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?
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.
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’.
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?’
 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.