of Justice so the Government gave the green light.  Otago, under Commander Alan Tyrell, sailed for Mururoa on 28 June 1973. Colman was aboard, and for the special mission so was Jim McCahon from the National Radiation Laboratory (with sensitive monitoring equipment to record any radioactive fallout), David Barber (New Zealand Press Association journalist), Shaun Brown (New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation journalist) and Wayne Williams (New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation cameraman), all 3 ready to report New Zealand’s remarkable protest.

Norman Kirk farewells Otago. NZPA

Norman Kirk, farewelling the ship, said it was not gun-boat diplomacy… the ship was New Zealand’s voice against nuclear testing. Otago was to travel international waters, he said, even those around Mururoa which had been illegally closed as an exclusion zone by the French Government. The ship was to be “silent witness with the power to bring alive the conscience of the world”. Otago, he said, was not to be mother ship to those small protest craft already at Mururoa or en route. Otago’s departure ignited the interest of international news media: just what the Government wanted.

Preparations for an Unusual Mission

Otago’s crew trained intensively en route to Mururoa. The ship was several times “closed down” -sealed against radioactive fall-out. The pre-wetting tested and the water sprays operated: jets of water to wash away any fallout. Damage control was rehearsed and radio/news communications systems trialled. Commander Tyrell, wanting to be ready for any eventuality, ordered that the ship would go to action stations when encountering French ships or aircraft. Further, he had the ship’s ammunition fused and ready and the Sea Cat anti-aircraft missiles armed.

Otago exercised with HMAS Supply and after Refuelling At Sea (RAS) and taking on food supplies, the New Zealand frigate was ordered to the edge of the exclusion zone on 4th July 1973.

Off to Mururoa

The New Zealand protest had begun in earnest: the ship received many calls from press, radio and TV reporters, most answered by the Minister, Fraser Colman. The media representatives on board kept New Zealand readers, listeners and viewers up-to-date: their reports were circulated much more widely after being picked up by various international news agencies and broadcasters.

The ship settled down to remaining on-station off Mururoa, slurping around at slow speed and making observations such as gathering meteorological data using equipment attached to balloons, which was not altogether a success. On radar there were observations keeping track of French vessels and aircraft, while monitoring was maintained listening out on French radio frequencies.

On Saturday 7 July it was announced by the Minister of Defence that HMNZS Canterbury would be sailing on 14 July (yes, Bastille Day) to relieve Otago.

HMNZS Canterbury. Navy Museum

Signs of an Imminent Test

Meanwhile at Mururoa, a week or two later on 17th July, the protest yacht Fri, which had sailed from New Zealand, was seized by French sailors, a boarding party from the French Navy minesweeper Dunkerque: the vessel was towed to Mururoa. The crew was detained on nearby Hao Island. It was thought that this action, getting intruders out of the way of any fallout, probably signalled an imminent test. On 19th July Otago was ordered to an observation zone, closer to Mururoa, typically 24 miles (40km) off the atoll. Numerous French ships ignored the presence of Otago. There was no attempt to intercept Otago, unlike the “Fri”. It was assumed French authorities knew that Otago was equipped with anti-fallout equipment and were content for Otago to look after herself.

All preparations were observed for a detonation on 19th July but the inclement weather forced postponement.

Preparations at Devonport

In the second week in July I had several appointments at Devonport Naval Base. One was with stores to pick up Navy-issue clothing appropriate to wear on board Canterbury. I was issued with a personal radiation detector.

Similar to the radiation detector worn aboard Canterbury . BBC

It looked like small badge with a plastic surround and obviously contained sensitive chemicals inside. I seem to remember being told that it would change colour once exposed to certain level of radioactivity. It was to be worn on one’s shirt or jacket at all times aboard Canterbury. Another meeting at Philomel was a briefing from Naval Officers and their PR representatives about the Mission as the Navy saw it, as well as protocols, an explanation of no-go areas on the warship, living arrangements aboard and news that a small office had been allocated for the media, just off the flight deck where the ship’s Wasp helicopter took off and landed. It was at this meeting that I met my opposite number, fellow traveller, from New Zealand Press Association (NZPA), Chris Turver. Our other appointment at Devonport was with officers at the NBCD Training Centre. NBCD stands for Nuclear Biological and Chemical Damage control: our short course covered the basics of safety at sea, the ship’s facilities to better survive damage of any kind, elementary fire safety and firefighting and the special provisions which allowed the frigate to be “shut down” to prevent radio-active material being ingested into on-board systems. The worst of the NBCD exercises were conducted in that part of training centre which emulates the inside of a warship with narrow companionways, vertical steel ladders, and small compartments. Working with a group of sailors it was our task to attempt to shore-up damage at the base of a companionway with water flowing through in torrents.

Then there was a taste of tear-gas when we tested our gas-masks during an exercise to impress on us that we might find ourselves in a hostile atmosphere and the need to move quickly if ever we had to evacuate to clearer air in another part of the ship.

We must have passed the tests because after the NBCD session no one said we couldn’t go to sea at the weekend when Canterbury was scheduled to sail for Mururoa. In fact, just to confirm that I was on the Mission, I briefly met the ship’s captain, Derek Cheney.

Canterbury Sails

It was, in fact, Saturday 14th July, 1973, when Canterbury left Devonport Naval Base for the Mururoa Mission. The irony of the date, Bastille Day, did not go unnoticed. There was much media interest in the departure and families and well-wishers crowded the wharf to farewell the ship. I was invited belowdecks to one of the Chief Petty Officer’s mess by a CPO, a friend of a friend, so I actually missed the casting off and departure. I was shown living arrangements for the 2 media reps. I would sleep in a bunk in Mess 3M, a rating’s mess at the rear of the ship near tiller flat. I think there was a group of six bunks and in deference to the civilian visitor the whole 6 had been cleared and given over to me. The area later became known by sailors as “Fleet Street”. Ablutions would be in the nearby Senior Ratings’ facilities and I would dine in the Wardroom with the Officers. It seemed no time at all and we were in rough waters stirred by an Easterly gale. Before we left Hauraki Gulf the ship set off its anti-fallout water sprays, or pre-wetting, as the Navy called it. This was principally for the media who captured the spectacle from low-flying aircraft.

Adverse weather continued, slowing the ship’s progress. Relentless rough seas certainly slowed my progress towards sea-legs. I was decidedly queasy and did not show at the appointed times for several meals. There must have been concern shown because someone sent the Wardroom Steward, Buis, down to 3M to see what I was up to and, if possible to get me to the Wardroom to eat. I was feeling a bit better by this stage. “Scran’s up!” said Buis, “give it 10 and you’re adrift”. I had no idea what he was talking about and I did not make dinner that night.

There was considerable interruption for most of the night as engineers and crew members crowded around 3M. Something was wrong with the ship’s steering gear and best (maybe only) access was through the Mess to the Tiller Flat. I guessed the trouble might have been caused by the heavy seas so I asked someone what was wrong. Probably still sensitive about telling the news guys too much, he let go with a typical, but trite, Naval explanation. “the f***ing f***er’s  f***ed!”. Well, I had asked for it!

Despite these visitors in the night I had recovered sufficiently to consider breakfast. During which I had Buis’s message translated: he had been explaining that it was mealtime (scran meaning food) and I had 10 minutes to appear if I was partaking (adrift means late). Things improved for me with my appetite returning, aided by improving weather, although the gale took 3 days to blow out before it altered direction allowing Canterbury to increase speed on a course towards its rendezvous, mid-ocean with HMAS Supply to refuel.

Meantime I heard,  that my opposite number, Chris Turver, had also been a touch “under the weather”, getting over his meeting with Navy rum. We had been told back at Devonport that we, like all crewmembers aboard, could draw the traditional daily tot of rum (one-eighth of a pint) should we choose. Perhaps Chris was “catching up” or as a first-timer, was unaware of the potency of the stuff, but anyway he was recovering the ordeal. I was prepared to learn from his lesson!

Navy Rum was 54.5 per cent alc/vol, 95 per cent proof and was specially produced in small bottles to celebrate RNZN’s 50 years: soon after the daily tot was discontinued. More about rum anon.

I think it was the second or third day out from Auckland that it was announced that there would be a moustache-growing contest for the duration of the voyage with judging just before we returned to Auckland. I understand that normally Navy personnel wishing to go unshaven have to get permission from their Officer: this announcement was carte-blanche go-ahead for the ship’s complement and within days it was evident plenty of crew-members were entering the contest.

Three days out from Auckland there was a party in the Wardroom to celebrate Canterbury’s Flight Commander’s commendation for displaying exceptional skills. Lieutenant John Leonard, pilot of the ship’s Wasp helicopter, earned the award several months before.

Wasp helicopter.  Glenn White

He was flying over Howick, Auckland’s south-eastern suburb, when the helicopter’s engine failed. Leonard followed survival mode, feathered the rotors, reduced speed and made an emergency landing at more or less normal speed, saving the occupants and the machine.

On a more serious note aboard Canterbury, there were several exercises for all crew members, taking action-stations, assuming increased levels of radio activity was detected outside the ship.  Canterbury had monitors on the super-structure to detect and register radio activity and almost as soon as we left Auckland these were regularly monitored. While levels increased they were nowhere near anything of concern. Similar monitors within the ship, in the citadel (near the bridge as I recall) detected nothing.

