Sir Rex Hunt, Symbol of British Defiance in the Windswept Falklands, Dies at 86

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It was supposed to have been a nice soft landing: a colonial assignment that married the twilight of a capable if unremarkable diplomatic career to the governorship of an obscure British outpost at the twilight of empire.

"A tranquil but absorbing posting" was the way the British Foreign Office described the job, Sir Rex Hunt later recalled.

And thus he was dispatched in 1980 to take charge of the Falkland Islands, a windblown archipelago in the South Atlantic, nearly 8,000 miles from England, where sheep outnumbered people by more than 300 to 1.

As Sir Rex, who died on Nov. 11 at 86, could scarcely have imagined, his colonial idyll would end abruptly in 1982, when he found himself, literally overnight, directing a tiny band of British military men against an amphibious Argentine invasion.

Nor could he have imagined that the invasion would boil over into war before Britain was able to take the Falklands back.

Sir Rex's odyssey, which involved holding the heavily armed enemy at bay with a pistol while pinned down by gunfire, followed by a forced exile and a triumphant return, impeccably encapsulates the waning days of colonialism.

If it is rife with elements of imperial farce à la Evelyn Waugh -- "the wee man with the funny hat" was how the British news media sometimes described Sir Rex during the conflict -- it is equally a story of the bravery and resourcefulness of an ordinary civil servant thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

What followed Sir Rex's stand was far from comical: by the time Britain reclaimed the Falklands 74 days after the invasion began, more than 900 people were dead.

Sir Rex, who was knighted in October 1982 for his service during the invasion, died in a hospital in Stockton-on-Tees, England.

In a statement, Prime Minister David Cameron said, "Sir Rex Hunt should be a hero to everyone in Britain," adding, "His courage, resolve and judgment fired the spirit of the islanders and the British people to stand up to aggression."

In 1980, after three decades in the foreign service, Sir Rex landed in Stanley, the Falklands' capital and only town.

"My only real impression was of how small it was," he said afterward. "It looked as if a puff of wind could blow it away."

But the rough-hewn, rain-soaked landscape recalled his native Yorkshire, and he soon came to embrace -- and be embraced by -- the Falklands' 1,800 inhabitants.

Lying 300 miles off the southern tip of South America, the Falklands have been claimed since the early 19th century by Argentina, which calls them Las Malvinas. In 1833, they were also claimed by Britain. A century and a half of international discord followed, though it never erupted into war.

When Sir Rex arrived there, Argentina still wanted the Falklands badly. Britain ... well, that was another matter, as he would soon discover.

What Sir Rex discovered, not long after arriving, was that Britain wanted to unload the Falklands, and had installed him to help it do that.

By the 1980s, the Falklands had become an albatross. To Britain, the economics of maintaining a colony so distant -- and whose principal product, sheep, was in no short supply at home -- were scarcely favorable. And colonialism was in increasingly bad odor in any case.

Britain had been negotiating sporadically with Argentina for decades, but the precise terms of a handover had never been agreed upon. With his reputation for amiability, Sir Rex seemed to London to be just the man to persuade Falklanders that belonging to Argentina was in their best interest.

The trouble was, they did not want to. Most islanders were descended from the original British settlers, and as Sir Rex quickly learned, they were determined to remain British. That Argentina was then in the hands of a military junta was no inducement either.

"The role of governor is rather special," Sir Rex told The Independent of London in 1992. "In a small colony, he's the only voice the colonials have in London. So the governor has to become part of the colony."

This stance did not please London, which by all accounts worried that its man in Stanley had "gone native."

On March 31, 1982, London learned that Argentina was poised to invade the Falklands. The Foreign Office informed Britain's ambassador to the United Nations. It informed the United States. One person it did not inform -- for a full day -- was Sir Rex.

About 3:30 p.m. on April 1, Sir Rex received a cable now widely considered remarkable even by the standards of British sang-froid. It read:

"We now believe that the Argentine task force will assemble off Cape Pembroke by dawn tomorrow stop no doubt you will wish to make your dispositions accordingly."

Sir Rex considered the possibility that the cable was an April Fool's joke, rejected the idea and started planning. The nearest British warship was days away. He had about 70 Royal Marines and some 30 local volunteers at his disposal and, as it transpired, less than 15 hours.

Rex Masterman Hunt was born in Redcar, in northeast England, on June 29, 1926. From 1944 to 1948 he was a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force and later earned a law degree from Oxford.

After joining the foreign service in 1951, he was posted to Uganda, Indonesia, South Vietnam, Malaysia and elsewhere before being assigned to the Falklands.

At 3:25 a.m. on April 2, Sir Rex declared a state of emergency. He sent his family to a safe house and, according to the British news media, did likewise with two cherished possessions: a picture of Queen Elizabeth II and a bottle of gin.

Before dawn, Argentine commandos landed on the Falklands coast. By about 6 a.m., thousands of Argentines strapped with bandoleers were converging on Stanley.

As a firefight raged outside his official residence, Sir Rex held fast in his study, pistol in hand, vowing to shoot any Argentine who came through the door. (None did.)

But when, about 9 a.m., armored personnel carriers with mounted machine guns rolled into town, Sir Rex, fearing civilian casualties, declared a cease-fire. His men had killed at least one Argentine fighter, possibly more; the precise figure has long been contested. There were no British casualties.

Surrendering, Sir Rex rebuffed the outstretched hand of the Argentine commander, Gen. Osvaldo García.

"It is very ungentlemanly of you to refuse to shake my hand," General García said, in a widely reported exchange.

"It is very uncivilized of you to invade my country," Sir Rex replied.

Exiled immediately, Sir Rex chose to depart with all due imperial pomp, donning his ceremonial uniform: tunic, sword and hat plumed with ostrich feathers. The figure he cut was rendered all the more evocative by his 5-foot-4 stature.

After decamping in his official car, a red London taxi (the cab's height accommodated the hat's), Union Jack fluttering, he flew to Uruguay.

From there he went to Britain, where he remained for the duration. As the Foreign Office made plain, it was London's war now.

"I was completely and utterly sidelined," Sir Rex told The Independent in 1992. "I was irrelevant, as far as I could see."

However the Foreign Office felt about the Falklands, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was determined to defend them for crown and country. Under her direction, Britain sent thousands of troops and scores of warships there. By the time Argentina surrendered on June 14, more than 250 Britons and about 650 Argentines had been killed.

Mrs. Thatcher was sufficiently impressed with Sir Rex's handling of the invasion that she reinstalled him in the Falklands, where he was accorded a hero's welcome.

Sir Rex, who retired to England in 1985, said in interviews that the war had been "worth it" for keeping the Falklands British.

He remained closely allied with the islands, visiting often and serving as chairman of the Falkland Islands Association and president of the United Kingdom Falkland Islands Trust.

Sir Rex's survivors include his wife, the former Mavis Buckland; a son, Antony; and a daughter, Diana.

He was the author of a memoir, "My Falkland Days," published in 1992.

Today, the Falklands, population 2,563, remains a British overseas territory, a status that Argentina still bitterly contests.

In March, residents will hold a referendum on the islands' political future. As Falklands leaders have made clear since announcing the referendum last summer, its sole purpose is to send Argentina a message:

On this small, steadfast corner of the world, the islanders intend to say, the British imperial sun shall not be setting anytime soon.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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