I witnessed nuclear tests 60 years ago - and I'm frightened about the dangers of today
An Army veteran who witnessed Britain’s nuclear weapons tests on a Pacific island 60 years ago believes the world is entering a dangerous new phase.
Mr Bernie Bosson was a 19-year-old with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) when he was sent to Christmas Island at the end of 1957.
Sixty years on, he says the nuclear bomb rhetoric between the president of the US, Donald Trump, and Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s supreme leader, is frightening.
Mr Bosson arrived at Christmas Island in February 1958, following a six-week trip aboard the Dunera — a ship due to be scrapped that was preserved for the specific journey.
The Pacific island, located south of Indonesia, was claimed by both the United Kingdom and the US.
After a few days repairing machinery, including a bulldozer, in temperatures of 35C, Mr Bosson and his comrades were handed white overalls — supposedly for protection — and told to gather near trucks at a point on the island.
Aware there was to be a test but ignorant of the effects that would soon overwhelm the assembled soldiers, Mr Bosson sat with his back to the test site, 20 miles away.
They were split into groups and assigned a lorry. Unbeknown to them, that was part of an emergency plan if the wind changed and pushed the bomb blast cloud towards their part of the island. The soldiers would then have had to jump into the trucks and be driven to the port to clamber on to boats.
“By that time we knew what sort of bombs they were testing, but it did not seem to matter because we were so young and it was like an adventure,” said Mr Bosson.
“We were told to cover our faces with our hands and then there was a countdown — 3, 2, 1…flash. The light lit up in your hands.
“There were 107 seconds between the flash and the explosion, 20 miles away. We couldn’t see anything in the sky as it was pure white.
“Then, all of a sudden, it was like a boiling cauldron of molten metal. We could not see a thing until the light started to fade.
“Palm trees suddenly folded flat and the air came to us as a wall. The noise was horrendous and there were birds flying backwards.
“RAF planes, I believe they were Avro Shackletons, were flying through the cloud, taking samples.
“Hot rain came down, which was all white, and I got a stinging sensation, although it went away pretty quickly.
“Afterwards, reality set in. We got in the trucks and then just went back to work.”
The bomb, which was dropped on April 28, 1958, remains the largest nuclear weapon ever tested by Britain.
The soldiers had witnessed part of Operation Grapple, a series of four nuclear tests at Malden Island and Christmas Island in 1957 and 1958. At the time, Britain was attempting to become the third country — following the US and the Soviet Union — to become a nuclear power.
Mr Bosson, now 80 and living in Farndon, added: “It was frightening. Up to that point it had been an adventure — it is what you think when you are that young.
“The next day someone came round with a Geiger counter. We knew it was to measure radiation, but we did not know the significance of that at the time.
“We had obviously heard about what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but assumed that on this test we were far enough away for it not to affect us.
“The enormity did not dawn on me. I was a soldier doing my job.
“For the next test we were not even given overalls. My ‘uniform’ at the time was boots, shorts and a hat.
“It was totally neglectful to put soldiers in that situation. It was bizarre and so amateurish.
“One day I swam across a lagoon, spotted some men putting up a sign and got out to read it. It said ‘no swimming’ with a symbol for radiation underneath. But the next day it was gone and people continued to swim.
“In October 1958 I began to regurgitate my food. I had problems with reflux before and I do not blame the tests for what I had, but I was told to go home, on a plane, with no questions asked.
“When I got back home they could not find anything wrong with me. I was told that I was allergic to the Army.
“By that time the Aldermaston Marches (campaigning against nuclear weapons) were taking place. I did not march but I was for the marches. The enormity of what I had seen had sunk in — and the realisation that they (nuclear bombs) were dangerous.”
Since the conclusion of the nuclear testing, there have been claims that it caused adverse health effects for some of those who worked on the island and their children. The Ministry of Defence has denied there is a proven link between illnesses suffered and attendance at the tests.
Mr Bosson said he had not experienced any health problems but was amazed at the lack of protection given to those who worked on Christmas Island.
'The current situation is frightening'
While fears of nuclear destruction eased somewhat following the end of the Cold War, it has been brought back into sharp focus by the rhetoric between Donald Trump, and Kim Jong-un.
“The current situation is frightening,” said Mr Bosson.
“If Donald Trump had sat where I sat, he would have a different thought about it.
“Launching a nuclear bomb would devastate the world. It would be the end of the world as we know it. I am worried about my daughter and the generations beyond that.
“I worry about it. I do not want them to push the button.”