Born: June 29, 1926; Died: November 11, 2012.
Sir Rex Hunt, who has died aged 86, was Governor of the Falkland Islands when they were invaded by Argentina in 1982. To some, the middle-aged man in his plumage-bedecked ceremonial outfit, complete with sword, seemed an antediluvian figure, but his many years in the colonial service taught him the stoicism and defiance he demonstrated when the Argentinians arrived on April 2, 1982 and began firing on Government House. They were qualities that won him lasting admiration and loyalty from the islanders.
Sir Rex had been appointed to the Falklands post two years before the invasion after serving in many countries around the world, including Uganda, Malaysia and Vietnam (he was the last British diplomat out of Saigon when the Communists invaded). The British Government had grown rather tired of their ownership of the Falklands and Sir Rex had been expected to promote the idea of Argentinian control to the islanders. In fact, the opposite happened: the old colonial hand went native and became a passionate defender of the islanders and British sovereignty. He famously refused to shake hands with the Argentinian commander and remained a strong defender of the Falklands War, and Margaret Thatcher's leadership of it, for the rest of his life.
Rex Masterman Hunt was born in Redcar in Yorkshire and while studying law at Oxford was posted as a flying officer to India during the years of struggle for independence. He had always wanted to be in the RAF – much to his annoyance he was too young to join the Battle of Britain – but got a taste for the colonial life while in India. He went on to serve in Uganda, Malaysia, Brunei, Turkey, Indonesia, Vietnam and Kuala Lumpur, which is where he was when he was offered the position of Governor in the Falklands.
Despite initial misgivings about the job – not least because it would mean dragging his wife Mavis to yet another corner of the world – Sir Rex settled into the Falklands extremely well, although it took him only a few days to realise that the islanders would never accept Argentinian sovereignty. They wanted to remain British, and have done ever since.
The first hint the Governor had that an invasion was imminent was a telegram from the Foreign Office which read: "We have apparently reliable information that an Argentine Task Force could be assembling off Stanley at dawn tomorrow stop. You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly stop." Until then, Sir Rex had been convinced the Argentine president, General Galtieri, would never try to invade and at first, he thought the telegram, which arrived at 3.30pm on April 1, was an April Fools' joke.
When he realised it wasn't, Sir Rex armed himself with a shotgun and rounded up the 43 marines he had at his command and prepared to defend Government House. The shooting started in the middle of the night and went on until dawn. Realising they were outnumbered, Sir Rex negotiated a meeting with the Argentine commander, General Oswald Garcia. He refused to shake the general's hand but surrendered and ordered his soldiers to lay down their arms.
Sir Rex was then immediately flown back to London, where preparations were being made for war. The Governor was never at the centre of those preparations and was kept sidelined throughout the conflict, something which always troubled him. "I really didn't understand it," he said, "until one of my friends confided 'the trouble with you Rex is you've gone native'." He did, however, win the admiration of Mrs Thatcher who insisted he return as Governor after the war ended despite arguments that there should be someone new in the post.
And the PM's admiration was mutual – Sir Rex believed she went to war for reasons of principle rather than political expediency. "We can't allow the bully boy to get away with it," he said of her approach to the war. "There was such a terrific feeling of injustice and it was the most black and white, unprovoked, military invasion since Hitler walked into Poland in 1939."
After the end of the war in June, Sir Rex returned in triumph to Stanley where he remained until his retirement in 1985. In the years that followed, he served as chairman of the Falkland Islands Association and as president of the UK Falkland Islands Trust and was granted the freedom of the island capital, Stanley. He never wavered from his defence of the war and his support for the islanders. "I think it did Britain a tremendous amount of good," he said. "And we still have more influence in the world than our size and our economy dictates because of it."
Sir Rex, who spent his retirement in Stockton-on-Tees, is survived by his wife and their son and daughter.