 News Operations Begin

John Leonard’s commendation, regular testing of the ship’s systems and constant exercising of NBCD-type procedures provided material for my first news items sent to NZBC in Wellington. It was a good opportunity to test “the line” to Broadcasting House which we had planned would be used at least daily. This was a radio-telephone (known as radfone) call to the newsroom in Wellington via Defence facilities. I understood signals from the ship were picked up by Defence receivers at the military’s radio station, HMNZS Irirangi near Waiouru, then “patched” or connected to Defence HQ, Wellington, and finally linked across-town to NZBC News headquarters. This provided a circuit so that I could send voice reports which could be tape-recorded in the newsroom for use in later bulletins, or broadcast live-to-air from Canterbury. It was acknowledged that, as part of their information-gathering, Defence personnel could listen in, monitor, my reports. It was also arranged that I could send written messages to the NZBC courtesy of Defence teleprinter circuits.

The call routine I established within the first few days of the Mission was kept, daily, until our return to Auckland. And on some action-packed days there were a number of radfone calls, with additional material sent by teleprinter.

I called the NZBC Newsroom mid-afternoon New Zealand time, usually connecting with Dick Hereford, editor/producer of the early evening programme, “News Review” on National Radio. I would have my material prepared in time for the scheduled call and once connected with Dick I would advise the subject of my report, dictate the newsreader’s introduction and then voice the report which Dick tape-recorded. Sometimes he told me that he either could not accommodate my item in that night’s News Review, or he wasn’t interested in it… but nevertheless he taped all material I offered because there were other NZBC outlets besides News interested in playing the ‘actuality’ from the Mururoa Mission.

An added task: TV

While Otago had as part of its media team a TV News cameraman, Wayne Williams, I was unaccompanied: word-pictures would have to do! So TV was not in mind as part of the Mission’s tasks. Until, that is, it was drawn to my attention in those first few days that Canterbury had an elaborate closed-circuit TV system, known as CAN-TV. It had been purchased with funds donated by the people  of Canterbury: the state-of-the-art equipment included TV screens in every mess and located in many other places throughout the ship. One of the bigger “landings” known as “flats” in the principal companionway (main drag) had been wired for cameras, microphones and lights with built-in power outlets and audio sockets – all the makings so the area could quickly be converted to a mini TV studio.

The ship’s TV set-up had come into its own, I was told, when HRH Princess Anne launched Canterbury in Glasgow in May 1970. She agreed to be interviewed on-camera and a lengthy one-plus-one exchange followed, questions put to HRH by one of the ship’s senior officers. The interview had been recorded and formed part of the ship’s archives. I’m not sure whether the questions were personal, or the answers thought too candid, but the Princess’s interview was “secure, off limits”.

CAN-TV apparently stoked up from time to time while the ship was alongside or at sea, broadcasting training and personal development material along with social programmes: coverage of shipboard events, there had been an inter-Mess quizzes etc, etc.

I can’t remember who suggested it, but the proposition was put that a group, including me, would organise programming each evening. This was to evolve later. Central to this, I thought, could be a “news from home” bulletin which I would read. I checked with Dick Hereford and he agreed that as part of our daily radfone call the line would remain open so he could pass on to me major news items of the day, mostly from New Zealand, but important international story-lines as well. I scribbled the detail as Dick gave me the headlines and bare-bones details and once I returned to our little office, I typed up the news scripts ready for CAN-TV’s broadcasts. Little did I know when arranging this that it was going to become an invaluable service for everyone on board, because the area around Mururoa was so remote it was out of range of all reputable broadcasters in English, including BBC, VOA and others. Mururoa was a real blind-spot, so far from anywhere!

CAN-TV was to become “appointment viewing” each evening for most of the ship’s company. More anon.

Ready for Our Mission

So with my routines and processes in place for News I was ready. And we heard from the Captain that he was satisfied with preparations and standards achieved now that all the ship’s systems had been worked-up during numerous exercises. There was one more task before heading to the Exclusion Zone off Mururoa: the rendezvous with Supply to refuel, a RAS, on the morning of the 19th July. It was a first for both vessels. Supply had not replenished Canterbury before and Canterbury had not before used the “probe method” in which a hose-line from Supply clips into a filling point on Canterbury’s deck, a considerable advance over former screwed fittings. Once the rendezvous was made the two ships narrowed the gap between each other, side by side, maintaining the same speed, about 12 knots, on the same heading. A line was established between the two and this was used to drag across a steel hawser. The first one snapped under stress, another was quickly established which in turn carried the 7” (18cms) pipeline. The Replenishment At Sea began.

Replenishment At Sea undeway with HMAS Supply

Another smaller line between the two ships was used to transfer mail from Canterbury, to be posted at Rarotonga,  Supply’s base in the South Pacific. Already, a special rubber stamp had been devised by the crew in charge of Canterbury’s mail-room, a nuclear cloud, shaped like a mushroom, with appropriate slogan. As far as I know, each envelope leaving the ship got one of these special stamps. It depicted a mushroom-shaped bomb cloud underneath the caption “Norm’s Mystery Tours”, referring to the Prime Minster, Norman Kirk’s mission to Mururoa.

The stamp was affixed to all outgoing mail

The Replenishment At Sea was completed in just an hour, the tanks topped up with 250 tons of furnace fuel oil without a drop being spilled. Canterbury was now off towards Mururoa Atoll. The plan was to relieve Otago just outside the no-go zone. Otago crewmembers were already looking forward to their return to Auckland. But this scenario came to a sudden end when, some 300 miles (480 kms) from Mururoa, it was advised that Canterbury “had salt in her boiler”.

A Crippled Canterbury 

Technically, there was contamination of the fresh water feed to the boilers. Pure water was essential to make steam, without steam there was no power and if this happened the ship was “dead in the water”: fortunately diesel generators provided electricity throughout the ship.

Supply returned to be with Canterbury.  Supply, it was announced, may have to provide clean fresh water to assist cleaning and restoring Canterbury’s boilers. Otago realised if Canterbury was disabled for more than a day or so she would have to go back to the exclusion zone in case the French detonated a nuclear device.

All kinds of “dits” (stories, gossip) did the rounds: central was how could Canterbury, the “new”, “powder-puff”, frigate, get to this state? Fortunately potential danger was reduced by calm seas, minimal winds. Precarious as it was, there was talk of Otago towing the disabled Canterbury back to Auckland. “And how will that look to those opposed to the Mission – a sour ending to the Government’s protest”.  “Canterbury’s doing a Royalist,” others said, recalling the Navy cruiser Royalist similarly crippled in late 1965 off the Solomon Islands when her boilers were contaminated by salt. She was towed part way home to Devonport, her last voyage before being scrapped.

Canterbury’s engineers worked around the clock to remedy the problems. I recall Chief Engineer, Commodore N. Walker, arriving in the Wardroom for a meal, excusing his attire – greasy overalls – as he quickly grabbed a bite and returned below-decks to resume repairs. Walker and his team needed all the water they could get to help restoration of the systems so the word went out to conserve power and water. “Shower with Friend” was the comical message: very official-looking amusing postcards helped spread the message of the need for water conservation.

Jester’s message to the ship’s company

It had a field-day on CAN-TV: I requested the crew submit suggestions about how we all might save water and then read out the replies… ingenious, indecent, inventive.  We had a lot of fun from the adversity!

From what I recall Canterbury was more or less dead-in-the-water for the best part of a day, 20th July 1973, until engineers restored partial power having supplied purified water in, and to, one of the boilers.

Number One, Lieutenant Commodore J. J. Maire, sent for me. If the problem persists Otago will return towards Mururoa, he said, and you and Chris Turver will need to transfer to Otago. In preparation for its return home, Otago would be disembarking Shaun Brown and Wayne Williams (NZBC) and David Barber (NZPA). They would go on Supply to Rarotonga and fly home from there.  The Government was not going to let a French detonation pass without the NZPA and NZBC “witnessing” the event. “So be ready to pack your bags and equipment, and to make a jack-stay transfer to Otago – now there’s something for you to look forward to!”

In the privacy of the Mess I cautiously asked what was meant by jack-stay transfer. “Oh”, said a sailor, “you find out who your friends are. The chair you sit in is winched across from one ship to the other on a rope. If the person being transferred is disliked, or just for fun, the rope is slackened at the mid-point of the crossing, and the chair dips into the ocean. And you get very wet!”

So in preparation I packed up my few things in the little office, bade farewell to its usual occupant with whom we shared, Writer H. Toia, and prepared my bag, ready to transfer to Otago if necessary.

And it was necessary! Otago made a rendezvous, Captain Cheney was transferred to Otago to confer with Commander Tyrell, and it was decided Canterbury, although contamination problems had been part-remedied, needed more work before being left alone in mid-Pacific. The night before this I had said my goodbyes at the end of the news bulletin on CANTV… and threatened to return to see the Mission completed, “I’ll be back once you people on Canterbury get your act together!” I announced, rubbing salt in the wound!

And then it was my turn on the jack stay, transferring from Canterbury to Otago.  I found myself, with great trepidation, in the chair above the waves for the short crossing.

