The Damned: Chapter 3

The Damned: Chapter 3The Damned: Chapter 3

Chapter 3

The bomb tests moved to a desert island in the South Pacific, where Britain exploded the most powerful weapon it has ever built

Mirror Special Reportby Susie Boniface

Read time: 16 minutes In 1958 Eric Denson was 26 years old, a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force, and "handsome and sexy as hell". He was married to Shirley, then 24, and father to daughter Suzanne, 2.

"He was one of the best pilots they had," said Shirley. "That's why they chose him. They had no idea what it would be like in that cloud, and he knew every inch of the Canberra bomber he flew. He even trained others.

If you wanted someone to fly through a nuclear bomb, he was the one who would be able to do it." Eric's job usually involved high-altitude patrols of the border with Iron Curtain countries in Eastern Europe. His favourite trick was to evade the radar of other countries, and was so good at it he even managed to twice fool the Americans based at Lakenheath in Suffolk.

The Damned: Chapter 3Eric Denson in the cockpit

One day he came home and told Shirley he had to go away on a top secret mission for six months.

Shirley said: "He looked very worried as he told me, and I knew he wasn't telling me everything. But at that time there was real fear the world was coming to an end, or the Soviets would invade. We were loyal to our country, so we had to make the best of it."

When Eric left Shirley for Christmas Island with the rest of 76 Squadron, it was for a six-month mission they believed would keep them, and Britain, safe.

The Damned: Chapter 3Eric and Shirley at the christening of their daughter Nicola who is now deceasedThe Damned: Chapter 3

Operation Grapple was what the entire nuclear testing programme had been building up to. The atomic devices that had been developed were to be used as triggers for even bigger, thermonuclear explosions - the hydrogen bomb. It had the potential to be 1,000 times more powerful than the blasts that leveled Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

And a million times more terrifying to Britain's enemies. An H-bomb uses an atom bomb to tear atoms apart in a process called fission, using a conventional bomb to explode highly unstable radioactive uranium or plutonium. All of that energy is then directed onto a second bomb within the same warhead to smash the atoms back together again - called fusion.

It's the same reaction that powers our Sun, only on a much smaller scale, and an awful lot closer. But public clamour for an end to nuclear tests was growing. Top secret documents from planning meetings in 1955 revealed officials were concerned to get an H-bomb quickly, and that to quell objections they would need to be "arranged in great haste" and "introduced by very careful publicity".

The officials and scientists even decided to spin their plans when presenting them to government - warning "it should be phrased in a manner calculated least to alarm ministers".

The Damned: Chapter 3

And so Britain launched its biggest military operation since D-Day. Servicemen from all three armed forces, scientists from the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, and even ladies from the Women's Royal Voluntary Service were sent to Christmas Island in the South Pacific - today renamed Kiritimati. Engineers built water tanks, distillation systems, runways and roads with the help of local islanders; the RAF provided aircraft and meteorologists to produce extensive weather forecasting over vast areas of ocean; technicians converted bombers to sampling planes, ground crew set up decontamination facilities; bulldozers and fire engines were shipped from Britain; and army signals built communication systems while the navy provided ships to patrol and guard the test zones so no-one could observe what Britain was up to.

The Damned: Chapter 3Royal Engineers construct the airfield runway on Christmas Island Wikipedia

Grapple was to consist of three separate bombs - codenamed Short Granite, Green Granite, and Orange Herald.

All were dropped by Valiant bombers over uninhabited Malden Island, 400 miles away, and all went disastrously wrong. The first, dropped in May 1957, had a yield of 300 kilotons - much less than expected. It was also 418 yards off-target.

Penney cancelled Green Granite and rebuilt the bomb with extra uranium. Meanwhile they fired Orange Herald - 720 kilotons, but the bomber crew almost died when their plane stalled. The bomb was on a clockwork timer and they would have been caught in the blast were it not for the quick-thinking pilot.

The rebuilt bomb, now named Purple Granite, did even worse. At just 200 kilotons, it was an abject failure. All three were declared H-bombs in the hope of fooling US observers into restoring co-operation.

That didn't work either.

The Damned: Chapter 3The Damned: Chapter 3

The Press had been invited to watch the blasts, and took the MoD's assertion of success on face value. The Daily Mirror's famous columnist Cassandra - real name William Connor - watched from aboard HMS Alert.

