In 1956, HMS Diana sailed into the aftermath of an atomic explosion, testing the impact a war with the Soviets might have on British servicemen. The consequences were horrific, and yet those on board continue to be denied compensation. Sean Rayment reveals the full story.
On a cold, clear morning in late March 1956, the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Diana, quietly and without ceremony, slipped her moorings at the Devonport naval base and set a course for the Indian Ocean.
he young close-knit crew of 300, who were a mixture of regular and National Service seamen, knew little about the mission, except that on arrival they would be ordered to observe a series of nuclear explosions.
But the sailors were to be more than mere spectators. Britain’s military chiefs in the early 1950s believed that a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was inevitable.
If British troops were to have any chance of survival, commanders needed to know how long they could fight with and without protective equipment in an environment contaminated by radioactive fallout.
HMS Diana’s crew would help to provide the answers by being deliberately exposed to the deadly effects of an atomic detonation.
In a unique but ultimately lethal experiment, the ship would be ordered to steam through a radioactive cloud. For protection, the crew were issued only with Polaroid sunglasses, overshoes and face masks.
The results were catastrophic. Within weeks of the nuclear trials, several of the ship’s company had fallen ill. Some lost teeth, while others lost hair – all classic signs of poisoning by radioactive material.
Today, there are just 60 members of the original crew left alive. Of the 240 who have died in the intervening years, more than 100 had cancer.
Between 1952 and 1967, more than 22,000 servicemen from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the US and other countries witnessed hundreds of nuclear explosions in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Many were contaminated by radioactive fallout and thousands of veterans have died prematurely, often in extreme agony.
For 25 years, servicemen involved in the tests have been campaigning for the British government to accept liability for their plight, arguing that they are due compensation. However, the Ministry of Defence refuses to accept that there is a link to the atomic tests.
This refusal continues even in the face of new scientific evidence showing that veterans who witnessed the nuclear tests were three times more likely to have damaged chromosomes than other members of the population.
Such damage is known to lead to cancer-related illnesses and hereditary genetic disorders.
Today The Sunday Telegraph can tell, for the first time, the full story of HMS Diana – which was captained by John Gower, the uncle of the former England cricket captain David Gower.
Based on the personal accounts of those who took part in the secret atomic experiments – codenamed Operation Mosaic – and from legal testimony, we reveal how the Diana’s crew were deceived and betrayed by the Ministry of Defence.
In the late 1950s, many British and American military leaders believed that nuclear war was inevitable, and the US and the Soviet Union were locked in a dangerous arms race that would rumble on for another 30 years.
America refused to share its nuclear secrets with Britain. After the defections to the Soviet Union in 1951 of two senior Foreign Office officials, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, after years of spying for the KGB, Washington believed that the British establishment was riddled with communist agents.
If the British government wanted to become a nuclear power, it would have to develop its own weapons. Time and money were both short and the safety concerns for those involved in the operations were at best secondary to the bomb’s development.
A copy of an MoD document marked “TOP SECRET”, released under the 50-year rule by the Public Records Office, reveals the government’s position at the time.
The report, which was produced for a meeting of the chiefs of staff committee in May 1953, states: “These (nuclear) tests are of the highest importance to departments, since on their results depend the design of equipment, changes in organisation and administration, and offensive and defensive tactics. The Navy requires information on effects of various types of atomic explosions on ships and their contents and equipment … The Army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosion on equipment, stores and men, with and without various types of protection.”
Two years later, in 1955, Anthony Eden’s Conservative government announced that Britain would begin making nuclear weapons.
But time was running out. A worldwide ban on the testing of nuclear weapons loomed and Britain needed to develop its programme quickly. It began a series of tests, in which HMS Diana would play a central part.
The ship’s crew was composed of men such as 19-year-old Arthur Hart, a mechanic, whose body today is riddled with more than 100 tumours, and his shipmate Bob Malcolmson, who in 1973 developed blood cancer and died a few years later.
Those veterans still alive have fond memories of 1956 and the five-week, 11,000 mile voyage from Devonport, via Malta and Singapore, to the west coast of Australia. While much of the ship’s company were young sailors taking part in their first big deployment, several crew members, including the captain, were Second World War veterans.
Despite a growing suspicion that they were to play a more active role in the experiments than merely observing the nuclear explosions, it was not until HMS Diana arrived at Monte Bello, in May 1956, that the crew learnt the full truth about the operation.
Rather than observing the atomic explosions from a distance, they would be required to steam through the radioactive cloud, collecting debris from the blast for scientific examination.
Today, few servicemen would agree to take part in such a dangerous plan, but the 1950s was an age in which troops simply did as they were told. And any doubts that did exist were quashed by the scientists on board, who managed to convince the men that there was nothing to fear and that the success of the operation was vital to Britain’s future defence.
Over a five-week period, the crew witnessed two explosions, the second of which took place on June 19, 1956, and was equivalent to 98,000 tons of TNT, more than seven times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
After the ship cruised to its standby position in the Indian Ocean, the crew were gathered on deck, the majority wearing shorts and sandals, and a few with newly issued sunglasses. They were not offered full protective clothing.
They were then told to have their backs to the direction of the blast and to cover their eyes from the nuclear flash – which, even from a distance of many miles, could have burnt out a human retina. Once the flash had disappeared, they were to turn and face the detonation and watch the mushroom cloud rise into the tropical sky.
Capt John Gower, a decorated veteran of the Normandy landings, who died last September of cancer, recalled the moment in an account he wrote some years later.
