‘A coral atoll in the pacific is a long way from home’ Merry Christmas from Christmas Island

Given that my research covers the history of Britain’s Cold War in the 1950s, it doesn’t really lend itself to festive blogging. However, the name ‘Christmas Island’ did spark a somewhat displaced thought.

In 1950s Britain, photographs of mushroom clouds and debates about the atmospheric impact of testing sensitised the public to the nuclear development programme. But what of Britain’s Christmas Island nuclear testing ground itself? Did its distance and tropical topography effect ordinary British views of the weapons programme?

Royal Air Force personnel take a drinks break during work in the hot climate of Christmas Island

‘Royal Air Force personnel take a drinks break during work in the hot climate of Christmas Island.’ Imperial War Museum collections.

Christmas Island was the site where the British hydrogen bomb came to fruition. Teams of scientists, engineers and military personnel, operating in utmost secrecy, endeavoured to match the world superpowers, the United States and Soviet Union, in technological prowess. In the burgeoning age of deterrence strategy and test ban treaties, according to the British authorities ‘it would be unfair to ban them while [Britain] alone had no H-bomb of her own’. Development of an independent bomb would ensure that Britain maintained the wherewithal ‘to stand on an equal footing’ with global competitors. Operation Grapple, as it was known, was central to a British Cold War experience.

The testing magnitude and aftermath of radioactivity made finding a suitable testing ground difficult. Luckily for British planners, the Commonwealth offered a space capable of compensating for Britain’s unsuitably sensitive public and tiny land mass. In Australia, the Monte Bello islands and mainland Maralinga were chosen for their seemingly uninhabited expanse, amply sized for landing strips, laboratories, engineering workshops, accommodation and storage.[1]

In a series of British Pathe news reels about the lives of men engaged in Operation Grapple there is a sense that islands themselves, so far from Britain’s landscape and climate, matched the exoticism of the bomb. ‘Nature can be tough in the mid-pacific’ says a narrator with clipped restraint. Just 35 by 24 miles, it was hot, rainy, there were fly swarms and land crabs ‘as big as a man’s hand’. The impression is one of a fantasy land, almost intergalactic; and this seems to elide with the strange and bizarre bomb under creation – the ‘man made sun’.

A large mushroom cloud

‘A large mushroom cloud’. British nuclear tests in the 1950s; Imperial War Museum collections

And yet, there is an odd sense of familiarity about Christmas Island. The narrator emphasises its discovery by Captain Cook in 1777, suggesting that weapons development fits into a long line of British exploration. Pioneering and adventurous, perhaps Operation Grapple was not shockingly modern, but simply part of a British heritage. This is where Christmas becomes significant. How was such a traditional holiday represented and experienced in this exotic and futuristic landscape?

The Sergeants’ Mess Christmas dinner on Christmas Island in 1954 served up cream of asparagus soup and salmon vol au vents, followed by a full turkey dinner – all the trimmings – and topped off with Christmas pudding, brandy sauce and mince pies. By 1959 the menu had diversified but retained its traditional slant with such offerings as roast Aylesbury duckling and orange salad. It seems that as far as possible British traditions would be maintained.

Christmas Island servicemen were aware of how enthralling their lives at Christmas might be for the British public. In 1956 they clubbed together to send children presents in 34 hospitals in Britain. The voiceover in the news reel ‘Toys from Christmas Island’ acknowledges the oddity of a group of men so distant from the British isles sending a ‘sackload of presents from Christmas island of all places’ to childrens’ hospitals.

Of course, the charitable initiative was most likely a PR stunt to combat possible perceptions of the immorality of weapons testing. Rather than a contemplation of their dangerous and toxic activities the servicemen are thanked by one and all for ‘their wonderful thought’. After all, a British Christmas whether spent at the tropical epicentre of nuclear engineering, or in St Mary’s Hospital in Plaistow, is a national experience that even such ambiguity and dislocation can overcome. ‘A coral atoll in the pacific is a long way from home, but if you can’t spend Christmas at home then what better place to spend it than Christmas Island?

[1] The testing projects have since incited claims for compensation from the local Aborigines and service personnel whose homes and health were destroyed in the process.



