A political inconvenience

Tim Sherratt, ‘“A political inconvenience”:Australian scientists as the British atomic weapons tests, 1952-3’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 6, no. 2, December 1985, pp. 137-152


Then there was a great flash that reached the far horizon. Even Dr Penney, who had witnessed the first historic cataclysm in the desert at Almagordo and later seen a bomb burst over Japan, described the scene as ‘terrifying’ as he turned around to find the frigate Plym had vanished and to see a great greyish-black cloud shooting up thousands of feet into the air and ever-growing in size.1

In the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia on 3 October 1952, Dr William Penney watched as an atomic device for which he was largely responsible vaporised a test ship and sent thousands of tonnes of water erupting into the air. His programme had been successful; Britain was now a fully-fledged nuclear power.

Australia, meanwhile, had proved to be a convenient nuclear testing site; but the Monte Bello’s radioactive scars were not Australia’s first association with the atomic bomb, nor were they to be the last. Between 1952 and 1957 there were 12 full-scale nuclear weapons tests on Australian soil. The first, at Monte Bello, was followed by two at Emu Field in South Australia in 1953. A further two devices were exploded at Monte Bello in 1956 before testing was transferred to a permanent site in South Australia, the now infamous Maralinga.2

The tests were primarily British undertakings, with Australia providing little more than logistic support. However, there were three Australian scientists who were present at each of the tests — E.W. Titterton, L.H. Martin and W.A.S. Butement. These men had no formally defined role in the first three tests, but in 1955, with the establishment of the Maralinga proving ground, they were incorporated into a Safety Committee, the task of which was to monitor future tests so as to ensure the safety of Australian people and property.

A full evaluation of the Safety Committee’s functioning is a task for the future. What must be grasped before such an evaluation can be meaningfully made is the political context of Australian involvement in the atomic tests. Why did Britain develop an atomic bomb? Why did Australia agree to its testing? The motivations underlying such decisions were part of a complex, global network of political desires and ambitions that determined the nature of Australian involvement in the British atomic tests. This paper is an attempt to show how the ‘informal’ involvement of Titterton, Martin and Butement in the early trials at Monte Bello and Emu Field was shaped by international politics. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of this situation obviously raises some important questions about the role of the Safety Committee in the later tests and, indeed, about Australia’s place in world politics, then and now.

The atomic bomb was developed during the Second World War through the collaborative efforts of Allied scientists. The’ Manhattan Project’, as the developmental program was code-named, was largely dependent upon American resources and personnel, but a number of British scientists played a significant part in ensuring its completion.3 However, this successful partnership did not survive long in the post-war world, for the Americans soon sought to restrict the disclosure of information on atomic energy. This policy was given legal form in 1946 with the passing of the McMahon Act, which specifically prohibited the sort of mutually beneficial interchange on atomic matters that the British had hoped to cultivate.4 Not surprisingly, British scientists and politicians felt somewhat betrayed. McMahon, it is said, likened the situation to a stable boy seeking a share in the stable on account of all his hard work.5 Such an attitude hardly did justice to Britain’s (or France’s or Canada’s) role in early atomic energy research.

Britain’s status as a loyal ally was not in doubt, but the Americans were somewhat circumspect in their trust of British security arrangements.6 Their fears were reinforced as details of Britain’s spy scandals were periodically revealed.7 Gordon Dean, one-time chairman of the American Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC), wrote some years after the passing of the Act that

until British security methods are tightened, at least to the point where a Bruno Pontecorvo cannot merrily wing his way from Harwell to Russia without some kind of restriction we cannot afford to be full partners.8

The passing of the McMahon Act represents the most precarious moment in the history of UK/US atomic relations. In the years that followed, there were many discussions and negotiations, and at times, some interchange of information did occur.9 Nevertheless, at all times the Americans maintained a firm hold over their potentially lucrative atomic technology, only dispensing scientific morsels according to their benevolent whims. Britain had no option but to bow to the American demands in the hope that compliance might have its rewards in the long run.

The McMahon Act did not wholly condemn Britain to the non-atomic wilderness, however, for by 1946, the British had already taken substantial steps towards the development of their own, independent atomic programme. At Harwell, a research station, albeit ‘in embryonic form’,10 already existed, and planning had begun for the necessary industrial complexes.11

There seems to have been a certain amount of pride involved in the British decision to pursue their own programme. After all, much of the pioneering work in the field had been carried out in Britain. It seemed to some to be not so much a case of instituting an atomic energy programme as of allowing the continued unfolding of the brilliant work of Britain’s atomic scientists; to have ignored or restricted this work would have seemed somehow ‘unnatural ‘.12 However, whilst it may have appeared that ‘sheer momentum alone would have been enough to keep the programme going’,13 the generous funding and high priority accorded the project can hardly be said to have been due to its scientific challenges. The programme existed and continued to exist because of its practical aims. Atomic energy had attractive industrial possibilities, but more important still was the application which had given the science its war-time impetus – the Bomb.

In 1944, the British Tube Alloys Technical Committee recommended a course of action ‘which would shorten as much as possible the time required to produce in the United Kingdom after the war a militarily significant number of bombs, say ten’.14 Indeed, there was a notable consistency of thought on the necessity of Britain possessing an atomic bomb, the Chiefs of Staff being particularly insistent.15 Such opinions were not confined to the military or scientific mind. In November 1945, Winston Churchill stated in Parliament: ‘This I take is already agreed, we should make atomic bombs.’16 There is no doubt that one of the firm objectives of British post-war atomic development was to provide the nation with an atomic weapons capability. This is evidenced by a top-secret memorandum distributed to Commonwealth Prime Ministers in 1946, which indicated that fissile materials would be produced in the United Kingdom ‘for military applications’.17 Similarly, one of the men who supervised the construction of the industrial facilities to service the programme has commented: ‘the remit given to the new organisation was the production of plutonium for military purposes.’18

Many reasons were and are given as to why Britain needed the Bomb. Generally, they fall into three sometimes indistinct categories: military, political and nationalistic. On the military level, it was believed that Britain’s, indeed the Commonwealth’ s, security depended upon possession of the Bomb.19 In the early post-war years, a weakened Britain stood alone, facing the ‘threat’ of Communist expansion. Before the NATO agreement was formulated, there was no assurance that the United States would act to protect British interests if another conflict arose. Hence, it was argued, Britain required atomic weapons of its own, targeted on centres crucial to its own defence.20 Soon the likely consequences of extensive atomic conflict became evident, changing military strategy and the justification of atomic hardware. The Bomb was now too horrible to be used, but rather it was necessary as a deterrent to prevent deployment by the enemy21 – an argument we know all too well. The Bomb was also recognised as being chillingly economic. In the financially difficult post-war years, where a full-scale military force was difficult to maintain, the cost-effective A-bomb was an attractive proposition to British military planners.22

Politically, the Bomb held many promises; with a handful in its arsenal, Britain became a credible participant in world affairs once more.23 The Bomb meant influence – particularly, the British hoped, in Washington where, it was feared, ‘isolationism’ might again paralyse American foreign policy.24 It was also thought that if Britain could sufficiently impress the United States authorities with its own atomic achievements, a steadier interchange of atomic information might be forthcoming.25

The Bomb had a nationalistic appeal as well. Britain’s role as world leader had been usurped by the United States, yet its people still regarded their homeland as one of the ‘great powers’. The atomic bomb would reaffirm their membership of this elite and provide a new object of national pride.26 The British Empire could bask anew in the never-setting sun of atomic glory.

Such factors as these are seen reflected in statements surrounding the first British atomic test in 1952. Several months before the test, the United Kingdom High Commissioner wrote to an Australian official:

the test will have a considerable effect on the American attitude towards atomic co-operation with the United Kingdom and indeed on Anglo-American relationships in general.27

The implications of Britain’s atomic bomb were also recognised by the media. As the American journal Newsweek reported after the explosion:

The British people reacted with a macabre surge of national pride. The tabloid London Daily Mirror exulted: ‘This bang has changed the world’. More seriously, Britain’s atomic test was regarded as a new deterrent to Communist attack and as a new incentive to restoring wartime atomic partnership among the U.S., Britain and Canada.28

British correspondents were understandably less cynical. Under the title ‘A Bomb of One’s Own’, one wrote:

Britain this teeming womb of distinguished engineers and scientists can be frankly proud of the sheer technical and intellectual achievements displayed in the Monte Bello explosion.29

Another suggested:

This A-bomb explosion will do far more than satisfy British national pride. It will give Britain:
– A stronger voice in Western military strategy. British prestige will go up in the U.S. as well as Western Europe.
– A certain amount of protection against possible Russian intimidation. There’s a good chance also, that it will lead to a renewal of close Anglo-American atomic co-operation.30

It is to be noted that a major hope in the encouragement of an independent British atomic programme was the potential revitalisation of Anglo-American co-operation. Thus even in pursuing their own developments, the British had to be ever-mindful of the constraints of transatlantic appeasement. American attitudes were always an important consideration.

