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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

A Welsh protest to save the world.

Here we are again, looking down the barrel of a gun held by Mr Putin. Will the war in Ukraine spread? I sincerely hope and pray that it does not while at the same time I feel like crying for the suffering poor people of Ukraine are enduring. We see protests against the Ukrainian War in cities across the world. Will they make any difference? I don't know but here's one protest that certainly did make a difference and it began in Wales. This is a slightly longer post than normal but it's something I feel passionate about.

A protest that changed the world began on the 16th September 1981 when a group of 36 women left Cardiff with a letter addressed to the commanding officer of an American Air Force base. To understand the reason for their protest we need to look back to a chain of events which began nearly forty years earlier.

The first bomber to drop a atomic bomb on Japan
Enola Gay B29 bomber

On the 6th August 1945 the Enola Gay, an American B29 bomber, took off from the Mariana Islands and flew north-west for six hours. Aboard was a small bomb that weighed 63kg. Because of the bombs size it was nicknamed ‘Little Boy.’ The bomb was dropped at 8.15am. It took 43 seconds to drop to its detonation height 1968ft (600m) above the city of Hiroshima. The exploding bomb incinerated over 60,000, more than 30,000 were crushed by falling masonry and over 10,000 were killed by other injuries. During the following months an estimated 100,000 died from radiation sickness, burns or other complications. Three days later, the Americans dropped a second nuclear bomb, called ‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki, killing between 60,000 and 80,000 people. Japan surrendered unconditionally six days later. By exploding the nuclear devices the Americans demonstrated that they were capable of wiping out cities. It marked a new and terrifying chapter in warfare; the age of weapons of mass destruction.

Today there are eight countries that have declared they have nuclear weapons, Britain, United States of America, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Israel will neither confirm nor deny it has nuclear bombs. Other countries including Iran are trying to develop their own atomic weapons. Britain has 225 nuclear warheads, 160 of which are operational.
The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The Soviet Russian leader, Joseph Stalin had been briefed by the American President on July 24th 1945 that the USA had a viable nuclear bomb. The Russians were racing to develop their own bomb and the news that their ally already had one was a shock to the Russian leader. He urged his scientists to complete their work quickly. WW II was over but there would be new enemies and Russia wanted the same destructive power as any aggressor. The bombing of Hiroshima 12 days later had proved how powerful the new technology was.

The end of the Second World War left Europe divided as the allies argued. Germany was split into two. In Churchill’s words, ‘An iron Curtain’ divided the Eastern and Western powers. Six months after the war ended, the USA detonated two nuclear devices, destroying 95 captured Japanese warships. On the 29th August 1949, the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb. Britain joined the race and detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1952. The race for nuclear supremacy began with an American advantage but they didn’t keep it for long. In 1962 the Russians sent Nuclear Missiles to Cuba where they were just a few minutes flight time from American cities. The American President John Kennedy threatened war unless they were withdrawn and the world waited in horror. Armageddon had become a real possibility. The Russians backed down and withdrew the missiles but the build up continued. By 1965, the USA’s stockpile of bombs numbered 32,000. The Russians had 5,000. Combined together the two super powers had enough nuclear warheads to wipe out mankind. Not wanting to be left, out other Nations joined the race.

A new military strategy was talked of, ‘Mutual Assured Destruction.’ MAD as it was known, was the vague hope that no side would start a nuclear conflict because we would all be killed in the holocaust that would follow. Despite the concept of MAD, the Russians continued to stockpile weapons and accumulated 45,000 nuclear devices by the 1980s, far more than the USA. America had stopped expanding its arsenal and was concentrating on newer, more advanced and more powerful weapons. Their stockpile was down to 25,000. The super powers now had enough firepower to destroy all life on the planet several times over.

In 2013, the text of a speech written during the crisis in 1973 for the Queen to broadcast to the nation in the event of a nuclear holocaust was released, showing how near the world was to Armageddon.

In June 1980, the British Government announced that 160 American Nuclear Cruise Missiles were to be based in Britain, the first 96 at the American base on Greenham Common and the others at Molesworth. Britain had its own nuclear deterrent but allowing American controlled weapons to use Britain, as the Russians had attempted to use Cuba, was a new and extremely dangerous development. There was a public outcry but what could be done to change government policy? A campaign for nuclear disarmament, CND, had started in 1958. CND received popular support but its demonstrations and marches did little to influence the political establishment who continued to spend millions of pounds on nuclear weapons.

The women from South Wales arrived at Greenham Common on the 5th September 1981, presented their letter at the gates of the American base and asked for a meeting with the commanding officer. He ignored them. The women had walked more than 100 miles for the confrontation and were in no mood to be fobbed off. The ‘Women for Life on Earth,’ as they called themselves, announced that they would stay outside the gates and set up a camp. Their non violent action quickly became a national news story and provided a focus for the anti nuclear movement. Other women left their families and joined the protest camp.