Aboard Otago

I arrived “on the other side” dry as a bone, found my accommodation on Otago and settled in. The ship headed off towards the edge of the exclusion zone in case the French made a test. But the weather seemed against this.

Otago’s age was showing: far less comfortable and no ship’s TV. I offered my services to contribute to regular broadcasts on the inter-Mess radio system, helping an enthusiastic band of sailors who managed “Radio Otago”, all budding Disc Jockeys!  I met the Minister, Fraser Coleman, for the first time, who asked me what life was like on Canterbury, his next “home” during the Mission. I hardly had time to settle, or the crew to get to know me, when a few days later it was announced Canterbury was 100 per cent fit and that we would transfer back to her to continue the Mission, allowing Otago to head home, almost a week behind schedule.

It was about this time there was a flurry of political stories as New Zealand and French Governments made their opposed points of view. Paris announced it was going to test a megaton device at Mururoa, a missile, in their programme the following year. This escalation resulted in further protest from Wellington, to which France stubbornly replied that it was going ahead: testing would continue.

Return to Canterbury

The two New Zealand frigates made a rendezvous well outside the exclusion zone. A number of Canterbury personnel, including the Captain, visited Otago for the handover. They were transferred to and from by jack-stay and the two ships travelled in close-company for some time. Scientific radiation detecting equipment which had been constantly used on Otago while in the zone was also transferred to Canterbury. When it came time, later in the afternoon, for other people to be swapped, the weather deteriorated and helicopter transport was preferred. So the two ships parted company. But before they did some of the Otago’s crew decided to give Canterbury a send-off, pelting her with potatoes, aimed at the sailors standing along the railings on the waist watching proceedings. Some spuds were returned in retaliation until a piped announcement: “Do you hear there? Crew to gather up the potatoes, CPO Steward advises we are short of dry stores”. If Otago was sending us potatoes we may as well gather them up for the cooks. Good sense, until it was realised the spuds were all well beyond their use-by date!

The Wasp made ten trips in all that day, ferrying people and half a ton of freight to Canterbury… Defence personnel, Jim McCahon scientist with the National Radiation Laboratory, Chris Turver (NZPA) and me. The Minister also made the trip by chopper. During the short flight he lost his best suit… jacket and trousers… when a sudden gust of wind flicked them out of the top of the cargo net strung beneath the helicopter and they fell into the ocean. Despite the loss, the Flight Commander said this must have been a record for transhipments by chopper between two New Zealand navy ships. While operations were underway the French had a nosey with two low-level passes by Neptune reconnaissance aircraft.

HMNZS Otago – homeward-bound. Naval Museum

Otago headed for home. Back on Canterbury I made myself comfortable back in Mess 3M. The routine of the Mission just off Mururoa soon settled.

We were occasionally visited by French surveillance aircraft, P2 Neptunes. The first once or twice, after ship’s radar detected approaching planes, all hands were ordered off the waist and after-deck, into the ship, out of sight. Then we were allowed to remain to watch the fly past, sometimes very low, as the French made their inspections. The pilot could plainly be seen. On at least one occasion sailors retaliated to a pilot who gave the two fingered salute, a sort a V for victory, except there was no real combat!  We all knew what it meant!

There was also the odd ship encountered off Mururoa, mostly French craft patrolling their international waters around the atoll and, twice, there was radar or eye contact with an American navy ship. Noticeably, we were told, she quickly veered away from Canterbury: it was imagined the timidity displayed by a spy ship.

And talking of spy ships… Otago, as she was making her way home, was accused of having carried out espionage while on the Mururoa Mission.  The French publication Le Point said that behind the New Zealand Government’s declared peace intentions was an espionage operation fulfilled by Otago, now handed to Canterbury. In Wellington, the proposition was firmly debunked.

Now, the Routine

The ship’s routine included continuing exercises to keep all crewmembers sharply focussed, particularly on anti-radiation operations. I was part of these. Once the command to “Action Stations” was given, like everyone else, I grabbed my respirator and moved to my assembly point which for me was near the bridge. We held our “station” until Officers were satisfied the whole ship’s company was carrying out all the allocated tasks: in this case, those associated with nuclear warfare.

One of these exercises, in better weather, included a “Man Overboard” alert: the ship put about, the Wasp helicopter was immediately launched and observers and divers assembled on deck, ready to effect a rescue.

On several occasions there were Captain’s Table disciplinary hearings to which Chris Turver and I were invited as observers. Meals were as regular as clock-work, there were periodic visits to the ship’s laundry-man who oversaw requirements. We were, nightly, invited to various Messes throughout the ship. I thought there was a pattern to these invitations and then I discovered it was a plan hatched by senior officers, part of a “getting to know you”-type introduction to the ship’s company. It was also a diversion from the “Garden Bar”, the Lower Rates’ drinking area.

My news “responsibilities” became a definite daily routine. Mid-afternoon New Zealand time I would call Dick Hereford, NZBC News, Wellington, with news of the day from Canterbury.

When there was no “happening news” I had a number of items about the ship’s activities and personnel, which I drip-fed to Dick, voicing each report down the line to NZBC Newsroom where he recorded them on tape. Once I had furnished my report, news flowed the other way: Dick would tell me the main newsworthy items from New Zealand and abroad.


These items, concluding with the Mururoa weather bulletin, comprised news broadcasts each evening, live-to-air, on the ship’s closed-circuit CAN-TV, from the tiny “studio” based on the ship’s main companion-way. There were two bulletins, each quite different. The early-evening broadcast was broadcast at the beginning of “downtime” where probably the biggest audience was in the “Garden Bar”, as well as in other Messes.

For this I was dressed in my work-a-day navy garb , known as ”eights”, reading items in very down-to-earth language targeted at the very specific audience. There was great scope in writing these scripts: the more bad words the better, the facts spelled out in the most basic and sometimes foul vocabulary. It was certainly very, very, different to anything written for, or heard on, NZBC news bulletins! I recall having a field day describing that day’s events in the Parliamentary Chamber when Leader of the Opposition, Robert Muldoon, was ordered by the Speaker to leave the House because of bad behaviour. Muldoon refused to go, so was escorted from the Chamber by the Sergeant at Arms. As a sailor said to me after the bulletin that night, “we didn’t need pictures of the event, your no-holds-barred description was much the better!” The first bulletin was usually punctuated by some zany commercial or “announcement” prompted by what had been going on aboard the ship that day. For instance when one rating, expected to have the book thrown at him following a disciplinary hearing, got off without penalty, I characterised that in the early bulletin with an item announcing the winner of this week’s Lotto, named the rating, and gave his “background”, content contributed by his Mess-mates!

I did a preview of a wool sale, quantifying and grading “wool” available from Canterbury and from  certain sailors (some bald), including the fact that French buyers weren’t welcome to bid and that most of the clip offered would have fairly high salt content. A much bigger clip would be offered in Auckland, referring to the shaving-off of moustaches once the contest was over on reaching the Hauraki Gulf. “This fancy grade fine-fibre offering could be just the diversification the Wool Board and the International Wool Secretariat have been seeking for years,” the report concluded.

And then there was the advertisement, on our way home, advising the ship’s shop was now selling off, cheap, copies of navigational maps of Mururoa Atoll. “No longer needed by the navy, but very useful for all international yachtsman, this is the very latest, revised chart for the atoll and its approaches. Who knows it may be a perfect South Seas resort one day, and without the benefit of a huge balloon to mark its location, these charts will be essential. Search and rescue people will be big buyers, so will Auckland Coastguard. By the way, these charts are as original: they are all signed ‘Calkin’”. This was a light-hearted dig at Canterbury’s navigator because Lieutenant Clive Calkin aboard Otago had drawn the maps on that ship’s first visits to the area.

There were items about Officers shirts being sabotaged in the laundry, messes failing to measure up during inspections, and after a comment that the ship’s library didn’t offer the “right type of reading for a prolonged voyage”, I wrote an advertisement for an imaginary made-over library, quoting titles and storylines now available, with special mention of the suitablyn illustrated magazines that had just arrived! A few in the CAN-TV audience either misheard, or believed, the leg-pull and, next day, turned up at the library!

It was all good fun. I enjoyed inventing and writing the items and they were universally received in good humour.

There was also a Lonely Hearts-type series of advertisements with some hilarious copy contributed by crew-members. Personal stuff, well written and hardly disguised! Tombola (rapid draw raffles) and Uckers (a board game) results were given, along with any sports or competitive ship-board activities such as pistol shooting, clay-bird shooting and deck-hockey. Most imaginary.

This early evening bulletin ended with local Mururoa weather situation and forecast provided by those on the ship responsible for such.

CAN-TV then continued with other content, mostly contributed, live, by members of the ship’s company. Hobbies, past-times, specialist knowledge etc was all drawn on and contributed, live-to-air, one- or two-cameras presentations straight down-the-barrel. There was a group of very keen sailors who both looked after the presentation of items and/or contributed. I recall a series on fishing with dissertation covering Hauraki Gulf, river and West Coast fisheries and how to catch the big ones. There were frequently musical items… crew members had brought their guitars, accompanied by home-made base strings and drums. Occasionally a member of crew would ask me to get details of a certain event held in New Zealand, an activity which had obviously been missed because of duty off Mururoa. I got the information from Dick Hereford whenever possible, but a few of these happenings were so local in the provinces, the NZBC newsroom did not have any details. This showed that happenings at home were sometimes uppermost in sailors’ minds.

