Christmas Island was a Pacific paradise to some of the men who took part in Britain's thermonuclear tests. Work for those only involved with the detonations was limited to short bursts of intense activity; for the rest of the time it was possible to take advantage of the surroundings. The sniffer pilots in 76 Squadron, for instance, had plenty of spare time because of the nature of their flying duties. When they were not carrying out trials and practice runs, the men were able to go big game fishing, water-skiing, sailing and scuba diving. The less energetic sunbathed on the beach and drank in the bar in the evenings. Between the danger of the bombs, they had 'a very pleasant relaxed time'. Members of the units who hoisted low-yield weapons under barrage balloons devised their own way of breaking the tedium between the explosions by developing a technique for catching he many sharks which lurked off the island's treacherous coral reef. In the best Heath-Robinson spirit they used six-inch nails bent into hooks, and the wires and ropes from their balloon equipment as improvised fishing-line. After some trial and error they managed to catch quite a few of their prey, and proudly photographed themselves standing next to the dead fish.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!

However, many of the conscripted men found that the coral atoll meant enforced idleness in an uncomfortable and barren place made worse by the primitive living conditions. Tony Crossland went to Christmas Island as a military policeman. 'You lived in tents which were rotting away from the ground upwards; you were plagued with land crabs which stank terribly if you ran over them because they lived on stagnant water; and there was nothing to do outside any organized facilities. There was an open-air cinema - you took your groundsheet with you in case it rained - and whilst I was there it did. And it rained. Blue RAF uniforms turned green overnight, the fine coral dust turned into inches of thick coral mud and of course the mud walked into the tents.'

Christmas Island's isolation, which made it so pleasant to some and so dull to others, was precisely the quality the planters were seeking when they chose the atoll as the headquarters for Britain's H-bomb tests. The testing agreement with the Australians had specifically excluded hydrogen weapon trials on their continent 'for safety reasons'. A new location was sought, therefore, immediately the go-ahead was given by Cabinet in 1954 for the development of a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb. Testing of the H-bomb's trigger - a low-yield fission device - was meanwhile to be carried out at Monte Bello and the Maralinga range. 

The decision that Britain should manufacture its own 14 bomb was made secretly by a small Cabinet Defence Committee on 16 June 1954 and the question was put to the Cabinet itself in July. Minutes of the Cabinet meetings which discussed the decision, released under the thirty year rule, show three main arguments put forward in justifying the decision: the first, put by Churchill on 7 July was that 'We could not expect to maintain our influence as a world power unless we possessed the most up-to-date nuclear weapons'; secondly, that the 'thermo-nuclear bomb would be more economical than the atomic bomb'; and thirdly, that, in moral terms, 'no greater wrong' was involved in manufacturing the weapons than in accepting the protection already offered by the US hydrogen bombs.

The public announcement of Britain's go-ahead for H-bomb manufacture and testing was made int he following year's February Defence Statement. In retrospect the decision seems to have been inevitable. Even while the first atomic bomb was being constructed at Los Alamos in New Mexico, a group of scientists, including British representatives, was working on the theoretical principles of a fusion weapon. British scientists, with the traitor Klaus Fuchs, continued their research after returning to England. Despite some initial pessimism about the feasibility of a British project, the work had carried on with tacit Government assistance and when the Cabinet decision came Britain was only three years away from the successful completion of the prospect - a time-scale far short3r than that of either the United States or the Soviet Union. The speed with which the H-bomb was built and then rested at Christmas Island was only partly due to the years of quiet preparation that had preceded the political action. The urgency of the project was also a direct result of the double-edged policy pursued by the conservative Government at the time on one side going all-out for the development and testing of the 'super' and on the other seeking an international treaty to end all atmospheric nuclear testing, in deference to the growing public opposition both at home and abroad. These parallel, yet contradictory, policies were neatly summed up by the Minister responsible for the tests. Aubrey Jones: 'In the absence of international agreement on methods of regulating and limiting nuclear test explosions - and Her Majesty's Government will not cease to pursue every opportunity of seeking such an agreement - the tests which are to take place shortly in the Pacific are, in the opinion of the government, essential to the defence of the country and the prevention of global war'. 

Both the USA and USSR had, by this time, developed and tested their own hydrogen weapons and were working towards an international 'moratorium' on atmospheric testing. The British Government could not opt out of the super powers' diplomacy, but at the same time they saw the testing of an H bomb as an international demonstration of power that would restore lost prestige. British scientists, therefore, had to work faster and with fewer resources than their American and Soviet counterparts. It is a sign of their tremendous commitment that they succeeded; but the sped with which they worked, both at Christmas Island and in Australia, led to decisions which today are regarded as having been dangerous and even foolhardy. No Royal Commission has explored the safety, or lack of it, of the Hi bomb tests;; yet the same - if not greater - fears exist about these tests. With no Commission there has been no release of documents about the hydrogen bomb trials but the available evidence points to a continuation of the questionable procedures that had been adopted in the Australian tests. 

At the beginning of August 1955 the planning began of a series of thermonuclear tests. The H bomb series was given the code-name Grapple, meaning a four-pointed grapnel iron, symbolizing inter-service cooperation. The tests involved close-knit work not only between the three armed services, but also with a fourth party: the recently created Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) under the directorship of Sir William Penney. The Ministry of supply remained in overall authority, issuing the contracts for the manufacture of the weapons and providing the dash to pay for them. The first detonation was planned to take place early in 1957. The immediate task for the planners was the choice of a rest site. This job was given to a cell within the air Ministry called 'Ops AWT' or 'Operations Atomis Weapons Trials'. Squadron Leader Roland Duck, ordered to find a location, looked for the largest area of sea with the least number of adjacent land masses and least number of people: 'We put out finger down and said" 'Well this is where we are going", and that happened to be a place called Christmas Island, with another little island called Malden which we actually used as a target island for the first series.'

The Grapple planning committee, under the command of Air Vice Marshal W.E. Oulton, accepted the choice in November 1955, subject to clarification of its legal status, after the New Zealand Navy and Royal Air Force had carried out hydrographic and aerial reconnaissances. The committee agreed that in their isolation the two islands, Christmas and Malden, were ideal. Christmas Island, part of the Northern Line Island group, is situated just south of the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The nearest inhabited land, Hawaii, is a thousand miles way to the north, and the island of Fiji lies a thousand and half miles to the south-west. It is the Pacific's largest coral atoll, thirty-five miles by twenty-four miles at its widest points. The Official Tests' Handbook, issued to all servicemen arriving at the island, described it as shaped like 'a large lobster claw, the jaws of which, opening to the north-west, contain a spacious and almost semi-circular lagoon'. The lagoon formed a natural harbour, which was named Port London. A channel had been dredged through it during the Second World War by the US Navy, but it was still too shallow for large ocean-going ships. This did not prevent the scientists' floating quarters, the technical command and control ship Nevik, coming in close: being a tank-landing shi she had a shallow draught and was idea for the lagoon.

