Britain’s nuclear past: the fallout from the High Explosive Research programme

British nuclear tests conducted in the 1950s exposed many thousands of servicemen to high levels of radiation. Gordon Murray explores the poisonous legacy of the euphemistically named High Explosive Research programme | By Gordon Murray

Scientists monitor control panels aboard HMS Campania during the countdown to the test of the first British atomic bomb in the Montebello Islands off north-west Australia on 3 October 1952. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

“We were ordered to kill the birds which had been injured by the explosion. Some were still flying around, but they were blind, as their eyes had been burned out. We used pickaxe handles to kill the birds. I did not like doing this, but we had no choice because of the terrible condition they were in.”

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On 7 November 2019, during routine Scottish parliamentary proceedings, Member of the Scottish Parliament George Adam read out this piece of shocking testimony from a long-time friend, Ken McGinley. It is just one of many horrific anecdotes to emerge from Britain’s secret nuclear history, many of which are being told by the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, representing men sent to build explosive devices and to carry out and witness Britain’s nuclear bomb tests.

“We are talking about a state that took young men in national service from one side of the world to the other and dropped a nuclear bomb on them to see how that worked out, how it affected them and how they could function on a nuclear battlefield, of all things,” Adam commented in his introductory remarks in the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. “That seems to be complete madness to us. It feels barbaric in the 21st century, and it seems almost unbalanced for a state to do that. Who in the 1950s honestly thought that it was a good idea to drop a bomb on people? It is not as if the horrors of Hiroshima had not been seen, or what could happen was not known. However, those young servicemen were used as guinea pigs by an uncaring and distant government.”

A mushroom cloud created by a hydrogen bomb blast rises over the Pacific
A mushroom cloud created by a hydrogen bomb blast rises over the Pacific after a British test near Christmas Island (now Kiritimati) in November 1957. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Those men’s story has never been fully told, yet the repercussions of those events are still being felt today, passed on between generations. Between 1952 and 1958, the British government tested nuclear bombs at various sites in Australia and the south Pacific islands. Many thousands of servicemen were involved, serving a variety of functions in building and maintaining the sites. However, many of these men feel that their main function was to witness and be exposed to the blasts, and to live among the fallout – to be part of an experiment on a huge scale in which they (and, later, their descendants) were to be subjects.

The story of the nuclear tests and their aftermath is a narrative of terrifying apocalyptic traumas, sudden deaths, slow declines, cancers, musculoskeletal disintegration, dreadful birth defects, paranoia, conspiracy theories and chronic pain, all undercut with a strange, intangible relationship with change that may or may not be taking place in the body at the chromosomal level.

The story of the nuclear tests is a narrative of apocalyptic traumas, cancers, birth defects, paranoia, conspiracy theories and chronic pain

From 1945, a war-weary and impoverished United Kingdom sought to reposition itself in the global order. This was partly a response to a new perception of potential future military threats, but more importantly an effort to maintain its status as a great power and a major player on the (pre-Nato) world stage. In many ways, the destructive power of nuclear weapons was less important than their metaphorical power, underlining the scientific, technological and organisational capabilities of the nations that possessed them.

The desire of the British government to develop nuclear weapons in the early years of the Cold War intensified as it became increasingly evident that, despite initial collaboration, the United States was unwilling to share military intelligence or scientific knowledge born out of the Manhattan Project and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By 1949, too, the Soviet Union had developed a nuclear capability. So High Explosive Research – the British project to develop atomic bombs – became a priority for three consecutive prime ministers: Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden.

In 1950, Attlee approached his Australian counterpart Robert Menzies to request permission to use the Montebello Islands, off the north-west coast of Australia, for nuclear tests. Menzies willingly acceded, and later also agreed to the use of sites in South Australia for testing. UK tests were later conducted in the mid-Pacific, on Kiritimati (formerly Christmas Island, then part of the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony) and Malden Island. The first test in Montebello in 1952 yielded the equivalent of 25 kilotons of TNT; less than six years later, during the Christmas Island tests, bombs were detonating at over 3 megatons of TNT.

