Monday, January 14, 2008
Ordered into the nuclear cloud
January 9, 2008
In the summer of 1956, the quiet of the Indian Ocean was broken by one of the biggest explosions ever caused by man.
The earth was shaken by a massive blast, equal to 96,000 tonnes of high explosive.
This was the UK's third nuclear test, the detonation of a bomb seven times the size of the device which laid waste to the Japanese city of Hiroshima and brought to a close the Second World War.
The blast was triggered on the tiny island of Monte Bello, 200 miles off Australia's west coast.
A flotilla of British and Australian warships was gathered in the tropical waters to witness the tests.
As the explosion took place, all but one sailed away from the blast to safety.
The ship left behind was HMS Diana, a floating experiment to test the impact of an atomic bomb on a modern warship.
Rather than turning tail, she steamed into the fallout zone to collect vital evidence for the admiralty.
On board was Brian Marshall, a 19-year-old sailor, who had joined the navy four years beforehand straight out of Blackpool's Palatine School.
He remembers vividly the day he saw the awesome power of the bomb.
Mr Marshall, now of Knott End, was a leading seaman and had been a navy bandsman when he was drafted on to Diana before she sailed for the Indian Ocean.
He said: "Everyone onboard knew what we were going to be doing.
"We were to sail into the fallout zone, to test the effect of the radiation on the ship.
"It seems an incredibly dangerous thing now, but that is what we had been asked to do."
Arriving in the Indian Ocean for the first time, Mr Marshall recalls the test site.
"It was not a group of tropical islands," he said. "This was a group of sandbanks, barely high enough not to be covered at high tide.
"The bombs were on a rig, like a pylon, hung above the sand."
As the hour of detonation approached, Mr Marshall and his crewmates saw the ships around them sail to safety, while they steamed into the danger zone.
He said: "Everyone else was sent upwind. We were to go downwind, into the area below the mushroom cloud.
"Before the bomb went off we were all taken into the ship. All the airtight doors were
closed.I have never breathed air so bad. It was like pure carbon dioxide.
"It wasn't just the crew using the air, everything on the ship had that same supply, the machinery and the crew, inside for hours."
Twice within a month, the crew was ordered below decks as the huge atom bombs were set off.
Mr Marshall said: "First there would be a bump. Then a double crack.
"You saw a semi circle on the horizon, like a full moon rising. It glowed and faded. Then there was a brighter flash of light."
Positioned just 96 miles off Monte Bello, Mr Marshall and the crew of Diana were in the perfect place to see the deadly beauty of the blast.
He said: "The column would start rising. It was so fast, growing visibly. Then you would see the familiar mushroom shape, rising up.
"When it hit the higher atmosphere, the top was sliced off, like an anvil, that was how the fall-out happened.
Millions of particles, bits of the blast zone, all highly radioactive.”
The crew of Diana was kept below decks until contamination levels dropped to acceptable levels.
Then the task of recovering samples began.
He said: “There was a boat covered in dishes, containing the fallout. They had to be brought onboard and then the boat was rammed and sunk. There was also a buoy, covered in the same sample dishes. I was on the boat which brought that onboard. We put a line on it and it was taken onboard ship using a rig. I remember it was red hot.”
During the recovery, the crew wore little more than shorts and gym shoes.
Mr Marshall recalls the effect the blast had on his beloved warship.
He said: “We were not in the blast or heat. But everything was contaminated. The only way to get rid of it was to scrub.
“Even then, there were hotspots o
nboard, places where fallout had accumulated and couldn’t be removed.”
So bad was the effect of the two bombs on HMS Diana that she was turned away from Australian port Freemantle as she began the journey home.
Mr Marshall said: “They didn’t want us, or anything to do with us. We were contaminated and that was that. The ship had to make for Singapore.”
Fifty years on, the scars of the tests remain on the Monte Bello islands and on the crew of the Diana who sailed into an area none had ventured into before, nor has anyone been into since.
Mr Marshall believes he and the crew of the Diana should never have been ordered into the danger zone and were deliberately exposed to radiation as part of the experiment.
But the sailor thinks the chance of compensation for those on board Diana asked to go above and beyond the call of duty is slim.