Why is Britain still refusing to recognise its nuclear test veterans?

When Gordon Coggon opened his eyes he found himself surrounded by a suffocating white fog.

He could not see the coconut tree he was leaning against or even his own hands. Men around him were crying out in terror, and while Gordon felt an overwhelming urge to flee, there was nowhere he could run to escape the giant toxic cloud.

‘Moments earlier, I’d seen the shadow of the bones in my hand whilst my eyes were shut and my head tucked into my hands,’ he recalls. ‘I could literally feel the Gamma ray travel through my body. 

‘At that moment I thought I was being burnt alive.’

Gordon’s memories may sound like something out of an apocalyptic horror movie, but he had in fact just witnessed Grapple X, one of Britain’s largest nuclear weapons tests, just 20 miles from ground zero.

The RAF serviceman was one of around 22,000 British service personnel who witnessed nuclear tests on mainland Australia, the Montebello Islands off Western Australia and Christmas Island in the South Pacific, during the 1950s and 60s, with the first blast happening 68 years ago this month.

The men were usually issued with little, if any, protective equipment, exposing them to high levels of radiation. After the tests, they were ordered to keep quiet about the horrors they had witnessed.

Many went on to suffer ill health, with an increased rate of cancers, infertility and birth defects observed in veterans and their descendants.

Although these tests were nearly 70 years ago, for decades the men who were present have fought the British Government for recognition and recompense for their suffering.

Yet the UK refuses to acknowledge that those involved were exposed to harm, despite countries like the US and France offering official recognition or compensation to their own veterans for their own tests.

The British programme began with Operation Hurricane on October 3 1952 and culminated in Grapple, a set of four nuclear weapons test series of early atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs carried out in 1957 and 1958 at Malden Island and Christmas Island.

Gordon was present for two, including Grapple Y, which remains the largest British nuclear weapon ever tested, dwarfing the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki heralding the end of World War II.

‘There was a very large downpour that night when all the sky was blue apart from the bomb cloud, which hung over the main camp for a long time,’ Gordon recalls. ‘Some of the young guys always stood naked in the rain to cool down, and there was talk that particular rain was black rain (radiation).’

Gordon was ordered to wash the engine casing of an aircraft which was flown through the mushroom cloud following the blast.

‘I was covered in radioactive water from the spray I was using,’ he says. ‘A week later I had carbuncles on my neck and back, which kept coming back for about six months. I still have the scars.’

Gordon, now aged 82, says his health problems started some years after the final test. 

He lost all his teeth after turning 40, and was later diagnosed with a bent spine, prostate cancer and Type 2 diabetes after suffering years of digestive problems, which he attributes to the bombs.

‘But I am one of the lucky ones,’ says Gordon, ‘because many of my comrades died young.’

Douglas Hern flew out to Christmas Island on his 21st birthday. He was present for five tests in the Grapple series.

A ship’s cook with the Royal Navy, Douglas had been seconded to take part in the tests.

Like Gordon, he was ordered to sit with his back to the bomb and put his hands over his closed eyes before rising to his feet for the blast.

The 84-year-old, who lives near Spalding, in South Lincolnshire, says, ‘There was this sudden vision of all the bones in your hands, like an x-ray, in front of your closed eyes. Then at the same time you feel the heat of the flash. That is like opening a huge oven and it goes all the way through you.’

For some tests, Douglas and his fellow seamen were dressed in just shorts and flip flops.

Afterwards lorries took away the bodies of thousands of dead birds and fish that washed up on the shore, killed by the radiation. From these same contaminated waters, Douglas and his fellow sailors caught crayfish to barbecue on the beach.

When he returned home, Douglas developed skin problems, diabetes and lost all his teeth. He now has bony spurs growing from his ribs into his chest.

Musculoskeletal problems are a common complaint among veterans. Often servicemen did not realise their colleagues had suffered similar ailments until making contact with the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA).

Bryan Pitt was present at Grapple and started experiencing problems a year after leaving the Navy in 1960.

‘A disc went in my lumbar region but although I don’t recall doing anything to cause it, I never put it down to the bombs,’ he says.

‘Over the years I have had a lot of treatment with both NHS and private chiropractors and have spent thousands. I later had another disc go in my neck, I’ve had both hips replaced and for a very long time joint pain. I only learnt via BNTVA that many others had reported skeletal problems.’

Among the things he witnessed on Christmas Island, Bryan, from Worcester, recalls three planes, which had been used to collect samples from the mushroom cloud, being dumped in the Pacific Ocean.

‘When all was over, we shot the three aircraft over the bow,’ he explains. ‘They were lend-lease American aircraft and the Yanks did not want them back after being contaminated.’

The Grapple series was Britain’s final tests in the region. But British servicemen were called upon again just a few years later to provide support to the US.

John Lax, an air wireless mechanic in the RAF, was just 20 when he arrived on Christmas Island in September 1961.

Like many servicemen, John was not aware of any impending bomb tests, but soon found himself at the heart of Operation Dominic, a series of 27 tests led by the Americans, aided by British troops.

‘We were issued with a radiation film badge (a device used for measuring radiation dose) and some very dark goggles and these were the extent of our safety equipment,’ he says. ‘When a test was taking place, we were instructed to put on long trousers, a long sleeve shirt and, wearing the goggles, sit on the football pitch with our backs to the blast. 

‘This was only enforced for the first two or three bombs, after that we just stayed in bed and turned away from the blast.

