Christmas Island Recollections - David Stevenson

Since receiving copies of “Campaign” from the BNTVA, I’ve read many differing accounts of life and activities on Christmas Island, mostly written by National Service men of junior rank, understandably most with a chip on their shoulder, who unwillingly served there during the time of “Op Grapple”.

Remembering my time there, and noting the exaggerations and errors in some of the written accounts, I decided to put my own memories on paper for some one else to pull to pieces!

In the spring of 1957 I was a young troop officer in 25 Engineer Regiment, the Strategic Reserve Regiment, in Invitation barracks, Maidstone. My wife and I were looking forward to some leave, and fairly early one morning we set off to drive to my wife’s home in Hampshire. On arrival, we were greeted by my mother-in-law who handed me a telegram that had just arrived for me. It simply said ‘phone me, OC’ which I did, and he told me there was a flap on and to return PDQ. Leaving my wife, I drove back straight away and found the camp, which was so peaceful and orderly when I left it that morning, in a frenzy of activity. Within 30 minutes of arrival I’d been inoculated against most things, issued with a pile of jungle green kit and told I’d be leaving next morning with a party of 18 sappers bound for Christmas Island.

The journey, which took over 3 days on various civil airlines, took us via Heath Row, Amsterdam, Shannon, New York, Chicago, Seattle (where we changed into jungle greens) San Francisco, Honolulu (Hickham US Air Force base) and finally to small coral atoll in the middle a very big ocean. The highest part of the island is only about 9 feet above mean sea level and those parts not covered by coconut trees were mostly just muddy lagoons. The Island was haven for many differing species of wildlife. These included hermit crabs, land crabs, which seemed to get everywhere, and Climbing (coconut) crabs, small Christmas Island Warblers, tern, which flew all round you but just out of reach, booby birds, very clumsy on land but sleek in the air and had a habit of laying their eggs in the middle of roads and tracks, and frigate birds, to name just a few. The frigate bird became known as the grapple bird after the operation name.

Swarms of flies around the cookhouses were sprayed every day with DDT by a light aircraft to keep them down.

There were a few families of Gilbert and Ellice Islanders living on the Island and their interests were the responsibility of a young New Zealand District Officer and his wife. Two elderly WVS ladies were also there running a club for the boys.

The entire regiment flew out, in groups on civilian aircraft. One large group of sappers featured on the front page of the News of the World enjoying champagne and cigars flying first class on the leg to New York with BOAC, while our colonel did the whole journey tourist class. We all knew that our destination was an area where nuclear bombs were being tested, so no sapper could plead ignorance of the fact. So far tests had been carried out on Malden Island, about 400 miles away from but controlled from Christmas Island. The most recent results did not satisfy the boffins, who wanted further tests carried out ASAP.

What we did not know was the urgency to test a successful Hydrogen bomb before a worldwide moratorium was coming into force in October 1958 outlawing atmospheric nuclear tests. Such a bomb would put the UK on a par with USA and USSR as a nuclear power. In the interests of expediency, the powers that be decided that any further tests, therefore, would be carried out off the SE point of Christmas Island. Our task was to prepare the Island for these tests which were code- named GRAPPLE.

The tasks entailed improvement to the airfield, the building of various bunkers for control points, cameras and many other associated ancillary tasks. 28 Engineer Regiment had been stationed on the Island during the Malden Island tests and had been unaware that any further use would be made of the Island. As a result, following those tests, much of the equipment and facilities had been left in a poor state, which first had to put right before the main tasks could be tackled.

The biggest of these was the airfield, which had to be fit for Valiant bombers to use. With limited supplies of cement available, lagoon mud was used. Towed and motorised scrapers gathered it from lagoons near the airfield and spread it in layers about six to eight inches thick. When dried in the sun it was just like concrete. A tarmac wearing surface was needed and a “Starmix 40” to produce it had arrived in a freighter now anchored outside of the reef, Getting it into landing craft, (operated by Royal Marines), from the landing craft onto lorries and finally to the site at the airfield was a mammoth task.

