On 29 January 1996, Jo Blackman, Lotta Kronlid and Andrea Needham broke into a British Aerospace factory in Lancashire and used household hammers to disarm a Hawk warplane bound for Indonesia. They were arrested, charged with £2.4m of criminal damage, and sent to prison to await trial. A week later, Angie Zelter joined them, accused of conspiracy. After six months in prison, all four were acquitted by a Liverpool jury in a court case that effectively put Britain’s arms trade on trial.
The disarmament could not have happened without the support of the other six members of the Seeds of Hope Ploughshares group – Lyn Bliss, Clare Fearnley, Emily Johns, Jen Parker, Ricarda Steinbrecher and Rowan Tilly – who were absolutely integral to the whole action from the very start. Andrea Needham’s new book, The Hammer Blow – how 10 women disarmed a warplane, will be published by Peace News on 29 January, the 20th anniversary of the action.
It was a strangely surreal experience; here we were, sitting in a pizza restaurant, surrounded by people going about their normal lives, and we were about to launch ourselves into something which was likely to put us behind bars for several years. None of us wanted to talk much: there was nothing much left to say. I stared out of the window at the empty streets and tears dropped slowly into my tea.
The final bus ride didn’t take long, and soon we were climbing off in Warton. Lotta and I got off a stop before Jo, and we walked through the village separately, thinking it might be less suspicious if we weren’t all together. We had torches but didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves, so we skulked along in the moonlight. We passed along a road lined with houses, then dived down a narrow footpath behind a row of cottages. I’d walked this path so many times that even in the dark I knew exactly where there was a concrete post lying on the path, and was able to warn Lotta to avoid it.
The route we had always taken at night went straight through the middle of a boatyard. There was no way of avoiding it, as it occupied a narrow shelf of land between the river on one side and a high bank on the other. This hadn’t been a problem before, as the boatyard had been deserted every time we crept through late at night. This time, however, a light was on and a man was working outside: there was no way through without passing within a few feet of him. It seemed very odd to be repairing a boat in the freezing cold at nearly midnight, and for a second the thought flashed through my mind that perhaps he was a spy for British Aerospace, in position to catch us as we came past. I quickly tried to put this ludicrous idea out of my mind.
The man hadn’t seen us, and Lotta and I tiptoed back into the darkness to wait for Jo. When she arrived, we had a whispered conversation about what to do. We quickly dismissed the idea of taking a different route: the only other way to the site was back through the village and then down the road which ran along the eastern end of the runway. We would almost certainly be spotted. There was only one option: to climb the bank, which from where I was standing looked almost vertical.
The bank was made of loose earth, anchored by wet brambles which grabbed at our legs and hands as we scrambled upwards in the pitch dark beneath the trees. Our heavy bags made progress very slow, and often we would slip and slide a few feet before being able to regain a foothold. Finally we reached the top, puffing and gasping, and climbed over a barbed wire fence onto the path.
From there the route was simple; we had plotted it out to the last yard and even with our torches off Jo and I knew precisely where we should branch off from the path and across a field, which gates to climb, where was the best place to squeeze under the fences, where the farm buildings were. On one of our earlier trips, a dog had started barking in a nearby farmhouse as we passed, so we had modified the route and now stayed well away from any kind of habitation.
Andrea’s hammer. Photo: Seeds of Hope
We knew from our many recces that on other nights of the week there were often people working in the hangar all night, but on Sundays the lights were always off and the only people on the site were the security patrols. This time, however, as we got closer we saw that the lights were on.
I was suddenly thrown into panic; perhaps, despite all our carefully coded phone calls and cryptic letters, British Aerospace were onto us. We huddled together in the dark for a quick discussion. There were two options: we could carry on and hope for the best, or we could return home and come back the following Sunday.
We knew that the Hawks were due to be delivered to Indonesia any day. It was too risky to leave it a whole week. Besides that, we were as prepared as we were ever going to be. We’d said our goodbyes, packed our bags, and prepared ourselves emotionally as well as practically for doing the action that night. We would go ahead as planned, and hope for the best.
We were close to the fence by now, and looking for a suitable spot with a little cover, where we could wait until it was time to go in. Our plan was to watch from outside the site for two security patrols to go by before we entered, so we’d know roughly how frequent they were and wouldn’t be taken by surprise while cutting the fence.
Suddenly we heard the noise of an engine, and a searchlight swept over the frozen fields towards us. I dived into a ditch while Jo and Lotta flattened themselves on the ground. I hardly dared breathe as the bright beam came closer and closer to where we were lying. It swept over us then was gone, and we were once again plunged into a cold darkness relieved only by a little moonlight and the distant floodlights around the huge hangar. I had a moment’s panic; we had never seen a searchlight in any of our night time visits to the site. Were British Aerospace lying in wait for us, having discovered our plans? Or was it merely coincidence?
