FROM NUCLEAR WARRIOR TO OPPONENT: How the murder of Hilda Murrell changed my life


Robert Green

Pacific Ecologist Winter 2006

ROBERT GREEN* recounts his path of transformation from British Navy Commander with experience in operating nuclear weapons, to anti-nuclear campaigner. The many threats to our security, he concludes, are increasingly beyond the reach of military (let alone nuclear) solutions. A new form of patriotism is urgently needed, embracing the whole earth, to prevent narrow nationalism destroying humanity and the natural world on which life depends.

When my aunt Hilda Murrell was found murdered in the Shropshire countryside she loved on 24 March 1984, I was training to be a roof-thatcher in Dorset. Twenty-two years on, I find myself with a new life and family in New Zealand, campaigning full-time against nuclear weapons, propulsion and electricity generation.

After my mother died when I was a 19-year-old Midshipman, her elder unmarried sister filled the void. Hilda became my mentor and respected friend, despite my youth and inferior education. A former Cambridge English graduate, Hilda also had a flair for business and as a plantswoman, successfully ran the family rose nursery in Shrewsbury, Shropshire from 1949-70. She had an infectious enthusiasm for life, and nature’s miraculous harmony on this beautiful but fragile planet. Above all, she loved the British Isles, their long history and how it shaped the landscape, architecture and, of course, the gardens. Yet she was seldom nostalgic. She constantly probed the future, with an eye to protecting humanity’s cultural heritage and increasingly polluted environment.

Having predicted the 1973 oil crisis five years before, Hilda told me: “The next will be nuclear.”  She did her homework, and homed in on the nuclear energy industry’s financial profligacy and failure to solve the waste problem. She received significant encouragement and information from The Ecologist and Teddy Goldsmith, with whom she corresponded in 1979-80.

Meanwhile, as a Fleet Air Arm Observer (navigator) I was flying nuclear weapons around in carrier-borne Buccaneer strike jets and then anti-submarine helicopters.  I rationalised (wrongly) that it was possible to support both the British “Bomb” and Hilda’s views on nuclear energy.  This was fortunate when I was promoted Commander in 1978, and sent to the Ministry of Defence as personal staff officer to an Admiral closely involved in recommending the replacement for Britain’s four Polaris nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines.

Thatcher forced nuclear policy on the UK

Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister during this time. Addicted to all things nuclear, she forced the British nuclear energy industry to accept a US pressurised water reactor design, despite its failure in 1979 in a nearly catastrophic meltdown at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  She welcomed the stationing of US nuclear-armed Cruise missiles on British soil, in the face of huge public protest, and decided to replace Polaris with Trident, without consulting her Cabinet. Despite misgivings, the Chiefs of Staff were brought into line.

After the last Polaris submarine was withdrawn from service in 1996, the Navy would become increasingly embarrassed by a ridiculously over-capable, and hence unusable, Trident force. Something had to give: the British surface fleet would shrink to become smaller than the Japanese Navy’s, while the nuclear submarine lobby’s contribution was to allow a brand new class of conventionally powered submarines to be sold to the Canadian Navy. Meanwhile, for the UK to urge other states not to acquire nuclear weapons while itself acquiring the most sophisticated nuclear system in the world, must have appeared to many non-nuclear states to be hypocritical self-interest.

Nevertheless, I still accepted the rationale for Polaris. This was a dangerous time in the Cold War: the Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan; the Polish trade union movement Solidarnosc was pioneering the East European challenge to Soviet hegemony; and new and more impressive Soviet warship designs were emerging almost every month. It was a very stimulating period to work in military intelligence. In my last appointment as Staff Officer (Intelligence) to Commander-in-Chief Fleet, I ran the team providing round-the-clock intelligence support to Polaris as well as the rest of the Fleet from the command bunker in Northwood on the outskirts of London. I was still there in 1982 when Britain suddenly found itself at war with an erstwhile friend, Argentina, over the Falkland Islands.

