How Prince Philip was given an aerial tour of A-bomb ground zero and almost landed on highly radioactive atoll where troops were used as ‘guinea pigs’

  • The Duke of Edinburgh visited Christmas Island in the South Pacific in 1959
  • Servicemen exposed to huge doses of radiation during Cold War experiments
  • Ministry of Defence insist pilots weren’t used as guinea pigs in nuclear tests
  • New documents could help campaign calling on MoD to apologise to veterans  

Prince Philip was flown over a controversial nuclear test site where thousands of British servicemen were exposed to lethal doses of radiation. 

Newly surfaced documents show the Duke of Edinburgh visited Christmas Island in the South Pacific shortly after Operation Grapple, which saw the UK carry out nuclear weapons tests and hydrogen bomb explosions. 

Files have since revealed how the Ministry of Defence could have used some 22,000 British pilots as ‘guinea pigs’ in tests exploring ways to measure radiation.

The revelation that the Prince nearly landed at the site comes as a shot in the arm to the families of veterans campaigning for an apology from the MoD. 

Newly surfaced documents show the Duke of Edinburgh visited Christmas Island in the South Pacific shortly after Operation Grapple, which saw the UK carry out nuclear weapons tests and hydrogen bomb explosions

Mechanics working on a Douglas Dakota aircraft of the RAF Transport Command on Christmas Island (Kiritimati) in the Central Pacific Ocean, during preparations for the Operation Grapple British nuclear weapons tests at the Island, May 1957

One of the first Hydrogen bombs to be detonated on the island

British pilots ordered to fly through H-bomb radiation cloud

Britain exploded its first hydrogen bomb on Christmas Island in 1957 as part of a series of tests in the Pacific. 

The bomb was dropped by a Valiant jet from No 49 Squadron RAF Bomber Command, based at RAF Wittering, Northamptonshire. 

In May new documents revealed how pilots were ordered to fly through deadly radiation clouds caused by British Hydrogen bombs.

Servicemen were exposed to massive doses of radiation during the Cold War experiments which left their families blighted by genetic defects.

The newly uncovered files reveal how the Ministry of Defence used British pilots as ‘guinea pigs’ in tests exploring ways to measure radiation.

The scientific experiment was entitled: ‘Determination of the whole body dose of Radiation acquired by Aircrew members while on cloud sampling detail with special reference to the use of Standard Film Badge and cassette.’ 

The scientific justification was ‘to outline the present methods of crew dosage assessment with special reference to the use of film badges and to suggest possible fallacies, discrepancies and improvements that might be made in future’.

Cynically, the domestic justification was ‘to attempt to minimise future crew wastage rate due to members being discarded on the evidence of doubtful dosage evaluation’. 

The crew were fitted to badges on their head, chest, arms and testicles. 

When the testicle monitor revealed lower than expected radiation doses, the scientists admitted this was ‘of interest and great cheer in relation to the possibility of genetic damage’.  

The MoD has denied pilots were subjects of an experiment, citing the tests as necessary steps in keeping the country safe.

The Duke was known to have visited Maralinga as part of his tour of the Pacific region in the spring of 1959. 

He visited the Grapple Headquarters and Joint Operations Centre, where he met Mr W Jones, a AWRE scientist. 

He also inspected the crews of several Hastings transport aircraft, and was flown by helicopter over the test area. 

But the new documents obtained by The Mirror have revealed plans for the Prince’s three-day visit in April, 1959 including plans for a ‘forward area recce’ in a helicopter to view ‘ground zero’. 

The area had been used for testing dozens of nuclear bombs, with the largest 100 times as powerful ‘Little Boy’, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Doug Hern, historian of the British Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association, said the documents show ‘a shocking disregard for his safety.’

The 82-year-old told MailOnline: ‘I left the Island just before Prince Philip came on. We knew very little about his visit.

‘Operation Grapple was hugely covert. Over a period of ten years on various test areas including Maralinga and Christmas Island we estimate because we’ve never been able to nail a figure down from the government that there were 22,500 men exposed to radiation.

‘Radiation was just laying around everywhere, and it was in the water.

‘All precautions had been taken for the Duke’s safety whereas we were martialed off in groups wearing nothing else but everyday working gear – a pair of shorts, flip flops ad a bush hat. 

‘I worked for the scientists and the clean-up on the east coast after every bomb blast. 

‘There would be dead birds and fish waist high and it would take between 9 and 11 days to clear the area. 

‘It is not just the first generation veterans that have suffered – several thousand children have been affected by our attendance out there. 

‘The genetic legacy has passed onto our children, they passed it onto theirs and now onto another generation. 

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‘I lost my youngest daughter when she was 13 after she was taken ill aged 11. Her disease has never been disclosed to me, nor have her medical records.’ 