The Damned: Chapter 3Daily Mirror's famous columnist Cassandra

He wrote: "It was a dress rehearsal for the death of the world... through closed eyes, through dark glasses and with my hands covering my face, I saw the flash. Brighter than the sun, hotter than the sun, and ripped out of the secrets of the heart of the universe...

"AND THERE IT HUNG BEFORE US, A BOILING RED AND YELLOW SUN LOW ABOVE THE HORIZON. IT WAS AN OIL PAINTING FROM HELL, BEAUTIFUL AND DREADFUL, MAGNIFICENT AND EVIL."

The Damned: Chapter 3

Billy Morris' sister Rachel

Billy Morris was the first to die - a strapping lad of 20, reduced to skin and bone only months after being rated "A1 fit".

His sister Rachel said: "I remember him in his uniform - he was so handsome and such a lovely boy. He was never sick a day of his life. He went to Christmas Island on National Service and a few months after he came back he wasted away to nothing and died."

The Damned: Chapter 3Billy pictured second from the left

Billy, from Swansea, was a sapper in the Royal Engineers.

He was seen by 5 doctors when he enlisted, who recorded he was in peak condition. He was one of 2,500 to witness the first three Grapple tests in 1957, but reported sick on January 1, 1958 with nosebleeds and swellings in his neck.

The Damned: Chapter 3Billy's sister Rachel

He was flown back to the UK, where he was diagnosed with "an organic disease of the glands" and then allowed home. He collapsed and was readmitted, diagnosed with leukaemia, and died on June 14 - just 13 months after the Grapple began.

His girlfriend Sylvia was pregnant. His inquest heard Billy's only protection at the tests was a pair of dark glasses. Asked about the risk of contamination by rainwater, an officer admitted that water did enter the men's tents but "the beds were all at least 12 inches above the ground".

The verdict was "death from natural causes", on the grounds his type of leukaemia was not linked to radiation. Studies have since shown there may be a connection. Rachel said: "The Royal British Legion wanted to use Billy as a test case for compensation.

But his girlfriend lost the baby and my mother found it all too upsetting, so we decided to pull out."

The Damned: Chapter 3

Derek Fiddaman was ordered on deck to watch the explosions

Derek Fiddaman was also there in 1957 - a 21-year-old naval rating on guard ship HMS Cossack, stationed west of the island. He was ordered on deck to watch the explosions, and believes prevailing winds later dropped fallout on the crew.

He said: "I plotted the position of the ship at the point the bomb was dropped - and the wind was from the east." In 1975 he developed lumps on his face that were diagnosed as basal cell carcinomas - cancers rooted in the deepest layer of skin. In the 43 years since he has had 1,000 hospital visits and more than 200 tumours removed.

The Damned: Chapter 3Derek Fiddaman has about five tumours cut out every year

Derek, now 80, of Horsham, West Sussex, said: "I have about five cut out every year, so if I live another 20 years there'll be 100 more.

Each time they cut one out I go back and there's another one growing in the scar." After a long fight with the MoD he won a 60% war pension on the grounds his cancers were caused by radiation - from the sun. He said: "I'm one of the lucky ones.

It's not going to kill me. All I want is to hear the word 'sorry'. They never will, but that's all I want."

The Damned: Chapter 3

At home, politicians were aghast at the failure of the blasts.

The test ban treaty was expected within a year, and without an H-bomb Britain would never again be a global power. Task force commander Air Vice Marshal Wilfrid Oulton was recalled to London and told to conduct more tests. In his memoir Oulton said that on his return he and chief scientist Bill Cook walked on the beach one evening, "gin and tonics in hand", and realised they did not have enough time to do it at a distance.

This time, the bomb target would be 1.5 miles off the south-east tip of Christmas Island - where the servicemen lived. He wrote: "We knew we couldn't do it from Malden again because that was 400 miles away. We thought it would be safe at Christmas Island because the dropping point was 30 miles away from the main camp."

Later, on December 4, 1957, Oulton reported to the Atomic Weapons Trials Executive moving the test to Christmas Island "had made the mounting of the operation much easier and had resulted in savings which might be as much as GBP2m". The new tests were codenamed X, Y and Z. Servicemen who were expecting to go home were told they would be staying an extra year.