Shortly after the war, it seemed that a collaborative atomic project might be initiated within the British Commonwealth. Such countries as Australia and New Zealand hoped that, in return for personnel and resources, they might be made privy to atomic technology.31 However, the prospect of atomic proliferation, even within the Commonwealth, was viewed with horror by the Americans and thus the project was suppressed. The possibility of co-operation with the United States simply could not be endangered, even if this meant that broader Commonwealth interests had to be sacrificed.32

Britain’s relations with her dominions were further circumscribed by a tripartite agreement formulated by Britain, the United States and Canada in 1948. Termed the Modus Vivendi, this document attempted to re-establish some limited grounds for atomic collaboration.33 Notably, Annex Two of the Modus Vivendi delineated possible ‘Areas of Cooperation between Members of the British Commonwealth’. Needless to say, the co-operation envisaged was of a very restricted nature, confined to such areas as health and safety, the discovery and processing of ores, the use of isotopes and the design of research reactors.34 But even these concessions were conditional:

Co-operation within the above classified fields will be subject to an understanding between governments to adopt common standards in holding information secure. Transmission would also be subject to the principle of current usability.35

Thus atomic energy policy within the British Commonwealth was always dependent upon the more crucial relationship with the United States that Britain so assiduously sought to maintain and extend.

The decision to proceed with the British atomic bomb project was made officially in January 1947.36 However, by this time arrangements were well under way. The necessary plutonium was already on order, and in the Armaments Research Division of the Department of Supply, an Atomic Weapons Section was being organised around Dr William Penney, the Chief Superintendent of Armament Research.37 The project, code-named ‘High Explosives Research’, generally proceeded on schedule, and in 1950 it was realised that arrangements had to be made to test the first bomb, since it would be ready within two years.38

At this time, atomic energy relations between the United States and Britain had reached a very low ebb with the arrest of the high-ranking British physicist, Klaus Fuchs, for espionage.39 The British hoped, however, that despite a virtual cessation of atomic negotiations, arrangements might still be made for the use of an American atomic test site, since such sites were a military concern and thus thought to be outside the provisions of the McMahon Act.40 An official request was made to the American Chiefs of Staff, but their reply was delayed.

Awaiting the outcome of the American deliberations, Penney investigated the feasibility of a test site in Canada.41 Meanwhile the British Chiefs of Staff suggested another possible site, the Monte Bello Islands, off the coast of Western Australia. Encouraged to pursue this Australian option, the British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, contacted his Australian counterpart, Robert Menzies, in September 1950. Attlee sought agreement, in principle, to the testing of an atomic device on Australian territory. If this were granted, he also hoped that a preliminary survey of the Monte Bellos might be arranged.42 Within three days, both proposals had been approved, the Australians offering every assistance.43 The survey, completed in December, was encouraging, and Penney urged that the site be chosen, commenting: ‘In fact we know of no other site in which this trial can take place on the planned date.’44

The Americans had finally replied to the British request in October 1950, curtly refusing access to their atomic test facilities.45 However, the British remained hopeful; even as they were arranging a formal agreement with the Australians in early 1951, another approach was being made to the United States. Preparations for the test at Monte Bello were well under way when, in September, the Americans ventured to suggest a joint testing programme. The offer was attractive, but in December 1951, the re-e1ected Churchill decided to proceed with the Monte Bello test.46 Menzies, who had been tolerantly awaiting the outcome of these deliberations, was informed of the decision by the UK High Commissioner; the letter noted the British government’s ‘warm appreciation’ of the American offer, but went on:

the fact remains that under their proposed conditions the Americans could, if they so choose, at any time declare certain items to be restricted data and decline to share them with the United Kingdom.47

The past record of Anglo-American atomic relations could hardly inspire British faith in the success of a joint testing programme. It seemed wiser to avoid placing their programme in American hands until a more satisfactory basis for atomic collaboration had been established. Furthermore, it was declared that such co-operation would be more likely ‘if we show that we are not entirely dependent upon them now’.48

The British proposal to test an atomic device at the Monte Bello Islands in October 1952 was formally approved by the Australian government in May 1951; or at least, by certain members of the government – Menzies did not even consider it necessary to inform his Cabinet of the’ Operation Hurricane’ arrangements until the matter was a virtual fait accompli.49 However, even when the details were officially announced, Australia’s participation in the test gained widespread support. One Opposition senator stated that he did not object to the Monte Bello test because ‘This country needs all the sources of strength that are available to it’.50

To bolster such support, the Australian authorities continually sought to ensure that the cooperative aspects of the test were highlighted. The official joint announcement of the atomic test, made on 18 February 1952, stated, in part:

In close co-operation with the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia the test will take place at a site in Australia.51

The words ‘in close co-operation’ had been substituted for ‘by arrangement’ in the original draft at Australian instigation.52 Similarly, the Australians insisted that the sentence ‘The Australian Government and fighting services are also closely cooperating’ be added to the announcement of the site and organisational details of the test, made on 15 May.53 This addition was sought ‘to give emphasis to the part played by the Australian Government and Armed Services in the operation’.54 The Australians viewed the arrangements for the declaration of the test’s success with the same concern. It was thought that the release of just a short communique, as had been proposed,

would not do justice to what Australia has done in regard to the test and it would be expected that the press would look to the Government for some information on this.55

Consequently the relevant authorities composed a supplementary statement detailing the Australian effort that, with British approval, was released to the press along with the communique.56

It seems likely that the Australian government sought to emphasise its contribution to the Monte Bello test in order that it might share in the glory of Britain’s atomic success. Publicity arrangements were formulated with a concern ‘to extract the greatest prestige benefit’,57 encouraging media outlets such as the Sydney Morning Herald to proclaim: ‘Australia may well be proud to be associated with Britain in [such] a great enterprise’.58 Such a desire for prestige may have been one of the factors that prompted the Australians to agree to the British tests; further reasons are suggested by the defence and foreign relations policies of Menzies’ avowedly anti-Communist government.

On 20 September 1950, Menzies broadcast his first ‘Defence Call to the Nation’, in which he proclaimed:

Do you think that this Communist enemy would hesitate to overrun Western civilisation if the United States did not have the atomic bomb? Don’t let’s pretend about the bomb. It’s real. It is today keeping the world out of a tragic world-wide war. Horrible as it is (and I saw Hiroshima a few weeks ago), it is today not an instrument of war but of peace.59

Menzies was exhorting Australians to support his plans for defence preparedness – preparedness for a third world war that would inevitably involve the use of atomic weapons. However, he did not expand Australia’s defence forces, nor seek to arm Australia with atomic bombs.60 Rather, he believed that Australia’s safety could best be maintained by cultivating ‘great and powerful friends’.61 The Minister for External Affairs, Percy Spender, described the aims of Australian foreign policy as being

essentially the preservation of peace and of our way of life. Inseparable from these aims is the closest possible cooperation within the British Commonwealth and with the United States of America and other nations friendly to the Commonwealth. Our purpose must be to determine in what ways we can co-operate in achieving our objectives.62

Australia’s ties with the Commonwealth were particularly important – historically and emotionally, if not strategically. To Menzies, the Commonwealth was ‘an unquenchable sense of common destiny and common duty and common instinct ‘.63 But it was also ‘an instrument of our security and prosperity’64 which involved ‘obligations as well as rights’:

The continuance of the world influence and the effectiveness of the British Commonwealth will continue to depend upon the readiness of every member to contribute to that Commonwealth’s welfare as a whole and to share with it in the great task of forwarding the welfare of mankind.65

It was certainly thought that the atomic bomb would bolster Britain’s sagging ‘world influence and effectiveness’. Menzies may thus have felt that it was within Australia’s Commonwealth duties to allow the tests.

Equally, the Bomb was an important factor in the defence, not only of the Commonwealth, but of the Western World. The Communists would initiate a world war, said Menzies, ‘if they feel that in such a war the probabilities of success are heavily in their favour’.66 Australia, then, in contributing to the development of Britain’s atomic bomb, was aiding the development of the ‘free world’s’ deterrent power. Australia’s involvement in such a venture would also undoubtedly ensure the military beneficence of its ‘friends’ and hence the security of the country and its people. Howard Beale, Menzies’ Minister for Supply during the tests, summed up Australia’s position in his autobiography:

With some reason Britain felt that she had no option but to build up a retaliatory nuclear power of her own, which would also be a supplement to American deterrent power. As to Australia, it would, in this situation, have been against our own interest, and brutally ungenerous as well, to have refused the assistance requested.67

Of course, the Australian authorities may have also foreseen other benefits in hosting the tests. After the war, attempts were made to formulate international controls over atomic energy. The United Nations hosted disarmament discussions, at which Australia was represented by the Minister for External Affairs, Herbert Evatt. Evatt was advised on technical matters by Mark Oliphant and George Briggs, Chief of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) Division of Physics.68 However, an official statement of Australia’s involvement in these activities indicates that the government was interested in the possibilities as well as the problems of this new power source:

the Australian Government is conscious both of the need for removing the danger of destruction which is threatened by the atomic bomb, and also of developing to the full great responsibilities which this discovery holds for the benefit of mankind. This second aspect is particularly important for Australia, whose development of new sources of power may show the way to great material progress and removal of substantial disabilities.69

Clearly the atomic age held many promises for Australia.