The Ministry of Defence has been contacted for comment.  

The designers of the experiment admitted the pilot would have little or no shielding from the radiation from above the waist in comparison to other crew members

Prior to the test, scientists expected the pilot to receive a greater dose of radiation to the head. The crew also war testicular badges which recorded ‘significantly lower levels’ which ‘are of interest and cheer in relation to the possibility of genetic damage’

An RAF serviceman having his hair cut on Christmas Island (Kiritimati) in the Central Pacific Ocean, during preparations for the Operation Grapple British nuclear weapons tests at the Island, May 1957

The documents show that the aircrew were test subjects to assess the effectiveness of experimental radiation dosage measuring equipment

Documents reveal how Eric Denson took part in a flight through the mushroom cloud left in the wake of Operation Grapple Y, the detonation of a British Hydrogen bomb on Christmas Island

The Soviet test of a thermo-nuclear device towards the end of 1955 increased the pressure on a team of scientists from the secret Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire to come up with a multi-megaton bomb.

Thus came about Operation Grapple, so- called because it would involve all prongs of the military, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, hooked up together with civilian scientists in the biggest combined operation since the end of the war.

The aim was to detonate a bomb at least one megaton in power with the Kermadec Islands in the south Pacific picked as a test site.

But the Prime Minister of New Zealand refused permission.

The spotlight then shifted to Malden Island (which came under joint UK and U.S. administration), with Christmas Island, 365 miles away, as the base from which the tests would be conducted.

But in 1983, the British Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association was set up to demand recognition, compensation and pensions for the widows of the servicemen exposed to radiation emanating from the tests.

Families of British pilots exposed to radiation that left generations blighted by genetic birth defects continue to campaign for justice

Squadron Leader Eric Denson (pictured) suffered chronic headaches and eventually killed himself in the wake of the Cold War experiment

This year sensational new files were discovered by Shirley Denson, 83, the widow of a pilot who flew in one MoD experiment in 1958.

Shirley, who lives in Morden, south London, obtained the papers afters years of research into her husband Eric’s service.

She believes radiation is the cause of the birth defects like extra teeth in her family. One young relative was recently born with an extra urinary tract.

Her husband had suffered such a high dose of radiation to his head he went on to have chronic headaches which led him to kill himself in 1976.

Eric and Shirley had already had one daughter together before he was involved in the experiment. She was born healthy.

However, 37 per cent of their descendants from children born after Eric passed through the radiation cloud were born with defects or unexplained medical conditions.

These included skull deformities, missing or extra teeth and spinal problems.

The MoD continues to deny that Eric and his crew were subjects of an experiment, despite the emergence of new papers

Two of his four children with Shirley were born with abnormalities, as were some of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

RAF hero Eric was involved in early tests into the radiation caused by atomic and hydrogen bombs.

In 1958 he was stationed in the Pacific Ocean on Malden Island and Christmas Island – the site of Operation Grapples, which saw the UK carry out some of its earliest nuclear weapons tests.

Eric was ordered to fly his Canberra B6 bomber through a cloud left in the wake of a 2.8 megaton nuclear explosion on April 28, 1958, documents reveal.

X-ray badges were stuck to his seat to measure the barrage of radiation as he and two others entered the cloud.

They were placed behind his head, on both armrests and by his groin.

The documents reveal ‘care was taken to ensure as little shielding effect as possible’ was given to the X-ray badges. Of course, this meant Eric and his crew became vulnerable to the deadly radiation.

The document was an Atomic Weapons Establishment paper looking at ways of testing the badges to make sure they were accurate.

They detail the exact amount of radiation absorbed by the head, arms and groin and the bomber’s pilot, navigator and wireless operator.

They also note the time spent inside the cloud, the height of the plane and the time the bomber entered the cloud after the bomb detonated.

The documents goes on to set out the pros and cons of the badges in measuring radiation. They also suggest re-running the experiment with more badges.

One of the documents showed Flight Lieutenant Denson recorded a radiation reading of 13 Roentgens after carrying out the flight

When Eric’s bomber touched down after the test he began to experience vomiting and developed a rash – common symptoms of radiation poisoning.

The documents, written by scientists running the experiments, show that Eric, who was 24 at the time, had his head exposed to 65 years’ worth of normal ­background ­radiation.

This amounted to 17,500 dental X-rays worth of radiation during just six minutes of flight.

The badge placed near Eric’s groin recorded a dose of 8.8 Roentgens – about 30 years’ worth of background radiation.

In total he received 18.8Rs, the worst of the three-man crew which flew that day.

Shirley is seeking an apology from the Ministry of Defence, who have insisted veterans were not used as guinea pigs during nuclear tests.

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