Although Christmas island was discovered by Captain Cook on Christmas Eve, 1888, it had been visited previously and was to be visited again many times by castaways. Because of the island's uniform flatness, the higher point being only twenty-five feet above sea level, several ships had sailed straight into the reef. The shipwrecked sailors did not find the desert island of their dreams; the atoll had little fresh water for them (for the tests, large distillation plants had to be installed) and the near-constant trade wind blew a cloud of fine coral dust in the air. This could penetrate everything and cause infection in the smallest cut or graze. The test servicemen had an extra unpleasantness to contend with: a plague of flies and mosquitoes attracted by the insanitary conditions. during the trials a daily flight by a light plane coasted Christmas Island with DDT in an effort to keep the pests at bay.

Britain had taken formal possession of Christmas Island in 1888 but the island was not inhabited until 1902, when the Lever Brothers company started a coconut plantation using migrant labour from the Gilbert and Ellice islands to harvest the copra. Lever's pulled out of the operation soon after the First World War, but their workers remained. There hundred of them and their descendants stayed on the island during the H-bomb tests under the management of the British District Officer Roberts. While the actual detonations took place, they were herded aboard one of the tank-landing ships and shown cartoon films below deck. Many of them remain to this day on Christmas Island - no longer subjects of the British Crown but citizens of the independent Republic of Kiribati.


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During the Second World War the United Stats government, who considered Christmas Island to be American under an arcane Act of Congress involving guano (bird droppings), used the island as a transit base for supplies going to the Pacific theatre. A runway was built and the lagoon dredged; the island, however, remained under British administration. Malden island, the target site for the first Operation Grapple, lies four hundred miles to the south of Christmas Island. It was formally occupied and claimed for Britain by a British subject from Australia, Benjamin B. Nicholson, in 1864. From that time until 1927 the flat band bleak little atoll was dug for guano (a very good fertilizer) and at one stage was producing 12-14,000 tons annually. The guano business ceased after the First World War and all the inhabitants of the island left. When the British arrived once more in the 1950s they found a colony of there wild pigs and a settlement of boobie birds. At first very tight security was applied to the choice of location which for some of the junior planners was frustrating: the operation was to be so large that secrecy about it hampered their work. This problem was solved for them by the Daily Express journalist Chapman Pincher: 'When I needed to check a lead that Christmas Island was to be the base for Britain's H-bomb tests, I telephoned a most senior Defence Ministry friend (the government's Chief Defence Scientist, Sir Frederick Brundrett) at home to ask, 'If I were to wish you a happy Christmas instead of a Happy Easter would it make sense to you?" His reply - "It would indeed!" - was enough.'

The formal announcement of Britain's hydrogen bomb test programme in the Pacific, required by international law, was made on 7 July 1956. It aroused some hostility in the Pacific and the Japanese, already fundamentally opposed to nuclear testing after their experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were especially angered by Britain's plans in the light of the accidental contamination of some of their fisherman by the US hydrogen bomb test at Bikini in 1954. The Japanese Ambassador delivered a note of strong protest to the British Foreign Office and demonstrations against the proposed tests took place in Tokyo. They had little effect. A note in reply from the Foreign Office explained that Britain's tests were designed to cause the minimum fallout and that, as a result, 'There is no question of Japan's being in the slightest danger'. Official Japanese protests against each of the H-bomb tests continued until the detonations took place; on every occasion they were met with polite rebuffs from the British Government.

On 19 June 1956 the first part of the Grapple task force landed on Christmas Island in an RAF Shackleton from Coastral Command. The immensity of the job ahead of them was immediately clear: although the "Shackleton had been able to land on the island's old US airstrip, the strip was clearly not suitable for the Valiant bombers and Canberra 'sniffer' planes that were to take part in the tests. Quite apart from the need for a new airstrip, the island lacked any amenities whatsoever, and even the most basic facilities necessary for the sic thousand men who were to live on the island during the tests would have to be transported. Straight away the operation to set up the testing base and target site began. by November 1956 royal Fleet Auxiliary ships had landed over twenty thousand tons of cargo, which included six hundred vehicles. A completely new concrete airstrip was built, a tented city put up, water distillation units constructed, bulk oil-tanks put in place, field kitchens erected, and scientific laboratories built. It was a massive operation - the RAF alone moved ten thousand tons worth of spare parts and kit in the first year to the atoll to keep their planes flying. It was nine thousand miles to Britain and every single piece of equipment down to the last tent pg was brought out from home. Thirty years ago, however, Britain was still an imperial power with garrisons all over the world and the addition of the Christmas Island base did not involve the logistical difficulties which the Falklands garrison does today.

The authorities, mindful of the low morale during the first Monte Bello tests, tried to make sure that there was no shortage of organized recreation available to the men, who were mainly royal engineers and RAF ground crews required for the maintenance of the base. The island's two camps, the small Port London and the large Main Camp, each had a NAAFI. The Main Camp's was the more popular. It had a bar where the men could, to quote the official Handbook, 'drink a nice cold beer or squash in the beer garden pleasantly situated on the edge of the beach and listen to the pounding of the surf'. For those who wanted less excitement but perhaps more stimulation the Official Handbook had the answer. 'The Misses Billie and Mary Burgess of the women's Voluntary Services have brought a touch of home to the camp. They are to be found in the main camp NAAFI organizing games, dancing, Highland dancing and concerts, and generally helping to make off-duty hours in the recreation room pleasant and free from boredom.' Since the first tests were held four hundred miles to the south of Christmas Island, there was no fear of radiation exposure for the Misses Burges and for the later Grapple 'X' and 'Y' series off Christmas Island the two women joined the Gilbertese on board HMS Messima (where they were issued with protective clothing, unlike the Gilbertese).

For all the authorities' attempts to make life off-duty during the test bearable there were many complaints from the servicemen about their conditions. No overseas allowances or hardship money were paid to them in the early days of the trials. The tents in which they livd were notoriously cramped, and when it rained conditions inside them became atrocious. The lavatories were disgusting - so much so that the men preferred to dig holes in the coral dust rather than use the official facilities. Low morale and disorganization at the NAAFI in the New Year of 1959 led to a battle of beer tins and and a mini-riot. The riot and the low standard of living conditions were made public after a letter of twenty-two-year-old Corporal Glenn Beckerton to his family was read out in the House of commons. Questions were asked about the insanitary conditions and low-quality tentage which Corporal Beckerton had described, and the Daily Mirror ran a series of reports on bad conditions for the men on the island. As a result conditions were improved; more permanent accommodation was built for the second and final series of tests in the summer of 1958, and after an outbreak of dysentery sanitary arrangements were upgraded. 