Living conditions were primitive. There was no electricity or running water and the women were being continually harassed by the authorities. In May 1982, 250 women attempted to blockade the base. 34 were arrested. The blockade and arrests received international coverage and female peace campaigners from around the world travelled to Greenham to help their sisters. Camps were established at nine gates leading to the base. Yellow gate was the first. The camp at violet gate had a religious focus. Blue gate was watched by hippies and new age travellers. The camp at green gate did not allow male visitors.

On the 29th September Newbury District Council forcibly evicted the women. They returned, within a week and re established the camps. In December, 30,000 women surrounded the base and held hands to embrace it. On the 1st April 1983, 70,000 women linked hands to form a 14 mile (23km) human chain from Greenham to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston and the munitions factory at Burghfield. In December the protestors embraced the American base again. This time, 50,000 women linked hands, sections of the fence were cut and hundreds were arrested. In April 1984 the women were evicted again but returned within 24 hours. Following their example, peace camps were set up outside other military bases in Britain and overseas.

As well as pursuing the peaceful demonstration at Greenham the women were engaged in a legal battle with the authorities and had some success in the courts. Referring to a case the women won the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor said, ‘ would be difficult to suggest a group whose cause and lifestyle were less likely to excite the sympathies and approval of five elderly judges. Yet it was five Law Lords who allowed the Appeal and held that the Minister had exceeded his powers in framing the byelaws so as to prevent access to common land’.

Greenham Common
Greenham Common Women line the fences

Public opinion, stirred by the peace camp, was turning against the politicians who were coming under increasing pressure to stop the arms race. An international agreement to limit the numbers of warheads had been signed in 1968 and two treaties, known as SALT I and II (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty), were negotiated by Russia and America, but they made little difference. The super powers simply replaced old weapons with newer, more powerful ones and America refused to ratify the treaties when Russia invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.

The cost of building and maintaining its nuclear arsenals was crippling Russia and their new leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to talk to the Americans. On the 8th December 1987 he signed a treaty, in the Oval Office of the White House, an agreement in which both sides agreed to withdraw intermediate nuclear weapons. As Gorbachev signed, the American President Ronald Regan, who had once been an actor, added his signature to the treaty. The treaty was ratified by America the following year. Despite the new treaty the cruise missiles remained at Greenham common and the women of the peace camp stayed too, determined to see their removal.

Developed from German WWII, VI flying bomb technology, cruise missiles are highly accurate, can travel up to 5 times the speed of sound and are deadly. American Tomahawk cruise missiles have a range of over 620 miles (1000km), can fly at 500mph (800kmph) and carry conventional or nuclear warheads.

Helen Thomas, from Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire, completed her history degree at Lampeter University in 1989, packed a few possessions and went to join the peace camp at Greenham. On the 5th August, as she attempting to cross the road to post a letter, a police horsebox ran her over and killed her. Helen was 22 years old. Her family were convinced that the incident was not properly investigated. They claimed the driver was never breathalysed and complained bitterly when the coroner instructed the inquest jury to return a verdict of accidental death. Later, a judge refused an appeal asking for a new inquest.

Some cruise missiles were withdrawn from Britain during 1990. The last ones were flown back to America in 1992 where they were decommissioned and the warheads put into storage. After Americas’ departure the fences were removed and Greenham became common land once more, free for people to ramble across. The peace camp at Greenham remained, demanding that Britain’s nuclear deterrent Trident be scrapped. The last protestors left after a New Year’s Eve party in 1999 when it was announced that a permanent memorial garden would be built at Greenham Common to commemorate what they had achieved.

The last four protestors to leave Greenham included Sarah Hipperson. She had been there for nineteen years.
The memorial garden at Greenham common contains, a stone circle made from 7 Welsh standing stones to represent the women’s camp fires. A steel sculpture, contained within the stones, is the flame and there is a fountain engraved with the words, ‘Women’s peace camp 1981 -2000.  - You can’t kill the spirit.’ Part of the garden is dedicated to Helen’s memory.

Greenham Common Memorial Garden
Greenham Common Memorial Garden

The memorial garden, opened in 2002, celebrates how the women’s peace movement, started by 36 Welsh marchers, helped the world’s leaders come to their senses and begin to dismantle the arsenals of terror they had accumulated. It was impossible to record the names of every woman who lived at the peace camp during it’s nineteen years but there is a plaque, in Welsh and English, bearing the name of Helen Wyn Thomas, the young woman from Carmarthenshire who lost her life in the cause of peace.

1 Comment

Malcolm Mendey
Malcolm Mendey
Mar 13, 2022

Thanks Graham. I often drove past the camps back in the 1980s and 1990s. I never knew of the Welsh connection or of Helen’s death.

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