Several weeks earlier, I had taken part in a vigil outside the site, with a few friends from the Stop the Hawk Deal group. A small army of security guards had watched us suspiciously from behind the gates, shut and locked as soon as we hove into sight. Later, I walked around the perimeter fence, and was trailed the whole way by plain- clothes guards driving a few feet behind me.
It was with memories of that day in mind that I was feeling decidedly worried about the level of security we were likely to encounter, and the powerful searchlight did nothing to reduce my fears. However, the security vehicle drove on, and I gradually calmed down, reassured that we had not been found out.
It was a freezing night; there had been heavy snow a few days before and much of it was still lying. In the last days before the action, as the snow fell ever deeper around Jo’s flat, I’d stared despondently out at the whitening landscape around us and worried about whether we’d make it to Warton at all, reliant as we were on public transport.
There was another worry: we might be more easily spotted against snow as we crept across the fields to the site. We had planned to wear dark clothes on the walk, then change into blue boiler suits of the kind worn by British Aerospace mechanics before we entered the site. This was so that at a glance and from a distance, we might be taken for workers rather than intruders.
The advent of the snow sparked long discussions about whether it would be better to wear white for maximum concealment. In the event, enough of the snow had melted for us to decide to carry on with our original plan. In any case, it was unlikely that anyone would be out in the fields at midnight on an icy January night.
We passed the time outside the fence watching the hangar through binoculars, looking for any signs of movement, and jumping around trying to keep warm. We didn’t talk much, each deep in our own thoughts about what was ahead of us – not just the next few hours, but possibly the next few years. I tried to focus my mind on why we were there; I’d spent nearly a year thinking about prison and coming to terms with my fears of it, and now I wanted to concentrate on the action at hand.
Finally, the sound of an engine broke the silence and another patrol drove into sight. We flattened ourselves against the sides of the newly-dug ditch in which we were standing; the lights passed over our heads and were gone. The time had come. We stood in a circle, held hands and had a minute’s silence. Images came flooding into my mind; young people, covered in blood, screaming in terror as Indonesian soldiers opened fire on them in the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, the capital of East Timor, after a peaceful procession. A young boy in front of a banner showing the East Timorese resistance leader, Xanana Gusmão. Both of his arms are raised; one fist is clenched in a gesture of defiance, while with his other hand he is making a victory sign. His face is set, determined. Shortly after the picture was taken, he was shot by the Indonesian military, one more casualty in a bloody occupation which had claimed the lives of one third of the Timorese population.
I thought also of the promotional video we had recently watched about Hawk aircraft. Along with much gloating over the attack capability of the plane – the narrator almost salivating as he declares that the Hawk ‘packs a healthy wallop’ – there are shots of a Hawk flying in low and firing a missile into a tank, which explodes in a ball of fire. Although it was obviously a scene created for the camera, it was impossible to watch it without thinking about the outcome if the target was a house in East Timor. Standing in that ditch, many thousands of miles from East Timor, I felt a great connection with the people who would be at the receiving end of these British weapons, and a great sense that what we were about to do was right and necessary.
For several weeks I had been having panic attacks. They would swoop on me out of nowhere; walking down the street, not even thinking about the action, my legs would suddenly turn to jelly, my heart would start pounding and great waves of panic would engulf me. I’d have to sit down and take some deep breaths to calm myself down. These episodes made me worried about how I would cope on the night: if I could react like that beforehand, how much worse would it be in the actual event?
But now, to my surprise, I felt very calm and focused. We’d spent nearly a year in planning, and had talked through every last detail of what we were to do, right down to the configuration in which we’d cut the fence and who would wield each tool as we broke into the hangar. I think we all needed reassurance that we could carry off this disarmament, and such detailed planning offered a sense of security; there were to be, we hoped, no surprises.
“The Seeds of Hope East Timor Ploughshares action was one of the most imaginative and successful direct actions in modern-day Britain. It demonstrated that principle and courage are natural, crucial allies. Andrea Needham was part of that action, and her eagerly-awaited book is now here. Read it and learn how to change the world." - John Pilger
We finished the minute’s silence, gave each other a last hug, and headed for the fence. Lotta and I were carrying boltcutters, Jo had the Japanese peace cranes we’d made to tie on the fence as a symbol of our peaceful intentions.