Recognition that Australia should initiate atomic energy research dated back to 1941 when Mark Oliphant, who was himself playing an important role in atomic developments, raised the subject with Australia’s representative in Washington, R.G. Casey. Oliphant warned that the processes and techniques were being rapidly patented, so that

it may be desirable for Australia to do some work, when possible, on the energy machine, so that if and when she wished to exploit it, she will have something with which to bargain.70

On a war-time visit to Australia, Oliphant again sought to encourage initiatives in this field. He particularly urged that extensive uranium prospecting be undertaken.71

After the war, the Australian authorities began to show an active interest in such matters. CSIR’s Executive Officer, Fred White, wrote to Briggs in Washington: ‘I suppose you appreciate that we are extremely keen to get into this atomic energy work.’72 Subsequently, an Atomic Energy Research Advisory Committee to CSIR was formed.73 Its members included Leslie Martin, the newly appointed professor of physics at the University of Melbourne, who was attempting to expand the study of nuclear physics within his department.74 At the same time, CSIR was negotiating to send some of its workers to Britain to gain experience at the developing research establishment at Harwell.75

In response to Australian requests for information, British officials arranged for Oliphant to discuss ‘aspects of atomic energy development’76 with relevant Australian authorities. Oliphant informed Cabinet members of Britain’s progress in atomic research77 and also held discussions with scientific bodies which, according to White, were ‘very stimulating and informative’.78

In 1947, an atomic physics section was created within CSIR.79 Several officers were transferred to Harwell, while another group was established at the University of Melbourne to undertake

fundamental research into nuclear energy generally with the object of training sufficient men to develop an atomic or nuclear energy stockpile.80

This group was under the direction of Les Martin who, in August 1947, visited England on behalf of CSIR to study recent developments in nuclear physics.81

The following year, Oliphant returned to Australia and discussed the possibility of constructing an atomic pile somewhere in the Australian desert. As a result of these talks, the Defence Department’s New Weapons and Equipment Development Committee recommended that:

It be accepted as a general principle of policy that it is desirable that Australia take part in the development of atomic energy from the viewpoint of Defence, apart from the advantage to National Development.82

In 1949, Oliphant, who had decided to take up a position at the newly established Australian National University (ANU), was appointed chairman of the Industrial Atomic Energy Policy Committee, one of the members of which was Les Martin.83 This committee was to advise the government on the future of Australian atomic research and development. In the same year, substantial deposits of uranium were discovered at Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory. Later, further discoveries were made at Radium Hill in South Australia.84

The realisation that Australia possessed rich uranium reserves prompted the country’s leaders to consider much more seriously the prospect of atomic power generation. The South Australian government was particularly enthusiastic, and the Premier commented in 1952:

If I were asked to predict the location of the first atomic pile in the Southern Hemisphere I would name without hesitation the shores of the Spencer Gulf.85

Finally, in March 1953, the Atomic Energy Bill was introduced into Parliament and passed without opposition. The resulting Act established the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, which was to be responsible for overseeing all future operations involving nuclear energy.86

All of Australia’s plans for the development of its atomic resources were founded on the assumption that Britain would supply the necessary classified information. When Fred White wrote to George Briggs of the Australian ‘keenness’ to be involved in atomic research work, he added:

We hope to do so in collaboration with Great Britain and Canada. It is quite obvious we cannot start up an expensive developmental project here and the best arrangement would be to help Britain in the hope that we would receive a suitable return later.87

Oliphant’s plan for constructing an atomic pile in Australia was envisaged as being part of a ‘joint United Kingdom! Australian programme of Atomic Development’ designed ‘to meet its [Australia’s] own and British Commonwealth requirements’.88 Similarly, in his role as chairman of the Industrial Atomic Energy Policy Committee, Oliphant sought an agreement between the two countries for joint development of atomic energy.89 Evatt and Menzies had, at different times, also requested information from the mother country.90

However, the assistance envisaged was never likely to be forthcoming because of Britain’s curious, restrictive relationship with the United States. In the hope of re-establishing an interchange on atomic matters, Britain was anxious to abide by the American policy of non-proliferation of atomic information. Australia’s aspirations were particularly ill-fated as the Americans maintained an especial distrust of security measures ‘downunder’.91 Oliphant was told on one occasion that ‘no Australian, from the Prime Minister down can be trusted not to be careless or worse’.92 Moreover, Britain’s ability to accede to Australian requests was severely circumscribed by the conditions of the Modus Vivendi.

This enforced alienation of a Commonwealth partner became increasingly uncomfortable as Britain’s dependence on Australia for atomic testing grounds increased. Indeed, it may be that a recognition of this situation was one of the factors behind the Australian decision to host the tests. The Australians might have hoped that co-operation in the staging of the tests would result in a change of attitude – an indebted Britain might not refuse Australian requests so readily. Even if no such major shift in policy were to occur, the Australians might at least have hoped that suitably qualified representatives involved in the tests would gain some knowledge that would be applicable to their own research.

Certainly there were precedents for such mutually beneficial arrangements. The Long Range Weapons Establishment had been founded in 1946 as a joint operation between Australia and Britain.93 Australian input was considerable for a project largely designed to enrich Britain’s arsenals; nevertheless Beale, the Minister in charge of the operation after 1949, believed the many millions to be well spent when one considered

the technical and other knowledge learned from these experiments, the professional association of our scientists with their British counterparts, and. ..the close working together scientists, technicians, military men, public servants and politicians.94

This partnership, said Beale, led to another which was ‘just as valuable’ – the atomic weapons tests.95

In a similar way, Britain required skilled staff to aid the development of the atomic research establishment at Harwell. Australia was happy to supply these, hoping that the knowledge and experience they would gain would be useful in any comparable Australian project.96 The Australian authorities also hoped that their uranium reserves might provide some grounds for the provision of information or processed materials.97 Given such precedents, the Australian government may well have thought that atomic research and development in Australia would benefit from the tests.

Despite this, though, the government did not insist on any explicit guidelines for Australian technical and scientific participation. Some meteorological and radiochemical facilities were provided, but as Phillip McBride, the Minister for Defence, explained to Parliament:

The executive control of the project rests entirely with the United Kingdom authorities, and the policy on matters such as those relating to the presence at the test of observers, whether they be officials or representatives of the press, is entirely for the United Kingdom Authorities to determine.98

There were in fact three Australian representatives at the first Monte Bello or ‘Hurricane’ test. They were Ernest Titterton, professor of nuclear physics at ANU, Leslie Martin, professor of physics at the University of Melbourne, and Alan Butement, Chief Scientist of the Australian Department of Supply. The actual extent and nature of their participation in the test is difficult to determine since their attendance was not covered by any formal agreement. The Australian Ionizing Radiation Advisory Council, in its report on the British nuclear tests, suggests that they may have made some contribution to deciding when to fire the device.99 But other evidence indicates that, at the Hurricane test, Titterton, Martin and Butement were simply observers, assigned nominal tasks just to facilitate the ‘accommodation position’.100 Certainly Beale seems to have had this impression when he wrote to Menzies in November 1953 concerning the establishment of a permanent testing ground:

I am sure you would also wish that any arrangements which were made would ensure that Australian scientists were active participants in the preparation for the tests and in the carrying out of them, and were not present merely as observers as hitherto.101

Likewise, no formal agreement was made about the participation of Australian scientists in the Totem I and II tests conducted at Emu Field. The British had first sought agreement from Menzies about the possibility of a mainland test while he was visiting the United Kingdom in late 1952. Menzies felt that his Government would ‘certainly agree’ to the proposal and cabled the Minister for Defence for confirmation.102 This was sent within three days.103 In fact the test site had been chosen some months earlier while the British team was in Australia for the Hurricane test. Preparation of the site was a lengthy project in difficult conditions, undertaken by Australian service personnel.104 But despite some problems, all went according to plan, and two major atomic devices were exploded at Emu Field, on 15 and 27 October 1953.

Martin and Butement had both helped in the selection of this site, and it seemed that Australian scientists would play a much more significant role in these tests. Duncan Sandys, the UK Minister of Supply, announced that Australian scientists had ‘accepted responsibility for certain important tasks in connection with the observation and measurement of results’.105 However, besides some meteorological aid, Australia’s sole scientific ‘participants’ were Titterton and an assistant, who made some measurements of neutron flux at various distances from the blast.106 Martin and Butement were again simply observers.

