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Hunt, Sir Rex Mastermanfree

(1926–2012)
  • David Tatham

Sir Rex Masterman Hunt (1926–2012)

by Tom Stoddart, 1982

© Tom Stoddart / Rex Features

Hunt, Sir Rex Masterman (1926–2012), diplomatist and colonial governor, was born at 3 Moore Street, Redcar, Yorkshire, on 29 June 1926, the third of four sons of Henry William Hunt (1893–1982), commercial clerk, and his wife, Ivy, née Masterman (1894–1959). He was educated at Sir William Turner School in Coatham and was a member of the Officers' Training Corps and the Home Guard; he played rugby for the school and was head boy. In May 1944 he entered St Peter's Hall, Oxford, for a short wartime course, reading law.

In 1944 Hunt joined the Royal Air Force and attained his wings at Cranwell. He did not see combat in Europe but in 1946 he was posted to India and stationed at Miram Shah, a fort on the Afghan border. There he flew Tempest II ground attack aircraft, and he described his time on the north-west frontier as 'the most fascinating and enjoyable year of my life' (Tempests in India, 127). But independence and partition were looming and he spent an unhappy twenty-first birthday in Lahore among the bloody rioting which accompanied partition. In November 1947 he joined 26 squadron in Germany. After returning to England the following year, he was invited by his Oxford tutor to resume his studies, which he did in October 1948, graduating with a second-class degree in jurisprudence in 1950. While working briefly as a schoolmaster, on 22 September 1951, in Epping, Essex, he married Mavis Amanda Buckland (b. 1928), daughter of George Buckland, piano manufacturer. They adopted two children, Diana (b. 1962) and Antony (b. 1964).

Colonial and diplomatic service

Later in 1951 Hunt joined the colonial service. After a course at London University he was posted to Uganda, where he had two isolated bush postings at Lira (in the Northern Province) and Kitgum, which he and his wife thoroughly enjoyed. He served in the ministry of natural resources in Entebbe until independence in 1962 and, after nine months in the new independent administration as district commissioner in Mbale, he returned to the United Kingdom. He joined the Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO) in 1963.

After a brief introductory posting in London, Hunt was sent as first secretary to three CRO posts on the island of Borneo: Kuching (1964–5) and Jesselton (1965–7) in the Malaysian part, and the independent sultanate of Brunei (1967). Following the merger of the CRO with the Foreign Office to form the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 1968, his next postings were as first secretary (economic) in the embassy in Ankara (1968–70) and head of chancery in Jakarta (1970–72). After a spell as assistant head of the Middle East department in the FCO from 1972 to 1974, he was posted as counsellor to the embassy in Saigon. This was a difficult posting: the South Vietnamese government was crumbling in the face of military pressure from the north and in April 1975 Hunt closed the embassy and was evacuated by the last fixed wing aircraft to leave. His next posting, Kuala Lumpur, was a relief after Saigon. Hunt was commercial counsellor (1976–7) and was then promoted to deputy high commissioner (1977–9).

Governor and civil commissioner of the Falkland Islands

Hunt was made a CMG in the new year's honours of 1980 and was posted as governor to the Falkland Islands and high commissioner of the British Antarctic Territory. He arrived in Stanley on 27 February 1980. 'As a colonial officer at heart', he later wrote, 'I was thrilled at the prospect of the Falkland Islands' (My Falkland Days, 3). He set out on a programme of visits to outlying settlements and took a serious interest in the islands' abundant wildlife. But Argentine claims to sovereignty over the islands were becoming increasingly vocal and the islanders themselves had little confidence in London's will to defend them. The permanent under-secretary at the FCO had told Hunt that his first task was to win the confidence of the islanders. Hunt, however, had misgivings about London's current policy, which was to promote ‘leaseback’—a formal surrender of sovereignty to Argentina on condition that the islands were leased back to Britain for a decent period.

Senior visitors, including Nicholas Ridley, minister of state at the FCO, in November 1980, and John Ure, FCO under-secretary, in June 1981, failed to convince the islanders that leaseback was bearable, although councillors agreed to be represented at talks with Argentina. For himself Hunt became increasingly unhappy with the policy he was expected to promote: the Colonial Office tradition of pastoral responsibility for those he governed collided with the FCO's requirement to resolve Britain's problems with foreigners. Privately Hunt decided that if London instructed him to pursue a policy against the best interests of the islanders he would have to resign (My Falkland Days, 83).