“The flash was observed at 10.14am from a distance of 97 miles. The fireball was twice the size of Mosaic I (the previous detonation) and climbed a lot faster. The explosion when it came was a colossal double crack, heard 200 miles away in Australia.”
After the blast, the crew were ordered to take up “action stations” below deck as the ship steered a course through the radioactive cloud.
Around the ship, Geiger counters began to tick and then roar into life, as the lethal radioactive cloud enveloped Diana. As the outside of the vessel became “hot” with radiation, the men entombed within the steel hull sweltered for 13 long hours, until the all-clear was given.
Afterwards, the ship’s exterior was hosed down with sea water and any material that was found to be radioactive was thrown overboard. Despite this, one of the main boilers became radioactive and had to be repaired.
Stanley Jenkinson was a stoker on HMS Diana. Now a 70-year-old great grandfather, who had his stomach removed after developing cancer last year, he told The Sunday Telegraph of the mood on board, after the sailors were informed of the ship’s real mission.
‘None of us was really that bothered about any danger, even though we were only given one week’s training on nuclear warfare and the risk of contamination,” he said from his home in North Wales.
“It was a different world – you just did as you were told. I was dressed in just shorts and sandals on the day that the second bomb was detonated. When the bomb went off, it was as though it were only a few yards away.
“There was a flash and then, about a minute later, the shockwave hit the ship, knocking some of the crew over. We were then ordered to go below, where we baked beneath the tropical sun for the next 13 hours, as the ship steamed through the radioactive cloud.
“I was always surprised that our health was never monitored. Not at the time or when we returned to the UK.”
Arthur Hart, also 70, was a 19-year-old national serviceman at the time of tests. In the early 1960s, two years after leaving the Royal Navy, he developed more than 100 benign tumours over his entire body.
Mr Hart said: “No one has ever been able to tell me whether the multiple lymphomas that I have are linked to the radioactive fallout from 1956. We were used as guinea pigs. No one sought our permission to use us in an experiment and we did not volunteer.
“What happened to us was morally wrong, and what is morally wrong cannot be politically right. I have had to live with these tumours for the best part of my life. No one knows whether we were contaminated because we were never medically examined, but many men on board that ship have died and many now have cancer.
“We deserve an apology from the government and we deserve to be compensated.”
After the trials, the ship was due to dock at the naval base at Fremantle, but the vessel and its crew were regarded as such a hazard by the Australian government that permission was refused.
Instead, the crew remained on board the vessel for a further three weeks until it arrived in Singapore.
According to Capt Gower’s written account: “Mosaic I and II were organised with great urgency. Since 1953, the (military) Chiefs of Staff had wanted to know what effect an atomic explosion would have on ships, their contents, equipment and men. How much radioactivity could a ship withstand and remain operational? HMS Diana and her crew were made available to provide the answers.
“What puzzles so many of us is why, on conclusion of the trials, no effort was made to see what effect the nuclear explosions had, both physiologically and psychologically, on the men who witnessed them and perhaps more important, on those who went through the fallout.”
Today, about 700, mainly British, nuclear test veterans – who nearly all have some form of cancer – and their families are being represented by the London law firm Rosenblatt Solicitors, which believes the government has a moral obligation to compensate the veterans.
The lawyers claim that the MoD was negligent because it put the troops in harm’s way without their permission and without adequate medical protection.
It remains to be seen whether the MoD’s stance will be affected by the new scientific evidence that veterans who witnessed the nuclear tests were three times more likely to have damaged chromosomes than other members of the population.
That research was conducted on nuclear test veterans from New Zealand by Prof Al Rowland at that country’s Massey University’s Institute of Molecular Biosciences.
He describes his findings as “highly significant” and, crucially, in his opinion, the chromosome damage was caused by their exposure to radiation.
In a summary of his research paper, he also urges “those in authority” to conduct a similar study on British nuclear test veterans.
The MoD, however, refuses to accept any liability or that there is a connection between the veterans’ health and the tests.
Little wonder, say the veterans: any admission of negligence by the government could lead to unlimited damages, running into billions of pounds.
The MoD is seeking to strike out the veterans’ claim, citing the Limitation Act 1980, which states that legal proceedings must be initiated within three years of sustaining an injury – even though it is only now that evidence is beginning to emerge that the troops were poisoned by radioactive fallout.
It will now be up to the High Court to decide whether there is flexibility within the law for the veterans’ case to be heard.
Capt Gower’s nephew, David, told The Sunday Telegraph that he had “immense sympathy” for the veterans and added that the MoD response to their plight was “hopelessly inadequate”.
“Everyone who served under my uncle had immense respect for him, so if he believed there was a case to answer, he would have fought for it. The whole point of this experiment was to find out what effect radioactivity would have on people and now that we know so much more about its effects, surely the MoD must acknowledge that there is a problem.
“But we have seen this before with Gulf War syndrome in more modern times when they [the MoD] have closed their eyes and looked away from the problem. It strikes me as being very unjust.”
Time is running out for the 700 veterans. They have been campaigning for more than 25 years and every year their number dwindles – they are dying at the rate of 50 a year.
The youngest of those who took part are now in their seventies, and, if the MoD does use the Limitation Act defence, it could be another five years before the veterans have their day in court.
The nation rightly remembers those young servicemen and women who have fought and died in recent campaigns, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
It seems, though, that the Government would rather forget the sacrifices made by those who took part in secret atomic trials, for the sake of their country, 60 years ago.
Source: By Sean Rayment