Men travelled the nine thousand miles to Christmas Island by troopship or, if lucky, across the United States and on to Honolulu by air, where they picked up the RAF's scheduled service of Hastings aircraft to Christmas Island. For most of the conscripted servicemen it was an extraordinary adventure very few had ever travelled in an aeroplane before, let alone to such foreign parts. Co-operation with the United States had increased to the extent that transport and medical facilities were made available at Hickman air base in Honolulu. British servicemen were able to take advantage of the stop-over for rest and recovery, and a small RAF contingent was posted there for the duration of the Grapple operation. The American facilities were welcomed as a sign of greater Anglo-US co-operation and readily made use of, although the RAF continued a scheduled service to Edinburgh field in Australia. Malden Island, the target for the first series, was established at the beginning of 1957 as a sub-base. The AWRE maintained instrumentation in an outside bunkers on the island to measure the effects of the bombs. The RAF also had radar beacons and batteries on the atoll to guide the bomber and its bomb to ground zero. In the period leading up to each of the trials, about seventy men camped on Malden preparing for the tests and a small landing-strip was constructed on the tiny atoll for them. Shortly before an explosion, all personnel were evacuated by air and as quickly as possible afterwards they returned to check their monitoring devices.

As the date of the first British H-bomb test in May 1957 approached, international opposition grew. The Japanese in particular, aroused by the failure of their diplomatic approaches, threatened to stop the test by sending a 'suicide fleet' into the 'danger zone', which was to be cleared of all shipping. In order to prevent any such embarrassments the British government entered into an elaborate subterfuge with the journalist who had been so useful to the Air Ministry in the matter of the location of the H-Bomb experiments: Chapman Pincher. He agreed to fake a story in the Daily Express and on 29 April 1957 he wrote a story which implied that the tests had been delayed because of technical problems, and that Penney himself was booked to fly out to Christmas Island to sort out matters personally. The story was, of course, rubbish and whether it had any effect on the Japanese is not known. There were, however, no 'suicide' protesters during any of the Malden island tests - the Japanese Council for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons decided that the protest fleet should merely sail as close to the danger zone as possible, and broadcast appeals for world peace. 

The opposition to the H-bomb tests in Britain was confined to the Liberal Party, the Free Churches, individual members of the Labour Party, and trades unions, and groups of peace, campaigners. The Labour Party, which might have provided the focus of any opposition, was split on the issue. The Shadow Cabinet, led by Hugh Gaitskell, was pressed by a group of nearly a hundred Labour MPs to call upon the government to abandon the tests one month before they took place, but instead a compromise formula was worked out and accepted unanimously: it called for a 'postponement' of nuclear testing until the response of foreign nations could be considered. The components of the first British H bomb were flown to Christmas Island in February 1957 and the bomb itself was assembled in two parts in special AWRE laboratories located at a camp on the island. final preparation before detonation was performed on board the bomb-drop aircraft by a member of the plane's crew, who armed the weapon's fissile core, its 'trigger' code-named Red Beard, the bomb weighed 10,000 lb. was 5 ft in diameter and over 15 ft long. The fissile core which triggered the thermonuclear explosion was made of plutonium produced from uranium in British reactors. Relatively small quantities of radioactive materials of this sort did not take up much room on RAF transport planes but international and domestic law required that the countries over which such materials were flown be informed. However, owing to pressure of work and the necessity of achieving the test deadline, these permissions were not always sought and it was fortunate that for the early Grapple tests none of the aeroplanes carrying plutonium crashed in Canada or the United States.

Britain's first H bomb was detonated on 15 May 1957. It was dropped from a Valiant bomber, covered in white barrier paint to avoid radioactive contamination, flying at thirteen thousand feet. The bomber was flown by Wing commander K. G. Hubbard: the bomb itself was dropped 'blind' by use of radar and detonated with barometric fuses at fifteen thousand feet. Two more hydrogen bombs were detonated over Malden Island in June 1957. No press representatives were allowed to witness the first explosion, perhaps because of fear of its possible failure. The official reports, however, were jubilant. The task force's own newspaper, the Mid-Pacific News, produced a special souvenir-edition. Jingoistically headlined 'Bomb gone! H bomb puts Britain on level terms', it described the detonation: 'A flash, stark and blinding, high in the Pacific sky, signalled to the world today Britain's emergence as a top-ranking power in this nuclear age. ... No one saw it! No human eye could survive the hellish glare of white hot-air brought to incandescence by the fantastic heat. ... Ten seconds after the burst, spectators turned to see the dying explosion still threshing with the mighty powers that had been unleashed'.

The operation was carried out by a combined task force of ships stationed off Malden and aircraft from Christmas Island. Long before the explosion RAF Shackletons had patrolled hundreds of miles of ocean to ensure that no unauthorized shipping was in the area. The fleet, under the command of a Naval commodore in HMS Warrior, a light aircraft carrier, moved into position twenty-four hours in advance of 'zero hour'. Two New Zealand frigates Pukaki and Rotoiti had the role of gathering meteorological material. HMS Narvik was positioned closer to Malden island and it was her radar which controlled the detonation of the weapon released from the Valiant bomber. More scientists and senor officers were present on HMS Messina, another tank-landing ship modified for the tests. Other ships in the task force were HMS Cook, a survey frigate in which scientific measurements were taken, and HMS Alert, 'the observer frigate'.

Nick Wilson was an able seaman serving in HMS Warrior and he kept a diary of the events which gives a truer account of what it was like to witness an H-bomb for a young serviceman than the Mid-Pacific News. 'We were seated and all dressed correctly for anti-flash on the flight deck. Amusing but uncalled for jokes were cracked about failure. It was not until five seconds before the burst that I was concerned; then I became nervous. "Fire!" At the same time I felt my back warming up and experienced the flash, though I had my hands over my face and dark goggles on. Five seconds after the flash we turned round and faced the flash, but it was still bright so I replaced them. ... there in the sky was a brightly glowing seething ball of fire. This rapidly increased and became more cloudy. soon it was looking like a very dark ripe apple with a snow-white sauce being poured over it. ... On the horizon at sea level a could appeared that must have been dust and spray from the island. ... the whole sight was most beautiful and I was completely filled with emotions'.

Minutes after the mushroom cloud had formed Nick Wilson was able to see the Canberra aircraft flying through it to gather samples. Barely three hours later scientists and technicians were flown by helicopter to the target island to take readings of any residual radiation. Most reports at the time stressed their jubilation at the 'cleanness' of the air-bursts and the complete lack of fallout. Few details were released to the public about the first test other than that the fallout had been 'negligible'. The Daily Telegraph's science correspondent, Leonard Bertin, directed that the bomb might not have been quite as large as expected. 'The device exploded, while not apparently of the same energy category as some of those exploded by the United States and Russia was, nevertheless, in the megaton range'. The phrase 'in the megaton range' neatly disguised the authorities' concern that the first bombs were not quite as powerful as their calculations had suggested. The two tests which followed in June 1957 were also described as being in the megaton range, and the authorities once again stressed that local fallout from these weapons was 'negligible'.

