In 1952, Winston Churchill gave the order to detonate Britain’s first atomic bomb.
Just 7 kilograms of plutonium destroyed the HMS Plym while it lay moored off the uninhabited Monte Bello Islands, on the north west coast of Australia. All that remained of Operation Hurricane was a landscape littered with radioactive metal fragments and the frigate’s shadow, burned onto the seabed.
Churchill told Parliament afterwards: “Normal blood temperature is 98.6 degrees. Many of us go over 100 degrees. When the flash first burst through the hull of Plym the temperature was nearly 1million degrees… All those concerned in the production of the first British atomic bomb are to be warmly congratulated on the successful outcome of an historic episode.”
And in the 70 years since that fateful day, no Prime Minister has ever asked a veteran of this country’s 45 nuclear tests what happened afterwards.
Never asked if it was true that men like Derek Redman died of unexplained pancreatic damage on Christmas Island, or how Billy Morris contracted leukaemia after one blast despite being rated A1 fit just weeks before.
Never asked how RAF navigator John Brothers died with seven tumours in his brain, throat and groin, or what befell pilot Eric Denson after he was used in what documents called “the initial experiment” while flying a ‘sniff’ plane on sampling missions through a mushroom cloud.
They never asked about their wives – about Wendy Brothers, who nursed her husband, and endured six miscarriages, or Shirley Denson, who saved her husband from suicide twice, then had to raise their four girls alone after he succeeded on the third attempt.
Not even when the first stories of cancer, sterility, and birth defects appeared in the 1980s. Not when court battles raged, when war pensions were refused, when medals were campaigned for. Nor when the nuclear veterans gathered, every November, to march past the Cenotaph in Whitehall, that monument to individual sacrifice and the nation’s gratitude.
* Read the full story of Britain’s nuclear weapons tests at DAMNED
None of the 15 Prime Ministers leading 26 successive governments of every political stripe met, or spoke to, any of the 22,000 men who served at the dozens of nuclear weapons tests they ordered in America, Australia and the South Pacific.
Even when Ronald Reagan signed laws guaranteeing compensation to US nuke veterans, the UK said it need not do the same. When geneticists found survivors of our weapons trials had similar DNA damage as clean-up workers at Chernobyl, they announced it would need to be done again, then decided not to bother.
When the Ministry of Defence expended millions upon millions of taxpayer money using lawyers to fight every war pension claim, litigate every civil case, and take a group action all the way to the Supreme Court arguing not that these men were not irradiated, but that they had not brought a claim within 3 years as per health and safety regulations, no PM stepped in and said: “This is wrong.”
Perhaps every single one of them was scared of the MoD. Perhaps each genuinely believed the most powerful weapon in their arsenal was completely harmless to the people who were closest to it when it went off. It is more likely, though, that there were other things to do – Europeans to handbag, Opposition teams to outwit, battles that must be waged with the civil service in other, easier departments.
While those prime ministers looked the other way, the veterans died. Sooner, and in worse ways, than most of us do. Campbell Waddell died at 34, riddled with cancer from head to toe and leaving 5 young children behind. Archie Ross died at 81 of leukaemia, but suffered for decades with a third eyelid growing across his eye which had to be systematically removed. Eric Barton survived bowel cancer, but had a war pension refused even as the US government, whose bombs he was sent to help explode, offered him £45,000 compensation.
Their widows battled their grief, and the government. When Barry Smith left his deathbed to attend a war pension hearing, and the MoD asked for an adjournment because its lawyers had not bothered to read the papers, he died within days but his widow Anna kept on fighting in his name. Shirley Denson attended countless court hearings, acutely aware that living in London she had a duty to represent widows much further afield who could not.
And their families had to fight a welfare system that shows no consideration. Shelly Grigg fought for benefits when she was left unable to work due to chronic pain and Dercum’s disease, a condition in which fatty deposits grow in her abdomen and have to be surgically removed. Steve Purse was born with hydrocephaly, shortened limbs, a deformed leg, and a curved spine. He went out to work, found love, and is struggling today with both the ineffable joy and indescribable horror of what imminent fatherhood may bring.
Churchill never met these families, even though his top brass warned of genetic fallout from the tests and the need for a compensation scheme. Attlee never met them, desperate to convince the Australians that Hurricane would leave no permanent damage. Eden was consumed by Suez, Macmillan by a new friendship with the Americans which his successor Wilson cemented in terror of the Soviets. Callaghan was hamstrung by industrial unrest and when Thatcher became the first PM for whom consideration of the veterans was a political necessity, she set up scientific studies that were designed to fail.
In the meantime, the top scientist was knighted. The politicians elevated to the House of Lords. The Queen for whom they went into the coldest of wars dished out honours to tyrants, charlatans, and perverts, but a medal was denied to those who had seen radioactive service.
Major took on one veteran’s case, and lost. Blair supported them in Opposition, and let them down in power. Brown said if there was a debt it must be paid, but never acknowledged there was no ‘if’. Cameron gave some funds to veterans’ groups to appease his backbench, May said she knew nothing about it, and Johnson… yes, what of Johnson?
Here is a PM mired in claims of incompetence, corruption, and lies. Of bodies piling high, and money flowing in and out of Downing Street without check. Who admires Churchill, and has done so little to emulate him.
To ask this man to show bravery and honour is, to some, a joke. But these veterans’ reasonable request is an opportunity for the PM to show he has these attributes, that he cares for what our flag represents, and that there is no higher sacrifice than service to and for others.
They are not asking you for money, Mr Johnson. Nor for knighthoods, tax breaks, or poncey wallpaper. They want one hour of your time – an hour in which you do not need to perform, bluster, or promise the moon on a stick. You need only listen, and look them in the eye.
And I guarantee that when they have finished speaking, you will order a medal, medical research to help their children, a compensation scheme, and a public apology. Because that is what is right, and that is all that can lift the cloud these people are living under.
The MoD will tell you not to do any of that. But the instinct for mischief which made you a journalist and has now made you PM, needs to ask: what does the MoD stand to lose, and what do I stand to gain?
The answer to both questions is the same: honour.
For more than 30 years the Mirror has campaigned for justice for the brave men who took part in Britain’s nuclear weapons tests.
The Ministry of Defence has fought back every step of the way.
We have told countless heartbreaking stories of grieving mums, children with deformities, men aged before their time and widows struggling to hold their families together, all while campaigning for recognition.
Two years ago we launched an appeal for a medal for the 1,500 survivors.
For the first time we were able to prove some were unwittingly used in experiments.
Our appeal was backed by then-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson but his review foundered after he lost his job.
It had only six meetings in two years. They never asked to meet veterans. They never questioned the evidence.
Instead they asked for information from the MoD, which has a track record of denying what its own paperwork later proves.
And as our medal campaign gathered steam, civil servants simultaneously withdrew public documents from the National Archives.
Would anyone working in Whitehall today stay there, if 3 megatons of plutonium exploded south of the river?
The test veterans and their families will never stop fighting. The Mirror will never cease to demand they are heard.
Prime Minister, listen to them. Overturn this disgraceful decision.