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Inside the 1981 Springbok tour

Thirty years after the 1981 Springbok rugby tour, Police have given the Listener access to previously classified documents.

Looking back, the violence of a secret police training session was an indication of what was to come. It was June 1981. Six weeks before the arrival of the Springbok rugby team, elite riot police drilled at Papakura Army Base. They faced off against 70 chanting soldiers who were stand-in protesters.

According to a trove of long-restricted police files released to the Listener, three police required medical treatment for injuries after the training drill. One broke a bone in his hand, grazing his arms and legs so badly he was off duty for a week; another, at the front of a flying wedge, injured his back; the third was struck in the thigh and suffered a haematoma. This was the feared Red Squad, being taught to wield long batons and the latest ways to break up crowds. Inspector Phil Keber, who commanded the elite 52-strong “escort” squad between July and September 1981, noted: “I deliberately made it tough on the members.”

Over 56 gruelling days that winter, it was tough on New Zealand, too: the country was convulsed by ugly division, naked urban terrorism and a sustained civil disturbance unmatched in its history.

The experiences of the 150,000 people who marched in 200 demonstrations across 28 centres have to date dominated the popular narrative of the tour experience; the inside police view of the story, on the other hand, has hardly been articulated.

The hundreds of documents reviewed by the Listener depict a decentralised, sluggish organisation at times panicked by the biggest and most difficult policing operation in its history.

They show the police were forced to throw out nine months of planning when the second game of the tour, at Rugby Park in Hamilton on July 25, was cancelled after protesters stormed the ground. Thereafter the police were all but making up their tactics as they went along.

The documents also reveal chilling new information on a protester’s threats to fly a plane, 9/11-style, into the park on that day. They expose plans to recruit 1000 “specials” or volunteer constables to bolster police ranks, echoing similar moves in the civil disorder of 1913, 1932 and 1951. And they show one senior protester played informant to the police.

Above all they show a police force and wider state apparatus squeezed between their political masters and protester rage that seemed to be accelerating by the day. “The intensity, organisation and determination of the protesters exceeded that which even we have foreseen, demanding a response well beyond original estimates,” police concluded in a 1982 internal review.

Thirty years on, the events of 1981 have a slightly feverish quality. It seems hard to imagine, for example, that the infamous twilight batoning of protesters in Wellington’s Molesworth St occurred the same day as Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s glittering wedding in London. Remember, too, this was the volatile election year that had earlier seen 50,000 “Kiwis Care” marchers fill Auckland’s Queen St in a flash-flood of anti-union protest, and half a million people – including Prime Minister Rob Muldoon – cheered as they watched the film  , an anti-authoritarian romp whose coded title called for the PM’s demise.

Nine intensive months of police planning for the tour began in September 1980, when the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) issued an invitation to the Springboks for the following winter. A top-level planning group was convened at Police National Headquarters, headed by Chief Superintendent Brian Davies.

The group turned first to a thick dossier from 1972 containing plans for the aborted 1973 Springbok tour. The dossier set out manpower requirements for different levels of protest. A core recommendation, picked up for the 1981 tour, would be the formation of an elite police task force to manage “non-violent disruptions” promised by anti-tour groups such as Hart (Halt All Racist Tours).

In April 1973 Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk abruptly called that tour off, fearing “the greatest eruption of violence this country has ever known”. But then Opposition leader Muldoon’s 1975 election promise to welcome a South African team helped him into Government.

Opposition to sporting contact with South Africa would snowball through the rest of the 1970s. Educated baby boomers in groups such as Hart, which had been formed in 1969, despised Muldoon’s generation of World War II veterans as lacking morality in international affairs. In 1980, the protest movement was ready to mobilise when the rugby union sent its invitation to the Springboks. Muldoon famously refused to intervene, saying “politics should stay out of sport”.

Yet files show that as planning began, police privately agreed the Muldoon view was outdated. Commissioner Bob Walton, also a colonel in the Territorials, placed a soldier’s premium on in-house intelligence-gathering. An internal briefing from October 1980 states that “a number of New Zealanders, who previously were either not involved in the issue or who adopted a pro-tour stance, are now coming out quite strongly in the anti-tour camp”.

The files show Walton was a tough-minded, even wily, public servant, trying to manage the expectations of politicians like Muldoon and his Police Minister, former All Black Ben Couch. As the tour approached, Walton privately told Couch: “… if law and order cannot be maintained without the use of force which could well result in injuries on a large scale and even death, then I consider such action inappropriate just for the sake of a rugby tour”.