The question of radiation exposure for those aboard the ships of the task force did not arise in the public reports. Each of the H bombs was a so called 'clean' air-burst, and on each occasion the ships were thirty or forty miles from ground zero - well beyond the range of any 'initial' or 'prompt' radiation. The seamen responsible for routine radiation monitoring on board ship found no levels above the normal background count. 'Pre-wetting' operations did take place, however, after the detonations, as after the later Monte Bello tests but there are no records available, nor any reports, of any contamination of ships' companies occurring during such exercises. For the scientists and technicians on Malden island the risks were greater. for all their jubilation at the low levels of radio-activity from the bombs, some residual radiation did occur. Ernest Cox, a member of the AWRE team, was responsible for gamma measurement instruments and before lift-off from HMS Warrior for the return to Malden after the second test he asked if clearance had come from health physicists. He was reassured that the island had been monitored and had been found safe, and proceeded to carry out his duties without a film badge or geiger counter. 'After a while my helper and myself took off up the island to retrieve some of my instruments. Before I did this I asked a principal scientific officer if he had seen any of the health physics team about, and he said it was rather strange, but no he hadn't.'

Cox set to work on his first set of gamma ray monitors and slowly progressed across ground zero towards the RAF's bomb radar marker. He had no uncanny sense that something was not quite right about the place: 'I said to my army helper: 'What the hell is wrong and what the hell are we doing here?' We both had a strange feeling; we noticed no flies, no movement of lizards and no booby birds. We found several burnt and dead birds and in the distance we heard one of the three wild pigs but we didn't dare approach too close to it. It was badly burnt and was going around in circles, blind. I said 'This bloody place is contaminated, and what the hell are we doing here?' We went back to the camp area and by late evening two decontamination showers had been erected and so I went and had a good shower. Next day back up the island again and in the evening I went for another shower which was very welcome. I had just taken off my shorts etc. When a chap came in with a monitor. he ran it over me and to my amazement I had a reading of 3.80R and another chap with me had a reading of 4.20R. The health physics chaps said: 'What the hell could it have been yesterday? We would like to have known. "This was a contaminated area and we should have been issued with protective clothing.'

After ten days small blisters appeared all over Ken Cox's body. He was repatriated to Britain from Christmas Island voluntarily on medical grounds. Today traces of those blisters remain, but he claims there are no details of a skin complaint in his medical records from the AWRE. Terence Dale served on HMS Narvik as a Chief Shipwright and during the tests he was seconded to the scientists on Malden. he was one of the first to return after each detonation and remembers that this was some six to eight hours after the explosion. He was given no protective clothing. Today Dale is convinced that ration exposure on Malden has since caused him a catalogue of illnesses, and particular the development of bilateral cataracts, at the age of forty-five. Cataracts have been associated with high doses of radiation at Nagasaki and Hirohima, and normally they do not occur in a man of that age.

The British press were invited to observe and report on the second Grapple test off Malden island. To the dismay of the reporters from the dailies on arrival at Christmas Island, the test was to be held on a Friday which, because of international time differences and difficulties in communicating the stories back to London, meant that none of their reports could appeal until the following Monday. They would be scooped by an agency man representing the Sunday papers. In order to get round this impasse the newshounds, led by Chapman Pincher, devised a scheme with an RAF officer: 'The Brigadier in charge of the press visit, who would join us on the sleep (the observation ship, HMS Alert) would tell us in advance exactly what the explosion would be like. He could do this with absolute accuracy because this second test would be almost identical with the first, from which the pr3ess had been excluded in case it should fail. We journalists would then be able to write our reports in advance and they could be held on Christmas Island. Then, once the bomb had been exploded, a fast plane would fly them to Honolulu where they would be transmitted at least in time for the late editions of Saturday's papers.' the deception worked. All the representatives of the daily papers took part except the late Sir William Connor - Cassandra of the Daily Mirror - who considered subterfuge immoral. The thrilling eye-witness descriptions of the 'super-bomb' which duly appeared the British press were thus quite false.

The first Grapple series off Malden was something of a damp squib. Britain had demonstrated the ability to air-drop a very large weapon, but the size of the first bombs were, according to senior members of the task force, only half a megaton. With this failure a second Grapple Series had to be planned. As the major powers moved to a moratorium on atmospheric testing, the pressure from the 'conservative Government on the services and scientists to produce and rest a true megaton weapon became intense. Air Vice Marshal Oulton remembers today that he had enormous obligations put on him: 'It was a question of time; the whole point was that we had to get another unexpected series of tests done before the moratorium'. In order to save time the elaborate organization of a task force of two thousand men at sea off Malden was dispensed with: in future the tests were to take place off Christmas Island itself. The AWRE scientists had demonstrated their ability to detonate a 'megaton range' weapon in the atmosphere with little local fallout, and safety considerations would no longer prevent the testing of weapons close to Christmas Island. Much time and money was saved by the move from Malden to the main base but in the haste to complete the tests they become, in the words of a senor member of the Grapple task force, 'a matter of string and chewing gum'.

By dispensing with a naval task force as the focus of each test, many of the tricky problems of inter-service co-ordination and rivalry were removed. The first series, like all nuclear tests, had required the most exacting and carefully timed preparations, much in the same way that the launch of a space shuttle does today but the first Malden tests had the added problem of taking place four hundred miles away from the main base. The complex timing problems that this caused inevitably led to accusations of incompetence by one service against another, the worst occasion being when a naval ship was very nearly caught in the drop zone. It was a miracle that no accidents occurred. The servicemen on board the ships of the task force can, however, rest assured that they were not exposed to dangerous radiation. Even those involved in decontamination duties on HMS Warrior do not appear to have been at risk. The inquest into the death of Kenneth Measures, who took part in decontamination drills on the aircraft-carrier, was preceded by a year long autopsy in which sections of his liver, subjected to the most exacting scrutiny, showed not even the minutest traces of plutonium or other long-lasting fission products. It seems that only those few men, like Ken Cox or Terrence Dale, who ventured on to the target island after each test were in any danger.

By moving ground zero to Christmas Island itself, however, many more men were immediately put at risk. The decision was bred from the same scientific confidence and political expediency which produced the idea that tests should take place over mainland Britain. It was a confidence, indeed arrogance, which may have been badly misplaced. 


The last test over Malden was held on 19 June 1957. While the scientists returned to their drawing boards to redesign the Red Beard weapon, and to the Maralinga test range in Australia to detonate a few more fission 'trigger' devices, urgent preparations were made for the first hydrogen bomb test close to Christmas Island. It was scheduled to take place in the late autumn of 1957, just off the south-east tip of the atoll, only twenty-five miles from the main base. The Malden tests had been a political success for the government of the day, demonstrating to the world Britain 's new thermonuclear power, even if the scientific side had not worked out as planned. It was essential now to develop a really high-yield weapon, out of the glare of publicity, which could be carried and dropped on target by a V-bomber. The haste with which the bomb test site had to be prepared left little time for improvements to the second-rate living quarters on the island. The Royal Engineers considered that they had enough to do without wasting time on the installation of pre-fabs to replace the tents, or proper sewage disposal to substitute for the stinking chemical lavatories used by the servicemen. Air-conditioned and blast-proof laboratories had to be constructed for the SWRE; the scientists and military required H-bomb resistant shelters from which to observe the tests at their forward control post; a 'balloon weapons construction area' was needed for the low-yield devices that were to be tested in the following year; the Vulcan, soon to enter service in place of the Valiant as Britain's main nuclear bomber, could not land on Christmas Island's runway, and plans had to be made to harden the landing-strip for it. All this work was of the highest priority, and the jobs which it involved were christened 'bomb stoppers'.

