Grappling with the Bomb: 60 Years After Britain’s Pacific Hydrogen Bomb Tests

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Grappling with the Bomb: 60 Years After Britain’s Pacific Hydrogen Bomb Tests

An interview with Nic Maclellan

Grappling with the Bomb: 60 Years After Britain’s Pacific Hydrogen Bomb Tests
Credit: Dutch National Archives Public Domain

Sixty years ago, in 1957, the United Kingdom began a series of hydrogen bomb tests at Malden Island and Christmas Island, both now part of Kiribati in the central Pacific. The nine atmospheric nuclear tests were part of Operation Grapple, the UK’s effort to keep up with the nuclear club. Following the tests, the UK became the third state to possess thermonuclear weapons, after the United States and the Soviet Union.

As journalist Nic Maclellan, author of Grappling with the Bomb:Britain’s Pacific H-bomb Tests, tells The Diplomat, nearly 14,000 British troops travelled to the central Pacific for the testing program, among them 550 New Zealand sailors and 276 Fijian soldiers. Many of those who are still living continue to suffer the health consequences of being nearby when the bombs went off. Further, many histories focus on the political and scientific developments, leaving off the record the stories of ordinary workers, Pacific Islanders and women.

In 1952, the UK tested its first atomic device in a lagoon in Western Australia. Several more tests followed in South Australia throughout the 1950s. Operation Grapple, which your book focuses on, occurred in 1957 and 1958 on several Pacific Islands. Why the change in location?

Seeking to maintain its status as a global power after the Second World War, Britain tested 12 atomic bombs in Australia between 1952 and 1957. But when the major powers developed more powerful hydrogen bombs — the United States in 1952 and the Soviet Union in 1953 — Britain followed suit. After being refused H-Bomb test sites in Australia and New Zealand, the UK government decided to test its thermonuclear weapons in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony – today, part of the Pacific nation of Kiribati. Under Operation Grapple, nine hydrogen and atomic bomb tests were held at Malden Island and Christmas (Kiritimati) Island between May 1957 and September 1958.

What was significant about the Grapple tests in terms of Britain’s independent nuclear development?

During the Cold War, successive British governments regarded nuclear weapons as a symbol of technological prowess and global status. Sir Winston Churchill’s scientific adviser Lord Cherwell argued that the development of hydrogen as well as atomic weapons was central to maintaining Britain’s status as an imperial power: “If we are unable to make the Bomb ourselves and have to rely entirely on the United States for this vital weapon, we shall sink to the rank of a second class nation, only permitted to supply auxiliary troops, like the native levies who were supplied small arms but not artillery.”

Operation Grapple served a political as well as strategic role. By the late-1950s, the United Kingdom was facing anticolonial revolt across the Empire. Relations with Washington were frayed by spy scandals and the failed invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis. In contrast, Operation Grapple kept Britain as a central player in the Western alliance, at a time many Asia-Pacific nations and Western peace movements were pushing for a moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing.

What role did local personnel — from New Zealand, Fiji, and so on — play in the tests?

For the development of its nuclear arsenal, the United Kingdom deployed thousands of military personnel and scientific staff to Oceania. Nearly 14,000 British military personnel participated in Operation Grapple. In this cohort, there were more than 550 New Zealand sailors, deployed on two NZ frigates that served as weather ships. Another 276 Fijian soldiers and sailors worked on Christmas Island, unloading ships, as engineers or laborers.

Christmas Island also hosted a large copra plantation. Dozens of Gilbertese plantation workers, supported by their wives and children, were given jobs as laborers as the test base was first established in 1956. Most of these people witnessed one or more nuclear tests and – despite British claims the tests were safe – a number were exposed to hazardous levels of radiation.

Why have their experiences been left out of official histories of Operation Grapple and why is it important to weave them back into the history they witnessed?

Most books about Operation Grapple focus on the scientists and politicians who developed the hydrogen bomb, rather than the ordinary workers and military personnel who staffed the test sites. Beyond this, histories that record the stories of military veterans focus on the British troops, ignoring voices from the Pacific. There are also few stories recorded from women who were living on the island.

On the 60th anniversary of the tests, therefore, Grappling with the Bomb is a small contribution to sharing the testimony of Pacific Islanders who were actors in the nuclear age, rather than just victims. Long before Greenpeace took to the oceans, there was widespread opposition across the Pacific to U.S. and British testing. I draw on Colonial Office archives to document these protests during the 1950s, from diverse figures like businessman James Burns, British pacifist Harold Steele and customary leaders in Marshall Islands, Fiji, Cook Islands and Western Samoa.

Have the modern states of the region, plus the UK which conducted the tests, done anything to address the long-term health impacts of the tests?

Between 1946 and 1996, there were more than 315 U.S., British and French nuclear tests at ten sites across the region. Many of the workers and military personnel who staffed the Pacific test sites, as well as indigenous communities on neighboring atolls, have faced serious health problems in the aftermath. During my interviews with the ageing survivors of Operation Grapple, I was told of cases of leukemia, cancer and sterility. Unlike the United States and France, which have established compensation schemes for nuclear survivors (however insufficient), the United Kingdom claims its tests were safe. The UK Ministry of Defence has fought every legal challenge brought by the nuclear veterans, who attribute many illnesses to their presence on Christmas Island.

In the course of your research, you interviewed survivors from Fiji, New Zealand and Kiribati. How do these people view the tests now, with all the benefits of hindsight?

At the time, most of the people involved were young, aged in their 20s. The opportunity to travel to Christmas Island promised employment and adventure. Most knew little — if anything — about nuclear weapons or the hazards of ionizing radiation. It was only decades later, facing ill-health, that NZ and Fijian service personnel began to organize to claim compensation from the British government — a battle that continues today. Many nuclear veterans feel betrayed. They served God, Queen and Country, but received little recognition. Now, in their 80s, their greatest concern is the potential effects from radiation for their children and grandchildren, especially as independent medical studies have documented genetic damage for the New Zealand naval cohort.