Just Testing - Derek Robinson - Nuclear Tests

Originally published in 1985 by Collins Harvill.

In Derek’s words (from 1985):

There were many regulars among the men wo served at Maralinga, Monte Bello or Christmas Island. (Some did two tours of duty or more.) All the senior NCOs and nearly all the officers were regulars.

Many of them had served in the Second World War. This coloured their attitude towards the sharing of information, especially with National Servicemen. They preserved the wartime lesson that secrecy, like Guinness, is good for you. The more, the better, in fact. Excessive secrecy on Christmas Island and elsewhere had much the same effect as excessive Guinness: it overheated the imagination.

When I was researching this book, I met several ex-servicemen who recalled rumours that were taken, at the time, to be hard fact. It was said, for instance, that the lagoon at Christmas Island, had become so badly contaminated with radioactivity that it was placed out of bounds for swimming. It was said that Fanning Island, about 200 miles north-west of Christmas Island, had been obliterated by a nuclear test. It was said that a hydrogen bomb which exploded high in the air created a tidal wave that hit Hawaii, 1300 miles away. It was said that a different hydrogen bomb had set off a rainstorm that flooded Christmas Island. None of these reports was true, but clearly, they satisfied a need at the time.

Apart from the insatiable military appetite for secrecy, there are three possible reasons why the ordinary serviceman was told so little about the nuclear test he was obliged to witness.

One is the general tension of the 1950s. The Korean War was a mainly American affair, but British troops fought there too, and for a while it looked as if the conflict might brew up into a major East-West confrontation. Reservists were called up in large numbers. It was a curious period: neither war not peace. A band of Second World War pilots, all recalled reservists, arrived at Exeter airfield, where I was stationed. They paraded each morning in unbuttoned battledress and carpet slippers, to the fury of the Station Warrant Officer. Then they spent the day flying Spitfires at very low level, sometimes alongside the Cornish Riviera Express, to the alarm or the delight of the passengers. This was cheerfully cavalier (although at least one Spitfire crashed) but the sense of crisis that prompted it was threatening enough.

Only recently, Russia had tried to starve West Berlin into surrender by closing the air corridor, and it had taken a massive airlift by the Western Allies to best off that challenge. After Korea came the Hungarian uprising, supressed by Russia, and at the same time Britain and France (in cahoots with Israel) were fighting Egypt for the Suez Canal and much else.

It was a jumpy decade. People tended to see warclouds gathering whenever they looked out of the window. Thus Britain’s nuclear weapons tests were a military secret at a time when the Powers were often engaged in push-and-shove. The secrecy of the tests was part of their potency. Tell nobody, least of all your own men. Especially when they are National Servicemen who, after all, are not real soldiers (or sailors, or airmen.) Reason two.

And the third and greatest reason why officers and NCOs shared so little information about the tests with their men is that most of the time they knew nothing themselves. Even so, it is hard to understand why the military’s PR with its troops on places like Christmas Island was do dreadful as to be non-existent. The thin official news sheets that were issued were okay if you like potted squadron histories; after that they were bumf. No British or American newspaper or magazine reached the island unless a friend or relative sent it. No radio, except for a couple of privately owned shortwave sets. For most men, no official briefings before the tests, or afterwards; just an order to parade, and perhaps an announcement of success. The whole set-up was Soviet in its isolation. Christmas Island was a strange place, Don’t take my word for it. Read on next week.

Next blog - Witnesses

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