The procedure for the tests did not vary considerably from trial to trial. When a detonation took place the non-naval men - mostly servicemen in the royal Engineers and the RAF - were assembled in units to view it from different points of the island. Many of them were mustered on the beaches twenty-five miles from the blasts. Those engaged in essential services, such as manning the airfield in case of an emergency, were closer - about twenty miles away. closest of all were the senior scientists and officers, assisted by some sappers. They were given a grand-stand view of events from the specially constructed bunker at 'C' site, only ten to fifteen miles from the various explosions. At the same time the ships streamed a few miles offshore, in preparation for their 'pre-wetting exercises'. All the crew members who were not essential to the running of their ships gathered on the decks, while the Gilbertese copra workers - if aboard - were entertained below with film shows.

Despite the fact that the men were so close to the explosion, the scientists and military responsible for the six tests at Christmas Island - four H bombs and two A bombs, the latter low-yield devices hung under balloons - remain confident to this day that they were quite safe. Sir John Grandy, the task force commander for the second Grapple series, is adamant that the precautions taken to avoid exposure 'were of the very highest standard'. His view is shared by Sir William Cook, the AWRE Chief Scientist at the tests. The safety precautions were similar to those taken in Australia, meteorological conditions were taken into account before the command for a test to take place was given, and the movement of men was controlled before and after each explosion. Moreover, the Christmas Island tgests, like those at Malden, were thought to have had a considerable safety advantage over their Australian counterparts: they were all air-bursts, and the weapons tested which were in 'the megaton range' were detonated at fifteen thousand feet. This should have prevented any danger from fallout.

William Jones was a scientist with AWRE on Christmas Island and is convinced that the safety margins were more than adequate: 'The yields of the various weapons were known pretty exactly so we knew what the size of the fireball was going to be. In addition to that we added a safety factor, so that when we fired the balloon shots for example, instead of them being fired at the height to which the fireball would expand, something like - in the case of a twenty-kiloton shot - around five to six hundred feet in radius, we more or less doubled that up and added a safety factor on top of that. so instead of the balloon shots being fired at something like six hundred feet, where the fireball would have touched the ground, we fired them at around one and a half thousand feet on a three balloon system.' the pri8nciple was the same for the H bombs, detonated ten times higher at fifteen thousand feet.

Jones, as an AWRE planner and 'controller', was responsible for the movement of all men and materials into the areas where the detonation occurred. He was based at the AWRE control centre. 'C site', which was close to the Joint Operation Control camp about ten miles from ground zero, and it was not until he had said that he knew where every person was and that each had been accounted for, that the safety key was inserted into the firing desk, or the aircraft notified and the tests allowed to take place. Although there was meant to be no fallout on Christmas Island because of the nature of the bursts, there was some residual radiation, caused by neutron bombardment, in the area close to ground zero. for this reason no one was allowed into ground zero to collect their monitoring instruments or take part in exercises until the health physics decontamination team from the AWRE had set up its 'circus' in the area. entry into the area, according to Jones, was only through a health physics centre, and those who came out of the area with their instruments were monitored. If a person had any contamination on him, he went to a decontamination centre and it was cleaned off. Thus anybody who picked up radiation as a result of going into the test area would have to report through the health physics people.

All those who worked in the forward area should have been issued with film badges. They were also ordered to wear protective clothing: thick rubber gloves to prevent the hands being exposed to alpha and beta radiation, and pressurized suits to protect against the ingestion of any airborne particles. The exercise to regain instruments and the subsequent decontamination were treated as rehearsals for nuclear warfare, though the hotter areas were cordoned off by advance parties who entered ground zero with portable radiation monitors. Both the AWRE and the military monitored the rest of Christmas Island for possible contamination. According to senior officials at the Ministry of Defence, nothing above the background natural radiation count was recorded. For this reason, and because of their confidence in the safety of the tests, the authorities did not consider it necessary to take any special precautions with the men who witnessed the detonations from the beaches some twenty miles away. They were not issued with film badges as it was thought that there would be no fallout danger. The white cotton 'zoot' suits which they were given for the last three H-bomb tests were not worn to prevent radiation exposure but as a precaution against burns from the heat of the weapons.    

The H bombs, when viewed from so close, presented a terrifying spectacle. Many of the men could not believe such incomprehensible releases of energy could be intentional, and would not harm them. Quite a few of them accepted a persistent rumour that the atoll was shaped like a mushroom, with the island a cap delicately resting on its coral stem, and they feared that a particularly strong blast would cause the stem to snap, plunging Christmas Island and all on it into the depths of the ocean. The size of the first bomb off Christmas Island on 8 November 1957 seems to have taken everybody there by surprise. Clive Atkins, an RAF radar operator, recalls: 'When the bomb went off the flash dried out our clothing, which was full of perspiration, and I could actually see the bones of my hands over my eyes, the flash was so brilliant. Then we heard the sound of the bomb going off. After that we all turned round and we saw the blast hit the palm trees and bend them over. We were informed later by the AWARE that the bomb had been dropped slightly lower than they anticipated and it was far bigger than they had imagined.'

All the sizes of the Christmas Island test remain classified but today Ministry of Defence officials and the AWRE deny that any of the tests took the authorities by surprise. Other reports, however, suggest that events were not quite as expected. Sapper Brian Marks served with the Royal Engineers on Christmas Island and in December 1960 he died at a rare form of blood cancer which his parents were convinced was caused by his presence at the tests. They were most disturbed by his stories of the incredible power of the blast: how a ten-ton diesel generator was blown upside down and three-inch tent poles broken. When  called to comment on the strength of the blast by his MP, the Under-Secretary of State for War, James Ramsden, commented: 'It is perfectly true that the blast was such as to cause a large diesel generator to be blown over in a controlled area and knowledge of this incident was quite widespread. That Sapper Marks knew of and commented on the blast effect does not, however, indicate that he was exposed to radiation'.

Many of the servicemen who witnessed the same blast were also astonished and terrified by its power. William Oates was a storeman on the island: 'Probably the thing that scared me most was not the ball of flame in the sky, not the searing heat, but the blast and shockwave which followed later.... On that occasion I saw grown men at their wits end trying to run away from the blast.' It damaged many of the buildings on the island, tents and heavy machinery were knocked over, glass was blown out of windows, coconuts thrown grom palm trees and vehicles smashed. It took Arthur Thomas, a sapper, quite by surprise: 'Then it happened, the blast, a lightning speed of wind and whistle of trees - a bang - it hit us all unexpectedly, lifting us off our get and depositing us three to four yards away landing on each other in a pile of bodies. We were not told to expect anything of this nature.' Les Dawson was also unprepared. 'We had been expecting a storm-like strong wind but the sound and blast wave was nothing like that. Suddenly I was aware of being flat on my back and hearing a loud bang that made my ears pop. There was also the sound of shattering glass as the windows of the Joint Operations building shattered. This all seemed to happen at the same time. We were surprised, bewildered and slightly dazed.' 

