Policy & Practice - A Development Education Review



The Hammer Blow: How Ten Women Disarmed a Warplane

Development Education in Politically Interesting Times
Spring 2018

Paul Hainsworth

Andrea Needham (2016) The Hammer Blow: How Ten Women Disarmed a Warplane, London: Peace News Press.

Andrea Needham’s incredible true story has been written and published twenty years after the historic event at the core of the book’s title.  A collective of ten committed and courageous women got together to plan and carry out the disarming of a British Aerospace made Hawk aircraft plane, scheduled to be sold to Indonesia, where it was destined to be used in that country’s brutal occupation and subjugation of East Timor (i.e. Timor Leste).  In 1975, following the collapse of the Portuguese empire and its longstanding colonisation of East Timor, the latter territory was invaded and appropriated by the Indonesian dictatorship of President Suharto, ushering in a quarter of a century of vicious rule.  Many thousands of Timorese were killed and Hawk combat airplanes were observed in action over the territory.

          In this context then, Needham and her Seeds of Hope friends and peace travellers - after much campaigning and lobbying, unsuccessfully, for a halt to the export of the Hawk planes – took it into their own hands (literally) to plan meticulously over nearly a year to break into the airplane hangar at Warton, Lancashire and disarm a Hawk aircraft.  The women wanted a handy name to encompass their action, and came up with the rather long mouthful: ‘Seeds of Hope East Timor Ploughshares: Women disarming for life and justice’ (55).  Given the rather unwieldy length of this descriptor, in practice, they settled more simply for ‘Seeds of Hope’.

          As the book explains, the women contended that they were carrying out a lawful and responsible action; they were preventing a crime taking place in East Timor.  The author is keen to explain the nature of Ploughshare actions.  Thus, Ploughshares is not an organisation; there is no formal structure, no membership nor board of directors, and no specific creed.  Rather, it constitutes a non-violent and accountable action of disarming a weapon. Ploughshare activism aspires to set an example to others to be accountable too.  As Needham contends: ‘We are willing to face the consequences of what we have done, and we expect nothing less of governments and corporations’ (39).  British governments had provided export licenses to British Aerospace and the latter was selling offensive, combat aircraft to the Indonesian dictatorship.  Therefore, these parties had to be answerable and accountable for resultant deaths in East Timor.

          At the same time, the women half-expected to go to prison for their activity. Previous Ploughshare actions in the UK and elsewhere had resulted in spells in prison from a few weeks to eighteen years (36).  As far as possible then, the women prepared for imprisonment and saw it, at least, as a possibility.  As regards the Seeds of Hope preparations, Needham writes about the ten months of long and sometimes convoluted discussions of the women; weekends discussing philosophical and practical questions; days and nights at Warton in wet ditches and icy weather; and days of watching and waiting nearby the British Aerospace site in order to be sure about the exact location of the Hawk planes, and to be prepared for action.  ‘It was not a process for the fainthearted’, said Needham (54). Interestingly, though, the author presents the specific action of weapon disarmament virtually as a simple do-it-yourself job.  As she suggests, in one of the most memorable assertions of this engaging and engaged book:

“One of the beautiful things about Ploughshares actions is that anyone can do them.  You don’t need to be a technical genius or an engineer, you don’t need to be physically strong, you don’t need any expensive equipment or special skills.  All you need is a hammer and a functioning arm” (91-92).

          Ploughshares activists take their inspiration from a biblical verse – notably the opening line: ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks’ (35).  Though Needham points out that the activists are not confined to the Christian religion (38).