The News – Wardroom Edition

Then, towards mid-evening there was the second news bulletin. In sharp contrast to the earlier Jacks’ broadcast, it was delivered straight, each item following the NZBC policy-book to the letter: it was the Wardroom Edition! By this time I had showered and dressed ready for dinner in the Wardroom, so presentation was formal. Content comprised more or less the same items as in the earlier version but they were rewritten and with a little more detail added. Sometimes background was given, to put matters in context. Ship’s notices were added: no leg-pulls this time – it was genuine advice about upcoming activities.

CAN-TV resumed after this bulletin. Some nights there would be an inter-Mess quiz. Then there was “Your Questions”, submitted by the crew with a no-limits policy, questions answered by a panel of experts. Queries ranged from naval rules, personal problems (most genuine, I thought!), Government policy, medical matters and everything in between. Half the thing was finding, within the ship’s company, the right person qualified to answer each question. The Minister, Fraser Colman, answered on behalf of the Government, while Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Len Moffatt dealt with medical stuff and various other officers and qualified crew members, etc, responded appropriately.

“Agony Aunt” questions, real or fiction, were popular and good value. There was a bit of nervous buzz when potentially sensitive matters popped up, like sailor’s pay rates while on the Mission, and an urgent question one evening from a rating: “Why did the ship fly its battle-  ensign today and will it be flown for the rest of the time we are off Mururoa?”

As far as I can remember, all questions submitted were aired and answered.

With no radio station reception readily available on Canterbury, and certainly no TV (no satellite reception in those days!), CAN-TV, each evening, provided a little diversion from ship-board chores and the daily routine.

I told Dick Hereford, the “anchor-man” in NZBC Wellington, of the importance of keeping up the flow of news from New Zealand… it was just so popular and well received on CAN-TV. Dick ensured weekend staffers in the newsroom knew about my need for local and overseas material, and they all cooperated.

Other Activities

Interspersed with the absolute daily routine were activities, either one-offs, unexpected, or part of the ship’s calendar of events. Among the latter were periodic “healing trials” where the ship is deliberately caused to lean over, list or heal, first to so many degrees one way, then the other and then recovered. It was always said  – in jest I thought – that these tests were typically made just about the time lower ratings were having a meal. The first time a trial was made, the acute “angle of lean” meant anything on dining tables would have been smartly swept on to the deck!

Just occasionally, very seldom, I ate with the lower ratings. It was then I discovered a widespread addiction to tomato sauce. The Navy must have gone through a lot of the stuff… so many personnel seemed to add it to practically every dish, and I don’t think those who put in on top of vanilla ice cream, or desserts, were doing it just to mislead me!

The nightly Garden Bar session was restricted… “one can per man per-haps”… but even so there must have been enormous stocks held belowdecks to ensure supply for the drawn-out voyage.

The odd birthday party in a Mess broke the monotony, though not many seemed to celebrate.

There was supposed to be a “hands to bathe” session one afternoon in international waters just off Mururoa, an activity I previewed in the evening news bulletin on CAN-TV. I discovered this swim-at-sea was not unusual in the Service. Crew members are invited to have a dip in the sea alongside the stopped ship. Scrambling nets, a rope ladder or stair is lowered over the side so bathers can easily return. Lookouts, armed with rifles, stand on deck to protect swimmers against sharks. Sometimes the ship’s boats are lowered as further patrols. There’s a mass splash as everyone dives in. For some reason, I can’t recall why, the scheduled swim was cancelled.

Periodically the evening meal was a barbecue on the after deck, officially the helicopter landing pad. The weather improved greatly almost as soon as Canterbury took vigil off Mururoa: tropical days, warm nights and, frequently, not even a gentle breeze. Ideal barbecue weather.

During one of our meetings with Supply we took on “news from home” as well as fuel. The Wasp ferried 7 bags of mail, the first delivery since Canterbury had left Auckland nearly 3 weeks earlier. Some ratings had more than 20 letters, underlining the fact that for many it was a long stint at sea. Sailors looked at date stamps on the envelopes to determine which should be opened first. Almost everyone received at least one letter – although we did report on CAN-TV that one rating received just one single envelope addressed to him: an account from his insurance company! And the irony was not lost!

CAN-TV also featured some of the posters the Minister had received from pupils of schools in his electorate. All wished him well. Most drawings showed Canterbury at sea with the tell-tale mushroom-shaped cloud in the background. One particular poster had the ship surrounded by blue water alongside a typical south-sea island with a lone coconut tree. The Minister could be seen, large as life on the top deck of the Canterbury. There was the odd shark… and dozens of black mines, all spikes, menacing the waters around the island. Was it intended to show that the French had laid out a minefield to deter Kiwi protestors? Then we could see what was really meant. The young artist had no doubt been told that Fraser Colman was the Minister of Mines and (just ever so slightly) had misinterpreted the type of mines he was in charge of when creating the poster! We also reported on the ship’s TV that night, that there was likely to be a lot of letter-writing going on to in the next day or two, replying to correspondence, ready to be posted the next time we made rendezvous with Supply. There were warnings against snivelling!

A Jack’s Dictionary

Buis’s message to me about being late for meals had been given in naval jargon, or Pussers’ Talk, which, as I found, is somewhat incomprehensible to anyone unaccustomed to it, or outside the Service. I resolved to learn this new language and in doing so I would create “A Jack’s Dictionary” because nowhere in Navy reference books could I find interpretations. There was a slight help in one of the old training books someone found on board and lent me. But this was of British derivation and did not include those many words added through local New Zealand usage. I mentioned the task I had set myself on CAN-TV and this resulted in some additions… but many words offered were those I already had. I picked up more words by keeping a keen ear out for them during conversations in the Messes. They had a habit of popping up without the speaker aware that he was contributing another entry for “A Jack’s Dictionary”. Some words suggested their meaning within themselves. “To ditch” means to discard in the rubbish, as in throwing trash overboard; “the draft” is transfer between ships; “the missus”, the wife. But then you get to mysterious words.  A Jack (sailor) might see a grunter about slapping in a chit for a pier-head draft meaning a crewmember was to see an officer about applying for a sudden, unexpected transfer. “Huck out those Kipper Cadillacs ‘til they’re tiddly!” might be an order to “use a bit of muscle to scrub those sandshoes until they look A1”. To “go around the buoy at scran” is to line up for seconds at mealtime; machinery that’s broken down, useless, is said to have “blown ass” while a “make and mend” is welcome time-off routine duties. If you’ve done something well the accolade might be “Bravo Zulu”: if the ship has performed exceptionally in battle, at trials or during exercises, etc, the flag signal may be conferred by accompanying navy ships.

Bravo Zulu. “Well done!”

A “Banyan Party” is a picnic ashore, to share a “Blue Liner” is to puff on someone else’s cigarette. “Navy Cake” is nonsense while “Cake and Ass” refers to a cocktail party, usually with VIPs attending. “Clacker” is pastry; a “sick bay shackle” is a safety pin and a “slap mick” is an unmade hammock. And since “Jack” is a sailor and “tickler” is tobacco, a “Jack-me-tickler-tin” is a dullard or fool from below decks… while a “Lower Deck Lawyer” knows all the answers having studied the “BRs”, the Books of Reference, although I believe I also heard “Lower Deck Lawyer” used derogatively, to describe a know-all.

One can see how easy it was to be flummoxed with the crew’s continual use of jargon such as this. I just had to get ahead of it. Compiling “A Jack’s Dictionary” was one way around it and became a continuing project while at sea because I was forever hearing additions. Once back ashore I had it printed into a notebook-sized publication.

News Items

Seaboard life apart, the object of the exercise was to furnish news items and associated happenings to NZBC from Canterbury while she was fulfilling the Government’s mission. When there was an event, like a top-up from Supply, this was included in the ‘day’s news” from the ship, usually accompanied with the ship’s next moves. There were several false alarms that France was about to detonate a device. Sometimes the ship’s exercise to test preparedness made the despatch while other days there were background pieces… even personal stories. Like on the 15th July when Mrs Noelene Colman, wife of Minister Fraser Colman, anticipating his transfer to Canterbury, sent the crew best wishes for their mission. Fraser was in the news again on 7th August when, from Canterbury’s bridge, he saw land, close-up, for the first time in 40 days as the ship passed Raivavae Island en route home. It was the first “real” land he had seen since leaving the New Zealand coast on his way to Mururoa.

When there were no news stories I would feed Wellington with pre-prepared backgrounders about people and their positions on the ship, complete with recorded interviews. One described the duties of the ship’s policeman, Master at Arms, Kevin Rowntree, in another Able Seaman Charles Edgarton explained the ship’s laundry, Ken Ramsay related the duties of Killick, and we did a tour of the state-of-the-art Sick Bay with Medical Petty Officer Ian Christianson. Shipwright Norm Greenall told of his role as “ship’s carpenter” looking after shipboard breakages, blockages and repairs and describing the enormous list of spares that he had to take on board in view of this Mission’s long and distant voyage. And there were others, the reports intended to give a picture of a naval ship engaged on unusual operations. Another interview explored the duties of Stores Chief Petty Officer “Spud” Murphy responsible for issuing the daily rum rations.

