Sir Rex Hunt, who was Governor of the Falkland Islands during the 1982 Argentine invasion precipitating the Falklands War, has died aged 86, in Stockton-On-Tees, where he had lived in retirement.
Capping a distinguished diplomatic career, he won lasting fame for his the skilful, courageous and humanitarian conduct in response to the invasion of the Falkland Islands and for his determined efforts to restore normality in its aftermath and to set the Islanders on the path to prosperity which they now enjoy.
For this he earned the undying gratitude and affection of the Islanders. The Falklands Legislative Assembly issued a statement expressing the Islanders’ “deep sadness”. They said: Sir Rex will forever be remembered in the Islands for his years of service as governor, and particularly for his courage and dignity in facing the Argentine invasion. He was “a loyal friend of the Falkland Islands, His passion and commitment to the Falkland Islands will be sorely missed. The Islanders granted him the Freedom of Stanley on his retirement in 1985. He continued to serve their interests in the three decades since in many ways.
Belated Invasion warning
Hunt’s first intimation of an impending invasion came only on the previous afternoon, in a curt top secret telegram from the Foreign Office, couched in typical diplomatic jargon: We have apparently reliable evidence that an Argentine task force could be assembling off Stanley at dawn tomorrow. You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly. Hunt’s assistant remarked: They might have said goodbye and the best of British (luck).
His “dispositions”, as the Foreign Office disingenuously called them, were limited. All he had were 79 lightly armed Royal Marines and a few members of the part-time volunteer Falkland Islands Defence Force, civilians with a modicum of military training. It was not much to counter a fast-approaching Argentine armada with 10,000 troops and armoured vehicles, and 200 warplanes massed on the mainland.
A second Foreign Office message was no more helpful than the first: “We are aware in general terms of your plans for the defence of the seat of government and resistance to any kind of incursion…The conduct of any operation, of course, is entirely a matter for you and the forces under your command. But is there any additional guidance you wish to have…about specific rules of engagement?”
Rex Hunt was clearly in charge alone, for better or worse, facing an awesome challenge, with so many lives at stake – soldiers and civilians alike, while making it clear to the Argentines that their aggression had to be resisted. His reaction was faultless and his timing immaculate. After hours of fierce fighting, he recognised the inevitability of a ceasefire. There were no British casualties and only three Argentines were killed or wounded in the assault on Government House, where Rex Hunt had crouched under a table, revolver in hand, ready to resist, while listening to BBC World Service radio broadcasts on the advance of the invasion force, led by Argentina’s Special Forces commander, Admiral Carlos Büsser, who himself died only a few weeks ago. Wearing his Governor’s uniform and plumed hat, he hurried to Stanley Town Hall to confront Büsser whom he described as a rather miserable little sallow-faced general. “I refused to shake hands with him and said: ‘You have landed unlawfully on British territory and I order you to remove yourself and your troops forthwith’. It was Rex Hunt who was forced to leave, deported to Uruguay.
Back to Britain, he continued to broadcast reassuring messages to the Islanders on the BBC’s dedicated programme “Calling the Falklands” to sustain their morale as they braved the dangers of occupation and the battles, bombardments and air raids during the recapture of the Islands by the British Task Force.
Rex Hunt had taken part in a remarkable radio phone-in broadcast throughout the night of the invasion conducted by the head of Falkland Islands Broadcasting Station (FIBS) Patrick Watts, in which the Islanders themselves telephoned reports of Argentine activity. Rex Hunt calmly kept the population informed with regular and reassuring advice. He promised the Islanders the British would be back, as they were with the capitulation of the Argentines after a 74-day conflict in which 255 British servicemen, three women Islanders and more than 600 Argentines died.
Hunt said the Islanders would be forever grateful for the sacrifices made for them especially by the Task Force. They have welcomed many veterans back to the battlefields and into their homes with warm hospitality and financial support for the South Atlantic Medal Association creating a lasting rapport, with all Islanders as associate members.
Rex Hunt made a pledge that the Islanders would show their gratitude by their conduct in the years ahead. They have done so impressively creating a thriving, prosperous nation for which Rex Hunt and Lord Shackleton, with his Falklands’ economic report, laid the foundations. It is a vibrant, confident community in contrast to Argentina’s economic and political problems and very different from the Falkland Islands Rex Hunt found on talking up his post in 1980 when Hunt’s bosses in the Foreign Office, led by Foreign Office Minister Nicholas Ridley, were campaigning to surrender sovereignty to Argentina with a 25-year lease-back agreement to continue the British way of life and traditions before assimilation with Argentina.
Opposing Sovereignty Transfer Plan
Hunt doggedly disagreed with the British Government and the British Ambassador in Argentina who both argued that the colony was an anachronism with a stagnating economy which only a transfer to Argentina could solve. Rex Hunt vigorously opposed this argument, saying the Islanders had enjoyed British rule for 150 years and could do so for another 150 years. He and the Islanders were proved right and the British Government wrong, by what he called General Galtieiri’s “folly” which turned the tranquillity of the Falklands into a war zone.