Walton also told rugby union chairman Ces Blazey that if policing the tour grew too onerous, “I may well have to approach him regarding the continuation of the tour. He [Blazey] accepted this proposition.”

Their relationship, however, was often rocky. The files show, for example, that Walton blasted Blazey in May 1981, following his remarks to media that “police were confident that they could handle the tour”.

Police were determined that the rugby union would pull its weight. The idea of levying provincial unions to assist with the costs of policing the tour was recommended until Cabinet ruled it out late in 1980. The files show Walton’s deputy, Ken Thompson, grumbling in private once the tour had begun about cavalier treatment of police using union facilities: “If it hadn’t been for our attendance at the match, there would have been no match …”

As the tour approached, planners calculated the manpower needed for different levels of protest: Plan A, based on “moderate” protest, would involve 195 police; Plan B would call for 315; Plan C would demand more still. Plan D, the full-throttle option, was based on districts releasing all spare staff, 12-hour shifts and the cancellation of all leave.

One file shows a Whangarei district commander questioning the sustainability of Plan D, and the likely demands it would impose on local policing. He predicted it could be managed for no more than seven days and that routine services would have to be sacrificed. Police planners, however, decided that Plan B would be sufficient. A budget of $2.2 million was drawn up and announced by Muldoon on December 15, 1980.

Several state agencies were later drawn into the massive security operation. The entire Royal New Zealand Air Force, for example, was to be mobilised to transport police around the country on what turned out to be 881 flights involving 20,902 staff movements. The files reveal that the final Air Force bill would be $1.25 million – $4.5 million in today’s dollars. For its part, the army undertook logistics, providing meals and installing barbed wire at match venues.

Civil Aviation provided light aircraft for surveillance and airport security. The Transport Ministry took charge of traffic and march control, and the Labour Department provided explosive experts. The NZSIS supplied intelligence, and the police worked closely with Air New Zealand’s security branch. The Justice Ministry even set aside 700 prison beds for use “in the event of widespread civil disobedience” and canvassed the idea of releasing some existing prison inmates early.

But questions remained over whether this massive mobilisation would be necessary. Six weeks before the Springboks arrived, the national mood seemed calm. On May 1, 1981, Timaru’s district commander reported that pro- and anti-tour groups had marched peacefully through the town. The picture was mostly repeated throughout the country.

Still, tour-related police training began in earnest at this time. Preliminary drilling of elite police took place at the Porirua Police College in May, as members of what would be the Red, White and Blue Squads underwent five-day courses. A full day was spent schooling police in the use of the distinctive PR24 “long” baton, including instruction in “draws, spins, punches, chops, blocks, extraction, running arm-lock and handcuff arm-lock”.

Popular legend has it that the infamous long baton was bought specifically for the tour. In fact, as police historian Susan Butterworth has pointed out, the PR24 baton was first procured by the police in 1979 after an ugly gang confrontation in Northland. But the batons stayed in the cupboard until May 1981. Made of plastic, 60cm long and featuring a handgrip at one end, the baton was originally a martial arts weapon – a martial arts master led the Porirua training sessions.

On July 14, less than a week before the tour began, in-house police intelligence concluded the approach of the anti-­tour movement was “likely to be opportunistic in nature, designed to disrupt and sabotage as opposed to kill or maim”.

Meanwhile, pro-tour groups like SPIR (Society for the Protection of Individual Rights) were dismissed as “paper organisations”.

So what did protesters and police know of each other’s plans? The files confirm that although Walton approved the infiltration of Hart in February 1981, Hart was also remarkably conversant with police activity. On the eve of the tour,

Auckland Hart leader John Minto asked Walton in a letter to confirm the long-baton training at Papakura. The files show police were shocked to learn that copies of sensitive training documents for the tour were leaked to Hart and distributed at its national meeting on July 11.

But information also flowed the other way. The late protest leader Lindsay Wright communicated with police in May 1981 via the Rugby Union that Hart was “concerned regarding the fringe element of their organisation … a member of Hart has a fully loaded rifle and has a number of times stated that he will shoot at least one Springbok before the team leaves NZ”.

A former Hart member and flatmate of the group’s national leader Trevor Richards, Wright chaired the Wellington-based protest group Cost (Citizens Opposed to the Springbok Tour).

On July 19, 1981, the Springboks flew in, landing at Auckland International Airport on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. A total of 378 police were on hand to manage 2000 protesters, some of whom ran onto the tarmac after tearing down a substantial wire fence.