          Following on from the action and the arrest of the four women at the centre of the enterprise (Andrea Needham, Jo Blackman, Lotta Kronlid and Angie Zelter), they spent six months in prison detention, which was a far from ideal situation in which to prepare for the court trial that followed.  Several of the short chapters of the book focus on prison times and the variegated experiences of life inside.  Thereafter, several more chapters cover the trial of the women in court in Liverpool.  The course of the four days in court is dealt with in some detail by Needham, amounting to a fascinating blow by blow account of the proceedings.  The author relates, too, how tactically one of the women would have a barrister and the other three would represent themselves. It was useful to have a barrister (Vera Baird) on board in case any difficult legal issues arose and needed responding to.  Also, Gareth Pierce – who had handled the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six cases – agreed to act as solicitor.  Unsurprisingly, some key moments and arguments punctuated the legal process.  Notably, the prosecution was keen to establish that the Hawk aircraft was primarily a trainer aircraft rather than a combat airplane, whereas the defence – i.e. the Seeds of Hope women, the legal team and expert witnesses argued and testified to the opposite, pointing to the primacy of the Hawk aircraft as a combat airplane.  Again, the defence sought to contrast the British Aerospace’s obvious concern about the damage done to their aircraft with their zero concern, actually and bluntly stated in court by a senior British Aerospace manager, over what was being done to the Timorese people.  Moreover, Angie Zelter sparred in court with the prosecution in order to assert that the disarming of the Hawk was not a publicity stunt, but an act of crime prevention (229).  Another theme that the defence team stressed was that British Aerospace was in breach of the Genocide Act, aiding and abetting genocide.

          In summing up, the prosecution defined the Ploughshares action as a case of ‘damaging property that belonged to someone else’ (248-51).  The women had been ‘genuine and sincere in their opinions’, but ‘what they did was very, very, irresponsible’ – ‘they did what no reasonable, law-abiding person could consider to be justified’ (250).  Therefore, the jury panel was advised: ‘the only way of dealing with that is to apply the common sense and the reason you have and return a guilty verdict.  In reply, the defence used the Criminal Law Act 1967 and international law to justify the validity of the action.  For instance, Vera Baird maintained that the prosecution had not argued that the force used in the situation had been unreasonable, whereas the women had not had committed criminal damage without a lawful excuse.  Moreover, Angie Zelter spoke about international law and the Nuremburg trials following World War Two.  Arguably, it was not enough to not commit crime but ‘we also have a responsibility to act to prevent crime when we see it happening’ (252).  Therefore, she explained:

“Governments and companies such as British Aerospace are often treated as if they’re above the law. Their crimes are usually unrecognised. This is the point of international law: to control the worst excesses of these bodies” (252).

          The climax of the book is the jury’s verdict of ‘Not guilty’ on all counts of criminal action and conspiracy.  Needham portrays it as ordinary people being vindicated by ordinary people in Liverpool, on behalf of ordinary people elsewhere.  The jury had seen what was right and just: ‘Ordinary people in Liverpool had acted in solidarity with the people of a tiny country on the other side of the world’ (273).  The action and the verdict validated the argument that it was right to campaign and be proactive for global justice and the lives of others.  Of course, this was not the viewpoint of all.  The media response was mixed.  Some right-wing tabloids and local papers were particularly shocked and unhappy with the verdict.

          By way of conclusion here, the book can be seen as a unique and powerful story.  Global solidarity, justice, campaigning for peace, sisterhood and direct action are to the fore.  Appropriately too, the book is a Peace News publication, which serves to underwrite the theme of collective nonviolent action.  Also, a strong feminist theme infuses the writing as befits an all-female collective.  In Needham’s words:

“I very much liked the idea of women’s solidarity, of taking action with a group of strong women, of being powerful and bold together...I liked the idea of a group of women disarming these bloody weapons, these weapons that were – by and large – designed by men, licensed by men, sold by men into a world in which power was overwhelmingly wielded by men” (50-51).

          More broadly though, solidarity and togetherness was at the heart of the action and involved not only the ten key women, but also women’s groups, campaigners, supporters, solidarity and action groups, NGOs, prison visitors, court attendees, family members, donors, academics, experts/specialists, religious practitioners, ordinary individuals, politicians, the legal team and more.  The acknowledgements pages are very fulsome and probably not complete too.  Moreover, communications from East Timor helped to sustain the women, who knew that people therein and globally were aware and supportive of their action.  A testament to the book’s importance and the action’s significance are the body of tributes recorded within and on the cover of the publication, emanating from a galaxy of expert observers and/or witnesses (including, for instance, José Ramos-Horta, John Pilger, Carmel Budiardjo, Chris Cole, Benjamin Zephaniah and Caroline Lucas). Pilger’s ground-breaking documentary film ‘Death of a Nation’ (Munro, 1994), about the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in Dili cemetery, East Timor, had been an inspiration to the Seeds of Hope women and many others globally.

