Greenham Common peace women celebrate 40th anniversary of 'Embrace the Base'
The women's peace protests became a media sensation and remain a unique and polarising chapter in the history of former RAF Greenham Common.
On December 12, 1982 more than 30,000 women arrived from all over the country to encircle the base's six-mile perimeter fence in protest against the UK Government's decision to house American cruise missiles there. The installation went ahead in November 1983, but so did the protests – for 19 years in total.
On Friday (December 9), former peace women gathered once again at Greenham Control Tower to mark the 40th anniversary of their milestone demonstration.
The protests began in September 1981 when 36 individuals opposed to nuclear arms arrived at Greenham Common from Cardiff. Plans to store 96 cruise missiles at the airbase – each more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb – had been announced in June 1980.
The Newbury Weekly News reported public and police concern leading up to 'Embrace the Base' – with initial attendance estimated as high as 250,000.
Former peace woman, Frances Connelly, commuted from Cambridge to join the demonstration. She shared her own views and experiences, saying: "It was cold. I also remember logistically it was quite a struggle because we wanted to have women all around the base, so I think there was a fair bit of walking around to make sure we were in the most sensible places to cover all the gaps. It was just amazing.
"Most of us really tried to be thoughtful, non-hierarchical and peaceful in our approach with each other and with the police, military and local people. We didn't always manage it, but that was what most of us really wanted to do."
Producer for Scary Little Girls and Greenham Women Everywhere, Vanessa Pini, added: "I spend a lot of my time organising interviews with the amazing Greenham women and organising events to make people aware of the peace camp.
"They worked in different ways and they didn't all agree. Most of them wanted to do it peacefully. The Greenham women talked to each other and to the police officers and soldiers. They didn't hate them for what they were doing. We have to spend time with people we disagree with."
But how effective does she think the protests were? "I think the cause was mainly complicated by the media, because it was about what sells papers," she added. "And the shock factor was 'dirty lesbians' and women abandoning their children at home. And that created fear in the public and some women who believed in the cause then didn't want to get involved."
And did the protests lead to the removal of the cruise missiles? "Yes, 100 per cent," Ms Pini added. "There's never been a movement like it where people have stuck with it for so long. One man we interviewed said 'the women didn't get the weapons removed, Margaret Thatcher did'. Margaret Thatcher made that final decision but surely that's because of the pressure she was under from what the women did. She also made the decision to put the weapons there in the first place.
"It's not all black and white. People had different opinions and different reasons for being there on both sides of the fence. One Greenham woman spoke about a police officer who opened the lapel of his uniform to reveal a CND badge. Years later, she found out that he made an anonymous donation to the Greenham camp every Christmas using his overtime pay."
But Greenham historian and author Jonathan Sayers disagrees. He said: "The impact of the Greenham Common protests has purposefully been blown out of all proportion by the protesters themselves. Their's was a spectacularly disingenuous approach. We'd had nuclear defences for over 30 years by 1982 and NATO's nuclear stockpile was actually shrinking in Europe, even with the GLCM (ground launch cruise missile) system fully deployed.
"What deserves to be a footnote in history gets completely disproportionate attention. It was a crude, noisy campaign made by people who had a very weak grasp of the facts and a few extremist political affiliates. It had no impact besides making life unpleasant for local people, our police and airmen."
An ex-British paratrooper recalled his deployment to the base after active service in Northern Ireland as the protests intensified in 1983.
Speaking to the Newbury Weekly News he said: "When they started cutting the fences, we were there for a prolonged period of four to six weeks.
"The police dealt with most of the ones who got through, but we dealt with those who got further inside the perimeter. We did go out with batons. We would apprehend and cable tie them and anybody we caught inside the base, we'd give to the Americans.
"I think in general the protestors knew if they cut down the outer fence, that was as far as they could go. But there were always those who were intent on causing trouble or wanted to test the security by trying to get further inside. They knew the consequences of their actions."
But relations between the soldiers and peace women were not always fraught. "We had these big insulated tea urns we used to take out on the cold nights," he added. "And they weren't so abusive then, I must say.
"I was only a young lad then and didn't really want to be there. I joined the army to see the world and fight for my country, not to deal with a load of people trying to break into a nuclear facility. But I think it's fair to say, and this goes for the Americans as well, that if the protestors were respectful, we were respectful, but not all of them were."
Did you agree with the decision to house cruise missiles there? "I would never have wanted to use the missiles," he added. "But as mad as it sounds, having them is the deterrent. If you don't have them, you're vulnerable."
Did he think the protests led to the removal of the cruise missiles? "No," he said. "The missiles were a deterrent that needed to be there and would have stayed as long as they were required. What I would say though is the protests had a positive impact raising public awareness in 1982 and 1983. But I think once those main protests were over, it was a different type of people there and the focus shifted more to their community rather than actually doing anything."
The INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty signed by the USA and USSR in December 1987 prompted the complete withdrawal of cruise missiles from the base by mid-1991, which closed the following year. The last peace women vacated the Common in September 2000.