It was immediately clear that protesters had surprises in store. Neither the police nor Air New Zealand security anticipated a simultaneous tarmac occupation in Wellington, as a semi-hysterical note on the police file shows: “A bunch of idiots numbering about 200 have suddenly invaded the domestic terminal … about 50 extremists ran out onto the runway and blocked it … Air New Zealand are very upset that their security didn’t work … good time to find out.”

Worse was to come. On the eve of the first Springbok match – against Poverty Bay in Gisborne on Wednesday July 22 – protesters hired a Land Rover, smashed through the fence around the ground and drove around the park, scattering broken glass, before being arrested.

The police then received intelligence that aircraft could be used for protester activity. The files show that at 8.45am on July 22, the police feared protesters were ready to parachute into the Gisborne game. They met urgently in Wellington with civil aviation authorities to ask for a no-fly zone over the venue. They got their wish but Civil Aviation’s deputy director gently pointed out that a piece of paper would not necessarily stop a determined protester. No plane appeared that day, but as the tour unfolded, small aircraft emerged as the protest movement’s weapon of choice.

Chaotic and mud-spattered scenes un­­­folded around the Gisborne game, as demonstrators battled to demolish the perimeter fence and umbrella-wielding spectators fought back. The police post-mortem the next year said that “the intensity of the demonstration at Gisborne surprised most police members and indicated that the police operation would certainly not be reduced during the forthcoming weeks”. The folly of the police’s Plan B, for just 315 staff, was becoming glaringly obvious. And things were about to get much worse.

Hours after the Springboks versus Poverty Bay game, Muldoon conveniently left the looming chaos behind, jetting out for 10 days to meet US President Ronald Reagan and attend the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana.

Then came what many police would come to regard as the force’s Waterloo. For the game against Waikato at Hamilton’s Rugby Park on Saturday, July 25, numbers were ratcheted up to Plan C levels: 535 staff, with the Red Squad in reserve under the grandstand if things got ugly. But the closure of Hamilton Airport by fog meant the 240 police coming from outside the district were diverted to Rotorua. By the time they arrived by bus, it was too late.

A phalanx of 4000 protesters had marched on the ground; police intelligence had anticipated 1000. Just before kick-off, 400 protesters demolished a boundary fence in about 20 seconds, then famously invaded Rugby Park. At 3.15pm, after lengthy negotiations with protest leaders and interminably slow arrest procedures, a grim-faced Walton, dressed in a trench coat, ordered the game stopped. Waikato spectators howled in fury as a stunned worldwide television ­audience looked on. South African President Nelson Mandela later wrote that when he heard the game had been cancelled, as he sat in his prison cell on Robben Island, it was “as if the sun had come out”.

Exactly why Walton took this action is still debated. Protesters hailed it as a victory for their occupation and this immediately became the popular reason for the cancellation. But files show that Walton’s anguished decision stemmed not from occupation of the ground but from genuine panic that protester and pilot Pat McQuarrie was on his way to crash a plane into the main stand.

McQuarrie had eluded round-the-clock police surveillance and stolen a plane at Taupo. He abandoned his plan en route to Hamilton only after he heard on a portable radio in the cockpit that the game was cancelled.

None of this unfolding drama was obvious to onlookers. Walton had instructed an NZRFU official to tell the crowd over the public address system to vacate the ground because a plane might crash into it. But spectators heard only the bald message: “The game’s cancelled, the game’s cancelled.” From this time on, police would take charge of public address systems at all games.

The files show Walton was vilified by many of his staff, especially the Red Squad, who had not seen action that day. He later told commanders at a briefing in Wellington on August 13: “We went wrong in Hamilton … once the marchers had committed themselves to a critical point we should have responded but we did not. I was concerned about staff morale after the Hamilton affair. We have come out of it. Some people, not me, have taken the line that [morale] had gone though the floor.” In 2001, it emerged that Walton offered Muldoon his resignation after the game.

Things got so bad in police ranks that on July 31, Ron Chadwick, a detective inspector close to the action in Hamilton, circulated an extraordinary letter to colleagues justifying Walton’s actions: “If we had been successful in preventing demonstrators from entry to the field or in removing those on the field, McQuarrie would have crashed the aircraft into the main stand killing hundreds of people …”

The events of July 25 proved a crossroads for police tactics. Plan B was thrown out. Plan D – maximum staffing levels – came into force, and police tactics hardened to avoid any further humiliations. The final bill across all Government departments for policing the tour accordingly trebled to $7.2 million, or nearly $24 million in today’s money.