Negotiations with Argentina continued in a desultory manner during 1980 and 1981. For the islanders, a series of British government decisions—to restrict their ability to live in the UK, to withdraw the ice patrol ship HMS Endurance, and to reduce the budget of the British Antarctic Survey—convinced them, as Hunt recorded in his annual review for 1981, that it was determined to punish them for their reluctance to accept leaseback. Still, two councillors attended the British–Argentine talks in New York in February 1982 which, at first, appeared to have gone well.

In December 1981 Hunt had sailed in HMS Endurance to visit South Georgia (where he and his wife escaped unscathed when a helicopter in which they were travelling crashed). So he was well aware of the geography underlying the next problem to confront him. An Argentine scrap dealer, Constantino Davidoff, had obtained a contract to remove metal from former whaling stations on South Georgia. It became apparent that he was evading British regulations and that Argentine naval personnel were among his party. Hunt recommended that HMS Endurance be instructed to take a firm line with Davidoff, but the issue was overtaken by the Argentine invasion of the Falklands.

Although Argentina had issued a hostile statement on 2 March and the events on South Georgia were a further warning, intelligence of an imminent invasion, which Hunt received on 31 March, still came as a shock. On 1 April the FCO sent a bleak telegram warning of invasion the following morning, adding unhelpfully: 'you will wish to make your dispositions accordingly'. Hunt's courage and judgement during the next twenty-four hours were to earn him his place in British and Falklands history. He made arrangements to deploy the sixty or so Royal Marines in Stanley to cover the approaches to the town and defend Government House; declared a state of emergency; made arrangements to round up Argentine nationals in Stanley; and warned islanders in a broadcast that invasion was imminent. With his wife safely removed to the house of the chief secretary, F. E. (Dick) Baker, Hunt mused briefly on the likelihood of his death in the battle to come.

The first Argentine assault at 6 a.m. on 2 April was beaten off with some casualties, but shortly thereafter news reached Hunt that armoured vehicles had been landed and were making for Government House. The marines lacked anti-tank weapons and would be defenceless against this new threat. Hunt decided it was time to talk. The chief secretary and a senior Argentine resident were dispatched to contact the invading force and returned with the Argentine commander, Admiral Carlos Büsser. In his dealings with the Argentine commanders Hunt studiously refused to shake their hands and formally warned them that they had landed unlawfully on British territory. In a last broadcast from Government House he declared: 'rest assured the British will be back'. He later wrote that he had no grounds for saying this 'except the deep conviction that the British public would recognise right from wrong and would not let wrong prevail' (My Falkland Days, 196).

Hunt was expelled and insisted on being driven to the airport with his family in his red official taxi, wearing his full uniform. He was flown to Montevideo and thence back to England by RAF VC10. He arrived to find himself a celebrity. At a time of national humiliation Hunt and his marines were a source of pride: they had repulsed the initial attack and behaved correctly when obliged to surrender. There had been no British casualties. Despite the absence of instructions Hunt had taken the right decisions, and the prime minister and Lord Carrington, the foreign secretary at the time of the invasion, expressed their thanks. A long audience with the queen followed. During the seventy-four days of Argentine occupation Hunt in London became a magnet for Falkland Islanders in exile and British supporters of the Falklands. With the FCO, relations were less easy: Hunt was not involved in the abortive negotiations with Argentina which preceded the British landing on the islands on 25 May, and officials were nervous that in talking to the media he might in all innocence offer opinions on the military options which could prove only too well founded. Hunt was surprised to learn, from an announcement in the Commons, that he was to return to Stanley with the title of ‘civil commissioner’, supposedly less ‘colonial’ than governor, and it was in this guise that he arrived back by RAF Hercules on 25 June. Shortly thereafter he was appointed a knight bachelor in the post-conflict honours. He was too junior for the customary diplomatic knighthoods but the prime minister had insisted that he should receive one; the compromise was the unusual honour for a diplomat of knight bachelor.