Over six years, a series of bombs developed by British scientists were tested in these various locations in Australia and the Pacific islands. They were suspended by balloons, stored on ships, dropped by aeroplanes and detonated over sea and land. The tests involved more than 22,000 British military personnel as well as men from Australia, New Zealand and the Fijian Islands (then a British colony). The success of the British High Explosive Research programme and later research is open to debate; although it played a huge part in the game of scientific catch-up with the United States and the Soviet Union, the detonated yields of British weapons did not match those of the other players. When, in 1958, the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US was resumed, including sharing of information on weapons technology, it was perhaps a result of heightened American fears of Soviet space-race domination following the launch of Sputnik 1 the previous year, rather than recognition of Britain’s burgeoning arsenal of high explosive weaponry.

All journeys yield a story. Those of the British nuclear veterans include many individual anecdotes that begin by travelling across the world on a secret mission to what they expected would be a tropical paradise. There are stories of high jinks, strange sights and the foundation of lifetime friendships as roads were laid, runway strips built, towers erected. But there are also darker accounts tales.

Doug Hern, a veteran of the Grapple Tests at Christmas Island, was interviewed for the BBC Four Arena documentary A British Guide to the End of the World. He described how, after each blast, “we saw what looked like Catherine wheels spiralling and it turned out they were actually birds on fire.”

Veterans recounted being told to swim down to the seabed, wearing just trunks, to collect radioactive fragments; at the surface, they handed those pieces to scientists wearing lead-lined suits and masks, who took the debris with long pincers before placing it in lead boxes. During research for the new BBC Radio 4 programme Archive on 4: After The Fallout, I came across numerous accounts of people washing radioactive dust from land vehicles or planes that had flown through mushroom clouds. John Walden, who served at Maralinga in South Australia, described this: “…in their khaki shorts, bare-chested, they’ve got big, thick khaki socks on, and boots. And what they do is they first of all swab the aircraft down of dust but then climb on the wing that is hot through radioactivity and, as their bum is sliding along, so they’re scrubbing off [ ] So there is every opportunity both from their hands and from their breath to ingest, and from their knees gripping and their bum as it slides along the wing, to become radioactive themselves […] Here were chaps who were made radioactive cleaning radioactive aeroplanes.”

There is, however, one aspect of most veterans’ stories that tallies: the experience of the moment of a bomb blast. During all of the tests, whether on sea or on land, the veterans were told to face away from the site of detonation and press their hands into their eyes. As the countdown ended and the bomb exploded, each man felt an incredible and indescribable sensation of heat passing slowly through their body, and each saw their own bones as though in an X-ray. Hern described how: “The flash seems to come through the back of your head, you could see the bones in your fingers, through your closed eyes – bearing in mind the light was not in front of you, it was behind you… and the heat was already coming through your body. It was that hot, I felt that it wouldn’t take that much more for me to combust.”

Shortly afterwards came the shockwave, then the fierce wind blasting debris across the surface of the land, then the black, filthy rain. But the abiding memory was of each man seeing his own bones through his flesh, like a flash photograph of the horror polarised and burnt onto the retina.

The abiding memory of a blast was of seeing bones through flesh, like a flash photograph of the horror burnt onto the retina

It is hard to pinpoint the moment when veterans began to understand that the effects would be long-term. Pilots vomited after flying through the mushroom cloud. Soldiers noticed burns on their bodies after the blast. Men became ill after eating the same fish that boffins sent away for analysis. All could be easily diagnosed as short-term effects, to be remedied and forgotten once back at home. Even there, when young men – reunited with their families, perhaps back on civvy street – became ill, developing lymphomas or other cancers, or even died at a young age, it would be seen as unfortunate, even tragic. But they had no reason to suspect that the same issues might be affecting a large number of the thousands of other men who had worked on the experiments.