A Few Words on Squirt

The daily ration of rum was a tradition more than 300 years old: every member of the crew of Royal Navy ships, no matter where in the world, were entitled to their daily tot of “squirt” or “grog” or “pusser’s rum” as it was variously nicknamed. For centuries it was distributed to each man between 11am and noon on deck: at first it was one-half pint of rum, neat, per man. But from 1740, in the interests of the crew’s health, it was diluted with water under the watchful eye of an Officer in a scuttled butt. A butt was a cask usually used to mature sherry, etc, and “scuttled” indicated  a lid in the top.

Tot time on a Royal Navy ship

These containers often became highly decorated with the likes of rings or the name of the ship in polished brass.  Diluting the spirits not only watered-down the alcoholic strength of the rum but the addition of water meant the rum would quickly deteriorate – it had to be consumed before it “went off”.  The ship’s company would line up awaiting their tot from the scuttle butt: it was a daily meeting place giving an opportunity for ship’s gossip, hence the term scuttle-butt which survives. During special occasions, like victories in battle, the commissioning of a ship or a visit by the sovereign, the order would be given to “Splice the Mainbrace” signalling an extra tot all around. The Royal New Zealand Navy copied the Royal Navy custom, distributing one-eight of a pint each day, diluted for lower ranks. Officers were isued neat rum. The Royal Navy discontinued the age-old “daily squirt” in July 1970 citing modern machinery and equipment were inconducive with alcohol-affected sailors. The Royal New Zealand Navy followed in 1990 but the option remained to “Splice the Mainbrace”. The order was given in 2022 to celebrate Queen Elizabeth the Second’s platinum anniversary.


And then there was the day of the explosion.

Canterbury moved in closer, just 12 miles (19kms) to Mururoa on Wednesday 25th July. Intelligence, and radio messages intercepted from the French headquarters on the atoll, suggested a test was imminent. But the weather, heavy low cloud, passing squalls and high winds seemed against it. Between showers of driven rain we could just make out features on the atoll from Canterbury’s bridge while the ship’s radar plotted contacts. It was evident, we were told, that activities on Mururoa pointed to preparations for a Test. It became more obvious when Captain Cheney called Chris Turver and me to the bridge to advise that when the time came for the ship to ‘close-up’ just before detonation, that we would be among the 5 on the bridge to make observations, along with him (Captain Cheney), the navigation officer and Chief Yeoman.

Prepared with anti- flash hoods and goggles, awaiting developments on the bridge. Captain Derek Cheney, Chris Turver and Yeoman (Bryce?)

We later went through the drill for this “observation”. We would be clad in our anti-flash hoods and wearing dark goggles and not allowed to witness the flash itself. In fact we would have our backs to the atoll to avoid possible eye-damage from the brilliance of the flash. Immediately detonation had taken place, monitored in the ship’s operations room, we would be given the word to turn to make our observations. I would be on the radio-telephone to Wellington, live, for the event, connected with NZBC newsroom. Minister Colman would be summoned to the bridge immediately a detonation had been confirmed. I would then be able to get his comments for broadcast.

Thursday 26th was also cloudy, but clearing. Mid-morning a giant cream-coloured balloon, some 200 feet (70m) long, was sighted above the atoll. This was tell-tale, for beneath the balloon is attached the detonation charges and explosives. Increased shipping movement around the atoll was also a sign of imminent action.

Friday 27th was better weather. The balloon was still there, estimated at 500 feet (200 m) above Mururoa. While this remained aloft there was every likelihood a test would soon be carried out. The island was visited by large planes, probably military transporters during the day, then a large ship, probably a liner, was noticed leaving the lagoon, interpreted as one of the accommodation ships being towed out by a tug. The French were apparently “clearing the decks” ready for a Test.

At daybreak on Saturday I was invited to the bridge, joining the party of 4 already chosen, plus the Minister. The balloon remained, plainly detectable on radar from Canterbury’s position just 20 miles (32kms) off the atoll’s northern shores. The ship came to “action stations” shortly after, all hands ready to deal with any eventuality occasioned by the nuclear test. The ship was “closed up”, sealed off from the outside world and any possible effects of radiation. On Mururoa it looked like the French were keeping their usual timetable for an early morning detonation.

The balloon, just visible to the naked eye from Canterbury, was now at 1,000 feet (300m): further evidence that today was Test Day. Intelligence from Wellington agreed. But Captain Cheney had his doubts. Ships remained in the lagoon and they certainly wouldn’t be allowed to remain there, so close to the effects of the bomb, if an explosion was planned.

Then, soon after dawn, a number of ships were detected, on the move out of the lagoon. It looked like everything was being readied ashore for a further atmospheric test.

Aboard Canterbury a live link was maintained from the bridge to Wellington Defence HQ, the link to be extended to NZBC newsroom when the bomb went off.

Intercepted radio messages indicated an imminent blast. Final preparations were made aboard Canterbury: it looked like the waiting game was almost over. The countdown was monitored, then right on 9am it ended. But without detonation.  Something was amiss. There might have been a last minute wind-change because within minutes all French vessels were ordered to proceed Sou’East at top speed, probably to get upwind of the atoll. Canterbury, just 20 miles (32kms) off Mururoa, joined the action, making in the same direction at good speed. The balloon remained.  Ironically there was now a gathering of French ships and the lone New Zealand frigate, Canterbury, all clustered within a few miles awaiting developments. Then, towards the top of the hour, another countdown began. Every person on Canterbury was at the ready.  Again, no explosion. Something was obviously wrong.

I had sent several messages during the morning to NZBC News in Wellington about shipboard preparations in readiness for a Test.

The expectation grew with a second countdown. Still no detonation. Just before 11am I thought I ought to provide something for the lunchtime radio bulletins in New Zealand so l voiced a short piece down the line, explaining there were delays and that, with time passing, an explosion today became unlikely.

Third Time Lucky?

Then we heard a third countdown. And, again… no detonation. Helicopters were then detected flying around the atoll and up to the balloon: it was surmised they were carrying experts and/or equipment to make adjustments, correcting technical problems. All this activity, the delay and false countdowns emphasised that these were, indeed, Tests. The French were testing their devices, so anomalies and adjustments might be expected.

I voiced another short piece to Wellington, saying that a Test was still on the cards. The ships remained waiting off the atoll and the liner was last to be towed into position, upwind of Mururoa. Canterbury had moved to within 15 miles (24kms) of the atoll opposite the huge balloon. “We are all prepared, awaiting developments…” I reported.

Then, late morning, it was noted the helicopters had all returned to the ships waiting off-shore. The countdown began again.

#2 in the Series

At 1pm on 28th July 1973 France set off its second device in the ‘73 series, the 32nd since testing began in 1966. Once the detonation was confirmed the 6 of us on the bridge turned to face the sight of a nuclear weapon unleashed. As we did so the radio phone handset was passed to me so I could immediately begin describing the scene to NZBC in Wellington. Despite Canterbury’s proximity, there had been no bang. I said it was more like a whimper, and it was some time before I could see a small mushroom cloud develop above the atoll. At this stage it was impossible to say what the bomb’s yield was, though it was bound to be smaller than the one megaton expected.  There was hardly any definitive “stalk” and so was difficult to discern just where the detonation had taken place. The mushroom cloud rose, then dissipated, curling as it went, forming the shape of a huge question mark in the sky above the atoll. “More tests to come?” it seemed to be asking. Within ten minutes it had lost all shape, merging with natural, cumulus clouds in Pacific skies.

Minister Colman, who had seen the first detonation from Otago and was able to compare the two, confirmed that this one was much smaller, without the reddish colouring of its predecessor, the cloud much less dense. Derek Cheney also thought it was a small blast, and he, too was able to make legitimate comparisons: in 1957 he was aboard HMNZS Pukaki observing nuclear tests carried out by the British at Christmas Island.

Some tests were much larger than the one we witnessed: a Mururoa blast

The Captain held everyone at Action Stations for a short while longer and then it was observed the French ships beginning to make their way back to the lagoon. He ordered a relaxation in the ship’s readiness, but not regarding matters of detecting radio-active matter in the air and the sealing the ship from any exposure. The ship’s company was to breathe filtered air overnight, the frigate “closed up”, sealed , and all monitors continually sampling the air both inside and outside. The atmospheric effects of the explosion were yet to be determined. Meantime I sent a “wrap” story back to Wellington:

The script for radio news, wrapping up the day’s action

Post- Bomb Analysis

By noon next day I was able to report that, while an increase in radio-activity had been detected, it was minimal, unlikely to affect the health of those aboard Canterbury, belowdecks. In the 24 hours following the explosion the ship’s equipment did not record any fallout but National Radiation Laboratory’s on-board scientist, Dr Jim McCahon, advised that his special equipment had measured some radioactivity in the 21 hours following the detonation… point 1 of a millirad, about one third, he said, of radiation experienced in everyday background. However, he said, that the reading was almost certainly caused by the French detonation. Dr McCahon told me, and I subsequently reported, that because the device was so small it failed to rise to upper winds which would have blown concentrations of radioactivity to the North. Instead, the doctor thought that winds closer to the surface, Nor-Westerly and turbulent, had considerably spread the fallout and that traces were registered on his equipment as Canterbury sailed on the fringe of the concentrated cloud. The ship steamed at a leisurely pace to the south, to the area where she “hung out”. During the night Dr McCahon’s sensitive instruments detected another slight increase in radioactivity. He put it down to the radioactive air mass doing a “u turn”, carried along by a wind change and the ship passing through it twice. He denied any danger or lasting radiation when questioned by New Zealand officials. For instance the Auckland Harbour Board was not going to let Canterbury into the port on her return, and to go alongside, until there was an assurance she was “clean”.

