Britain’s Nuclear Deterrent Development – Part 9

Part of the Britain's Nuclear Deterrent Development series

On 3 October 1952, Britain detonated their first atomic bomb. 

Due to the small size and high-density population of Britain there were no suitable sites for an atmospheric weapons test. In 1950, Britain had made the request to the Australian Government to test its weapons in the uninhabited Monte Bello Islands off Western Australia. Australia formally agreed to the request in May 1951. The test was code named Operation Hurricane. 

To co-ordinate Operation Hurricane, the British government established a Hurricane Executive Committee. The committee was chaired by the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Edward Evans-Lombe, and the first meeting was held in May 1951. The Australians created an Australian Hurricane Panel, chaired by the Australian Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, Captain Alan McNicoll.  

Dr. William Penney © Los Alamos National Laboratory – Los Alamos National Laboratory

The team of observers selected for the operation included Dr William Penney. Penney, who was in charge of Britain’s bomb design and development with the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) and the only British scientist at the bombing of Nagasaki, wanted to secure the services of Ernest Titterton to assist with the tests. Titterton was a British nuclear physicist who had worked on the American Trinity and Crossroads tests, and was one of the few people outside the United States who had experience in planning and conducting such tests. Titterton had recently emigrated to Australia, accepting an offer from Mark Oliphant to become the foundation Chair of Nuclear Physics at the Australian National University in Canberra. On Oliphant’s advice, it was agreed to release Titterton.  

John Cockcroft, the Director of AERE, was keen for the assistance of Leslie Martin, the Department of Defence’s Science Advisor and a professor of physics at the University of Melbourne. Martin was accepted as an official observer, as was William Alan Stewart Butement, the Chief Scientist at the Department of Supply. Butement made extensive contributions to radar development in Britain during World War II. The only other official observer was Omond Solandt, the chairman of the Canadian Defence Research Board. Canada was party to an agreement with the UK to share technical information from the test. 

HMS Campania dressed for the Festival of Britain in 1951 at Plymouth Docks

 

Rear Admiral Torlesse was placed in charge of a small fleet assembled for the operation. His flagship and command ship for the operation would be HMS Campania. The ship required a refit for the role with workshops, laboratories, offices and cabins installed. A desalination plant was also required to remove the salt and impurities from the seawater, as the Monte Bello Islands didn’t have a fresh water source to supply the 1,500 personnel taking part in the test.  

Christopher Hinton was the man behind the production facilities for Britain’s atomic energy. The Explosives Storage Area at Foulness Island, Essex, played a key role in Operation Hurricane. The components were brought together there from the main manufacturers, for the bomb to be assembled, less its radioactive components. 

The British bomb design was similar to the U.S Fat Man device that was dropped on Nagasaki, but the British design incorporated a levitated pit. This improved efficiency by creating an empty space between the uranium tamper and the plutonium core, giving the explosion time to build up momentum. It’s described as being similar to a hammer hitting a nail and enables less plutonium to be used. This device was developed into the ‘Blue Danube’ weapon which would eventually be carried on the RAF ‘V-bombers’. 

On 5 June, the bomb was taken by lorry to Shoeburyness, where it was loaded onto a barge to be taken to HMS Plym which was moored at Stangate Creek in Sheerness, Kent. The radioactive components, the plutonium core and polonium-beryllium neutron initiator, were taken separately by air to Monte Bello. 

HMS Plym in 1943

HMS Plym was to escort Campania on the journey to Australia. It would be Plym’s last journey as she would also be the vessel in which the atomic bomb would be detonated. The test would be conducted with the bomb inside HMS Plym to simulate the effects of a nuclear weapon exploding in the hold of a ship after being smuggled into a British harbour. This scenario was a concern to the British at the time. 

The ships set sail from Portsmouth on 10 June. Physicists, mathematicians, chemists, botanists, doctors and engineers were all aboard and all had roles to play in the test. It took them eight weeks to make the voyage. For security reasons the ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope rather than via the Suez Canal, due to the unrest in Egypt at the time. They reached the Monte Bello Islands on 8 August. 

An advance party had already transported heavy construction equipment to the Monte Bello Islands and set up a meteorological station. The equipment taken to the islands included two bulldozers, a grader, tip trucks, portable generators, 1,800 litre water tanks and a mobile radio transceiver. Roads and landings were constructed and camp sites established in preparation for the test. 

Monte Bello Islands from Wikimedia 

H1, which was the main site and the location of the control room, was established on the South East corner of Hermite Island. The H1 control room is where the bomb would be detonated. The control room also held the equipment to monitor the firing circuits and telemetry, and was the location of the generators that provided electric power, and recharged the batteries of portable devices and ultra-high-speed cameras operating at up to 8,000 frames per second.  

Other camera equipment was set up around the Islands, with most of the monitoring equipment being positioned on Trimouille Island, which would be closer to the explosion. Concrete blocks of various sizes and strength were built and Anderson Shelters erected within the danger zone on the Island, all to test the impact of the blast. 200 empty petrol tins were also placed on Trimouille Island for measuring the blast. It was a technique that Dr Penney had used on Operation Crossroads, the US tests at Bikini Atoll. 

By the end of September all preparations were complete. HMS Plym was anchored 350 metres off Trimouille Island, in 12 metres of water. In just a few days the weather and wind conditions would be right for the test and her fate would be complete. 

On 3 October 1952, at 07:45 local time the final countdown began.  

Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was at Balmoral when the Hurricane test was conducted, visiting the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II and her family. Earlier that year, on 6 February, Queen Elizabeth II succeeded to the throne on the death of her father, King George VI. 

This clip is from a home movie made at Balmoral at the time. It shows Sir Winston and Lady Churchill with members of the Royal Family, including the Queen and a young Prince Charles.    

In a BBC documentary which aired in 2012, Prince Charles said that he remembered distinctly hearing Sir Winston say that he was “waiting on the Loch Ness Monster.” 

While Churchill looks relaxed, he was not off duty. His thoughts were very much on Operation Hurricane. On 3 October 1952, Churchill received news that Operation Hurricane was successful. 

Cloud from Britain’s first atomic bomb 30 minutes after the detonation 

The bomb had successfully detonated at 07:59 local time, which was 00:59 on 3 October in London. The explosion occurred 2.7 metres below the water line. Even though the blast was over 9 metres above the ocean floor, it left a 6 metres deep and 300 metres wide crater on the seabed. HMS Plym was vaporised.  

The device had created a blast equivalent to 25 kilotons of TNT. This was a greater explosion than the atomic bombs used against Japan in 1945. The larger of those blasts was on Nagasaki and was the equivalent of 21 kilotons of TNT.  

Royal Engineer, Derek Hickman, who was observing the blast aboard the fleet ship Zeebrugge, later said of Plym, “all that was left of her were a few fist-sized pieces of metal that fell like rain, and the shape of the frigate scorched on the sea bed.” 

Shortly after the test, Churchill sent a telegram to Penney, Cockcroft, and Hinton thanking them for “the devoted efforts they have made and the brilliant engineering skill they have shown.” 

This 33 minute film of Operation Hurricane, from the Ministry of Supply, highlights the technological achievements of the group of scientists and notes that the bomb and all the equipment for the tests were made in British workshops by British workmen. 

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