Significantly, though, the British Aide-Memoire outlining proposals for the mainland tests suggested that Professors Martin and Titterton might ‘go through the calculations’ with Penney, so as to be sure of the safety of the arrangements.107 Indeed, technical data were provided, enabling the Australian scientists to make ‘their own independent evaluation of the hazards’.108

However, while they acted in this advisory capacity, neither Titterton nor Martin seemed to have any formal authority or responsibility at the tests themselves. It was planned that Martin would attend the first explosion as one member of a party of officials, including Butement, who would ‘fly from Woomera to the site on the morning of the test and return to Woomera the next day’. Even when at the site they would ‘not have contact with senior members of the test organisation’.109

Despite this lack of actual authority, it was stressed publicly that the Australian scientists would play an important role in advising the Government ‘as to the adequacy of. ..safeguards ‘.110 With some fears being expressed as to the safety of mainland testing, the authorities were able to make statements focussing on the involvement of Titterton, Martin and Butement as a means of public reassurance. In this regard it was noted of Titterton’s and Martin’s assessment of hazards that:

the Australian authorities will need to be armed with this evaluation before there is any possibility of an announcement or a leak about the tests.111

Clearly there were no doubts as to the verdict of this assessment, nor of its value in public relations.

The three Australian scientists were thus given a public and political rather than a scientific role. One wonders, then, what criteria were used in the selection of Titterton, Martin and Butement as observers for the Monte Bello and Emu tests. While their scientific skills and training would have been important, they may not have been the only factors involved; after all, such skills were scarcely, if at all, utilised. The British, of course, had brought out their own highly specialised team; Australian involvement was no necessity as far as the technical operations were concerned. Other factors determining the extent and nature of Australian participation can be seen in an examination of the backgrounds of these three scientists.

Ernest Titterton played a significant role in the development of the atomic bomb. Indeed, by the time of the Monte Bello test, his association with the device stretched back more than ten years. It began in 1941 at the University of Birmingham when, as a 25-year-old research officer, he was asked to use his skills in electronics to assist the research being undertaken by Otto Frisch. A British committee had initiated research into the possibilities of atomic energy and, under its auspices, Frisch was investigating aspects of nuclear fission. The apparatus that Titterton developed enabled Frisch to gain a further understanding of the parameters of Bomb design.112

Frisch and Titterton continued their research, initially at Liverpool113 and then, in 1943, at Los Alamos as part of the Manhattan Project. They were the first British team members to arrive at the top secret American establishment, and Titterton was the last to depart.114 Working with Frisch, he had developed the technology of measuring extremely small intervals of time. This expertise well qualified him for work with the fast electronics involved in the firing of a nuclear core.115 At the very first test of an atomic device, held at Almagordo, New Mexico, in 1945, Titterton was a senior member of the Timing Group. His responsibilities included the provision of time signals marking off the milliseconds prior to the explosion, and the sending of the signal to activate the detonators. Thus Titterton’s electronics fired the world’s first atomic ‘bomb’.116

Titterton’s role in the development of the new weapon continued after the war when, by virtue of his ‘irreplaceability’, he was able to avoid the restrictions of the McMahon Act and remain at Los Alamos.117 As advisor on instrumentation and a principal assistant to the scientist in charge, Titterton made an important contribution to the Bikini atomic weapons tests in 1946.118 Finally, though, in 1947, he left the United States to take up a research position at Harwell.119 Here he was able to pursue more fundamental research, although his connections with the Bomb were not wholly severed. Penney’s attempts to lure him into ‘High Explosives Research’ failed, but he and other Los Alamos veterans contributed valuable advice to the British atomic bomb project.120

In late 1950, Titterton accepted the invitation of Mark Oliphant and arrived in Australia to establish his own research team in nuclear physics at ANU.121 In less than two years he was standing in the shadow of the mushroom cloud once more.

Titterton’s involvement in the Hurricane trial seems to have been initiated by a personal request from Penney.122 This request was relayed through the UK High Commissioner and sought Titterton’s services ‘to help in the field work of telemetry in connection with the atomic test’.123 Allen Brown, Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department, duly sought permission for such activity from the Vice-Chancellor of ANU, commenting:

I understand that Dr Titterton will be furnished with certain data which will be of interest and use to the Australian Authorities in relation to the weapon effects from the point of view of civil defence.
The United Kingdom Government has recalled that Dr Titterton is an outstanding expert on atomic explosions having been concerned with the first two bombs and having taken part in the first United States Tests at Eniwetok.124

Titterton’s involvement thus seemed desirable both from British and Australian perspectives.

Ernest Titterton had seen the atomic bomb all the way through from an horrific idea to an horrific reality. He was somewhat of an ‘expert’ and it may have been that the British request was motivated by a desire to benefit from his knowledge. However, as already mentioned, Titterton did little more than observe the test; his intervention was minimal. Why then was he invited?

The invitation from Penney appeared to some to be part of a ‘private arrangement’.125 Perhaps it was an act of courtesy between scientific colleagues; but even if such were its origins, it clearly had other benefits. Titterton was a knowledgeable and articulate man who had a thorough understanding of atomic weapons. Although only a fairly recent arrival from Britain, he had been accepted as a senior Australian academic and scientist. In addition, he had worked on one of the world’s most highly secret projects and thus his reliability seemed assured. These factors, combined with the relationship he had developed with Allen Brown of the Prime Minister’s Department, made him an ideal representative. From an Australian point of view he was an ‘outstanding expert’ who would certainly add to the prestige accumulated by Australia’s involvement in the British venture. He would also be able to gather ‘data of interest and use to the Australian Authorities’. The British, on the other hand, would have been pleased to receive such a well respected scientist who already had such intimate ties to the project itself. Undoubtedly they realised that Titterton would provide a valuable avenue of educated liaison with the Australian government.

Les Martin was something of a contrast to Titterton. An X-ray physicist by training, Martin had spent the whole of his academic career, apart from a brief stint at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, in Australia.126 His contribution to the war effort had been in radar rather than nuclear physics.127 His importance lay not so much in his scientific experience, however, as in his connections with the Defence Department and his role in Australia’s plans for atomic energy development.

Martin’s contributions to atomic research in Australia have already been mentioned. Briefly, he sought to encourage nuclear physics within his own department at the University of Melbourne; he acted in an advisory capacity for the CSIR; he oversaw atomic physics research groups from the CSIR and the Department of Supply; and he was a member of the government’s Industrial Atomic Energy Policy Committee.128 While Martin himself may not have broken new ground in nuclear physics, clearly he provided an important organisational focus around which aspects of atomic energy could be developed. He gathered information from his connections in Australia and overseas and channelled it into appropriate Australian undertakings, providing some of the impetus for the Australian atomic project.

Martin was also an important figure in the administration of Australian defence science. In 1948, he was appointed Defence Scientific Adviser and chairman of the Defence Research and Development Policy Committee.129 This part-time appointment followed upon his two years of service on the Defence Scientific Advisory Committee, and included provision for his co-option by the Defence Committee and the Council of Defence when necessary.130 Martin, being a physicist, and having previously chaired the Atomic Developments Sub-Committee, was offered the position ‘in view of the great importance of developments in atomic warfare’.131 Clearly the authorities agreed that Martin would be well qualified to direct atomic energy research policy.

In his administrative and consultative capacities for the Defence Department, Martin was involved in some of the Australian planning for the Hurricane trial. When the authorities at Harwell sought laboratory facilities for radiochemical analyses associated with the test, Martin’s advice was sought.132 He arranged for facilities to be made available by the University of Melbourne.133 Similarly, Martin was consulted when the services of two junior scientists were requested for the test.134

In mid-1952, Martin visited the United Kingdom ‘on matters of defence research policy’.135 He took the opportunity to have discussions with Penney and Cockroft, during which the matter of a mainland test site was raised.136 As a result of this meeting, Penney planned to visit one suggested location near Woomera while he was in Australia for the Hurricane test. He wrote to Martin in August, outlining his intentions and expressing the hope that he would meet him at Woomera.137 However, official arrangements did not move so swiftly nor so smoothly.

