“Utterly horrified” – Thatcher’s response to peace camp submarine break-in

Thatcher's comments on the 1988 government document. Credit: National Archives

 

A protest action in which three protesters from Faslane Peace Camp managed to get into the control room of one of the Royal Navy’s nuclear armed Polaris submarines in 1988 left Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher “utterly horrified”, according to official papers published by the National Archives today.

The papers describe the occasion in October 1988 when Phill Jones, Chipper Mills, and Tony Vallance successfully broke into the Faslane nuclear submarine base, climbed into the high security area in which Polaris submarine HMS Repulse was berthed, and evaded guards to board the submarine.

Once on board they raced into the control room and announced themselves to the startled crew with the words “We’re hijacking this submarine. Take us to Cuba”.

The three managed to break into the base – one of Britain’s most secure military installations – at a time when a Provisional Irish Republic Army (IRA) bombing campaign on the British mainland was at its peak, and just months after a supposedly impregnable ‘superfence’ had been built round the base at a cost of millions of pounds.  By chance, security sensors on the fence had been switched off for repairs on the night of the break-in, and the detachment of Royal Marines guarding the submarines was below strength.

Ten services personnel were disciplined as a result of the action – including the Commodore in charge of the Clyde base and the commander of the Royal Marine squadron at the base.  The three protesters fared far better: after appearing in court on a charge of breaching military lands byelaws by entering a prohibited area, they succeeded in challenging the validity of the byelaws and were found not guilty of any criminal offence after a trial where they faced 23 prosecution witnesses.

The action co-incided with the Conservative Party’s autumn conference in Brighton – intended to herald the Party’s defiant return to the South coast resort following the bomb attack on the Grand Hotel during the 1984 conference.  Instead, the tabloid headlines were dominated by news about the HMS Repulse protest. 

Defence Secretary George Younger, attending the conference, was woken at 5 am to be informed about the incident.  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was said to be furious about the affair.  In reply to a letter about the incident from her Private Secretary, Charles Powell, she wrote the words "I am utterly horrified", and warned that the action by the peace campers had posed a "grave danger".  Shortly afterwards the rules of engagement for guards at the Faslane base were said to have been amended to allow them to shoot intruders on sight.

In an exclusive interview with Nuclear Information Service about the break-in, Phill Jones emphasised just how serious the incident was.   “We managed to get into the control room of a fully armed British nuclear submarine”, he said. “The IRA were very active at the time, and if we had been an armed group – which we could easily have been – we would have been in control of British nuclear weapons.  It would have been very difficult for security forces to get back into the steel hull of the submarine to get to us. 

“We couldn't have gone anywhere or fired the missiles, but it wouldn't have been hard to detonate the explosive propellant of a missile and make a very big bang.”

To this day Jones remains highly critical of Ministry of Defence security at Faslane.  “They'd built a £10 million fence around the base but it didn't work.  For me, the most serious aspect of the story was that two weeks later peace campers broke into the Coulport nuclear weapons store and managed to get up to the fourth level fence around the warhead stores.  Nothing was learnt from what the three of us did.”

Read the full interview with Phill Jones here.

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