There is tantalising evidence in the files that the day after Hamilton, Walton pressured the Government to call off the tour. A July 26 intelligence summary states: “The Springboks are remaining in Hamilton till some decision is made at the conference taking place today concerning the continuance of the tour.” An update from the following day stated: “Nothing planned over next few days. Awaiting outcome of government/rugby/police meetings …”

Four days later the Springboks beat a Taranaki side 34-9 in New Plymouth, at the heart of rugby-mad Taranaki. Meanwhile, Walton faced a crisis a stone’s throw from his Wellington office. In Molesworth St, right by Parliament Buildings, protesters were on the march, part of a nation-wide cascade of demonstrations against the tour, particularly in the major cities. The setting that night was remote from any game or tour supporters.

Nonetheless, police chanting “Move, Move, Move” assaulted protesters with short batons. Marchers in the front rows of the 2000-strong crowd were bloodied, to widespread public outrage. But Walton was unrepentant, confiding to commanders at the August 13 briefing that an important psychological victory had resulted: “The baton business in Molesworth St, that was a turning point … it was a good thing that it happened when it did.”

Parliament, too, was plunged into chaos as protesters sought access and jumpy police prevented MPs without identification from entering the building. Inside the chamber, rising Mangere MP David Lange mocked Muldoon, still away at the Royal Wedding, which was taking place that day: “There may be garden parties in London, but it is no garden party here.”

Lange skewered the Government for forcing police into what he called “a combat style of policing. If the Government unleashes the tiger and then cries wolf there will be a backlash.”

The vulnerability of public buildings was suddenly revealed. A police review of parliamentary security concluded that access to its buildings was simple and “a motor vehicle laden with explosives could easily drive underneath”. Within days, Cabinet had approved a new $200,000 security system, involving a security officer, 25 assistants and elaborate identification passes for those working in the building.

Police themselves were not exempt from the security clampdown that would be part of the legacy of 1981. The day after the batoning, an elderly man entered Police National Headquarters, armed with a machete. The files show he reached the 7th floor, where he demanded to see Walton. “I believe he was not an ardent fan,” wrote a staffer.

Three days later, when the Springboks beat a Manawatu side at Palmerston North, the new tactics decided after Hamilton were unveiled. Marchers were blocked from access to the perimeters of venues. They also faced barriers of barbed-wire entanglements, 2m high and 3m wide, and large rubbish skips.

More than 1100 police were on hand in Palmerston North, compared with the 278 proposed at the outset of the tour. Auckland’s Red Squad in full riot gear held the line against demonstrators, many of whom were wearing helmets and padding. The new police tactics succeeded. Protesters failed to get anywhere near the grounds, and they were furious. Most were committed to peaceful protest.

Determined to retain control of what was already the largest police operation in our history, Walton began bringing in seasoned “advisers” to command regional games. It was intended they would outrank locals but the files show confusion reigned over who was in charge. One senior officer commented in 1982: “For the first half of the tour, the command structure appeared to change almost minute-by-minute. The operation commander was often superseded by members senior to himself at the last moment.”

If police felt buoyed by their success in Palmerston North, the mood among protesters darkened. The Red Squad in particular gained infamy, as its testosterone-charged personnel were set loose on hotspots around the ensuing games.

Demonstrators were often clubbed before they were arrested.

But then, on August 5, an Auckland policewoman had her nose broken after an iron bar was thrown during a protest march. Walton privately feared it was evidence of the protester backlash predicted in police intelligence reports. A hard core of Auckland protesters, including Rebecca Evans, Donna Awatere and Hone Harawira, had been fingered as likely players in such a backlash.

In the briefing to commanders on August 13, Walton stressed the need for police to exercise restraint, fearing a Blair Peach-type incident (in 1979, during a London anti-racism demonstration, Peach was clubbed to death by an officer of the Special Control Group [SPG], an elite police riot squad). Walton said: “This Red escort group is getting a lot of publicity … Watch the publicity – they like it, I know … You know Blair Peach and the SPG, I can see that sort of campaign here.”

By this time, Walton was clearly worried that not even Plan D would be enough. He asked police districts to suggest suitable people to form a new special force of 1000 volunteer constables to bolster police ranks. Drawn from Civil Defence, the Territorial Army and service organisations, they were to be “used in logistic, guard, clerical, communications, prisoner reception and other support roles. In extreme emergencies … in cordons and control lines …”

Walton added: “Every effort must be made to avoid recruiting people with strong anti- or pro-tour feeling. Rugby clubs must not be approached.” In the end, the plans for the specials appeared to have stopped there.

By the time the All Blacks beat the Springboks at the first test in Christchurch, 1473 police were on hand. Protesters who ran onto Lancaster Park were savagely dispatched.