I think the majority aboard Canterbury was disappointed it was such a small device: they had been trained and prepared in all their various shipboard departments to deal with something much bigger. Maybe the next one, if there was to be another test, might be bigger.

Risks, Perceived and Real

The French, pressed by protestors about what could go wrong during experiments at Mururoa, had always said that they would not test in less than ideal conditions, thus reducing the risk of unintended radioactive fallout. It was plain that the French had gone ahead with the most recent test in changeable, unpredictable, weather and winds. The sudden, last-minute, moves to place French ships upwind was evidence that conditions were not ideal. Rather than distributing the contaminated air mass to the North East above the empty oceanic expanses to the North, as the French intended, the winds took the cloud North-West towards Tahiti (ironically a French Overseas Territory). Dr McCahon provided illustrations of his tracking of the fall-out cloud.

Prime Minister Kirk criticised the French saying it was now legitimate to be suspicious about any claims they made about trying to minimise all danger during testing. Minister on board Canterbury, Fraser Colman, said that it looked as if France had taken a chance when they detonated this latest bomb in conditions less than  perfect.

Other Protest Craft

The day following the test was perfect weather so a barbecue was held on the after-deck.

The barbecue was held on the helicopter pad

A day or two later there was rendezvous with Supply to top up fuel supplies, some manoeuvres carried out for training and then Canterbury steamed her way back towards Mururoa to take up he “idling position’ off the western side of the atoll. Life returned to “waiting mode”.

On 3rd August it was discovered that the yacht Fri had been released by the French, having been seized at sea in early July, arrested, and her crew held in prison. The yacht sailed quite close to Canterbury and a radio link was established so Chris Turver and I could speak to the crew aboard Fri.

Details of the yacht’s arrest were given and the crew-members’ incarceration. They hoped to stay a while longer, but had been told in no uncertain terms by the French to “go away”. Further ship-to-ship conversation revealed Fri had injury aboard. Her engineer, Hugh Monro, suffered bad burns when attempting to restart the yacht’s diesel engine following her release off Mururoa. The engine required preheating, a propane gas jet was used, but a hose had come apart and the leaking gas ignited, burning Monro’s hands, arms and legs. Chris and I wished the Fri well and closed the link.

No one from the ship’s company conversed, remembering the Government’s strict edict that Canterbury was to have nothing to do with the private protest flotilla: there was to be no naval “Mother Hen”.

There was another contact in the offing with the yacht Spirit of Peace as Canterbury headed out of the zone for another RAS with Supply. Spirit of Peace explained to Chris and I that she was taking supplies to the Fri, even though she herself was getting a bit short on dry-stores.

The next day, refuelling complete, Canterbury was returning to the intermediate zone off Mururoa when Fri radioed asking for immediate help, medical treatment for the injured Munro. Chris and I were called to listen in on the arrangements being made to intercept Fri. Transmission from Canterbury began “This is warship Canterbury…” while Fri began each of her transmissions with the cute “Warship Canterbury, this is peace ship Fri….”. The irony was not lost!

The description of Monro’s burns warranted Canterbury’s assistance, so the frigate and the yacht met mid-afternoon to the west of Mururoa enabling Monro’s injures to be assessed. The Spirit of Peace closed-in, also making the rendezvous. Both craft were showing signs of having been at sea, in all the elements, for some time. As indeed they had. Sails were stained except at the top where tropical sun had bleached them. The paint work on both boats was worn: the Spirit’s bare concrete hull showing.

Canterbury crew-members en route to the Fri. RNZN

In calm conditions Monro was transferred in the frigate’s inflatable craft and taken to Canterbury’s sick bay. There was one further radio communication, and this time from a naval-man, Lieutenant Commander Surgeon Dr Moffitt, who advised the Fri that Monro’s burns needed medical care and that he should remain on Canterbury to get the required treatment. Moffitt concluded his call by congratulating those on the Fri who had attended to Mr Monro’s burns, mainly Colin Marshall who had given up a hospital job to join the protests aboard Fri.

That left the link free for Chris and I to chat with Fri’s skipper, David Moodie, who detailed the yacht’s arrest, being escorted to Mururoa, the crew’s closely supervised detention on Hao Atoll, and then, on release, being towed by a tug off-shore Mururoa and told to “beat it”. Moodie believed the ship unseaworthy… but there was no alternative but to fire up the motor and get control of her heading. This led to more information about Monro’s accident. Not only did the propane hose ignite as he attempted to start the engine, but for a few minutes there was fierce fire in the engine-room, probably prevented from spreading and claiming the vessel had it not been for Monro’s quick-thinking and firefighting, but actions which resulted in his burns.

A Day at the Races

The next day, Sunday August 5th 1973, history was made. The Canterbury Jockey Club held its first and only Mururoa Meeting. It was held on the ship’s after-deck: each of the 8 races had a field of six “wooden horses”. Immediately before each race the horses were auctioned – those offering the highest price bought each horse, the owner with the winning horse would take the pool. Then the race began, with the horses being moved along the track according to the throw of a dice.

The entire ship’s company attended (minus those essential to the ship’s operation) in blazing hot sunshine, the calm seas around the ship an azure blue; just what one would expect in the tropics. Canterbury’s computer was programmed to act as the totalisator with betting available on the first 3 horses placed (5 cents each bet), there were doubles available on Races 2 and 5 (50 cents each bet) and a separate pool “guess the time of each race” (5 cents a guess). Then for serious punters there was a jackpot operating on Races 3,4,6,7 and 8 (50 cents a ticket).

The Race Book for the Canterbury Jockey Club’s unique meeting.

The race book, a copy of which I still have, reveals Fraser Colman was Patron of the Canterbury Jockey Club, Captain Derek Cheney was its President, while T. R. Cooper was the handicapper and B. M. Osborne the Judge. The Assistant Judge, C. G. Cashmore, was responsible for the balloon giving the all-clear for each race to start and the Clerks of the Course had to move the wooden horses along the track. Norm Greenall, ship’s carpenter, was, amusingly, Veterinary Surgeon. K. Wisnesky operated the TV camera for coverage and photo-finishes. Chris Turver (NZPA) was the racing writer for the Press and I was one of the auctioneers.

It’s apparent there was a lot of organisation involved to put together this one-off unique event. Race tickets had been pre-printed, the computer programmed, Rules drawn up and the “horses” readied.


The elaborate race card included a “Horroscope” specially composed to reflect the Mission. For instance, those born under the sign of Leo are warned that “meetings with the fair sex most unlikely this week…”, while Virgans are advised there’ll be “a falling off of domination by France and Frenchmen…”.  Scorpio birth people are reminded that “there’s no possibility of direct domestic interference in the near future.” Capricorn’s stars indicate “runs ashore in the immediate future are most unlikely” and Aqauriuans are told best colour of the month is Heliotrope (for the Flight Commander!). Those born under the Aries sign are cautioned to “treat officers with respect but not with the awe kids reserve for Santa… don’t snivel”. And Cancer-ites are told not to think about taking over from the captain, “…remember the Bounty and cast away all thoughts of being Mr Big!” it warns, reflecting on the famous South Seas mutiny.

The Fields

Then the names of the horses themselves are often ingenious.

“Late Arrival” by “Spirit of Peace” out of “Auckland” refers to delays to the protest yacht.

“Lo Tide” by “Freshwater” out of “Tank” reminded everyone of recent salt water contamination.

“Big Drop” by “Muttley” out of “Oil” recalls the emergency landing by the ship’s helicopter.

“Soot” by “Black Oil” out of “Supply” tells of the Australian tanker’s exhalations.

“Evicted” by “Muldoon” out of “Order” points to Muldoon’s eviction from Parliament’s Chamber.

“Sir Keith” by “Knighthood” out of “Office” recalling a former Prime Minister’s honour.

“Frustration” by “Ric” out of “Voice”- my own predicament!

“Colman’s Voyage” by “Migration” out of Wainui

Each race had an appropriate name ranging from : “Miss Mururoa Hurdles” and “Landfall Miracle” to “Parliamentary Handicap” and, the final race of the day, “Last Chance Hunt”.

It was a great day: money changed hands and there was a full-on kiwi-style barbecue to follow.

Rumour, unconfirmed but highlighted with great exaggeration (of course) on CAN-TV, had it the Minister Fraser Colman had a very good day: “cleaned up!” I think the phrase was. The “Beer Garden” had been relocated to the after-deck. Perhaps the Minister had been lined up to “shout the bar!”

Socialising in the “Beer Garden” after the last race

And the Ship’s Welfare Committee also benefitted… 10 per cent of each pool was allocated to the fund.