For many, alarm bells started ringing when these young men started families. The proportion of children with physical ailments born to nuclear veterans has never been conclusively quantified, but some agencies suggest that one in every four was affected by birth defects or serious health conditions. Certainly, by the early 1980s large numbers of men recognised the physical repercussions of the tests on which they’d worked in Australia and the Pacific, and that they needed to come together to speak out. Around 1984, the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA) was formed and the campaign for understanding, recognition and compensation began.

Nuclear veterans live in an uncanny hinterland – in a body and a world that seem both strange and familiar

The journey towards understanding, recognition and compensation for the veterans has been staggered and laboured. The BNTVA campaigned for a compensation payment of £25 million, to respond to the health and well-being needs of its members, but the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) has refused to accept a causal link between exposure to radiation during the tests and subsequent ill health of the men involved or their descendants. After a series of judgments, appeals and counter-appeals, in 2012 the UK Supreme Court finally ruled for the MOD and against the BNTVA. The fight continued, though, and in 2014, then prime minister David Cameron formally recognised the contribution made by the nuclear veterans. The following year, chancellor George Osborne announced in his March budget that an Aged Veterans Fund would be established, to which the nuclear veterans would have access. The nuclear community is split over whether this was an acceptable outcome, providing reasonable compensation in the face of such intergenerational suffering; the BNTVA continues to fight for further recognition and compensation. One result, though, was the establishment of the Nuclear Community Charity Fund backing research into the intergenerational effects of exposure, with work largely undertaken at Brunel University, as well as helping provide support for those affected.

A cloud of smoke and radioactive dust rises above the Montebello Islands
A cloud of smoke and radioactive dust rises above the Montebello Islands following a test blast in May 1956. Servicemen were exposed to high levels of radiation while cleaning dust off equipment and aircraft after such tests. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

British nuclear veterans represent just one of many groups impacted. Serving personnel from other nations who worked on nuclear bomb tests, including the US and New Zealand, launched similar (but often more successful) campaigns for compensation. Those most deeply affected, of course, have been Australia’s Indigenous communities who lived near test sites. Some of their experiences were investigated by the Australian Royal Commission into the tests in 1984–85, but otherwise have been little heard or recognised.

In 2006, American anthropologist Joseph Masco, borrowing from Freud, coined the term ‘nuclear uncanny’ to describe the local and national psyche following nuclear bomb testing in New Mexico. In Freud’s definition, the ‘uncanny’ comes from an intangible sense that something is both strange and familiar at the same time. Nuclear veterans and their descendants inhabit bodies in which changes may have taken place at the chromosomal level; they live in an uncanny hinterland, in a body and a world that seem both strange and familiar. Modern parlance commonly refers to anxiety, angst or worry, but the ‘nuclear uncanny’ is more particular: it is a constant feeling that something is not quite right. For most, the science that may shine a light on the reality of this chromosomal transformation is inaccessible, so the feeling that ‘things just aren’t quite right’ becomes an embodied state of being.

Members of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association stand outside the High Court in London
Members of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association stand outside the High Court in London in January 2009, during the organisation’s campaign to secure compensation from the British government. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The veterans involved in these tests were among a very small, unique group to have witnessed the detonation of a nuclear bomb, and there is much to learn from them. More than 60 years after the last British test in the Pacific, the number of surviving veterans is diminishing, and their stories are fading from the public eye. Journalists, academics and, more recently, artists and dramatists have worked to keep the nuclear tests, and the men who served on them, in the collective consciousness. Indeed, it was as a theatre-maker that I first began to collaborate with the BNTVA in finding ways to tell their story.

As the global nuclear stakes shift and turn towards a new immediacy, we must reflect on our own peacetime nuclear history and the community formed through the legacy of those distant tests – the men, and their descendants, who must live with the ‘nuclear uncanny’. We must ensure that their story continues to be told, offering them one thing they never asked for: exposure.

Gordon Murray is senior lecturer in drama at the University of Winchester Listen to the BBC Radio 4 programme Archive on 4: After the Fallout, featuring witness accounts and dramatic sections written by Gordon Murray

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This article was first published in May 2020 in Issue 22 of BBC World Histories Magazine