When the next hydrogen bomb tests took place in the summer of 1958 more precautions were taken. doors and windows were left open 'to let the blast pass through' and more protective clothing was issued to the men to prevent flash burns. The move to Christmas Island had brought many men closer than ever before to weapons of up to 10 megatons - some of the largest ever detonated in the atmosphere - but despite being to near to the weapons there was no danger to the men from prompt radiation, and the stronger than anticipated blast effects did not present a great physical danger. However the authorities' confidence in the safety of the Christmas Island tests does not take into account the fact that, as in Australia, a number of the safety precautions concerning radiation were either inadequate or ill-observed. There is also a possibility that a number of men thought to have been in no danger were inadvertently put at risk.

There is no question that a radiation hazard was created by the 'sniffer' aeroplane which flew through the H-bomb clouds minutes after detonation. As in the Australian tests these planes, modified B6 Canberras, were sent through the clouds in order to gain samples for the AWRE scientists who could then measure the various yields as accurately as possible. Many of the RAF pilots who had taken part in the Buffalo tests in Australia volunteered to continue their dangerous work at the Malden and Christmas Island tests, though if they had already received the maximum permissible dose of 25R, they were refused. some of their Canberras had also become, according to Air vice Marshal 'Paddy' Menaul, one of tje RAF senior officers in charge of cloud-sampling, 'too hot to handle' and were left in Australia, where it was hoped they could be decontaminated. In the event most could not be properly cleaned and were buried. The hydrogen bomb tents posed problems even more formidable than those of the Australian tests for the sniffer teams of 76 Squadron. The clouds of the thermonuclear weapons were much larger than those of the atomic bombs tested in Australia and rose higher in the atmosphere. It meant that cloud sampling was necessary at heights of fifty thousand feet or more, but to Briti8sh jet at the time could fly safely at such high altitudes. Before the Grapple series took place the RAF did tests in the United Kingdom to see if they could find a way to cope with this problem. Scorpion rockes were placed underneath the Canberras in an attempt to give the planes greater power and stability in the rarified air of the upper atmosphere. The rockers failed, however, and the men suffered severe frost bite as a result of bailing out of their stalled aircraft. The experiment was abandoned and the pilots were instructed to fly as high as they could using their flying skills to prevent stalling. It was, in the words of one of them, 'like driving a car on a frozen lake at high speed in a thick pea-soup fog'.

The men who flew through the H-bomb clouds therefore did so in aircraft they understood to be unsuitable and exposed themselves knowingly to high doses of radiation. They were volunteers who undertook the work with willingness, bravery and dedication. Most of them have no complaints today about their experience with H bombs, which they consider to have been of national importance, justifying the risks they took. It was some of the men of 76 Squadron at Christmas Island who received the highest doses recorded in the tests: in two cases 30 rems, according to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Christopher Donne, a pilot with the 'sniffer' squadron at Christmas Island, has the dubious distinction of being the leader of the Canberra crew to have received in 1958 the highest recorded radiation dose referred to by Mrs Thatcher. since the tests he had suffered no serious illness and is living proof that the effects of radiation may harm one man but leave another unscathed. Donne was selected to be the 'controller' or 'sniff boss' for Britain's last atmospheric hydrogen bomb test on 11 September 1958 and it was his duty to fly through the cloud as soon as possible after the e3xplosion to assess how safe it was to send the other three sniffer planes through. The pilots selected the highest possible 'cut' in order to fly through the densest part of the cloud and gain the best possible samples for the scientists waiting expectantly on the ground.

The mushroom cloud on 11 September was much larger than Christopher Donne had anticipated as he carefully turned his aircraft towards it only ten minutes after detonation: 'I remember seeing this yellowy-brown thing ahead of me, stretching out almost as far as I could see, and I remember turning the aircraft and getting it straight and level and just scrambling up those last few feet and then approaching the cloud and hoping that I'd got a small part of it - we called it a 'cut' - from which, of course, we could work out when it was safe to send the other aircraft on. ... And then we hit it, and I can remember my navigator saying, "Bloody hell! Let's get out of here!" But, of course, we couldn't because there was no way I could turn the aircraft - the turbulence was causing me to concentrate very hard on flying it at all at that height. I can remember sort of glancing out of the side of my eyes to look at the instruments - the needles were pressed very firmly up against the stops ... showing the very high levels of radiation, which were very much higher than we'd anticipated. I can remember the health physicist muttering in his beard something about it being very much hotter than he'd thought.'

Once they landed Christopher Donne and his crew were immediately decontaminated. Their heads were shaved to minimize the risk of any fallout particles clinging to the scalp, their nails paired to the quick to remove any radioactive material lodging next to the skin, and they were thoroughly shored. Donne was told that he could receive no further doses and would have to return to Britain. On his return he was advised to have regular blood counts for a year. His mission was the only occasion when the radiation levels recorded were known to have exceeded the higher 'integrated' dose level of 25 rems, though other members of 76 Squadron received high doses. Flight Lieutenant Hannam, the navigator of a Canberra 'sniffer' for the penultimate H-bomb test over Christmas Island, was exposed to 'about 28 rads' with his crew. The actual dose could not be recorded. 'The sampling would have been aborted at 10 rads but the dosemeter failed'. Like Christopher Donne, Hannam has suffered no ill effects from his high dose.

It was snot only the sniffers in the RAF who were at risk. Other aircrews could, and did, accidentally come into contact with the mushroom cloud and its airborne fission products. Guy Templeman was the navigator in a Canberra on photographic and meteorological duties. Before each test, in common with the other aircraft at Christmas Island, his plane took off and flew race-track patterns. At the moment of detonation the aircraft were organized so that they were flying away from ground zero, and after the explosion they turned and flew back to base. On the 28th April 1958 test Templeman's Canberra returned, its duties finished, to the airfield but its approach flight path meant that the plane cut through part of the nuclear cloud. Templeman remembers that the Canberra was decontaminated after landing. The pilot, Tony Davius, was a young man in his early thirties. The two men lost contact after the tests but when Templeman tried to get in touch some years later he was shocked to find that Tony Davis had died from leukeamia in 1964. Ever since he learnt of his former comrade's death he has harboured suspicions about his accidental contact with the mushroom cloud. The Ministry of Defence deny that Davis ever came into contact with radiation on Christmas Island.

The men of the 'active handling flight' who decontaminated the 'hot' aircraft were also obviously at risk of exposure to radiation while at Christmas Island. although procedures had been tightened up after the Australian tests, and the men wore respirators and white cotton protective clothing, their duties were difficult to carry out and potentially dangerous. A number of men who took part in the work at Christmas Island now believe it was as unsafe as in Australia. Bryan Young remembers: 'We were cleaning off barrier paint above me and water came off the back of the wing. I was only wearing cotton whites so, of course it went straight through, and bearing in mind that it was contaminated water coming off I wasn't a very happy person underneath. but we were all too busy at the time to do much about it. In the middle of decontamination you can't suddenly stop and say "Oh God, I've got to go and shower all this lot off!." 'Work has to carry on.' Even on the atoll Bryan Young began to suffer from skin problems and blinding headaches, and his health problems have persisted ever since.  

