Sir Rex Hunt: Diplomat who stood up to the Argentinians during the Falklands War

 

Sir Rex Hunt has a place in British history for having faced with aplomb a disaster not of his own making. As Governor of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic he was obliged on 2 April 1982 to surrender to the Argentinian General Oswald Garcia, the event that was to send a Royal Navy task force half-way across the world to fight a war and win the colony back.

Since six o'clock that morning he had braved a fierce gun battle between the paltry forces that cost-cutting British politicians had allocated to the islands, and the Argentinian invaders. The small group of 69 Royal Marines, together with the local Falkland Islands Defence Force, managed to fend off the first attack on his residence, Government House, in the islands' capital, Port Stanley.

Only when Argentinian armoured cars were heard trundling into the little town did Hunt order a ceasefire. Nevertheless he refused to leave Government House to meet the Argentinian general, who had encamped at the Town Hall a short distance away, until threatened with being frog-marched thither. Forced to appear in the enemy general's presence, the Governor, in full ostrich-plumed uniform, put his hands behind his back and refused to shake Garcia's proffered paw.

"My anger knew no bounds when I surveyed the sight in front of me," Hunt recalled. "The room was full of Argentine soldiers, pressmen and cameras... A sallow little man with General's epaulettes came towards me, with his arm outstretched and a fixed, sickly smile on his face. Camera whirred ... I put my hands pointedly behind my back. The cameras stopped. The smile disappeared. I looked directly at the General and said: 'You have landed unlawfully on British territory and I order you to remove yourself and your troops forthwith.'" Hunt's words are recorded in Memories of the Falklands, edited by Iain Dale (2002).

Elsewhere he is said to have dived under a table during the fire-fight, a question that has greatly interested would-be detractors, but what else, a friend said, is a man to do when bullets are whizzing all around?

The Governor had refused a plan to go into hiding in the hills. Instead he sent away his wife Mavis and his staff with only a few possessions, including a picture of the Queen and a bottle of gin, before staying at his post and turning Government House into a Royal Marines operational headquarters. Four hours after the encounter with the Argentinian general he was bundled on to an aircraft bound for Montevideo in Uruguay, where he was exiled for the rest of the war.

He resumed the governorship a month after the British victory on 14 June 1982, and stayed until 1985, when the grateful islanders made him a freeman of Port Stanley. He maintained connections with them for the rest of his life, serving until 2004 as Chairman of the Falklands Islands Association, which supports their right to self-determination, and he was also President of the Falkland Islands Trust.

He wrote an account of his South Atlantic experiences in a book, My Falkland Days (1992). The Islands' Legislative Assembly said Hunt would be forever remembered in particular for his courage and dignity in facing the Argentine invasion.

Hunt's first impression of Port Stanley when he arrived to take up his governorship in 1980 was that this place was small. That seemed in line with other assignments, which had been in places once renowned as Britain's farthest distant imperial outposts.

These included Kuching, capital of Sarawak, now part of independent Malaysia, but which was once ruled by the British "White Raja", James Brooke, and his descendants. Hunt was First Secretary there from 1964 to 1965. He went on to serve between 1965 and 1967 at Jesselton, now Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah on the Malayan peninsula, and in 1967 at Brunei.

His earlier career with the Overseas Civil Service, begun in 1951, had taken him to Africa, where he was District Commissioner in Uganda in 1962, the year that country gained independence. He served with the Commonwealth Relations Office between 1963 and 1964.

He was First Secretary (Economic) at Ankara in Turkey from 1968 until 1970, then went back to the Far East as First Secretary and Head of Chancery at Jakarta between 1970 and 1972. After a stint in the Middle Eastern Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office he went back east, and as Counsellor at Saigon in 1975 was the last diplomat to leave the British Embassy as the victorious Viet Cong arrived.

Hunt spent the rest of the 1970s in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as Counsellor until 1977, and Deputy High Commissioner until 1979.

Rex Masterman Hunt was born in Redcar, then part of North Yorkshire, and attended Coatham School, from where he went up to St Peter's College, Oxford. He was an air force cadet from 1941, and served with the RAF from 1944 until 1948, becoming a pilot in 1945. He flew Spitfires in India in 1946 with No 5 Squadron, staying until Indian independence in August 1947, when he transferred to Germany with No 26 Squadron. He stayed in the reserves until 1951, when he left with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

He was made an Honorary Air Commodore in 1987 with the City of Lincoln Squadron, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, and an Honorary Freeman of the City of London in 1981. He was knighted in 1982. He and Lady Hunt, who with their son and daughter survives him, were married in 1951.

Rex Masterman Hunt, diplomat: born Redcar 29 June 1926; Kt 1982; CMG 1980; married 1951 Mavis Buckland (one son, one daughter); died Stockton-on-Tees 11 November 2012.

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