‘As a 20-year-old this was more of an inconvenience than anything else, particularly as the detonations were always very early in the mornings,’ he adds. ‘Later in life the potential damage to health was more disconcerting and how this would impact on future offspring.’

Although John did not suffer any health problems which could be attributed to his tour of Christmas Island, two of his children have undergone surgery for a series of benign tumours.

Some veterans were left sterile following the tests. For those who were able to start a family, the effects of the bombs reverberated down through the generations.

The story of Douglas Hern’s daughter is as tragic as it is disturbing.

Aged 11, Douglas’ beloved daughter Gill was diagnosed in 1975 with Cushing Syndrome, a rare form of adrenal cancer more usually seen in horses and dogs.

‘Firstly she started developing a hump on her back, then she started to put on weight and develop the face of an old lady,’ Douglas recalls. ‘And she was covered in hair – in the end we were shaving her face every day.’

Gill underwent operations on her spine and surgery, which left a large incision that went all the way around her torso.

Douglas claims his daughter was repeatedly photographed and examined at the hospital without his knowledge, and says he was left in the dark by those treating Gill.

‘They never really told us what they removed from her,’ he says.’ They discussed very little with us.’

Gill died in 1977, aged just 13. Douglas’ other daughter is unable to have children.

RAF sergeant Peter Inglis Parkin BEM served in the trials team for Grapple and was present for every detonation. He conceived twin sons in the spring of 1959 shortly after the tests were completed.

Peter died of carcinomatosis, an aggressive form of cancer, in June 1988, aged just 55.

His son Keith is currently battling prostate cancer and last month underwent surgery for the condition. His twin Ian was also affected by the disease.

‘My twin brother contracted testicular cancer in 1993, aged 33, five years after our father passed,’ explains Keith, who lives in Basingstoke, Hampshire.

‘He had radiotherapy treatment from which he is now presenting with a requirement for facial reconstruction to enable him to eat, attributable to the radiotherapy all those years ago.

‘Both of us have been referred for testing to match our chromosome DNA to irradiated test veterans.’

It is believed just 1,500 veterans are still alive today. The ex-servicemen and their families have been battling the Ministry of Defence for recompense and recognition for years. Various promises of assistance from successive governments have come to nothing.

In 2009, a group of veterans won a High Court case, which paved the way for them to sue the MoD.

In turn, the MoD argued that too much time had passed and the claim was excluded under limitations regulations.

The case ended up in the Supreme Court in 2012, where the veterans ultimately lost. The court sided with the MoD and ruled it was too long since the problems emerged. 

A Freedom of Information request later revealed that between 2005 and 2010 alone the MoD had spent over £1.8million defending the case.

There was a ray of hope in 2018, when Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson promised a medals review and new health research.

However the medals have yet to materialise. The results of a new health study was expected in ‘mid-2020’.

In August this year, the MoD and Veterans UK produced new guidance for claiming compensation for a list of specified conditions relating to exposure to ionising radiation, including various cancers.

But the last line of the new guidance delivers a kick in the teeth to every Cold War hero: ‘The policy is however, not an acknowledgement that those present at the tests were exposed to harm.’

This stance is in stark contrast to other nations which have recognised their surviving veterans.

In 2015, Fiji compensated all its veterans of British nuclear tests in the Pacific, with their prime minister, Frank Bainimarama announcing: ‘Fiji is not prepared to wait for Britain to do the right thing. We owe it to these men to help them now, not wait for the British politicians and bureaucrats.’

The United States Radiation Exposure Compensation Act has been providing compensation to its atomic veterans since 1990, including at least one Briton who was involved in nuclear testing in the 1960s.

Since it was set up in 1983, as well as fighting for recognition by the UK Government in the form of a medal for test attendance, the BNTVA also campaigns for developing welfare services to meet the needs of veterans, wives, widows and descendants.

Ceri McDade, chairman of the BNTVA, said to Metro: ‘During the Covid-19 pandemic and its uncertainties, veterans have commented that the general public are beginning to see the fear they have lived with daily for six decades concerning their own health and passing on genetic abnormalities to their families, for those who were able to have children.

‘With this constant trepidation of physical illness, comes a mental impact from continual rumination about the tests and effects. They display a dichotomy of pride in service for their country, yet anger at being exposed to such deadly radiation at a close proximity.’

John Lax, now a trustee and secretary at the BNTVA, says: ‘The British Government, who sent me to Christmas Island, has been reluctant to recognise our service there and the veterans who have suffered as a result.

‘Even the award of a medal would demonstrate recognition of our service and show some appreciation of the suffering we have had to endure.’

Keith Inglis has written to his MP on the issue, but just like many others, he feels he has been stonewalled.

‘The silence is deafening,’ he says. ‘Condescending letters from the MoD are the only response.

‘Over the years there have been scandals Her Majesty’s Government have tried to ignore – Thalidomide, Aberfan, Windrush, to name but three.‘Perhaps now is the time for our test veterans to get the recognition and recompense they deserve, and their descendants.’

A spokesperson for the Ministry Of Defence says:

“We are grateful to all those who participated in the British nuclear testing programme, which contributed to keeping our country secure. Any veteran who believes they have suffered ill health due to service has the right to apply for compensation. We want to reassure nuclear test veterans that their case for medallic recognition is being assessed by the independent Advisory Military Sub-Committee and recommendations will be made as soon as possible.”

They also added that three previous studies carried out by the National Radiological Protection Board found ‘no valid evidence’ to link participation in the test programme to ill health, and that the MoD has received the report from the latest health study and is currently considering its findings.

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