Lotta and I worked on cutting an arch-shaped hole in the fence, while Jo tied the peace cranes nearby, her frozen fingers struggling with the string. We were confident the fence wasn’t alarmed: Jo and I had made a small cut in it during one of our night time recces some weeks earlier, before giving it a vigorous shake and scuttling behind a bush to watch for any reaction. Nothing had happened.
After the trial, a British Aerospace worker in a more unguarded moment told us that there was in fact a movement sensor on the site but it was set off so often by rabbits that it was generally ignored. Perhaps that night the security guards were sitting in their office wondering vaguely about the three extremely large rabbits hopping around.
It seemed to take ages to cut the fence; our hands were cold and we were made clumsy by the urgency of the situation. Finally the last strand gave way. I scrambled through the hole and grabbed the bags which Lotta and Jo passed to me before squeezing through themselves.
From where we had entered, it was only about fifty yards to the nearest entrance, a fire door on the corner of the building. However, we had to walk through chest-high grass, which was dry and frozen, and crunched and snapped as we passed. There was otherwise complete silence apart from the occasional distant engine, and the noise of the grass seemed incredibly loud. But there was nobody to hear us, and soon we were clambering up the bank onto the road around the hangar.
The fire door was right in front of us. We planned to smash the glass, then reach through and push the exit bar from the inside. Having no idea how strong the glass would be, we’d taken no chances and come equipped (‘armed’ as the prosecutor would later put it with no sense of irony) with an enormously heavy iron bar, a weight from inside a sash window. It had been ceremoniously presented to us a few weeks earlier by Ricarda and Rowan who were replacing their windows. Not wanting it to appear to be an offensive weapon, they had carefully painted ‘Women disarming for life and justice’ on it.
There was a camera over the fire door, and security lights on each corner of the hangar. Standing there in the glare of the lights I felt very exposed and vulnerable. Surely they must have noticed us? What if we were caught now?
We’d talked a great deal about what we could do to make the action a success even if we didn’t manage to disarm the Hawks. To that end, we carried with us personal statements and a video we had made to leave at the site to explain what we had come to do. We even had business cards with our names and ‘Seeds of Hope East Timor Ploughshares’ inscribed on them. Nobody would be left in any doubt as to what our intentions were.
But despite all that, I knew that I’d be desperately disappointed if we failed to hammer on the planes. And more than any personal feelings, the fact was that we were trying to prevent these Hawks from leaving for Indonesia; it was absolutely vital that we were able to carry out the action as planned.
The glass smashed easily, and Lotta put her hand through the window, feeling about for the bar inside. ‘I can’t find it!’ she whispered. ‘Can you break the other panel?’ I smashed the other panel of glass. ‘I still can’t feel it,’ she said, her voice tense. ‘Let’s try the crowbars!’
In desperation, and expecting a heavy hand on our shoulders at any minute, we set to with the crowbars, but the gap between the two doors was too thin for them. Things weren’t looking good: it would be terrible to be caught now, so near and yet so far from our target.
While Lotta and I wrestled with the door, Jo ran off round the corner to see if we could get in anywhere else. A couple of minutes later she was back. ‘I’ve found a way in!’ she said.
There were small doors set into the big folding metal shutters which opened to let the planes in and out of the hangar, but in our planning we’d dismissed these as being too difficult to crack. However, Jo had almost got one open with her crowbar; a little extra pressure from Lotta and me, and the whole lock popped off. We were in.
EAST TIMORESE VOICES
“These four women not only inspired us, the Timorese, but people around the world to not fold our hands and ignore human rights abuse in this planet. Seeds of Hope was a wonderful act of solidarity with the people of East Timor threatened by British weapons. The support of people around the world throughout our long struggle for independence was crucial, and this action raised the profile of Britain’s role in arming Indonesia, and raised the spirits of the Timorese people. This is the kind of book that we all should read to be reminded that we are one, no matter where we come from, and it is our responsibility to make sure our world is safe and humanity should be highly upheld.’ - Bella Galhos, East Timorese human rights activist
‘The “Liverpool Four” who undertook an ethical and moral action in disabling a British Aerospace aircraft paid for by Indonesia and being readied to be delivered were part of Timor-Leste’s network of friends around the world who with courage and imagination contributed significantly in raising awareness in the UK about British arms sales to Indonesia. I remain till this very day in admiration and gratitude for the “Liverpool Four”.’ - Jose Ramos Horta, president of Timor-Leste (2007-2012) and Nobel Peace Prize laureate (1996)
‘When writing some paragraphs on this book, I feel overwhelmed with tears and happiness, with profound privilege and honor to all my activist colleagues for your generosities, courage and solidarities that you have shown us during our fight for independence.’ - Micato Fernandes Alves, founder of Fokupers (the East Timorese women’s NGO)