Another small group of RAF servicemen who may have been at risk during the Christmas Island tests were the balloon crews. They were seconded to the AWRE and worked on the two low-yield tests held in August and September 1958 at the end of the Grapple series. The balloon unit was divided into two crews: one for each balloon test. The men were responsible for inflating the balloons with helium gas and, once the bomb had been placed in a cradle, for suspending the weapon under a configuration of four balloons. The balloons were the old barrage-type which had been used to protect towns and cities from German bombers in the Second World War. The balloon crews were based about seven miles from ground zero. Before the tests they worked on the site above which the bombs were detonated, an area which may have been radioactive due to the neutron bombardment from earlier H-bomb tests. Thus as they were in an area with a known radioactive hazard, the members of the balloon crews were subject to the monitoring of the AWRE health physics team but John Lycett, a member of the unit which prepared the second balloon test, is not satisfied that the precautions were sufficient. When his unit was sent back to ground zero to prepare for the test, 'The area was covered with dead birds and debris from the first explosion; we even found bits and rigging that had supported the first bomb. When it was our turn to do guard and topping-up balloon duty we slept in a tent on the very site of an atomic required to wear personal dose-monitoring devices.'

Members of the royal Engineers also assisted the AWRE scientists in the forward areas. They were required to help with the protection of monitoring devices which were placed as close as possible to the explosions in order to gain the fullest radiation measurements. After each test the sappers were ordered to go to the forward area to remove the sandbags from the measuring instruments, and they were also required to kill as many of the maimed and blinded birds a s possible. but ex-sapper Arwell remembers the strict precautions taken in the forward area. 'We always wore two film badges to monitor the amount of different types of radiation. As we always passed through the decontamination unit, where we left the white protective clothing and washed and scrubbed thoroughly before being checked by geiger counters.' No details of the doses to which the men on Christmas Island were exposed have been published. One document, however, copied by a signals clerk who was on Christmas Island after the tests in 1959 and who has since died of cancer, may give some indication of the levels. The copy, made some four months after the last test in February 1959, is extremely difficult to read but it appears to be taken from a 'Master Check' of the different radiation levels at various points on Christmas Island. These include the forward 'C' and 'E' sites close to ground zero, and the main lagoon. The document shows that in the 'local area', which must have been close to ground zero, a dose of half to one rad would be expected in a normal working day. This is a relatively high dose considering the annual exposure limit at the time was five rads a year. If access to the area was properly controlled, however, there need have been no great danger from it. 

The document also shows that stores brought in to Christmas Island from Honolulu appear to have been contaminated in five days, indicating quite high levels of radioactivity, but the most interesting and perplexing part is that which describes 'decontamination' and 'physical feelings'. For the decontamination process it lists: 'Shower, exercise, skipping, bare feet, hard met, plate surface." For 'Phys Feelings' in 'Open Areas C. E' (sites at the eastern tip of the island), it lists 'Naus. tingling sore joints. vision. clears PM after exercise.' According to scientists, this list indicates symptoms expected after a high dose in the range of 50 to 150 rads, or possibly even higher. That such high levels existed seems to be shown by the decontamination exercises: showering to wash off the radioactive particles and exercise to clear the total volume of the lungs in order to eject any fusion products inhaled. The copy of the document was found among the papers of the signals clerk on his death, written out in his handwriting. He had no scientific training and he presumably made it out of curiosity while transmitting the material to Britain. His family do not with him to be named. According to the AWRE scientist who had read the paper the dose levels recorded show nothing particularly dangerous or unexpected. If the descriptions of radiation sickness are genuine, however, the document makes a mockery of claims that men were not subjected to high doses of radiation.

There is no evidence that the mass of servicemen at Christmas Island were deliberately exposed to radiation by the authorities, although as in Australia, the service chiefs were ken to observe the effects on morale of the men who experienced a nuclear bomb from close quarters. Exercises were arranged similar to the 'Indoctrination' that took place at the buffalo test in 1956. Tony Crossland remembers: 'It was a rather arbitrary system. A number of us were elected to go from the main camp towards ground zero. I always thought that was a bit silly. We took no extra precautions, and no extra safety measures were offered to us. I understood that we were to be within seven to ten miles of ground zero.' Crossland was detailed to witness an atomic explosion, of the of the low-yields which took place in the later summer of 1958, but he was given no explanation of the purpose for the operation, nor any reassurance that there was no radiation hazard. 'It was just one of those things: you did as you were told because you were in the armed forces.'

After each detonation men were ordered to take part in the clean-up operations. Thousands of birds were killed, maimed and blinded as a result of each explosion. fish too were stunned by the blasts and rose in huge quantities to the surface of the sea where they floated before being washed ashore. The putrefying remains were collected in small amphibious transports and taken out to sea for dumping. birds which has been blinded, or whose burnt feathers rendered them unable to fly, were put out of their misery by shooting. The dead remains aroused in the men fears of contamination for many believed that the birds and fish had been irradiated. Carol Wratten's husband Brian was a laboratory assistant and pathologist on Christmas Island. Having handled animals killed by a test, he became convinced that he had been in contact with radiation. He died twenty years later of a rare blood cancer. 'As soon as he was diagnosed he was aware that it was a radiation-connected disease, and he felt that he had received some degree of radiation on Christmas Island, and that undoubtedly had head contracted the disease because of it. He couldn't understand how they could have done these test with the little protection they had and not recieved radiation.'

The dead birds and fish collected by the men on Christmas Island could not however, have been highly radioactive if the tests were successful airbursts. It is likely that because for many men the dead animals and fish were the only tangible contact they had with the after-effects of the tests, they became in retrospect a focus of their fears and anxieties. Undoubtedly the main radiation hazard recognized at the time of the tests by the authorities was at the south-east tip of the atoll, closest to the H-bomb's ground zero, where the low-yield devices were exploded. William Jones, the AWRE officer responsible for movements in the area, is convinced that there could have been no accidental exposures in this area because entry and exit was so carefully controlled. He agrees, however, that it would have been possible for men to flout the rules and go into ground zero without proper authority: 'If people wanted to get into the test site without going through the normal controls, yes, they would have done it. After all, the place was full of lagoons, little tracks leading all over the place. It would be foolish to say that nobody could get into the test site if they wanted to. Anybody who wanted deliberately to get in there could do it.'