Returning to an emotional welcome in the Islands after the conflict, Hunt had a new title of Civil Commissioner recognising the substantial presence of the British garrison and the need for co-operation with their commander.
Promoting development and prosperity
Now, with the full backing of the Thatcher Government, Hunt set about removing the hubris of military occupation and introducing Shackleton’s reforms. Immediate British funding for economic reconstruction was followed by break-up of the huge sheep farms owned by the Falkland Islands Company and other absentee landlords, to sell smaller farms to Islanders giving them their own stake in their land.
Preparations were made for establishment of a flourishing commercial fishing industry, for wildlife tourism, and for future exploration and exploitation of offshore oil, now a serious prospect. A new community school was built to complement an education system which is the envy of most other countries, in which students from a young age up to university and vocational course in the United Kingdom are fully funded by the Falkland Islands Government, which was also transformed to give it more democratic responsibility.
Rex, with his popular wife, Mavis, felt an immediate rapport with the Islanders who reminded him of his native Yorkshire. “I liked the Islands as soon as I got there. The people were friendly. I felt very much at home. In my first dispatch to the Foreign Office, he wrote: There is no way we will convince these islanders that they will be better off as part of Argentina.
Hunt said he had the longest title and one of the biggest areas of the Commonwealth to administer, as “Governor of the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Shetland Islands, British High Commissioner for the Antarctic Territories and Commander in Chief of the British Forces, Falkland Islands”. He told visitors he was responsible for “eighteen-hundred people, six- hundred thousand sheep and six million penguins”. And the people, he said, were “more British than the British. Where else do they know the second verse of the National Anthem?”
The congregation sing it at Stanley‘s Christ Church Cathedral, the most southerly Anglican cathedral in the world, which the Governor attends as the Queen’s representative. The Islanders are especially fond of the Queen. As Governor, he and Lady Hunt were hosts to many prestigious people, including most senior members of the Royal Family, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher between whom there grew friendship and mutual respect forged by their experiences of the invasion.
Hunt was an unusual diplomat with none of the stuffiness or formality sometimes associated with that profession. He managed to retain the dignity and ceremonial duties of a colonial governor with a genial and welcoming disposition which endeared him to all walks of life. He was a man of the people, as much at home drinking tea in the Islanders’ remote homestead or quaffing a pint of beer in their modest Stanley pubs as clinking champagne glasses in the corridors of power.
Enduring support and friendship for Islanders
He and Mavis met hostility in the Foreign Office but made many friends in the Falkland Islands, including their chauffeur, Don Bonner, who drove them around Stanley in a red London taxi, unusual for a Governor but Rex Hunt, who was short in stature, would explain that it was the only vehicle with its generous headroom which a Governor with his plumed hat and sword could enter without falling over!
In contrast to the criticism heaped on the BBC on the day he died, Rex Hunt had nothing but praise for its role in the conflict which, he said, was the only reliable media keeping the Islanders informed, comforting them and sustaining morale, as he emphasised in his book, “My Falkland Days”.
In retirement he continued supporting the Islanders as chairman of the Falkland Islands Association, the Falkland Islands Trust, and the Shackleton Scholarship Fund, all of which support Islanders’ interests. He was welcomed back to the Islands seven times, including the tenth and 25th anniversaries of the conflict.
He was educated at Cadman School and Saint Peter’s College, Oxford. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1944, and served as a Spitfire pilot in India and Germany. He returned to Oxford in 1948 to complete a law degree.
He joined the Overseas Civil Service in1951 as a district commissioner in Uganda. Subsequent diplomatic posts took him to Sarawak, Brunei, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Foreign Office Middle East Department, and South Vietnam when it was invaded from the North. He was one of the last diplomats to leave the British Embassy, taking with him a picture of the Queen.
Hunt was a rugby fan, importing the Falklands first ever television set to watch the game on videos. He was for many years a member of Sunningdale Golf Club, a sport he enjoyed and encouraged in the Falkland Islands, even after the golf course was targeted with Argentine mines. He remained a keen flyer from his RAF experience, and enjoyed piloting his small private jet over the vast expanse of the Falkland Islands until, to his chagrin, the aircraft as destroyed by the Argentine invaders.
He was awarded the CMG followed by a knighthood in 1985. Sir Rex was Governor or Civil Commissioner in the Falkland Islands from 1980 to 1985, creating a bond with the islanders which, he said, “would last until we die”.
Rex Masterman Hunt, born Redcar, Yorkshire, on 29 June, 1926, the son of William Hunt and Ivy (nee Masterman); died 11November, 2012. He married Mavis Amanda Buckland from Chingford in Essex, and they had two children, Diana and Anthony.
By Harold Briley for MercoPress. London.