Another airfield was built, and further laboratories and bunkers. Officers combated sinking morale by organising leave in Fiji and Hawaii, evening radio programmes and regular propaganda sessions telling the men how vital the tests were to national security. There were fewer safety checks.

While AWE records show that 96% of those at Hurricane had film badges to record their radiation dose, the proportion dropped to just 8% at Grapple X and 3% at Grapple Y. Veterans who had overalls and balaclavas at earlier tests now wore everyday shirts and shorts as they were mustered to witness the bombs. The first bomb was supercharged with extra uranium in the core, surrounded by a jacket of beryllium to concentrate the force of the initial explosion and magnify the power of the blast.

Grapple X was dropped at 8.47am on November 8, 1957, with a yield of 1.8 megatons. Britain finally had the H-bomb.

The Damned: Chapter 3Grapple Y blast

Grapple X had needed a lot of enriched uranium, which was expensive to produce. Grapple Y aimed at using less of it by increasing other radioactive components.

This new bomb was dropped at 10.05am on April 28, 1958. Flt Lt Denson's Canberra was in a fleet of "sniff planes" that had been specially converted to collect samples so scientists could determine the strength of the blast. Records show he entered the mushroom cloud 49 minutes after the blast, and spent 6 minutes flying through the incredible turbulence.

Into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell, rode the six hundred...

A quote from Charge of the Light Brigade that Eric Denson repeated as he flew into the mushroom cloud

Shirley remembers: "Eric never discussed with me what had happened on Christmas Island.

I once overheard him talking about it with my father. "He said he had almost lost control as the plane went into the mushroom cloud. They were tossed about by the most incredible forces.

He said he just held on, and recited that line from the Charge of the Light Brigade, 'Into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell, rode the six hundred...' over and over again." This time the bomb went according to plan. It had a yield of 3 megatons, 112 times greater than Nagasaki.

It was clear to governments worldwide that the British now had the most powerful weapon on Earth.

Whole body dose of radiation

In 1958 AWE scientists wrote a document titled: "Determination of the whole body dose of radiation acquired by Aircrew members while on Cloud Sampling detail." Its purpose was to compare readings on the 'Charlie meter', mounted inside the cockpit, with film badges worn by the three crew. It says: "Care was taken to ensure that as little shielding effect as possible was given by the ejector seat and that no equipment of any description shielded the badges."

Four badges were placed around the pilot, wireless operator and navigator - one on the headrest, two on each armrest, and the last "in seat pan 1 inch from testicles". It says using feedback from the first sampling mission, the second 'sniff' plane was able to stay in the mushroom cloud longest, and states: "Thus the initial experiment was carried out on personnel flying the Secondary sampler." Eric Denson was pilot of the second plane.

The experiment proved the Charlie meter was inaccurate, and found the pilot was the most exposed crew member. The badge behind Eric's head recorded a dose of 18 Roentgen, equivalent to 165 years' worth of normal background radiation. The badge next to his testicles had a dose of 8.8 Roentgen, which is about 30 years' worth of natural exposure.

The document proves scientists were aware Eric's family might be affected. It says the lower testicular readings "are of interest and cheer in relation to the possibility of genetic damage".

The Damned: Chapter 3Eric's log book

After the flight, Eric vomited for 48 hours. His log book - signed off by two squadron leaders, one of them a holder of a Distinguished Flying Cross - shows that he was ordered back into the same plane two days later on April 30 for "radar calibration and formation flying".

A navigator on his squadron, Joe Pasquini, claims the plane had not been decontaminated but left alone on an isolated patch of airfield. He also says using an expensive, and radioactive, bomber to calibrate ground radar would be ridiculous when there were many smaller, safer aircraft on the island. He adds: "We never flew in formation.

The only reason I can think of to send Eric back up, with another plane to observe him, would be to see how a RAF pilot and plane would operate after being irradiated. Seeing as he was used in an 'initial experiment', perhaps that was the second." The MoD says it has no record of the flight.

The Damned: Chapter 3

Scientists were well aware of the risks of radiation.

Gamma and beta radiation from the initial burst - and to which Eric was exposed while flying through the cloud - could be followed by fallout, when material sucked up and irradiated by the blast drops back to Earth below. These 'alpha particles' are so weak they cannot pass through skin or paper. But if they are ingested in water, food or air, they cannot escape again.