The war was directed from Northwood, and was a very close-run thing. If Argentine aircraft had sunk one of the troopships or aircraft-carriers before the landing force had got ashore, the British might have had to withdraw or risk defeat. What would Thatcher have done?  Polaris did not deter Argentina’s President Galtieri from invading. With victory in his grasp, I doubt he would have believed even Thatcher would have seriously threatened a nuclear strike on Argentina. I was never aware of the location of the deployed Polaris submarines: but after leaving the Navy I heard rumours of a secret contingency plan to move a Polaris submarine south within range of Argentina if defeat looked inevitable. Recently, former French President Francois Mitterrand’s psychoanalyst recounted in a memoir how Mitterrand told him Thatcher had phoned him after a French-supplied Exocet missile disabled the British destroyer HMS Sheffield. She threatened to carry out a nuclear strike against Argentina unless Mitterrand gave her the secret codes to enable British forces to jam the missiles’ acquisition system.  He was so convinced of her seriousness that he complied.

Defeat was unthinkable for the proud British military against such a foe, and would have consigned Thatcher to political oblivion. Furthermore, Thatcher was a true believer in nuclear deterrence. Had she so threatened, Galtieri would probably have very publicly called her bluff and relished watching US President Reagan try to rein her in. The Polaris submarine’s Commanding Officer, briefed by me on the Soviet threat before he went on so-called “deterrent” patrol, would have been faced with a bizarre shift of target and new rules of engagement. In the last resort, would he have refused the firing order or faked a malfunction, and returned to face a court martial with a clear conscience?

Temptation for states with nuclear weapons

Fortunately, this nightmare did not eventuate. Nevertheless, for me the Falklands War raised major concerns about nuclear weapons. As well as the danger of over-reaction from a leader of a nuclear-armed state in time of war facing defeat by a non-nuclear state, there is also the parallel dilemma for the military in wartime when in charge of nuclear weapons, if about to be defeated with conventional weapons.  What if the country’s leader demanded a nuclear response?

This led me to confront the realities of operating nuclear weapons on behalf of such a leader in such a crisis. Had that Polaris Commanding Officer been given such an order and obeyed, the failure of nuclear deterrence would have compounded the ignominy of defeat with that of being the first country to break the nuclear taboo since Nagasaki.

When the conflict was over I left the Navy at the end of 1982, having successfully applied for  redundancy in the government’s 1981 defence review. I left for career reasons; but I was also aware that I could not stay fully committed to the Navy if it had to operate Trident. Aged 38, with a working wife and no children, I trained as a roof thatcher in Dorset where we were living. Enduring many bad puns from friends about the political regime, I thatched for eight idyllic years. This proved vitally therapeutic following Hilda’s mysterious, high-profile murder.

By 1984 Hilda had come to the conclusion that radioactive waste was the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry, and that nuclear electricity generation in its current form was unsafe and could not be sustained without massive government subsidies. Meanwhile, Thatcher’s decisions on Trident and Cruise missiles had provoked a massive resurgence of the grassroots anti-nuclear movement, led by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). A distinctive offshoot of this was the women’s camp at the first Cruise missile base at Greenham Common, which Hilda supported, where imaginative non-violent direct action generated powerful public support and international media interest.

At this time, police numbers were stretched further by striking coalminers, locked in a vicious struggle with a government set on breaking their grip on the nation’s economy by shifting electricity supply from coal to nuclear power. In addition, sufficient outcry greeted Thatcher’s plan to build the first pressurised water reactor at Sizewell in Suffolk to force her government to hold the first British planning inquiry for a nuclear power plant.

Planning to testify at nuclear inquiry before murder

On 21 March 1984, Hilda was preparing to testify as an independent objector on radioactive waste management problems at the Sizewell public inquiry. She had been taking advice from several more radical anti-nuclear activists, including a retired British scientist, Don Arnott who dropped out of the Sizewell Inquiry following a mysterious heart attack. He had been preparing testimony regarding a design fault in the control rod system of the Three Mile Island reactor, which may have been a major contributory cause of its meltdown and which was replicated in the proposed UK reactor. No-one else at the inquiry raised the issue; but Hilda had met Arnott once more at his first public lecture after he recovered from his heart attack, just over a month before she was murdered. Arnott had been tipped off that he was under surveillance by the nuclear industry because of what he knew. Possibly this unwanted attention may have shifted to Hilda, as it may have been thought that Arnott asked her to present his testimony by proxy.