Martin had yet to receive an invitation from the British authorities to attend the Hurricane test when, on 22 August 1952, the Chief of the Naval Staff wrote to the Secretary of the Defence Department voicing his concern over the lack of official Australian scientific representation.138 The matter was referred to the Defence Committee which recommended that the UK government should be requested ‘to invite the Defence Scientific Adviser to be present in order that he might be fully acquainted with details of the tests’.139

The British cannot have been wholly ignorant of these sentiments, for at about the same time they, too, were considering Martin’s involvement. On 1 September, Martin was approached informally by a British official.140 Later that same day, a formal request for his participation arrived at the Prime Minister’s Department from the office of the UK High Commissioner. This letter explained that Penney was going to investigate the suitability of a site near Woomera for mainland atomic tests, and sought the assistance of an Australian scientist with the relevant health safety studies. It suggested that ‘the best man would be Professor Martin of Melbourne University and Scientific Advisor to the Australian Department of Defence’. The letter continued:

The United Kingdom authorities would like to invite Professor Martin to join the Health Physics team at Monte Bello where he would be given full details of all weapon effects and the lay-out of the site. He would not be given any access to the weapon itself nor to the results of the measurements of the weapon’s functioning.141

In recognition of Australian concerns it was noted that the arrangement ‘would give Australia additional participation in the Monte Bello trial’, and would enable Martin to offer ‘expert advice’ to the Australian government on the feasibility of the Woomera area for atomic tests.142

Certainly these considerations promised important benefits from an Australian point of view. A.D. McKnight, the Assistant Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department, commented in a memo to the Prime Minister:

participation by Martin in both the Woomera inspection and the Monte Bello tests, may put further information in his possession which will assist him in advising the Government later on.143

However, the Australian authorities were concerned by the limits that the British had sought to impose upon Martin’s role. The Defence Committee considered that ‘such limited participation’ was not acceptable because of:

(i) the considerable Australian contribution in resources to the Monte Bello tests and their close proximity to Australia;
(ii) the important program of Defence Research and Development being undertaken by Australia in conjunction with the United Kingdom; and
(iii) the need for the Defence Scientific Advisor to acquire the fullest information to assist him in advising, from the Australian viewpoint, on the technical feasibility of the use of the Woomera region for future tests.144

These Australian reservations caused the British some embarrassment, and they hastened to explain that they had expected Martin would be more closely interested in the weapon effects than actual details of the bomb’s performance.145 It was stressed that he would be given full details of the former, but added that:

The accommodation position, however, necessitates that all persons attending the test should be allotted definite tasks, and the health physics team was suggested as being related to the field in which Professor Martin is interested. This suggestion was not intended to limit in any way the undertaking that Professor Martin would be given full access to the information mentioned above.146

The Australian authorities agreed that they were not interested in the weapon itself and so Martin’s involvement was finally confirmed.

Clearly, it was important to the Australians that Martin participate in the Monte Bello test. He was, after all, the highest-ranking scientist in the Defence Department, so his presence added some lustre to Australia’s role in the undertaking. Equally, his non-involvement would have damaged the image of ‘close co-operation’ that the Australian government was keen to convey.

Martin was also responsible for the formulation of defence research policy – an appointment made with due regard to the possible development of atomic energy. Similarly, he played an important part in Australia’s plans for atomic research. Obviously Martin’s association with the test could do nothing but enhance his ability to perform these roles. The British, on the other hand, obviously recognised that a well-informed government representative would be an invaluable means of liaison in future negotiations concerning the testing of atomic devices on the Australian mainland.

Alan Butement had a considerably lower profile than the other Australian representatives, due undoubtedly to the fact that he, unlike the academics Titterton and Martin, was a professional civil servant. Butement began work for the British War Office in 1928, remaining at the Woolwich out-station for 10 years and holding various ranks up to Senior Scientific Officer. He was then transferred to the Ministry of Supply’s Radar Research and Development Establishment, playing a significant part in the project’s success. In 1940, he was promoted to Principal Scientific Officer and Assistant Director of Scientific Research at the Ministry of Supply headquarters.147 Here he invented, among other devices, the radio proximity fuze which was used to devastating effect in the latter years of the war .148

Butement arrived in Australia in 1947 as the Deputy Chief Scientific Officer of the party sent from Britain to establish the Woomera Rocket Range.149 He remained as Chief Superintendent of the Long Range Weapons Establishment until, in 1949, he was appointed Chief Scientist of the Australian Department of Supply, ‘in executive charge of Defence Scientific Research’.150

Details of the proposed atomic test were made known to Butement in late 1950, as a consequence of his responsibilities for the administration of the Long Range Weapons Establishment. It had been hoped to disguise the activity in the Monte Bello Islands by encouraging a cover story that suggested that an extension of the Rocket Range was being surveyed. Butement, however, was reluctant to assist these plans unless he was informed of the real purpose of the undertakings.151 With the knowledge he had gained of the desert areas surrounding Woomera, Butement’s involvement was to prove particularly valuable when the British began to investigate the possibility of mainland atomic tests. Butement, on one of his regular visits to the United Kingdom, had been a party to Martin’s discussions on this matter with Penney and Cockroft.152 Later, he had accompanied Penney on his reconnaissance of a likely site in the Woomera prohibited area.153 A suitable setting for an atomic explosion was found there amidst the natural beauty of the South Australian desert. The site became known as Emu Field.

Butement’s attendance at the Monte Bello test was markedly uncontroversial. In September 1952, the UK High Commissioner informed the Prime Minister’s Department that:

In the course of his visit to Australia, Sir John Cockroft was asked by the Secretary for Supply whether it would be possible for Mr Butement to attend the weapon test. I have now been informed that the United Kingdom authorities for their part are quite agreeable to Mr Butement’s attendance.154

The British reaction was hardly surprising. After all, Butement had been a high-ranking British civil servant until his recent secondment by the Australian government. Furthermore, it was clear that Butement and his department would playa vital role in any negotiations concerning mainland test sites. Thus it was important for Butement to gain experience of atomic weapons tests, from both British and Australian points of view. Equally, the Australians would have expected the participation of Butement, a senior Australian scientific official, to further consolidate the status of their effort.

It is notable that all three Australian scientific representatives at the Hurricane test had previously been involved in top secret projects relating to defence. One might assume, therefore, that each had an ideological commitment to this type of undertaking – an obvious but important point. Similarly, all three had connections with Australian government departments, making them official rather than independent scientific observers. However, a significant contrast emerges when one considers the arrangements concerning the attendance of each at Monte Bello. The invitations of Titterton and Butement were unproblematic, but Martin was the subject of protracted negotiations, torrid correspondence and apparent misunderstandings. The British sought to delineate the conditions of Martin’s attendance much more explicitly than for either of his fellow observers, and this seemed somehow at odds with Australian intentions. Indeed, it seems that the arrangements for Australian representation at the test resulted from a subtle counterplay of British and Australian interests.

The most influential factor in the determination of British atomic policy was the hope of re-establishing co-operation with the United States. Given the American distrust of Australian security, this hope was clearly threatened by the presence of Australians at the British atomic tests. Thus it was in Britain’s interests to limit severely the participation of Australian scientists. However, at the same time, Britain was dependent on Australian goodwill for the use of test sites. The exploitation of Australia’s vast spaces would hardly have been palatable to Australian authorities without at least a pretence of collaboration, and so the British were forced to concede some scientific representation. This representation also had the advantage of facilitating negotiations for further tests, particularly on the Australian mainland.

The Australians felt obligated by Commonwealth loyalties and defence strategy to allow the British atomic tests. Nevertheless, they envisaged particular benefits in terms of prestige and in the provision of atomic information. These hopes were obviously linked with a perceived need for Australian involvement in the tests, though tempered by a limited understanding of Britain’s relationships with the United States.

Thus Australian representation at the tests hinged on a mutually agreeable balance of these conflicting interests. Consequently, the suitability of the representatives depended as much on their background as their scientific training. Titterton and Butement were more readily acceptable than Martin because they had such close ties with this and other British and Allied defence projects. Martin’s credentials, on the other hand, were largely based on the development of Australian defence science, including atomic energy research. This made him a crucial observer to the Australians, and an uncomfortable necessity to the British, who sought to protect their own interests by imposing limits on his involvement. It is interesting to note that more than a year after the Monte Bello test, Martin had still not received the ‘full details of weapon effects’ that had been repeatedly promised.155

An important criterion in the selection of Australian scientific representatives for the Hurricane test was their political suitability. Furthermore, in attending the test, these scientists were fulfilling a political role. Rather than contributing their scientific skills, they contributed their presence, their connections and their backgrounds to the reinforcement of a facade of scientific collaboration. This is more than adequately demonstrated by the non-involvement of the highly qualified but ideologically suspect Mark Oliphant.

Oliphant was probably Australia’s leading authority on atomic energy. During the war he had played an important part in the development of the atomic bomb, being one of the senior members of the British mission to the Manhattan Project.156 On completion of this work in America, Oliphant helped to establish the British atomic research centre at Harwell.157 In the years that followed, he continually advocated atomic development in his homeland, Australia. By the time of the first British atomic test, Oliphant had settled into his new position as director of the Research School of Physical Sciences at ANU. He was not invited to the test, nor was his invitation sought by the Australian authorities.158

Oliphant’s absence from Monte Bello did not go unnoticed and Menzies was asked in Parliament for an explanation. His reply stated, in part:

The Monte Bello atomic test was a United Kingdom operation to which the Australian Government gave every assistance it could. ..Apart from service personnel, only scientists working directly on the test were present.159

Menzies obviously had in mind a fairly liberal understanding of the phrase ‘working directly’. His answer made no attempt, however, to explain why Oliphant’s possible participation had been overlooked. Menzies did not want to admit that Oliphant was considered a security risk.

Whilst showing respect for the intentions of security measures, Oliphant often found the restrictions they placed on his scientific work frustrating and ridiculous. This attitude had brought him into conflict a number of times with the Manhattan Project’s security officers.160 The Americans took a dim view of this unco-operativeness. In 1951, he was refused a visa to attend a physics conference in Chicago, being smeared as a ‘fellow traveller’. Oliphant’s disturbing reputation reached Australia, where moves were made to keep him out of sensitive areas.161

Thus Oliphant was not invited to the Monte Bello test because security problems made him politically unsuitable. The British authorities believed that his involvement in the test would raise ‘the possibility of unfortunate repercussions in Washington’,162 threatening the Anglo-American co-operation that they hoped to re-establish.