Amid the chaos, there were lighter moments, such as the discovery of a hidden protester planning to bombard the Springbok’s bus after the test: “[Protester] sighted in flax bushes in the motorway on the [median] strip,” said a report. “Found near him were three large potatoes, he denied possession of them.”

Muldoon, who had returned by this time, inflamed the mood further by releasing an SIS report claiming communist influence over the protest movement. The document famously named 15 people, including Maori radicals.

Police worked closely with Air New Zealand security personnel throughout the tour. There is evidence in the files that airline staff colluded with police in the search of a bag belonging to Hart’s Trevor Richards days before the Nelson game. A police intelligence report of August 18 detailed the bag’s entire contents, which included aerial photographs of the match venue.

Contacted by the Listener, Richards says that even 30 years later, he is appalled to learn airline staff appeared to have helped police: “I would have hoped that Air New Zealand concentrated on flying aeroplanes. A national airline moonlighting as snoops smacks of activity hopefully confined to totalitarian regimes.”

At the second test in Wellington’s Athletic Park, 1611 police were on duty, almost 1000 more than had been planned at the outset. So great were security concerns that the Springboks slept under the grandstand before the test. Those circumstances prompted rugby writer TP McLean to characterise the Springbok’s 24-12 victory that day as “one of the great days of South African rugby”. But for demonstrators violently manhandled by police and assaulted by pro-tour supporters in the streets surrounding Athletic Park, it was anything but a great day. A September 2 debriefing refers to “the piecemeal ham-fisted way” protesters were handled.

A 37-strong police surveillance squad and an intelligence group of 14 contributed to the operation in Wellington. At an August 12 debrief, a commander stated: “I had a guy on surveillance in the middle of a crowd of demonstrators. A uniformed constable walking down the line said: ‘How the hell are you? Doing the secret squirrel bit are you?’” The files don’t relate what happened next.

By the start of September, though, with just four games remaining, the tour was sapping the police. The twice-weekly routine of waking staff at 4am, flying many hundreds of them around the country to a match venue, and then stationing them for hours in the middle of a cold rugby ground was proving unsustainable.

A September 5 briefing warned exhausted staff to “guard against an over-reaction or loss of control by a member or members which may result in serious injury to a protester”. Law-abiding protesters were to be “unmolested and treated with consideration”, demonstrators were not to be “hemmed in on all sides and an escape route is to be left open at all times”.

Such advice would be swept away in the madness of the last game, the third test at Eden Park, Auckland, as missile-throwing protesters battled with police. By now staff ranks had ballooned to 2134. A Cessna aircraft buzzed the ground, dropping flour bombs on the crowd and the pitch, famously felling All Black prop Gary Knight. Dozens of demonstrators and police were injured and more than 200 protesters were arrested. In the files, police openly described the September 12 test as a riot. “The items thrown … comprised of rotten eggs, evil smelling unidentified substance, bottles, cans, broken field pipes, volcanic rock, metal bars, wooden palings, incendiary devices (including phosphorus flares), steel bars.”

One detective said most of the missiles thrown were capable of causing death or serious injury.

Walton later messaged all staff: “Law and order has been upheld … I want to thank every member of the police and our civilian staff for a magnificent effort.” But the police were facing an outcry over the beating by three Red Squad members of a group of protesters dressed as clowns. The incident, on Dominion Rd, became the most notorious of all the complaints investigated in the months that followed.

Walton picked veteran police investigator Jim Morgan to lead a formal inquiry into the near-fatal assaults. It was a long-running affair that caused internal ructions. Red Squad members closed ranks, and the assailants were never identified. The clowns later sued police and in 1984 a civil trial led to their receiving $10,000 each.

The Springboks jetted out of Auckland hours after the riotous third test ended, as a drained populace tried to make sense of the 56 days just past. The final tally of arrests exceeded 2000 and courts were tied up for the rest of the year.

The files show assistant commissioner Ted Trappitt was infuriated by what he saw at Eden Park. He urged Walton to conduct an inquiry to prevent “escalating civil disorder and attacks on the administration. The wilder-eyed branches of the protest industry must be made to toe the line!”

Walton showed little appetite to take this advice. It was as if police, like most other New Zealanders, were traumatised by recent events and wanted to move on. He retired two years later.
Muldoon never admitted to a single regret about the tour. But in 1994, National Party Prime Minister Jim Bolger, preparing to attend the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, described it as a mistake.

Walton died in 2008, having said little in public about the events of that tumultuous winter. Of the cancellation of the Hamilton match, he would only say that had he allowed a plane to crash into Rugby Park, “I could have been done for criminal neglect. I could be in Mt Crawford [Prison] now.”

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