          The book is very well-written in an engaged and engaging way and, in effect, reads like a thriller.  The cover page sums up accurately the focus and tone of the book and is worth including here: ‘Andrea Needham’s gripping inside account of how ten women disarmed a warplane bound for genocide in East Timor – and were acquitted’.  The disarming of the plane is a particularly spellbinding part of the book – although the finale to the action is more a case of humour and incredulity.  The women wanted to be arrested, to be accountable for their Ploughshares action.  But, in the surprising absence of security guards: ‘We waited and waited.  We sang a song. We talked...’ (94).  Moreover, Needham injects the writing with a lot of personal and collective soul searching, of reasoning and self-reflection.  Looking back on the experience many years later, she explains in her conclusion how it has been difficult for her to get jobs and forge a career as a result of it.  After all, she had a criminal record because of her peace activities at home and abroad, in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK).  In this respect, she paid the price for her actions and was prepared to do so.  But, was it worth it?  After all, the Hawk aircrafts did get sent to Indonesia eventually.  Needham asks herself this question and provides a measured response – see below.

          Earlier in the book, she had recorded how the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas, had described – in what became a well-known potted summary to Timor-watchers – how East Timor had served as a pebble in the shoe of Suharto’s regime, and how it evolved to become a boulder therein, until finally the constitutional status of the territory had to be considered directly on.  Thus, in 1999, a referendum was brought in (by Suharto’s immediate successor, BJ Habibie) and the people of East Timor, amidst serious intimidation and killings, voted overwhelmingly against Indonesian occupation and rule.  Then, after a short period of United Nations control and management, the territory emerged as an independent nation-state in 2002.  In this context, Needham - whilst recognising and acknowledging the bitter resistance struggle of the Timorese people - feels that what the Seeds of Hope women did was to ‘contribute in some small way to the goal of turning the pebble of East Timor into a boulder’ (290).  It’s a reasoned summing up.  The global solidarity campaign was recognised as playing a supportive role in the struggles of the Timorese people and the Seeds of Hope action was a significant and inspiring contribution to the overall campaign.

          Additionally, the book and the action at the core of it have an obvious importance in promoting a call for activism against the arms trade, when the latter’s exports have resulted in weapons being used recklessly, notably in the global South.  At time of writing, for instance, British export licences (again) have been granted whereby weapons have been bought by Saudi Arabia and used against the civilian population in Yemen.  At the same time, Iran’s support for the Houthi insurgency therein makes the situation even worse for the civilian population at large.  The book and the Seeds of Hope activism serve as reminders that the selling and misuse of arms has not gone away.  Moreover, Needham is very critical about the failure of the incumbent British Labour Party, in office from 1997 to 2010, to honour its much proclaimed ethical foreign policy – notably as regards arms sales.  More recently, at the Labour Party Conference in September 2017, the Shadow Foreign Secretary (Emily Thornberry) was particularly critical of the thousands of children killed and injured in Yemen by air strikes, as a consequence of Saudi Arabia ‘defending itself’.  She committed a future Labour government to bringing in a new standard for controlling arms exports and offering ‘a shining example to the world’.  In response to this, Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT, 2017: 7) responded with caution: ‘This is encouraging but we need to make sure the Labour leadership keeps its word and that the inevitable lobbying by the arms industry does not undermine the commitment”.

CAAT (Campaign Against Arms Trade) (2017) ‘CAAT News’, October-December 2017, Issue 246, available: https://www.caat.org.uk/resources/caat-news/pdf/caatnews246.pdf (accessed 4 January 2018).

Munro, David (Director) (1994) ‘Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy’, London: Independent Television (ITV), available: http://johnpilger.com/videos/death-of-a-nation-the-timor-conspiracy (accessed 29 December 2017).

Paul Hainsworth, BA (Liverpool), PhD (Bristol) is a Political Researcher and Consultant. Formerly, he was a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Ulster University, and also served as Amnesty International UK’s Country Coordinator on Indonesia and East Timor (Timor Leste). He has published his research widely and is the co-editor of/contributor to The East Timor Question: The Struggle for Independence from Indonesia (London, I.B. Tauris, 2000).

Hainsworth, P (2018) 'The Hammer Blow: How Ten Women Disarmed a Warplane', Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, Vol. 26, Spring, pp. 187-194