Christmas Island 1957 - 1958: Grapple X & Y by Gordon F Coggon.

On 8th. November 1957 at dawn, we were all lined up and dressed in our long trousers and buttoned up shirts, long sleeved, with our headgear on. No more pretending, no more drills this was the beginning of the real thing.

The tannoys were in full swing, testing over and over again, and everywhere you looked there were men walking around like zombies, with that vacant look in their eyes and basically, in a world of their own.

Some were scribbling letters home , some just sat twiddling their thumbs, in fact people were just like everyone else ....nervous.

That was how it was at 0500 hours. At 0700 hours everyone had, had breakfast, and we were told to take up our predetermined positions as allocated on dummy runs. Some men were acting nervously by being childish, like,' No, this is my tree I was here', or 'This is my place , your bit of ground is over there etc. I was quite frightened myself, not knowing the unknown.

We could hear a lot of activity going on at the Airfield which was about a half mile away. We had heard the Valiants take off when we got up at 0500 hours. Clouds of steam was coming from the Distillation Plant which turned sea water into the Island population's drinking water. This Plant was run by an old Petty Officer and his crew. The sky was covered with 7/10th fluffy white cloud, then apart from the noise coming from the airfield, there was an uncanny silence from the men. After about five minutes the silence was broken by a right racket as three hundred odd trucks pulled up beside us on the road, the evacuation team had turned up. After stopping the vehicle's engines the drivers got out of their cabs and joined the rest of us sat down in the coconut groves. The talking began again, with a general shrug of their shoulders the men seemed to accept the inevitable.

The faithful old tannoy rattled into life, it was telling us that one of the long range Shackleton Search and Rescue Aircraft had intercepted a Liberian ship about one hundred miles away which was steaming at a reported eight knots toward the prohibited area where the bomb was to be detonated. After informing the ship's captain of the fact that he was heading his ship in the general direction of an H. Bomb, It was reported the ship did an about turn smartly, and was reported by the Shackleton crew to be doing a good twenty knots faster than it had ever done before, in the opposite direction.

That lightened the atmosphere a bit, everyone had a good laugh. 'D minus 20 minutes', the tannoy warned. the two Valiants were at their designated height and preparing their run in. The banter amongst the men was varied, some trying to be brave, and others very nervous not knowing what to expect. After all, no one knew what was going to really happen, even my mate Dusty was unusually quiet for a change, until he revealed his thoughts by saying to me. ' What if something goes wrong Coggy, what if it causes a tidal wave'? ' I don't want to think about it Dusty old mate, after all, the highest point on the Island is only about a metre above sea level', I replied , despondently. He went quiet again so I don't think I helped him very much.

Suddenly the loud speakers came to life again. 'Now hear this, now hear this, attention, attention, the lead Aircraft is at point Charlie, get to the ready positions, Take your head dress and press it close to your eyes, sit down with your back to the drop zone and tuck your head down into your knees, and do not, I repeat do not , try to look at the detonation'. Total silence, not a whisper could be heard anywhere, except for a padre who was saying a prayer out loud. That did not help anyone I can tell you, we more or less thought he was reading our last rights. '50,49,48,47',...and so the countdown began, everything very quiet now, ..'.39,38,37...' to be honest, I was very scared, I cannot pretend I wasn't.

'10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1,0,...' The most terrifying flash, and warm feeling passing through my body, the bones of my hands vividly showing through my beret. I thought that I was being cooked alive, but it did not last any more than a few seconds, Then I heard the tannoy and I knew I was still alive,... 'Stay in your present position, do not, I repeat, do not, look at the bomb. Wait until the countdown is at zero then you may safely look at the detonation'.

The count down began again, and it seemed an age before it got to zero. we finally was able to stand up and look around at this huge terrifying monster in the southern sky, it covered most of the horizon and seemed to be a boiling hot mass of cloud expanding higher and wider every second until it was right over our heads with a huge sun slowly setting in the middle of it, angry green lightening forked across the cloud continually, the boiling clouds changing colours and then a huge stem appeared to come downward towards the treetop horizon, like a giant tornado, the red fire ball was slowly turning duller and duller as it was engulfed in the boiling seething cloud, then another strange thing happened, an halo, ever rapidly growing outward in every direction from the bomb's stem, was vaporising the fluffy white clouds and leaving clear blue sky behind it, the stem of the bomb must have been a mile wide at least and the massive cloud above us blacked out the whole horizon to the south.

I remember watching, fascinated as the halo came over the top of us, but at that moment there was this thunder clap so loud it shook the whole island and over and over we were thrown like paper in the wind, I was struck in the face by someone’s dark glasses but I was lucky because many of the men got hurt by heavier flying debris, namely bits of trees, coconuts, tents and rubbish of all kinds, The padre that I saw earlier was comforting a chap who was bleeding quite badly from an head injury, Dusty was holding his elbow, he had been clobbered by a coconut.

Gordons book is available on Amazon - and is a fantastic read.

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