Hunt was received with acclamation by the Falkland Islanders but the colony was in a sorry state. Besides the damage of war, morale had been shaken by the occupation and the way forward was far from clear. Hunt provided the leadership which the community needed, offering an open door to all comers. A visit by the prime minister and Denis Thatcher in January 1983 was a boost to public morale, and Hunt learned, from an incidental remark of Mrs Thatcher's, that he would not be offered a further post in Africa but would serve out his career on the islands.

The path to economic recovery had been set out in the second report prepared by Lord Shackleton in 1982, and parliament voted £31 million to fund reconstruction and development. Progress was steady, though interrupted by a disastrous fire in the hospital in Stanley. Liberation transformed life on the islands. The garrison outnumbered the islanders and was lavishly equipped with resources, in contrast to an impoverished local government. As civil commissioner Hunt shared authority with the military commissioner who commanded the garrison. Proud of his RAF background, Hunt understood the military and, with only one exception, good personal relations between the commissioners smoothed over ambiguities in the power structure. In 1983 the decision was taken to build an international airport at Mount Pleasant, and construction was completed in May 1985. Hunt's valedictory dispatch contained a strong plea for the introduction of a fishery zone. When this finally happened in 1986 the annual income of the islands was doubled, and it doubled again in successive years through the revenue from fishing licences.

Retirement

Hunt retired on 13 October 1985: the title of governor had just been restored under a new constitution to take effect later that month and he had been awarded the freedom of Stanley by Falklands councillors. He continued to take a lively interest in Falklands matters after retirement, becoming chairman of the Falkland Islands Association, of the United Kingdom Falkland Islands Trust, the Shackleton Scholarship Fund, and Falklands Conservation. He accepted the offer of honorary air commodore to 2729 (City of Lincoln) squadron of the RAF regiment (which was issued with Argentine Oerlikon guns captured in 1982). He published his memoir, My Falkland Days, in 1992. Slightly abridged by the FCO, it was a lively read and, though he described himself as a 'hard-headed Yorkshireman' (p. 60), it was full of the human sympathy he brought to his job. He was briefly a director of Desire Petroleum, a minor oil company interested in Falklands offshore prospects. He made many trips as a lecturer on cruise ships and revisited the Falklands on several occasions, being encouraged by the new self-confidence which he found there.

Hunt began to develop dementia in 2006 and, having lived latterly near Stockton-on-Tees, died in the Roseville Care Centre in Ingleby Barwick, near Stockton-on-Tees, on 11 November 2012. He was buried after a funeral service in All Saints Church, Hutton Rudby, north Yorkshire, on 23 November and a memorial service was held in St Clement Danes Church, London, on 11 July 2013. He was survived by his wife, Mavis, and their children. A memorial to Hunt was unveiled by Redcar council on 3 September 2013.

Hunt was a middle-ranking civil servant propelled by events into the thick of a crisis. He displayed qualities of courage, steadfastness, and judgement which preserved his self-respect at a time of national humiliation. He went on to lead the Falkland Islands out of the trauma of occupation onto the path of recovery.

Sources

  • R. Hunt, My Falkland days (1992)
  • M. Thatcher, The Downing Street years (1993)
  • P. de la Billière, Looking for trouble (1994)
  • L. Freedman, The official history of the Falklands campaign, 2 vols. (2005)
  • D. Tatham, ed., The dictionary of Falklands biography (2008)
  • R. Hunt, ‘Tempests in India’, High flyers, ed. M. Fopp (2010)
  • Daily Telegraph (13 Nov 2012)
  • The Guardian (13 Nov 2012)
  • The Independent (13 Nov 2012)
  • New York Times (18 Nov 2012)
  • C. Moore, Margaret Thatcher, 1: Not for turning (2013)
  • WW (2012)
  • personal knowledge (2016)
  • private information (2016)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Sound

  • BL NSA, current affairs recording

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1982–2007, PA Images, London
  • C. Hobart, oil on canvas, 1999, Bridgeman Art Library, London
  • obituary photographs
  • photographs, Getty Images, London
  • photographs, Rex Features, London [see illus.]
  • photographs, Camera Press, London
  • photographs, Photoshot, London
(1849–)
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)