When Britain dropped H-bombs in the Pacific

A hydrogen bomb explodes above Kiribati, 1957

Grappling With the Bomb: Britain’s Pacific H-Bomb Tests
Nic Maclellan
Australian National University Press, 2017, 383 pages

Nobody better reflects the military and political elites’ cavalier attitude to nuclear weapons than Sir William Penney, the architect of Britain’s hydrogen bomb program.

Asked how destructive the new weapons were in meetings in 1961 between US Democrat President John F. Kennedy and British Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, Penney casually answered by saying: “It would take twelve to destroy Australia, Britain five or six, say seven or eight, and I’ll have another gin and tonic, if you would be so kind”.

This casual indifference of Britain’s real-life Dr Strangeloves to their grim new military power seeped out of the cosy gentlemen’s club they inhabited to inflict an all-too-real toll on the victims of “Operation Grapple”, as Nic Maclellan documents in his diligently-detailed yet anecdote-enhanced history written to coincide with its 60th anniversary.

Operation Grapple involved nine atmospheric H-bomb tests conducted in 1957 and 1958 in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now part of the independent nation of Kiribati) in the Pacific Ocean,

In the vast seas, far from London, any human inventory was considered unworthy of more than cursory consideration. This was particularly true of the thousands of indigenous Gilbertese islanders – “primitive peoples” in the language of British authorities, for whom radioactive fallout protection levels were set at more lax standards than for the “civilised” military and civilian personnel who staffed the test sites.

Britain (and France and the United States) did not need to seek, barter or bribe permission to irradiate their out-of-sight/out-of-mind backyard, says Maclellan, a veteran activist for a nuclear-free and independent Pacific, “only because they were colonial powers in the region”. They could do as they liked with their colonial possessions as “in the 1950s, there were no independent and sovereign island nations in the South Pacific”.

Panicked by a mooted United Nations ban on atmospheric H-bomb tests (a temporary moratorium was decreed in 1958 and made permanent in 1963), Britain raced to join the US, Soviet and French H-bomb powers, throwing time, caution and safety to the strontium-laden wind.

One aspect of the British tests, however, remained indispensable – keeping it from the public.

A “culture of secrecy” pervaded the program, from Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s decision in 1954 to go thermo-nuclear to the ensuing decades of soothing, official reassurances that the testing posed “negligible” health hazards.

Just to be sure, however, that such claims would not be exposed through challenges in a court of law, Britain temporarily withdrew from the UN’s International Court of Justice jurisdiction over nuclear weapons tests in 1955 (a tactic London reprised in 2017 over the pace and scale of implementing UN resolutions on general nuclear disarmament).

The involvement of Britain’s regional Commonwealth allies in its H-bomb testing program was also designed to avoid alarming the public.

Australia had been ruled out as a possible H-bomb test site because of “the Australian government’s need to mollify public opinion over radioactive fallout”. Opposition had been stoked by Australia’s hosting of Britain’s earlier tests of its much less powerful but still filthily potent A-bombs, but the ever-loyal, Cold War Robert Menzies Liberal government provided the uranium.

Reflecting troubling public concern, the equally loyal New Zealand National Party government posed the usually unspoken question between political friends by writing to London: “Why, if there is no danger from these tests, do the British and Americans not hold them near to home?” Although objecting to proposals to use New Zealand’s islands for the tests (which would be a “political H-bomb”), it provided extensive but less visible logistical support, on the quiet, for the testing program.

While British authorities celebrated the H-bombs’ new megaton yields, the human casualties had less reason to smile.

Military personnel and civilians copped the radioactive fallout, some, in what a confidential Army memo admitted, as deliberate human guinea pigs with the aim of discovering the effect of the explosions on “equipment, stores and men, with and without various types of protection”.

To add chemical insult to radioactive injury, Fijian troops had their fly-ridden military camps doused with regular doses of the toxic insecticide, DDT.

The health legacy from the nuclear tests endures through radiation-damaged genes passing on diseases and birth defects to the children and grandchildren of the Commonwealth military veterans and the islanders. Yet, the British government continues to deny adequate financial compensation to the victims by stubbornly contesting the health effects of radiation.

Denied, too, is the “moral culpability of the state” for the damage it inflicted.

A 2004 class action by 1011 British, NZ and Fijian veterans ground to an exhausted halt in a decade-long tangle of technical and legal mud, sparing Britain’s Ministry of Defence any payouts.

As a sop, in 2015, the Tory government included the British nuclear veterans in a £25 million government charity fund. But this covers all British military veterans, not just the A and H-bomb veterans (with nothing for the indigenous Kiribati citizens).

The fund was also constructed in a way that absolves the government from any future legal liability for compensation. There has been no admission of guilt.

The nuclear establishment at its dangerous and devious worst is well displayed through Britain’s H-bomb tests, where the initial crime is followed by bureaucratic chloroforming of public enquiry, a defensive war of legalistic attrition and the political distortion of independent medical findings. First comes the damage, then the denial.

The power, and the danger, of the atom is easily matched by the power, and danger, of its political masters.

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