And thousands of servicemen were living next to the testing grounds. Scientists believed that if the bombs were detonated high enough, they would not draw sand, soil or sea water into the maelstrom. But Grapple Y took place in the wet season.

The AWE document on Eric's experiment mentions "the wet weather encountered during the trial". Veterans, observers, and contemporary accounts all say the bomb dropped lower and closer than it should have done, and that "black rain" fell on the island immediately afterwards. More than half of those who have joined the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, which has campaigned on claims of radiation-related health issues since 1982, were present at Grapple Y.

Among the survivors, it is known as "the bomb that went wrong". The Damned: Chapter 3

The risks were known

Britain was aware of the risks before the tests began. Historical documents released from the state archives show that in 1951 Penney demanded insurance for scientific staff in case any developed radiogenic diseases.

Admiral Arthur Torlesse said he would only order his men into danger "in the knowledge that the Admiralty accept liability for those killed or injured on duty". And on May 20, 1953, the Defence Policy Research Committee discussed how troops would be affected by the blasts. It said: "The Army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosion on equipment, stores and men with and without various types of protection."

The Damned: Chapter 3Prime Minister Anthony Eden

In 1955 Prime Minister Anthony Eden was warned that if the scientists were to build an H-bomb, it could damage troops' DNA.

A letter headed 10 Downing Street and dated November 14 says: "The Prime Minister saw the report from Sir Harold Himsworth about the report of the Committee considering the genetic effects of Nuclear Radiation. His comment was: 'A pity, but we cannot help it'." In a draft report ahead of Grapple Y, Air Commodore Denis Wilson, the senior medical officer on the task force, said he expected servicemen to die.

He wrote: "It is emphasised that in the event of the expected yield being obtained or increased there will almost certainly be in addition to considerable material damage, casualties to individuals, and this should be taken into consideration." He goes on to say the servicemen face "significant increases" in radiation exposure compared to previous tests, should be dug into shallow foxholes to shelter from the blast and given protective clothing.

The Damned: Chapter 3The Grapple Z Burgee blast

"YOU are about to experience something no-one else in the world will ever see," the senior Army officer told a ship full of Royal Engineers. Raymond Webber was a 21-year-old sapper when he heard it, and 60 years later remembers it ironically.

When the ship finally docked at Christmas Island in the South Pacific in 1958 he not only witnessed 5 massive nuclear bombs, but one of his tasks was to drive a truck through the fallout to collect heavily-contaminated equipment while wearing nothing but shorts and sandals.

The Damned: Chapter 3Raymond Webber in the Royal Engineers.

Raymond, 81, of Gillingham, Kent, said: "A couple of senior types came and grabbed me one day, told me to drive them into the 'forward area'. That was the sharp end of the island where all the bombs were exploded. "It was a huge truck, kicked up tons of dust and we had the windows down because it was so hot.

We drove to a shed that had three generators in it to run the monitoring equipment that took readings during the explosions. I waited while they loaded some stuff in the back. I asked what it was and they said I didn't need to know.

"When we left there was a mobile decontamination point that they had to go through, and they had shower after shower because their readings kept showing radiation. They washed me down too but we all put our uniforms back on, which must have been contaminated. And the truck wasn't washed, and we all climbed back in that."

Raymond had joined the Army as a 16-year-old apprentice. On returning home he married and had children, eventually leaving the Army in 1965. Her said: "It wasn't long after I came back that I was wearing false teeth, and I've got osteoarthritis in my knees and neck.

But I'm not worried about me. It's my children."

The Damned: Chapter 3Raymond Webber.

Raymond had 5 sons, all now in their 50s. The oldest was diagnosed with arthritis while undergoing Army basic training, and now has crumbling discs and cluster migraines.

The second son has arthritis, a deformed lung and chronic condition lymphodoema. Another son has generalised arthritis and a thyroid condition, and the youngest child is the healthiest. Third son Philip, 55, has arthritis in all major joints, stage 3 chronic kidney disease, diverticulosis, cellulitis, depression and insomnia.

His daughter, aged 26, has pain in her knees and hands already. Raymond said: "Radiation knows no time limits. None of us knew what we were letting ourselves in for, and we had absolutely no protection.

Ever since we've tried to get people to believe that what went on should never have happened."