The lack of formal agreement on the extent and nature of Australian scientific participation in the test had certain advantages for Australia as well as for Britain. The Australian authorities were able to negotiate for considerable representation without having to insist on explicit guidelines that the British may have found difficult to accept. The Australians were conscious that, if they sought to drive too hard a bargain, the option of American test sites remained. Similarly, the vagaries of the situation enabled the Australians to avoid such issues as Oliphant’s non-involvement by misrepresenting the Australian presence at the tests. Shortly before the Totem trials, Menzies received a letter from the Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney suggesting that their new physics professor, Harry Messel, should be invited to observe the test. Menzies’ reply was almost a word-for-word copy of his statement on Oliphant. Thus he avoided the sensitive issues of political suitability.163

When the Maralinga atomic testing range was established in 1955, it was agreed between the British and Australian authorities that tests would only be carried out with the consent of the Australian government.164 To fulfil this requirement, the ‘Maralinga Safety Committee’, later renamed the’ Atomic Weapons Test Safety Committee’, was formed. Its members included Martin, Titterton and Butement, with Martin being appointed chairman. This committee’s responsibilities were:

(a) to examine information and other data supplied by the United Kingdom Government relating to atomic weapons tests. ..for the purpose of determining whether the safety measures proposed to be taken in relation to such tests were adequate…
(b) to advise the Prime Minister. ..of the conclusions arrived at by the Committee as a result of such examination and in particular as to whether and if so what additional, alternative or more extensive safety measures are considered necessary or desirable.165

In short, the committee was to ensure that the tests were ‘safe’. However, by the time the committee was constituted, three atomic bombs had already been exploded in Australia. One wonders what measures had been taken to ensure their ‘safety’. At the first Monte Bello test, it was reported:

It was known that the blast would be staged this week if weather conditions allowed. Scientists apparently wanted to be sure the atomic cloud would not be wafted over the mainland. This was borne out by the movement of the cloud out to sea today.166

However, such caution was apparently not sufficient, for at the second series of tests at Monte Bello in 1956, ‘special precautions’ were to be taken. Meteorologists had to predict when suitable weather conditions would occur and

satisfy the Australian Safety Committee and the scientific director that these conditions will persist for a long enough time to ensure that the ‘cloud’ formed by the explosion will drift out over the sea and diffuse harmlessly into the atmosphere.167

In other words, the ‘special precautions’ consisted of transference of public responsibility from unknown British scientists to a group of readily identifiable Australian authorities. Given that it was assured from the start that there would be ‘no danger whatsoever from radioactivity to the health of people or animals in the Commonwealth’,168 it is difficult to believe that such a change was motivated by a need for increased scientific authority. Rather, it would seem to have been a response to burgeoning public fears about the tests and radioactivity in general.

Doubts about the safety of atomic weapons tests, and in particular of tests on mainland Australia, gained increasing coverage from 1953 onwards.169 These worries were linked with such incidents as the contamination of the Fukuryu Maru and an international recognition of the hazards of radioactivity.170 It was hardly an atmosphere conducive to the establishment of a permanent atomic testing ground. The government, however, was able, in the following years, to invoke the authority of the Safety Committee, ‘scientific men of high repute and of great patriotism, with a great sense of responsibility and a great scientific knowledge’.171 Before the first Maralinga test Beale dismissed any fears, stating:

The highest scientific authority in Australia assured us that when the decision had been taken, the firing will be completely safe.172

The Safety Committee was thus used as a means of reassurance, to convince the public that any fears were groundless. Indeed, at a meeting in July 1956, the Committee itself ‘appreciated the need for indoctrination of the public’. As part of this ‘indoctrination’ Martin agreed to give a radio talk on the tests.173

Clearly, then, the Safety Committee’s role was as much concerned with public relations as it was with scientific safeguards. It was expected both to protect Australian interests and to demonstrate the safety of the tests under its control. This duality of roles might be acceptable if the claims of absolute safety made were compatible with the actions and attitudes of the committee itself in seeking to secure such safety. However, as Australian representatives to these British tests, the members of the Safety Committee were subject to the sorts of political forces that determined the participation of Titterton, Martin and Butement in the earlier trials. How would these forces have affected the integrity of the Safety Committee? Would the British have supplied the committee with sufficient data to gain a complete understanding of the hazards associated with the tests? Butement and Titterton, although Australian representatives, both had close ties with the British project. Where would they have felt their first duties to lie? Would the commitment of these scientists to defence science and atomic energy have affected their assessment of the risks involved in the tests? The political tension that surrounded Australian involvement in the British atomic tests hardly seems compatible with the official role taken on by the members of the Safety Committee. Mark Oliphant understood this well:

I’d learned by the bitter path that to touch the pitch of secrecy was to be contaminated for a very long time, that governments and politicians wanted not men who believed in the integrity of natural knowledge but men who would tell them what they wanted to hear, and that the truth has no meaning for a Churchill, a Morrison, a Menzies or a Casey, if it is politically inconvenient.174

In the post-war world, Britain desired to share in the might and glory of the atomic bomb. Unable to obtain American co-operation in these aspirations, Britain sought to develop an ‘independent deterrent’, though remaining ever-willing to forsake its ‘independence’ should American attitudes change. Australia surrendered its lands to the radioactive desolation of Britain’s Bomb through hopeful self-interest and imperial loyalties. However, British and Australian interests came into conflict over the issue of Australian participation in the tests. As a result, the representatives chosen had to meet certain political criteria. Even in hosting such an important and hazardous undertaking as atomic bomb tests, the Australian government was content with a meagre scientific representation, shaped by the workings of global politics. The issue of Australian participation was a ‘political inconvenience’ to the British, but nothing more. The tests were held; they were a success; Britain developed its very own bomb; and humankind increased its capacity for self-destruction – all with Australia’s diffident acquiescence.