A stone crusher had also arrived which was moved to the quarry. However, the Starmix was soon up and running producing ‘tarmac’ Mr McAlpine would have been proud of! Meanwhile work on other tasks was progressing apace. A squadron of Fijian Army Engineers joined us to assist and some of the Gilbert and Ellice Islanders were employed as labourers. The RAF and Royal Navy were as busy as we were with their own preparations. The bomb was to be aimed visually using a standard bomb sight and an aiming marker on the ground, so the RAF was busy with aiming practice.

About two days before the test, the bomb aimer said he could not see the aiming mark very well. We improved it overnight and the bomb aimer then said he could see it from 50,000 feet and 50 miles away ! For all the tasks we had a target date to work towards, (set by a comedian?) of November 5th. Living conditions were a little primitive, but the food was not bad. Supplies were kept in refrigerated, vessels anchored offshore, but if the sea got a bit rough, rations became short for a while. Tea chests full of (confiscated) cigarettes arrived courtesy of HM Customs and boxes of canned beer made up for some of the grumbles, however!

Part of starmix40 being lifted and loaded onto a modified and strengthened 10 ton lorry

For some reason or other, the date of the test was put back to the 8th. Archive films had been shown of previous atomic bomb explosions so that we would know what to expect! We knew the bird life would suffer, so on the day before the test, groups of us went to the SE of the Island and caught as many birds as possible in wooden crates, to hide them from the flash. Three Valiant bombers arrived and very many of us went to see these modern aircraft land on the restored runway and park on the hard standing. Oval doors opened the nose sections of each aircraft but instead of seeing “Biggles” characters emerge we saw middle aged business men with brief case come out!! What a let-down!

A final check was made to ensure that every person was in his alloted place. Local Islanders were to be taken on board an RFA (RFA Sommersby I think) and kept below decks to protect the from the flash. We had to sit in the shade of coconut palms facing away from GZ. At the moment of detonation, our eyes had to be closed, issued dark glasses worn and eyes and faces covered by our hands. Eyes were not to be opened for at least 10 seconds after the explosion and then we had to get quickly away from the cover of the trees. In the event of the Valiant crashing on take off, a plan was in place to move us all away from any danger of fallout. We heard the Valiant start up and take off on its prearranged course.

Starmix 40 finally in operation at the airfield

Then we heard, on the tannoy system, which had been rigged up in the trees, that the test was delayed! The final check to ensure that every person was accounted for found that one young sapper missing. He had left his spot to go to the loo and consequently the test was delayed by about two hours while the valiant began its run in again. The tannoy was linked up to the aircraft intercom so all could hear the bomb aimer speaking to the pilot. As he approached SE point we heard “ steady….steady....Left...Steady…right…...steady.…steady….....BOMB GONE “.

The tannoy operator then began a countdown at ten second intervals until he reached ten, when he changed to one second. As he reached five….four…..I felt very apprehensive….three….two….this is it!….FLASH…… and he started to count up. At the instant of detonation we all experienced the searing heat on our backs and could see the bones in our hands covering closed eyes. After ten seconds I opened my eyes only to quickly close them again as the light was still blinding. It was about another eight seconds before I could bear to open them again and able to see, but it was still very bright. Away from the trees, I looked round expecting to see a mushroom cloud in the distance, but instead it seemed to be almost over us. A huge bright fireball was rising up as the cloud rose and spread in the typical mushroom shape of a nuclear cloud. We were about twenty three miles from GZ but could hear no noise at this time, which seemed very unreal, but we watched the clouds vanish and immediately reform as the pressure wave spread out.

A small plantation of coconut palms about 200 yards in front of us in front of us suddenly all fell flat on the ground and the blast hit us a split second later. Many of us were knocked off our feet and I saw one very portly RAF padre lifted from his grandstand view on the front of the DUKW and dropped into a very muddy lagoon! The noise was not like that of a normal explosion, but a very,very loud crack, like a whip-crack. The sound was followed by another similar and then another and even more, each quieter than the previous as the effects of the blast reverberated in the atmosphere until the sound faded right away.