Of course a number of the men could not resist the temptation to go and take a look for themselves. Christopher donne remembers that he managed to borrow a Land Rover and some protective clothing, and then drove into the ground zero area with some friends. The men did not go very close, but for Donne it had a strange sort of eeriness about it that means he did not want to go very close: 'I can remember vividly seeing where zero had been, and it was rather like an enormous football pitch in very good condition: there was nothing there at all, everything had just disappeared. Totally flat, except one could see what looked like grass as far as the eye could see, green. And we discovered that of course it wasn't grass at all. It was where the heat, the colossal heat from the explosion, had actually fused the sand of Christmas Island into green glass.' The areas of potential risk at Christmas Island were clearly delineated: the washdown pads, the contaminated aeroplanes, and ground zero. It was assumed that servicemen in other areas would be quite free from any radiation exposure above the natural background level, which happened to be extremely low at Christmas Island. This assumption was bassed on the fact that all the tests w3ere airbursts and therefore produced no fallout. If, however, the meteorologists got their forecasts wrong it remained a possibility that Christmas Island could be contaminated by 'rainout'; when the products of nuclear fission are brought to the ground by rain when it passes through the mushroom cloud. After the explosion at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both airbursts, this phenomenon occurred. It is thought that nuclear explosions may themselves trigger changes in the weather. 

Safety precautions for a change in the weather were taken on the island. Known as Pied Piper, they involved servicemen getting into vehicles and heading for assembly points from which they would be evacuated by boat and ship. During the second H-Bomb test in April, 1958, Grapple Y, many men remember that the weather changed causing Pied Piper to be put into effect. Arthur Thomas recalls: 'Suddenly over the loud-speaker system came the order to get under cover quickly and to clear the open ground. Apparently the wind had changed and the fallout cloud was heading back to Christmas Island. I dashed to my motor vehicle and sat in the cab compartment, closed the doors and windows and remained there for half an hour. 'every one else seemed to find cover eventually.' Shortly afterwards, however, the wind direction reversed and the men were ordered back to their positions.

There is evidence that 'rainout' did occur over some part of the island during the second April H-bomb test and if so the risk of exposure would have been extended to the six thousand servicemen whom the authorities believed to be in no danger at all. The late Bernard Geoghan was on board HMS Narvik, just off Christmas Island, during that test and remembered: 'That particular morning the cloud developed and developed and developed. It was absolutely enormous and eventually came right over the top of the ship. Then it started raining - it absolutely bucketed down - a real tropical drenching! We were all soaked to the skin and were very apprehensive. Here was this rain coming smack out of the nuclear cloud right over our heads, and inevitably everybody was pretty petrified about it.' The men with Bernard Georghan were reassured that the rain had not contaminated them, but if it had come straight out of the nuclear cloud it must have brought some of the radioactive fission products with it. Many of these, the alpha and beta emitters, would not have been detected on their film badges.

Captain Glen Stewart was the co-pilot of a Shackleton on shipping patrol during the same test: 'The explosion set off a line of thunderstorms, below which we were forced to fly to Christmas Island. There was torrential rain which entered the unpressurized aircraft like a sieve. It turned the only available detector, a small rudimentary device on the captain's lapel, immediately to the wrong colour. On landing the aircraft was scrubbed down for days, if not weeks, to rid it of contamination.' Captain Stewart's experience has not affected his health. Today he flies Jumbo jets for British Airways. That it did rain after the second April H-bomb test is confirmed by a meteorologist on the island (who has asked to remain anonymous as he still works for the government). he remembers that after the blast there was some hot rain which mostly fell into the sea but some of which landed on Christmas Island: men were ordered to lie under vehicles to keep out of it. After Grapple Y the men sat on huge tarpaulins placed on the beaches: should it rain, they were expected to crawl underneath. fortunately for them the need did not arise.

If the rain which fell during the test carried the fission products of the nuclear explosion, a large number of men would have inadvertently been put at risk. Much of the island's life involved the use of sea water: men washed and swam in it; they drank water distilled from it, and they ate fish caught locally. After rainout all these activities could have exposed them to radioactivity, both externally and internally. when washing or swimming tiny radioactive particles may have entered the body without being monitored at the time, and fish may have ingested particles brought down by rainout which could have lodged in the bodies of those who are them without being detected on monitors. Major James Carman has been with a party which had caught over 150 crayfish on a fishing expedition, and the crayfish were prepared for a dinner to celebrate the opening of a new officers' mess. As he relates it: 'Out came the crayfish on big dishes and everybody ate them. I was talking to the Nuclear Biological Chemical Division Officer. His job on the island was to take a background count to check the radioactivity - he'd been out there almost a year and he had never had a reaction on his geiger counter at all. This night half way through the party, he said, "Well I've got to do my background count", and he did it with great ceremony. He had to go out and leave the party. And I said, "Bring the damned thing in here!" So he did - and for the first time he got a reading on it.' The reading came from the remains of the crayfish.

The Ministry of Defence denies that men could have been affected in this manner, and points out that regular checks of local fish were made by AWRE scientists. This is indeed the case: men on board ships, in particular those on HMS Narvik, were ordered to catch the fish for the scientists. Although not meant for consumption, the fish - once checked - found their way into the fish-frying black market which thrived on the island and relieved the monotony of tinned bully-beef. The NAAFI also legitimately sold locally caught fish. The steaks were called 'Alloha' and judged the equal to any cod sold back home. There is no indisputable evidence that large numbers of men at Christmas Island were unknowingly exposed to radiation. it remains a possibility that can only be confirmed by statistical analysis. What seems more clear, however, it that the men who worked in areas known to involve radiation exposure may have been the victims of lax security and safety precautions. The hydrogen bomb tests were administered and carried out by the same authorities responsible for the Australian tests, and there is no reason to believe that the safety precautions changed for the better once the move had b en made to the Central Pacific.

The British nuclear testing programme ceased after the last low-yield device was exploded under balloons in September 1958. Britain had developed her hydrogen bomb in the nick of time. In the following month she joined the USA and USSR in a moratorium on nuclear testing and although Britain was never to test in the open again, Christmas Island played host for H-bomb tests once more in 1962. After the collapse of the East-West moratorium, with the resumption of Soviet testing in 1961, Britain lent the base to the United States for a major H-bomb series of twenty-five tests called 'Operation Dominic'. A small British contingent of three hundred men attended these tests to keep up a show of sovereignty on the island. Christmas Island was transformed by the Americans from a small British colonial outpost into a multi-million dollar testing base, called by its poured new occupants 'a giant outdoor nuclear laboratory': 60 warships, 110 planes and 1`1.800 men took part, and 15 special weather stations were set up on nearby islands. Balloons and rockets were used: test towers and computers were put to work. Britain's Operation Grapple paled by comparison.

For the United Kingdom the American invasion of the old testing base marked the end of a truly independent nuclear deterrent, for while Operation Dominic progressed, Britain's Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was negotiating a deal with President Kennedy to buy Polaris missiles. It was Polaris warheads which were being detonated high above Christmas Island in Operation Dominic. In return for the United States' use of the base, British scientists were at last granted the access to American test data that they needed so badly to improve their own warheads. Britain's short era of atmospheric nuclear testing had ended. Many of the difficult objectives had been achieved cheaply, quickly and efficiently, but the questions raised about the safety of the trials have left a bitter legacy to many of the men who took part.

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