New Orders

We wondered if the release of the Fri signalled the end of the French testing for 1973. Surely the authorities would not have set the protest yacht free if further testing was planned?

And just before the race meeting began the Captain advised that the ship’s Mururoa Mission was over. The French had concluded their programme for the year. Canterbury was heading home and had just one more rendezvous with Supply to top-up for the voyage to Auckland. A kind invitation from Cook Islands Government for the crew to visit Rarotonga en route was turned down on the basis that the ship had an onerous and tight schedule ahead.

But then there was a chance that the invitation might be taken up. Hugh Monro’s condition deteriorated and it was at first considered that Canterbury should drop off the injured man for treatment at Rarotonga Hospital. It was determined, however, that the frigate had equal, even better, medical facilities, so he should remain on board until we reached Auckland.

HMAS Supply alongside Canterbury for the last time

Canterbury met Supply on August 8th: the last RAS was completed in adverse weather and both navy ships departed on their separate ways: this ANZAC part of the Mission was over.

Home Again

There were some preliminary Navy matters taken care of as Canterbury made her way into the Hauraki Gulf. And the Minister received another suit to replace the one lost at sea so he could be properly dressed for the official welcome to follow.

There was the judging of the moustache-growing competition by Minister Colman. Prizes were handed out, including the award for the “most sinister looking” mo. This was the topic for one of my last reports from the frigate.

Captain Cheney sent for me and at a brief ceremony following the judging he presented me with a ship’s plaque, thanking me for duties well beyond my news-gathering tasks with my appearances on CAN-TV and bringing new production values and a variation to programmes presented on CAN-TV. “It greatly contributed to the men’s morale while we spent all that time at sea,” he said, “and as this trip did not include a ‘run ashore’, I am sure there’ll be an invitation to catch up on that particular event”. I was grateful for the Captain’s gift… but really, assisting with CAN-TV held my morale and helped pass the time, too!

I also received a few mementos from crew-members. Gifts, mostly metal-work,  that they had made in the ship’s workshops and to which had been added the ship’s crest or badge. The biggest was a heavy ashtray created from a shell casing. I think it was a 4.5 inch and when the rating handed it over to me he explained it was the very one I had fired during an exercise on the return voyage from Mururoa. I was on the bridge at the time and from memory the manoeuvres called for both the ship’s 4.5 inch guns to be fired. I was given the honour to give the word to fire the second one and it was then I learned that the correct term is “Engage!” rather than the ubiquitous command “Fire!” When the exact time came to fire the gun I uttered “Engage!” and the button was pressed. And now I have the souvenir from that action!

Canterbury’s Radio Operators reckoned I spent more time talking to Wellington than they did! A group of them arranged a farewell meeting at which they presented an unofficial certificate declaring me to be an “Honorary Radioman”. I’m not sure where they got the red hair from… and my moustache certainly didn’t reach anywhere near the growth depicted. But I cherish the memento!

Honorary Radioman’s certificate

Once in Waitemata Harbour, the first person off the ship was the injured engineer from Fri, Hugh Monro, taken aboard a launch and transferred to the Navy’s hospital at Devonport.

Canterbury tied up alongside Prince’s Wharf, downtown Auckland on Monday 13th August 1973 having been continuously at sea for a month. At midday a reception began, hosted by the Government for crewmembers, their wives, partners, parents and children. Prime Minister, Norm Kirk, attended and gave a great welcoming speech saying the Government’s protest action had been so widely reported abroad that there was no mistake anywhere in the world about New Zealand’s attitude against French testing. Mururoa Mission, he said, had been a success.

My parents attended the reception and it was from my mother that I realised my reports from Mururoa had been so well received in New Zealand. Her “audience research” had been conducted during her chats with other mothers, families and friends while they awaited the ship to dock. She introduced me to one, Mrs Brimblecombe from Te Aroha, who wanted to thank me in person for all my daily reports – she had been worried about consequences of her two sons , LME Neil Brimblecombe and ME2 Roy Brimblecombe, both going into the Test Zone on Canterbury, but when she heard my daily reports on 1ZH, she said she could easily picture the scenes on board, with her sons and the rest of us, and realising there was probably little risk to health, life or limb.  A nice compliment! Wait a minute, I thought, did she say that “she heard my daily reports on 1ZH?”  No, couldn’t be, must have been mistaken. She had been listening to National Radio.

It was then the penny dropped – my reports intended for nation-wide broadcast had been “syphoned off” by 1ZH and aired several times a week. Sponsored, of course, because that was the commercial way the Station Manager, Bren Low, worked. Good on him! He had made some money out of my absence from 1ZH while on the Mururoa Mission. And he sure pleased Mrs Brimblecombe!

The conclusion of the Government reception brought to a close New Zealand’s novel mid-ocean “in your face” protest action against French atmospheric tests in the South Pacific.

Aftermath – Run Ashore in Australia

After reporting the Government reception and a few “wash up” items, I had a few days off before resuming work at 1ZH in Hamilton. Some months later, true to Captain Cheney’s word, there was an invitation to join Canterbury on her trip to Sydney in October 1973 coinciding with the official opening of the Opera House by Her Majesty the Queen. The ship was then going on to Hobart to show the flag. I was given time off by the NZBC to compensate for round-the-clock attendance at Mururoa.

The voyage to Sydney was uneventful and the ship berthed at the navy establishment, Garden Island.

Canterbury in Sydney for the official opening of the Opera House

There were several cocktail parties aboard, mainly a public relations gesture with friends of New Zealand, diplomats, etc invited. I joined the throng near the steps of the Opera House to witness the official opening by Queen Elizabeth.

Canterbury then proceeded to Hobart where the celebrated “run ashore” was to be staged, the ratings keen to show me their hospitality and the entertainment in bars and nightclubs at a foreign port.

The ship entered the Derwent River leading to Hobart and first bunkered at a navy establishment. Within minutes of tying up, my name was called over the intercom, requesting me to go to the prow. At the gang-way awaited 2 Australian naval officers. Having established my identity and introducing themselves, one handed me an envelope addressed with my name. As I went to open it I noticed a gold crown embossed front and back. It was from Government House. The letter was from a former NZBC colleague, Merrin Shepherd, who explained she was now employed as Principal Private Secretary to his Excellency the Governor of Tasmania, Lieutenant-General Sir Edric Bastyan. “I saw your name on the Canterbury’s nominal list. Do come and see me while you are here, H.E. is away this week, so come to the House for drinks or a meal. The place is worth seeing, anyway. By tomorrow I note Canterbury will be at the town wharves so I shall send a car to pick you up at 4pm. The two officers bearing this letter can be trusted with your reply. I’m looking forward to meeting up again, etc etc”.

I told the two officers to reply to the letter’s sender in the affirmative. Having seen them ashore, I made a bee-line for the laundry to make certain I had clean clothes for the visit to the vice-regal residence.

Government House,

Some of Canterbury ‘s senior officers quizzed me : “what did those two Aussie officers want?” and then the arrival next afternoon of the chauffer-driven luxury car also created quite a few questions. I kept the driver waiting just a few minutes so that more matelots would see the car and generate greater gossip… speculative dits!

The Governor’s residence was fabulous, a palace. It’s described as “Victorian country in Gothic style”. It’s made of locally mined sandstone, dug out on site: the excavations later made into ornamental pools and water features. Completed in 1858, there are some 70 rooms, largely untouched from the day they were built and decorated – and the furniture specially imported from England is still in use today.

Drawing Room, Government House, Tasmania

Merrin sure had a great workplace! We toured some of the more interesting rooms, had a few wines and exchanged reminiscences followed by an evening meal in one of the lesser dining rooms with some of the other staff members, among them one of the naval officers whom Merrin sent to find me aboard Canterbury. He was an aide-de-camp to the Governor. My reason for being in Hobart surfaced and the topic of Mururoa got a bit of a going over.

Mid-evening Merrin delivered me back to the ship. It was very observant of her to see my name on the Canterbury’s list and very kind to have me to dinner! Touring Government House had been a unique experience.

Canterbury had ventured under the famous Derwent bridge to proceed to a town wharf. We had a number of police visit one of the Messes. They succumbed to rum and after several hours arrangements had to be made to get their patrol cars driven back to their base and to quietly evacuate them from the ship!

The following night was the run ashore, taking Hobart by storm, navy-style, in civilian clothes. There was a drink or two at every pub we encountered and then a visit to a night club. I seem to recall that one or two boozy sailors thought they could do better than the resident singers. Maybe it was the alcohol that prevented them reaching the professionalism they had reckoned on! As closing time approached several young women, friends, were encouraged to invite us to their home.  Very much the worse for wear, alcohol-induced, we hailed several taxis to take us “to the party”. Some sailors purchased more drink. I seem to remember travelling to an inner suburb to our host’s place, a small flat. Our group more or less overwhelmed it. There we spent a few hours, accompanied again by loud music. Takeaway food was fetched. I tired quickly, a piker, and summoned a taxi to return me to the ship. I didn’t feel so bad about this when one or two of the others joined me in my premature return to Canterbury. I had survived the famous run ashore and, apart from a bit of a hangover next day, appeared none the worse for it!