After a short while we all went back to main camp to see what chaos had been caused. The few wooden and metal buildings there had all suffered some damage, like end walls being blown outwards, but tents had survived very well. However, the blast had stirred the contents of the tents into a mess! I managed to photograph what was left to be seen of the mushroom cloud from my tent before it finally disappeared.

The next morning we released the birds that had been protected in crates and a large party of all ranks armed with .303 rifles drove to SE point shooting as many birds that had been burnt or injured as was possible. The ground had been pummelled and tracks and an airstrip near the target marker were hard to distinguish. Vegetation over the whole area had been burnt and a small sandy beach near the marker had become a beach of glass about three inches thick!

By this time we knew that we were to be relieved by 38 Engineer Regiment coming out by troop ship, hardly a cruise liner, TS Dunera., which would take us, 25, back to UK. As it would be only about half full both ways, the CO’s wife(who had been in SOE) arranged that any of our wives who would like to do so could travel with the ship on an indulgence passage for a nominal sum of a few pounds. This was normal Service practice and not a gimmick by the MOD, as one ‘researcher’ suggests. TS Dunera was operated for the MoD by the British India Steamship Co. at the regulation trooping speed of 12 knots, and if anyone did not like curry it was hard luck!

We carried on as best we could waiting for more stores to arrive. As Christmas was approaching, we thought we should do something for the Islanders and the idea decided on was to make a playground for the children. It would have swings., a see-saw, a small roundabout and a slide. While they were being put in place in we had an audience of children and adults, all looking very puzzled. We twigged that they had no idea what all these odd things we were putting up were for - they had never such things before! The sappers soon set to and demonstrated how to play with them and even our colonel demonstrated use of the slide.

Christmas was as good as we could make it. Plenty of beer and the food was very good considering. The Gilbertese and Fijians sang carols which we joined in with but it was just the remoteness of the Island and being away from home that the lads did not like.

To test the slide, col. Jack Gatford (CO of 25 Regt) made the first run.

Of course, in 1956 we had no mobile phones or internet so no contact with families, but radios would pick up Honolulu radio, which kept broadcasting the number one hit at the time over and over again, the Andrew Sisters singing “how’dya like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island”

Eventually patience was rewarded and we woke one Friday morning to see the Dunera anchored off-shore. In double quick time we were in the landing craft at Port London and on our out to her. After a quick reunion with our wives and families we all re-embarked in the landing craft and landed back on the Island. The Gilbertee wives and children greeted our families with songs and dances in the village Meet House and later we were able to show them a little of the Island.

The next day 38 disembarked and we handed over our duties. I guarantee it must have been one of the swiftest hand-overs on record! 25 Regiment embarked and that evening we all watched as the ship made headway and the Island slowly sank into the horizon. Our wives all wanted to party but unfortunately we were all feeling the uncomfortable effects of the Pacific swell!

The journey took us via Honolulu (for 3 days), Panama City (2 days), through the Panama Canal, on to Curacao,((3 days) and finally to Southampton. After a spell of leave It was not long before the Regiment was established in Osnabruck as part of BAOR.

Some of the sappers developed sicknesses and problems which could be down to service on the Island. There were some deaths as well. I feel lucky that I have had little sickness and now at 89 my only problem has been lymphoma in my eyes, for which I has a course of radiotherapy, and when it reappeared in my body I had Chemotherapy. My wife, at 88, had a mastectomy in 2017 while my children, (now all adults) are all healthy. I have have every sympathy for all those veterans and their families who have suffered a great deal and I support efforts to get them compensation.

I also support the call for medallic recognition for the work we all did. In 2002 I attended a reunion of Grapple veterans at which the speaker was Lord Tom King, (sometime time Defence Secretary). He stated that the successful testing of the H bomb put on a level with the USA and Russia and in his opinion helped to avert a third World War. That must surely be worthy of recognition.

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