Around midday on 21 March, after a break-in at her home where it seems only a little cash was stolen, Hilda was apparently abducted in her own car. Over sixty witnesses saw her car being driven erratically through Shrewsbury and past the police station. It was quickly reported abandoned on the side of a lane five miles outside the town, but the police took nearly three days to find her mutilated body in a wood nearly half a mile across fields from the car.

Despite one of the biggest British police investigations in the 20th century, public criticism grew about the police theory that it was simply a “bungled burglary.” The police made no progress, and responded defensively to several dramatic developments including discovery of two potential political motives for her murder. One connected it to her anti-nuclear work, while the other related to the controversial sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano by the nuclear attack submarine HMS Conqueror in the Falklands War. I wrongly came under suspicion for leaking classified information about the latter to a Labour Member of Parliament, Tam Dalyell, who had accused Thatcher of ordering the sinking to scupper peace negotiations. 

Murky British politics & intimidation

Further evidence of the threat posed by the Belgrano affair to the Thatcher government came a few months after Hilda was murdered. On the orders of the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine, a Ministry of Defence official called Clive Ponting was arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act for leaking to Dalyell the fact that Heseltine had ordered him to write two versions of the sinking of the Belgrano: one for the Cabinet, and an evasive version for Parliament. At his trial in February 1985, Ponting was sensationally acquitted by the jury.

In my pursuit of the truth over the two decades since Hilda’s murder, there have been several attempts to intimidate me, probably because of my criticisms of the “bungled burglary” police theory and my growing suspicion that evidence had been manipulated, indicating State interference. I had reason to believe Hilda’s death was a result of a State-sponsored abduction, with her car used as a decoy, after which she was murdered. Efforts to intimidate me included an arson attack on Hilda’s weekend cottage after I suggested to Dalyell that he may have been set up in order to smear me and deflect attention from the nuclear industry. On another occasion, one of my car tyres was slashed outside the front door of Don Arnott’s home, and a witness was lent on by plainclothes police to water down his statement. My phone and mail were often interfered with, and on several occasions I was followed when driving in Shropshire. In 1994, while I was living with my father, his house was broken into, but nothing was taken. Later, I received a sufficiently specific death threat to force me to leave the UK and spend three months in New Zealand. 

Taking up Hilda’s torch

Angered and radicalised, I took up Hilda’s torch campaigning against the hazards of nuclear-powered electricity generation, especially after the first nuclear explosion in a power plant at Chernobyl in April 1986. I learned in my research that the British nuclear energy industry began as a cynical by-product of the race to provide Plutonium for nuclear weapons. I saw how the international nuclear industry closed ranks to underplay the seriousness of both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Then, as an objector at the next British planning inquiry into a pressurised water reactor at Hinkley Point in Somerset 1988-89, I experienced how powerful, secretive and ruthless the UK nuclear establishment is – and that it had a motive to move against Hilda. Also, Prime Minister Thatcher was in thrall to the nuclear mystique and had something to hide about the sinking of the General Belgrano. I was driven by a deep sense of betrayal that agents of the British government could have assassinated one of its law-abiding citizens who, a true patriot like myself, had been trying to protect her country.

Media interest in the UK about Hilda’s murder revived in June 2003, nearly 20 years after her death. A two-year cold case review by the police led to 35 year-old Andrew George being charged with her abduction and murder. Following a month-long trial, on 6 May 2005 he was convicted: however, some key evidence was not heard at the trial, and I have reason to believe that his conviction was an outrageous miscarriage of justice.  He has lodged an appeal.