  1. Leonard Bertin, Atom Harvest (London, 1955), 154. []
  2. The test series were: Operation Hurricane (Monte Bello Islands) consisting of Hurricane (3 October 1952); Operation Totem (Emu Field) consisting of Totem I (15 October 1953) and Totem II (27 October 1953); Operation Mosaic (Monte Bello Islands) consisting of G 1 (16 May 1956) and G2 (19 June 1956); Operation Buffalo (Maralinga) consisting of One Tree (27 September 1956), Marcoo (4 October 1956), Kite (11 October 1956) and Breakaway (22 October 1956); Operation Antler (Maralinga) consisting of Tadje (14 September 1957), Biak (25 September 1957) and Taranaki (9 October 1957). []
  3. Margaret Gowing, Britain and Atomic Energy, 1939-45 (London, 1964), 156-67, 240-67; Margaret Gowing, Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy, 1945-52, Vo1.1: PoiicyMaking (London, 1974), 3; Benin, op.cit. 140-2; Andrew J. Pierre, Nuclear Politics (London, 1972), 51-3. []
  4. Gowing, op.cit. (1974),92-112; Benin, op.cit. 19-21; H. Montgomery Hyde, The Atom Bomb Spies (London, 1980), 39-40. []
  5. Benin, op.cit., 20-1. []
  6. Alfred Goldberg, ‘The Atomic Origins of the British Nuclear Deterrent’, International Affairs, 40 (1964), 416; Pierre, op.cit., 80; Gowing, op.cit. (1974), 298, 302; Leonard Beaton and John Maddox, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons (London, 1962), 68. []
  7. Britain’s ‘atomic spies’ were the scientists Allan Nunn May (arrested 1946), Klaus Fuchs (arrested 1949) and Bruno Pontecorvo (defected 1950), and Donald MacLean, a diplomat involved in atomic energy negotiations. Cf. Hyde, op.cit., Ch.3. []
  8. Quoted in Benin, op.cit., 20. []
  9. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), esp. Chs.3, 4, 7-9. []
  10. Goldberg, op.cit., 419. []
  11. Ibid; Gowing, op.cit. (1974), 161, 172; Benin, op.cit., 88-91,103. []
  12. Goldberg, op.cit., 426; Benin, op.cit., 22; Gowing, op.cit. (1964),326; Gowing, op.cit. (1974),233; E.J. de Kadt, British Defence Policy and Nuclear War (London, 1964), 32. []
  13. Goldberg, op.cit., 426. []
  14. Quoted in Gowing, op.cit. (1964), 324. []
  15. Quoted in Gowing, op.cit. (1974), 163-4. []
  16. Ibid., 174. []
  17. ‘Top Secret Memorandum to Dominion Prime Ministers’, from W.C. Hankinson to J.B. Chifley; Australian Archives A816 3/301/428. []
  18. Sir Leonard Owen, quoted in Goldberg, op.cit., 420. []
  19. Howard Beale, This Inch of Time (Melbourne), 87; Gowing, op.cit. (1974), 164; Pierre, op.cit., 25-6; Goldberg, op.cit., 427; Hyde, op.cit., 124-5. []
  20. Beaton and Maddox, op.cit., 72. []
  21. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol.2: Policy Execution, 11; Bertin, op.cit., 23. []
  22. Beaton and Maddox, op.cit., 71-2; Kadt, op.cit., 35; Bertin, op.cit., 27. []
  23. Beaton and Maddox, op.cit., 74; Goldberg, op.cit., 427-8. []
  24. Beaton and Maddox, op.cit., 74; Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol.1, 184; Pierre, op.cit., 75; Goldberg, op.cit., 428; Hyde, op.cit., 124. []
  25. ‘Newspaper comment at the time was in general agreement concerning the expected political consequences of the test; it was expected that Anglo-American cooperation in weapons development would now become easier’ – Editorial in Atomic Scientists News, vol.2 (N.S.), November 1952, 97; Pierre, op.cit., 77; Goldberg, op.cit., 478; Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol. I, 122. []
  26. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol. I, 184; idem, vol.2, II; Kadt, op.cit., 35; Pierre, op.cit., 63; Bertin, op.cit., 22. []
  27. Letter from B. Cockram, office of the United Kingdom High Commissioner (UKHC), to A.S. Brown, Secretary of PM’s Department, 15 February 1952; Australian Archives AI209 57/4984. []
  28. ‘Britain’s Own Bang’, Newsweek, 40 (July-December 1952); 13 October, 43. []
  29. The Economist, 165 (October-December 1952); 11 October, 76. []
  30. ‘Britain Sets the Scene for Atomic Test’, Business Week, 6 September 1952, 174. []
  31. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol.1, 146-8. []
  32. Ibid., 149-52. []
  33. Ibid., Ch.8. []
  34. Ibid., 269-71. []
  35. Ibid., 271. []
  36. Pierre, op.cit., 73-4; Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol. I, 181-3. []
  37. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol. I, 179-80. []
  38. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol. 1, 307; vol.2, 476. []
  39. Ibid; Hyde, op.cit. 106. []
  40. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol.1, 307; vol.2, 476. []
  41. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol.2, 477; Adrian Tame and F.P.J. Robotham, Maralinga: British A-Bomb, Australian Legacy (Melbourne, 1982), 66. []
  42. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol.1, 307, 336; idem, vol.2, 476; J.L. Symonds, British Atomic Jests in Australia: A Chronology of Events, 1950-68 (Canberra, 1984), 1. []
  43. Ibid. []
  44. Quoted in Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol.2, 31. []
  45. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol.1, 307; Symonds, op.cit., 1. []
  46. Symonds, op.cit., 4-5; Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol. I, 308,409-10; vol.2, 32. []
  47. Letter from E.J. Williams (UKHC) to Menzies, 27 December 1951; Australian Archives AI209 57/4984. []
  48. Memo from Cherwell to Churchill; extract quoted in Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol.1, 409. []
  49. Letter from McKenna (Acting Secretary PM’s Department) to Shedden (Secretary Defence Department), 19 December 1952; Australian Archives A1209 57/4980. []
  50. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (CPD), vol.216 (27 February 1952), 404. []
  51. Quoted in Tame and Robotham, op.cit., 66. []
  52. Letter from E.J. Williams (UKHC) to Menzies, 14 February 1952; Australian Archives AI209 57/4983. []
  53. Memo from Secretary, Defence Department to Secretary, PM’s Department, 28 April 1952; Australian Archives AI209 57/4983. []
  54. Ibid. []
  55. Memo from Secretary, Defence Department to Minister, 17 September 1952; Australian Archives A816 3/301/552. []
  56. Statement reprinted in Current Notes On International Affairs (Department of External Affairs), 23 (1952), 590. []
  57. Paper headed ‘Atomic Weapon Test in Australia: Arrangements for Publicity’, 7 August 1952; Australian Archives A1209 57/4985. []
  58. ‘History Has Been Made at Monte Bello’, Editorial in Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 1952, 2. []
  59. Current Notes, 21 (1950), 659. []
  60. Dennis H. Phillips, Cold War Two and Australia (Sydney, 1983), 19; Harry and Jill Redner, Anatomy of the World: The Impact of the Atom on Australia and the World (Melbourne, 1983), 181. []
  61. Alan Watt, The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy, 1938-65 (Cambridge, 1967), 109-10; Redner and Redner, op.cit., 181. []
  62. ‘Statement by the Minister for External Affairs the Hon. P.C. Spender, 9 March 1950’, in Current Notes, 21 (1950), 153. []
  63. R.G. Menzies, Speech is of Time, 17, quoted in Watt, op.cit., 111. []
  64. ‘Statement by …P.C. Spender’, op.cit., 165. []
  65. ‘Statement by the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. R.G. Menzies, K.C., M.P., to the House of Representatives, 7 March 1951’, in Current Notes, 22 (1951), 159. []
  66. Ibid, 163. []
  67. Beale, op.cit., 87. []
  68. Stewart Cockburn and David El1yard, Oliphant: The Life and Times of Sir Mark Oliphant (Adelaide, 1981), 131; CSIRO Archives, Series 3 KA 10/14; CPD vol.188 (I August 1946), 3485. []
  69. Ibid. []
  70. Memo to R.G. Casey, 26 August 1941, quoted in Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 112-3. []
  71. Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 218; Gowing, op.cit. (1964), 315; Ann Mozley Moyal, ‘The Australian Atomic Energy Commission: A Case Study in Australian Science and Government’, Search, 6(9) (September 1975),365. []
  72. Letter from F.W. White (Executive Officer, CSIR) to G.H. Briggs, 13 June 1946; CSIRO Archives Series 3 KA/5/12/3. []
  73. Letter from White to Sir John Cockroft, 6 February 1947; CSIRO Archives Series 3 KA/5/16/2. []
  74. Ibid; Moyal, op.cit., 365; Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 218. []
  75. CSIRO Archives Series 3 KA/5/12/3, KA/5/16/2. []
  76. Letter from W.C. Hankinson (UKHC), 26 March 1946; Australian Archives A816 3/301/428. []
  77. CPD, vol. 193 (1 October 1947), 336. []
  78. Letter from White to Cockroft, 6 February 1947; CSIRO Archives Series 3 KA/5/16/2. []
  79. Moyal, op.cit., 365. []
  80. CPD, vol.198 (6 October 1948), 1318. []
  81. Moyal, op.cit., 365; Melbourne University Gazette, 3 (August 1947), 63. []
  82. ‘Report by the New Weapons and Equipment Development Committee at its meeting held on Friday, 7 May 1948’; Australian Archives A816 3/301/454A. []
  83. Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 218; Moyal, op.cit., 366. []
  84. Ibid, 365; Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 101. []
  85. Manchester Guardian, 3 April 1952, quoted in Atomic Scientists News, 1 (N.S.), 286. []
  86. Moyal, op.cit., 366. []
  87. Letter from White to Briggs, 13 June 1946; CSIRO Archives Series 3 KA/5/12/3. []
  88. ‘Report by the New Weapons and Equipment Development Committee. ..7 May, 1948’, op.cit. (n.82). []
  89. Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 218-9. []
  90. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol. 1, 147,336,418-9. []
  91. Ibid, 149, 337. []
  92. Letter from Oliphant to Sir David Rivett, May 1948, quoted in Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 187. []
  93. Ivan Southall, Woomera (Sydney, 1962), 41; Beale, op.cit., 76. []
  94. Ibid, 77. []
  95. Ibid. []