Party politics & war: ‘the gambler’s last throw’

In March 1955 the Labour Party faced division over a Conservative party Defence White Paper that endorsed a seismic shift in war planning from conventional to nuclear weapons. As I peruse newspaper archives from that era, the Labour Party once again faces backlash on party votes for or against a difficult security decision – war in Syria.

The Defence White Paper of 1955 proposed to economise on conventional military resources, invest energetically in producing an independent British hydrogen bomb, develop the potential of nuclear submarines and continue establishing the air force as Britain’s nuclear ‘delivery’ force. It embodied an international trend towards deterrence, the notion that rendering British retaliatory forces devastatingly strong, would make it unthinkable for an enemy to invade or attack in the first place.

Cold War-absorbed Labour ministers, though in agreement that the threat of the Soviet Union required a rethinking of defence, were disagreed in various ways about the proposals encompassed in the White Paper.[1]

Clement Attlee’s sober and balanced… complaint… was that the acceptance of this main thesis [hydrogen deterrence] was not carried to its logical conclusion. He did not think the White Paper detailed strongly enough how it would protect Britain, as well as deter war. He demanded that better efforts be made to create a hydrogen bomb swiftly, considering the expense paid for that purpose. Similarly, Denis Healey advocated maintaining both conventional and nuclear forces, so as to use whatever weapons were necessary to halt aggression.

Mr Partiger explained that [H]e had gone pretty far down the slippery slope to Hell in the acquiescence he had given up to now in the manufacture of weapons and the atom bomb, and he felt it had got to stop somewhere. On the other hand, Wilfred Fienburgh defended deterrence describing it as a gambler’s last throw – the final “double or quits” of warfare.

Multi-faceted opinion

The official Labour Party response to the Defence Bill did not dispute the emphasis on nuclear weapons. The proposed Labour amendment to the Bill exhorted the government to explicitly and practically detail steps to ameliorate the grave and admitted deficiencies in the weapons with which her Majesty’s forces are at present furnished…

So the two-day debate in the House of Commons did not pivot on the rights and wrongs of war, but on its perpetration. The White Paper was passed by 303 votes in favour to 253 against; however, the Labour amendment to the paper failed by 303 to 196. Significantly, 57 Labour Party members abstained from voting. This was deemed a Labour failure, resulting, it was suggested from insurmountable internal rifts. What the episode demonstrates starkly is that a diversity of opinion on how to go about securing Britain, brought more complexity to party politics than the whether to prepare for war.

Nuances lost

Defence policies are refined in speech and text to strike a definitive tone. The very nature of war – seemingly an event of winners and losers – requires the policy behind it to be equally black and white. Moreover, war directives often occur at moments of heightened international tension, when it appears not only that a policy is necessary, but that it is of grave national importance to implement it immediately.

In the Times articles used here and in contemporary news on Labour’s Syria position, the press implies that Labour party opposition is/was beside the point (defending Britain). On closer inspection, Labour’s splits only revolve around concepts of defending Britain, and (though there’s nothing wrong with this either) are not simply the musings of pacifist feet draggers and menacing disestablishmentarians… Labour (and Conservative) views are diverse because war is not simple. Yes, a truism – but one that seems to be forgotten when tension becomes momentary emergency.

The public face of these conversations, never fully capable of being presented in-depth, risks portraying party policies on war as predictably confused and deluded. Politicians seem unwittingly strong-armed into roles as last-ditch gamblers, throwing the last dice: making a snap judgement, despite failure to plan for the known possibilities[2] and of course, the unknown.

The Labour free vote on Syria may appear factious but it is also an opportunity to remember that difficult decisions are not a game of cards.

Throughout the debates of the mid-fifties British nuclear development continued apace in Australian territory, where as this film announces, the first British H-bomb was successfully launched in 1957.

Throughout the debates of the mid-fifties, British nuclear development continued apace in Australian territory, where as this film announces, the first British H-bomb was successfully launched in 1957.

[1][1] All extracts used were taken from The Times reports of House of Commons proceeding, 1955.

[2] Woodrow Wyatt, Labour MP for Birmingham defending his belief in improving Britain’s nuclear and conventional weapons force. House of Commons debate on Defence White Paper, March 1955.