As She Tried to Erect a Banner, Soldiers Tried to Break Her Fingers; throughout the '80S and '90S, the Women of Greenham Common Polarised Public Opinion with Their Iconic Long-Running Protest. GRAHAM HENRY Caught Up with Some of the Peace camp'sWelsh Founders to Find out about Life as Darlings of the Nuclear Disarmament Movement - and Enemies of the Establishment

Article excerpt

IN SEPTEMBER 1981, three dozen women, four children in pushchairs and six men began a 120-mile peace march from Cardiff city centre that would go on for 19 years.

Few would have predicted that the odd band would morph into one of the longest and best-known sit-ins in modern history - which at its height attracted up to 70,000 people from across the globe to a windswept heath in Berkshire.

The group took up residence outside a top-security American cruise missile base at Greenham Common and were a persistent thorn in its side until they left in 2000.

Living in the mud, physically evicted every morning from their makeshift camp and arrested regularly as they repeatedly broke into and defiled the US military base, the small band of Welsh protesters arguably did more to shine a spotlight on the campaign for nuclear disarmament than any other civilian protest.

Along the way, the women's guerrilla tactics attracted a torrent of abuse, denounced as Communists, vagrants, thieves, anarchists and squatters.

But while the Government loathed them, they attracted the imagination of women across the world.

Numbers swelled and, at its height, thousands of protesters formed a 14-mile human chain from Greenham to Aldermaston.

Thalia Campbell, now 73 and living in Pembroke, was part of the initial band that set off from Cardiff when she was a 44-year-old art teacher.

"I had four kids. The youngest 15, and she was very embarrassed by her mum, by all of this stuff," she said.

"We were vilified in the press, we were called horrendous things. Untrue things. We were called bad mothers, dirty drop-outs, lesbians, hippies, dupes of Moscow. These are things that have been levelled at women throughout history.

"When I went to Greenham, I saw and heard the same things they said for the Suffragettes.

"The gutter press was recycling all of that - because they were frightened of us.

Who else would break down fences like we did? Who else would put up the banners? We were not scared, we were a real threat."

The women also fought a war on multiple fronts, with a fractious relationship with the police and military at the camp, viewed with antipathy by the right-wing press and loathed by the diametricallyopposed Thatcher.

Among the women's tactics was an elaborate, and successful, attempt to cut down seven miles of perimeter fence.

Later, Mrs Campbell said, they spray-painted a spy plane that the government had denied was even there, causing millions of pounds worth of damage - and escaping prosecution, because otherwise it was admission of the plane's existence.

And as the tabloids cranked up the pressure, she took on the role as the camp propagandist in an attempt to fight back against the media onslaught.

She believes the banner messages provoked the ire of their enemies, leading to a dirty tricks campaign designed to undermine the swelling numbers.

As she tried to erect a banner, soldiers were simultaneously trying to smash and break her fingers.

The camp was infiltrated by an unsympathetic tabloid journalist, who then wrote a scathing critique of the women.

She believes special branch attempted to plant drugs on the women via English squaddies. Only a tip-off meant the women could unceremoniously dump the "mules" out of the camp.

The women spent one sleepless night after they suspected that unstable mental patients had been sneaked into the camp, fearing - as Mrs Campbell put it - that they would be "killed in their sleep".

The women's unapologetic approach was to disrupt the base as much as possible, and revolved around breaching the camp's perimeter and challenging the authority of the police and military who inhabited it.

"Early one morning, I had put up about 20 banners with others on the fence and on the gates," Mrs Campbell said. …