Coming out against the Bomb

Although I actively campaigned against nuclear electricity generation in the first years following Hilda’s death, I did not take the ultimate step of opposing “the Bomb” until January 1991, shortly before the US-led coalition began its air bombardment of Iraq in the first Gulf War. My military intelligence training warned me that Saddam Hussein would be given the pretext he needed to attack Israel, in order to split the coalition and become the Arabs’ champion. If provoked enough, he could use Scud ballistic missiles with chemical or biological warheads. If such an attack caused heavy Israeli casualties, Israel’s Prime Minister Shamir would come under massive domestic pressure to retaliate with a nuclear strike on Baghdad. Even if Saddam Hussein did not survive (he had the best anti-nuclear bunkers that Western technology could provide), the entire Arab world would erupt in fury against Israel and its allies; its security would be destroyed forever; and Russia would be sucked in…

The first Scud attack hit Tel Aviv on the night of 17 January 1991, two days after the Allied blitzkrieg began. A week earlier, I had addressed a crowd of 20,000 anti-Gulf War demonstrators from the foot of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. In that hallowed place redolent with British patriotism, I became the first ex-British Navy Commander with experience of operating nuclear weapons to come out against them. In Israel, for the first time, the second city of a de facto nuclear state was attacked and its capital threatened. Even worse for nuclear deterrence dogma, the aggressor did not have nuclear weapons. That night the Israeli people, cowering in gas-masks in basements, learned that their so-called “nuclear deterrent” had failed its primary purpose. Thirty-eight more Scud attacks followed.

Meanwhile, in Britain the Irish Republican Army just missed wiping out the entire Gulf War Cabinet with a mortar bomb attack from a van in central London. A more direct threat to the government could barely be imagined. What would have happened if instead they had threatened to use even a crude nuclear device? A counter-threat of nuclear retaliation would have been utterly incredible.

Belatedly forced to research the history of nuclear weapons, I discovered the British scientific-politico-military establishment bore considerable responsibility for initiating and spreading the nuclear arms race. Having alerted the US to the feasibility of making a nuclear weapon, the UK participated in the Manhattan Project. In 1947, on being frozen out of further collaboration by the 1946 McMahon Act, the UK began to develop its own nuclear arsenal. The UK then became Saddam Hussein’s role model: the first medium-sized power with delusions of grandeur to threaten nuclear terrorism.  I also discovered that the doctrine of nuclear deterrence was always flawed in terms of its practicality, and that it was unlawful as well as being immoral. Moreover, there are more credible and effective alternative security strategies.

In 1991, after giving up thatching when the Gulf War loomed, I became Chair of the UK affiliate of the World Court Project. This worldwide network of citizen groups helped persuade the UN General Assembly, despite desperate countermoves led by the three NATO nuclear weapon states, to ask the International Court of Justice (known as the World Court) for its Advisory Opinion on the legal status of nuclear weapons. In 1996, the Court confirmed that the threat, let alone use, of nuclear weapons would generally be illegal. For the first time, the legality of nuclear deterrence was challenged. I met Kate Dewes, a pioneer of the project living in Christchurch, New Zealand, and from 1992-96 we were both members of the project’s International Steering Committee. After we married in 1997, we established a Disarmament & Security Centre in the South Island branch of the Peace Foundation which Kate had coordinated from her home for nearly twenty years.

One aspect of the Court’s decision was especially important.  It confirmed that, as part of international humanitarian law, the Nuremberg Principles apply to nuclear weapons. Principle IV states: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible for him.” This has serious implications for all those involved in operating nuclear weapons – particularly those military professionals who, unlike the British Prime Minister, really would have to “press the button.” What is at stake here is a crucial difference between military professionals and hired killers or terrorists: military professionals need to be seen to act within the law.

My metamorphosis from nuclear warrior to anti-nuclear, alternative security consultant has taught me that the only durable security is a safety-net for all, not a “win/lose” military game. For the nature of modern warfare is such that, not only do non-combatants make up over 90% of the casualties, but even the “victorious” military suffer long-term health effects, from inoculations against chemical or biological weapons and/or use of radiotoxic materials such as Depleted Uranium. Besides, the many threats to our security are increasingly seen to be beyond solution by military means. Finally, my work has opened my eyes to the urgent need to identify a new form of patriotism, embracing the whole Earth, before narrow nationalism destroys us all. 

*Robert Green served in the British Royal Navy from 1962-82, navigating Buccaneer nuclear strike aircraft and anti-submarine helicopters and serving in Fleet intelligence. He now coordinates the New Zealand Peace Foundation's Disarmament & Security Centre in Christchurch with his wife Dr Kate Dewes (Disarmament & Security Centre).