The Damned: Chapter 3Roy Kirkland

RAF sergeant Roy Kirkland was ordered to sleep just half a mile from Ground Zero. In a memoir, he wrote about living in a tent next to a target area that was turned to glass by the bombs, and said he was also told to clean and pack contaminated instruments used by scientists to monitor the blast. It reveals that after a few months his unit was ordered to move from the main camp, which was 30 miles from the blast zone, to 'B site', right next to the target area.

Roy wrote: "Scientists were going to explode an A-bomb. This was to be done by putting the bomb in a large basket slung under a flying barrage balloon tethered to the floor by steel cables rooted in large concrete pads. Now we knew what those concrete pads half a mile from our tent lines were for."

He said they were not moved back to main camp during the actual explosions, but to a level area near 'B site'. He wrote: "We huddled together in total terror, stunned and silent by this phenomenon. There are not enough words to describe everything at that moment in time.

I would say it took at least half an hour for us to contemplate even talking in any semblance of normality. "What right had the British government of that day to subject me and thousands more to that torture without facts being explained to us first about the after-effects? We stayed at B site as life went on, writing letters home and yearning for the day when we could go home."

The Damned: Chapter 3Melissa (left) Claire (right)

Roy returned home to Burton-on-Trent, his wife Angela and baby Denise, who was born while he was away.

The couple went on to have four more children, two with chronic health problems. Daughter Melissa Cooke has severe thyroid and joint issues, and her son was born with a faulty heart valve. Another daughter, Claire Kinson, has had skin cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, and has unexplained lesions on her legs.

But it was Claire's son Wayne who paid the highest price. He was diagnosed with an extremely rare cancer of the nervous system, called a neuroblastoma, aged just 3. He underwent four years of aggressive treatment before dying when he was 7.

The Damned: Chapter 3Wayne

Wayne's aunt Denise Venning told the Mirror: "My dad used to say all they had on was a pair of shorts and when the bombs went off they were simply told to look the other way.

Afterwards he was told to clear the beach of all the dead birds and debris from the bombs using their bare hands. "He was devastated to see the illnesses in our family and particularly when Wayne was diagnosed he would say 'I wonder if it was anything to do with me'." There were still 4 more tests to come - known as Grapple Z, they were aimed at refining the weapon to get as big a blast as possible out of a bomb weighing no more than a ton, and to do so before an international moratorium began in October 1958.

They took place in August and September. Pendant, which used different ingredients to prime the bomb, was suspended from barrage balloons. Flagpole was dropped from a plane using blind radar techniques.

Halliard had a three-stage design to trigger the blast and used pilot visual targeting, while Burgee was exploded using barrage balloons and tritium gas. They had a combined yield of just over a megaton, and were the last full-scale nuclear weapons Britain ever fired.

The Damned: Chapter 3

In the aftermath, American co-operation was re-established, weapon systems were designed, and eventually the two nations entered an agreement whereby US missiles were used with British nuclear warheads. Between 1962 and 1991 the UK exploded a further 24 devices underground in Nevada, using US expertise and sharing results with their scientists.

These were tests on specific warhead designs, with comparatively low yields. The last one took place under John Major's government, and involved testing a refinement that enabled the person firing a missile to specify its precise yield, and therefore circle of damage it would cause. As the Cold War thawed and Ronald Reagan held summits with Mikhail Gorbachev, nuclear weapons began to be decommissioned all over the world.

Today Britain retains one nuclear weapons system - Trident. Four nuclear submarines, each armed with 16 missiles, patrol the seas, while a further 150 or so warheads are stockpiled and maintained by US experts. While the MoD disputes all claims of servicemen being used as guinea pigs, there is documentary evidence they were used in experiments by the scientists - not experimented upon, perhaps, but certainly experimented with.

Used like pokers to stoke a fire, and discarded if damaged.

Veterans insist, whatever the official safety regulations claim, that they had little to no protective clothing, and no briefings whatsoever about the possibility of genetic damage to their future children.


If you would like a relative included here, please email a photograph with details of name, rank, unit, bomb test, any health problems or cause of death, along with description of family issues, to [email protected]

Or if you want to get involved in the fight for justice for our veterans by signing a petition or more, visit the Get Involved page to find out how you can help.

The Damned: Chapter 3

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