Shipmates at the 30th Anniversary Reunion

Aftermath – The People  

Fraser Colman continued as Cabinet Minister in the 4th Labour Government, principally as Minister of Works and Development. He retired from politics ahead of the 1987 election and was subsequently appointed Chairman of the New Zealand Fire Service Commission for a 3 year term. He served during the Service’s “consolidating” years, greatly assisted by the Commission’s (his) wise counsel. Fraser Colman suffered a series of strokes in 1991, despite which he attended later reunions of Mururoa veterans. He died in April 2008, survived by his wife Noelene and 3 daughters. Noelene continued her interest in the Mururoa Mission, attending reunions and meetings of the Mururoa Veterans’ Association.

Derek Cheney retired as Commodore, RNZN. He died in the 1990s.

In April 2002 he was posthumously awarded medals for observing atmospheric nuclear tests at Christmas Island in 1957 aboard HMNZS Pukaki and at Mururoa commanding HMNZS Canterbury.

Alan (Two Ton) Tyrell, captain of Otago during the Mururoa Mission, died in March 2004.

 Aftermath – The Ships   

Otago, F111, undertook a long refit in 1974-5 and resumed duties. Commissioned in 1960, the ship continued with a round of exercises with the United States and Canadian Navies, designated New Zealand’s 3rd combat ship in the 3 frigate fleet. By 1983 she was a training ship and then paid off to inactive reserve. She was sold for scrap in November 1983.

Canterbury, F421, had been commissioned in 1971. After Mururoa she went to the UK in 1976, escorting RAN’s HMAS Melbourne to attend the Silver Jubilee Naval Review. In the 1980s the frigate went to assist the RN in the Persian Gulf, relieving RN ships which proceeded to the Falklands War. Canterbury was of limited help because the New Zealand Government wouldn’t allow her to enter the Persian Gulf on diplomatic grounds. The ship attended the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Crete in May 1991, she subsequently undertook peace-keeping and humanitarian roles in several parts of the globe. In October 2003 a fire in a switchboard room while she was off the Chatham Islands nearly spelled tragedy but for the plucky actions of 2 ratings who tackled the fire, preventing crippling damage. As it was, repairs cost more than $1 million and the focus this brought to the ship highlighted her age. No more money was to be invested: the navy would look for a replacement in a multi-role vessel. Canterbury was decommissioned in 2005. After much discussion it was decided to strip her and scuttle her in Deep Water Cove in the Bay of Islands as a dive wreck. She was sunk in 2007, ironically some of the work was carried out by the ship’s former shipwright, Chief Petty Officer Norman Greenall. The remains of the ship, once settled on the bottom, were then handed over from the Canterbury Trust, who had championed the idea of the dive wreck, to the local hapu to manage.

Aftermath – Benefaction

While at sea on the Mururoa Mission the crews of Otago and Canterbury had voiced concern when the Navy advised an allowance known as the “Hard Lying” would not be paid. Protest led to reconsideration and it was agreed the 11c per day per crew-member would be paid. It meant all hands would each get about two dollars seventy cents for the month-long voyages. One of Canterbury’s messes suggested their allowance would be donated to charity: the idea snowballed throughout the ship’s messes, joined by the Minister, Jim McCahon from the National Radiation Laboratory and the two newsmen. The Christchurch Children’s Home was the worthy benefactor, a welcome contribution thanks to the Mururoa Mission!

I was often invited to ship’s functions

Aftermath – Fallout

Of those officers and men who served aboard Otago and Canterbury during the Mururoa Mission, so many seem to have died of cancer. The connection between possible radioactive radiation as a result of the French tests and these cancers is still being discussed and argued: investigated principally by the Mururoa Nuclear Veterans’ Group which is out to prove the cause and effect.

Aftermath – Further Tests

And what of the French tests? It’s argued that the protests off Mururoa may have persuaded the French Government in 1974 to order that all tests in future be carried out underground.

Atmospheric Nuclear Tests ceased in 1974. AFP

After a total of 41 atmospheric tests, experimentation switched to underground shafts drilled deep in Mururoa’s volcanic rock. Protests were kept up in South Pacific Islands about destruction of the atoll and possible contamination of the ocean. But the tests continued. In July 1979 there was an accident when explosives either got stuck part way down the shaft or exploded prematurely. The blast shattered the shaft sending shock waves across the atoll and causing a land slide which in turn set off a local tsunami. Local workers were injured. Testing continued, nevertheless, including detonations just prior to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of which France was to be a signatory. Again there were widespread protests from Pacific Islanders and a protest ship set out from Fiji, much against the wishes of Fiji’s Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, who did not want to upset the French. After all, he holds the French Legion D’Honneur awarded for bravery by the French Government after saving a French officer during an attack on the UN Headquarters in Lebanon in 1980.

Aftermath – Government Overthrown

It would leave a wide gap in any account of the aftermath to the Mururoa Mission if there was no mention here of the anti-nuclear protest that led to the downfall of Robert Muldoon’s National Government in July 1984.

The Opposition Labour Party proposed an anti-nuclear measure, banning ships with nuclear propulsion from New Zealand territorial waters. This was opposed by Prime Minister Muldoon who feared such legislation would compromise New Zealand’s security and that it would offend the USA, a military partner, if New Zealand ports were out of bounds to US nuclear-powered warships. Government Member of Parliament, Marilyn Waring, told Muldoon on June 14 that she favoured the measure and would cross the floor of the House to vote with the Opposition.

Hon Dr Marilyn Waring CMNZ. Wiki

This seriously threatened Muldoon’s Government which had a majority of one – with Waring’s vote the Opposition would likely have the numbers to pass the Bill into law.

Muldoon said that Waring’s “feminist anti-nuclear stance” threatened his ability to govern.

That night, June 14th, Muldoon called a snap election… and at the polls about a month later his National Party lost to Labour, led by David Lange. The new Labour government immediately made clear its anti-nuclear policies and under the 1987 New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act, the territorial sea and land of New Zealand became nuclear-free zones. The Act survives today.

Aftermath – France Packs It In

France announced the conclusion of all testing at Mururoa on 27 January 1996 after one last underground explosion, making it 193 tests between 1966 and 1996, some 40 in the atmosphere, with an estimated total yield of 13,000 kilotons.

50 years on: remains of buildings on Mururoa used during the Tests. AFP

The facility on Mururoa was dismantled but to this day the French military still guards the atoll.

In 1986 French Polynesian islands were again in the news, notably Hao Atoll near Mururoa which was still occupied by the military. In July 1985 French secret service military personnel infiltrated New Zealand and set “limpet” explosives on the hull of the Greenpeace protest ship “Rainbow Warrior” while it was alongside a wharf in Auckland.

“Rainbow Warrior”, a huge hole in its side, sank, settling on the bottom. NZ Ministry of Culture and Heritage

The late-night explosion ripped through the ship, sinking her. Crew-member, photographer, Fernando Pereira was killed. Some of the perpetrators escaped on a yacht, picked up off Norfolk Island, but released from custody because of lack of available evidence. A French submarine rescued the men and sank the yacht. But two secret agents, Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart were arrested, charged with manslaughter and in September 1985 sentenced by a New Zealand court to 10 years’ imprisonment. It was subsequently agreed, Government-to-Government, that they would see their full sentence out on Hao Island near Mururoa. Prieur returned to France on 6 May 1988 because she was pregnant, her husband having been allowed to join her on the atoll. Mafart was also released long before serving his 10 year sentence, and, like Prieur returned to France, decorated and promoted.

July 2023: 50th Anniversary

The Mururoa Nuclear Veteransm crew-members of HMNZS Otago and JMNZS Canterbury, marked the 50th anniversary of the Mururoa Mission in conjunction with their Association’s Annual General Meeting held in Auckland over the weekend of 7th – 9th July 2023. Official events got underway with a cocktail part on Friday night at the Navy Museum. Veterans’ Affairs Minister, Peeni Henare, attended. He said he’s aware of the Mururoa group’s  claims that more than 130 of their children and grandchildren may have suffered genetic damage as a result of the exposure and the effects experienced by servicemen’s presence at the nuclear tests. The Minister promised to follow up with actions recommended in numerous reports over the years. Following a powhiri at Te Taua Moana Marae on Saturday the Association held its Annual General Meeting at the adjacent Ngataringa Naval Sports Centre. Those present resolved to make approaches to Veterans’ Affairs  New Zealand to ensure each Mururoa veteran is allocated a Case Manager so that they receive all entitled benefits and services.  Ngataringa Naval Sports Centre was also venue for the Formal Dinner on Saturday night, with Chief Guest the Deputy Chief of Navy, Commodore Auckland, Andrew Brown. In his speech he reflected on the unique role the New Zealand Navy frigates played during the Mururoa protests… and even 50 years after the event, it was still not too late to, again, thank those who took part in that special mission and, inportantly, to reflect on it.

Commemorative medallion presented to each Mururoa veteran attending the 50th Anniversary celebrations

The weekend concluded with a church service at St Christopher’s Chapel and a wreath-laying ceremony at Devonport Naval Base’s Memorial Wall.

©R. C. Carlyon July 2023


“Mururoa Protest”, Gerry Wright, printed by Zenith Print/Publish Me, 2008(?)

“New Zealand and France: politics, diplomacy and dispute management”, Stephen Hoadley, NZ Institute of International Affairs, 2005.

Morurua – Wikipedia