  96. E.g. Letter from G.A. Cook (Secretary Executive Committee CSIR) to J.J. Dedman (Minister in Charge CSIR), 12 March 1947; CSIRO Archives Series 3 KA/5/16/2: ‘It is now known that the United Kingdom authorities would welcome the presence at Harwell of a group of Australian scientists and engineers. Great difficulty is being experienced in England in finding sufficient men for this work. ..Australia is unlikely to be able to keep in touch with these [atomic] developments unless we participate in them’. []
  97. Moyal, op.cit., 366; E.W. Titterton, ‘The Atomic Future’, Empire Outlook, January 1953, 21: ‘we may hope that in exchange for some of the raw materials we all [sic] export to Britain and the U.S.A., they, in turn, will provide us with the processed materials such as fuel elements, graphite and so on …’ []
  98. CPD, vol.217 (4 June 1952), 1374. []
  99. Australian Ionizing Radiation Advisory Council, Nuclear Tests in Australia: A Review of Operational Safety Measures and of Possible After-Effects {AIRAC-9] (Canberra, 1983), 27. []
  100. Letter from B. Cockram (UKHC) to A.S. Brown (Secretary PM’s Department), 29 September 1952; Australian Archives A1209 57/4983; Interview with E. W. Titterton, 16 August 1984; Interview with W.A.S. Butement, 13 September 1984. []
  101. Letter from H. Beale (Minister of Supply) to R.G. Menzies (Prime Minister), 12 November 1953; Australian Archives A816 3/301/574. []
  102. Top Secret Cable, 13 December 1952; Australian Archives A1209 57/4980. []
  103. Ibid, reply sent 15 December 1952; Symonds, op.cit., 12. []
  104. Bertin, op.cit., 178-9. []
  105. Statement by Duncan Sandys (UK Minister of Supply), quoted in Atomic Scientists News, 3, 115. []
  106. Interview with E.W. Titterton, 16 August 1984; ‘File Notes’ regarding Totem, 29 April and 11 May 1953; Australian Archives A1209 57/4980. []
  107. Aide Memoire entitled’ Atomic Bomb Trials’, Australian Archives A1209 57/4980. []
  108. ‘Report on Totem Panel Discussions by E. White, 31.3.53’, Australian Archives A816 3/301/576. []
  109. ‘Report on Totem Panel Discussions by E. White, 1.10.53’, Australian Archives A816 3/301/576; Symonds, op.cit., 17. []
  110. Statement by Duncan Sandys (UK Minister of Supply), reprinted in Atomic Scientists News, 3, 46 []
  111. ‘Report on Totem Panel Discussions. ..31.3.53’, op.cit. (n.108). []
  112. Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 101; Lennard Bicke1, The Deadly Element (London, 1979), 139-40; Interview with E.W. Titterton, 16 August 1984. []
  113. Working on the cyclotron there – Interview with E. W. Titterton, 16 August 1984. []
  114. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol. 1, 112-3;Project Y: The Los Alamos Story, Part One, Toward Trinity, by David Hawkins; Part Two, Beyond Trinity, by R.C. Smith (Los Angeles, 1983), 26, 280. []
  115. Interview with E.W. Titterton, 16 August 1984. []
  116. Bicke1, op.cit., 114; Lansing Lamont, Day of Trinity (New York, 1965), 223, 231. []
  117. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vo1.1, 112. []
  118. Ibid, 113; Joint Task Force One, Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial History (New York, 1946), 97, 180-1; Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September 1952, 2. The Americans were reluctant to identify Titterton or his nationality; although Titterton gave the countdown for one of the tests, his voice was dubbed in the official film, and he was only referred to as ‘the voice of Abraham’. []
  119. Interview with E.W. Titterton, 16August 1984; Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September 1953, 2. []
  120. Gowing, op.cit. (1974), vol.2, 73, 445; Interview with E.W. Titterton, 16 August 1984. []
  121. Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 177. []
  122. Symonds, op.cit., 6. []
  123. Letter from A.S. Brown (Secretary PM’s Department) to Sir Frederick Shedden (Secretary Defence Department), 23 April 1952; Australian Archives A816 3/301/533. []
  124. Letter from A.S. Brown (Secretary PM’s Department) to Sir Douglas Copland (Vice-Chancellor, ANU), 23 April 1952; Australian Archives A1209 57/4983. []
  125. ‘As you know Dr Titterton is attending apparently by private arrangement’ – Letter from Vice-Admiral Sir John Collins (Chief of Naval Staff) to Sir Frederick Shedden (Secretary Defence Department) 22 August 1952; Australian Archives A816 3/301/338. []
  126. Melbourne University Gazette, 15 (1959), 9 (October). []
  127. Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 93. []
  128. See pp. 141-2. []
  129. Melbourne University Gazette, 4 (1948), 105; Australian Archives A816 9/301/163 Pt.1. []
  130. Memo from Sir Frederick Shedden (Secretary Defence Department) to Minister of Defence, 21 October 1948; Australian Archives A816 9/301/163 Pt.1. []
  131. Ibid. []
  132. Letter from Secretary, Defence Department, to Secretary, PM’s Department, 28 May 1952; Australian Archives A816 3/301/533. []
  133. Ibid. []
  134. Letter from McKenna (Acting-Secretary PM’s Department) to UKHC, 19 May 1952; Australian Archives A816 3/301/533. []
  135. Melbourne University Gazette, 8 (1952), 28. []
  136. Southall, op.cit., 163. []
  137. Symonds, op.cit., 11. []
  138. Letter from Vice-Admiral Sir John Collins to Sir Frederick Shedden, 22 August 1952, op.cit., (n.125). []
  139. ‘Minute by Defence Committee at Meeting Held on 28th August, 1952’; Australian Archives A816 3/301/538. []
  140. Letter from Sir Frederick Shedden (Secretary Defence Department) to A.D. McKnight (Assistant Secretary PM’s Department), 15 September 1952; Australian Archives A816 3/301/538. []
  141. Letter from George Davey (UKHC) to A.D. McKnight (Assistant Secretary PM’s Department), 27 August 1952; Australian Archives A816 3/301/538. []
  142. Ibid. []
  143. Memo from A.D. McKnight {Assistant Secretary PM’s Department) to Prime Minister, 27 August 1952; Australian Archives A816 3/301/538. []
  144. ‘Minute by Defence Committee at Meeting Held on 4th September, 1952’; Australian Archives A816 3/301/538. []
  145. Letter from A.D. McKnight (Assistant Secretary PM’s Department) to Sir Frederick Shedden (Secretary Defence Department), 14 September 1952; Australian Archives A1209 57/4983. []
  146. Letter from B. Cockram (UKHC) to A.S. Brown (Secretary PM’s Department), 29 September 1952; Australian Archives A1209 57/4983. []
  147. Who’s Who in Australia, ed. J.A. Alexander, 15th ed. (1955), 142; ‘Biographical Notes for Security Clearance – W.A.S. Butement’; Australian Archives A816 58/301/247. []
  148. Butement was granted a patent for proximity fuzes in 1968 -Age Biography File (Victorian State Library); Interview with W.A.S. Butement, 13 September 1984. []
  149. Southall, op.cit., 30ff. []
  150. Letter from J.K. Jensen (Secretary Department of Supply and Development) to Butement, 26 October 1948; Australian Archives A462 850/2/15. []
  151. ‘File Note’ dated 6 November 1950; Australian Archives A8163/301/569. []
  152. Southall, op.cit., 163. []
  153. Ibid, 164; Len Beadell, Blast the Bush (Adelaide, 1967), 31-6; Symonds op.cit., 11. []
  154. Letter from B. Cockram (UKHC) to A.S. Brown (Secretary PM’s Department), 19 September 1952; Australian Archives A1209 57/4985. []
  155. A request was made to the British for this information in October 1953. Cockram (UKHC) replied that the Australians would be given any relevant details of the back-up study of the Monte Bellos being undertaken at that time. Clearly this was not the information originally promised. – Letter from A. S. Brown (Secretary PM’s Department) to UKHC, 14 October 1953; Letter from B. Cockram (UKHC) to Brown, 24 November 1953; Australian Archives A1209 57/4983. []
  156. Gowing, op.cit. (1964),256-9; Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 118. []
  157. Ibid, 135; Gowing op.cit., (1964), 331. []
  158. Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 190; personal correspondence from Lord Penney, 30 September 1984. If Oliphant had been invited, he would not have attended, having decided ‘to have nothing more to do with the nuclear weapon’. But the point remains, why did ‘Penney and his masters’ not welcome Oliphant’s involvement? – personal correspondence with Sir Mark Oliphant, 25 September 1984. []
  159. CPD, vol.221 (17 February 1953), 9. []
  160. Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 183-4. []
  161. Ibid, 188-93. []
  162. Letter from B. Cockram (UKHC) to A. S. Brown (Secretary PM’s Department), 15 August 1952; Australian Archives A1209 57/4985. []
  163. Letter from R.G. Menzies (Prime Minister) to A.D. Trendall (Acting Vice-Chancellor, Sydney University), 23 September 1953; Australian Archives A462 449/21. []
  164. AIRAC-9, op.cit., (n.99), 21. []
  165. Ibid, 27. []
  166. Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 1952, 1. []
  167. Ibid, 16 February 1956,1. []
  168. Ibid, 19 February 1952, 1. []
  169. Beale, op.cit., 82; e.g. Sydney Morning Herald, 10 October 1953, 2. []
  170. A Japanese fishing boat, the crew of which was contaminated by radioactive fall-out from a U.S. hydrogen bomb test. []
  171. CPD, v.H of R.15 (1957), 1110. []
  172. CPD, v.H of R.12 (1956), 903. []
  173. Age, 7 November 1984. []
  174. Letter from Oliphant to Hedley Marston, 12 September 1956; quoted in Cockburn and Ellyard, op.cit., 194. []

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I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.

One Comment

  1. January 31, 2014

    my family farmed north of wirrulla in south australia from the early 1900s until now.
    We were told that as long as we were 20 mikes from the blast, we were safe!
    My mother had many health issues and i still have them. But I am 70 so really cant complain too much
    My mother and I were present for two bomb blasts but we lived most of the time in Adelaide.
    My mother was born in 1910 in Wirrulla and I was born in 1943 in Adelaide.
    I now live in Canada
    I have a cousin still farming in the area and he has many stories about Woomera and area.

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