October 3 marks the 68th anniversary of Britain’s first atomic test in Australia , carried out on WA’s pristine Monte Bello Islands, 120km north of Onslow.
Approved in secret by Australia’s PM Robert Menzies, the British had hoped the Australian public would remain in the dark about the controversial explosions.
Thanks to the efforts of Perth journalists, their activities were exposed to the world.
Griff Richards, former editor-in-chief of The West Australian, kept a detailed record of how his reporters managed to cover the blasting, in our north-west.
His record has never been published, until now, after Griff’s daughter Margot Lang sifted through her late father’s papers and uncovered this fascinating report.
It was Britain’s bomb, and the British were determined to keep the test blast secret.
Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies had secretly agreed – without even telling his own Cabinet – to a request from British Prime Minister Clem Attlee in September 1950 for the bomb to be tested on Australian soil.
In December 1951 Britain decided to go ahead with the tests. Rumours began to circulate in Canberra early in 1952. William McMahon, Minister for the Navy, came to Perth and dodged the Press.
This was unprecedented – like a fish renouncing water. I sent a senior reporter, Norman Milne, to knock on his door at the Esplanade Hotel. He slammed the door.
I went to see Captain Bryce Morris, naval officer in charge at Fremantle. Bryce Morris, a blue-water man with a contempt for chairborne warrriors, was candid, as usual, but was very much in the dark.
The phone rang and he kept saying “Speak up” until he hung up muttering: “Bloody Security! They ring up to tell you something and whisper so you can’t hear them.”
Tom Cotton, of Intelligence, a neighbour of mine, was the mysterious caller.
As bits of information built up, we sent reporters to Onslow and published reports of naval activity. Protests came from high places, but we were able to say that we did not publish anything without approval from Bryce Morris.
Finally, Sir Arthur Fadden, Deputy Prime Minister, invited all newspapers to send their top people to a security conference in Canberra on July 14.
Jim Macartney, managing editor of The West Australian, launched preparations for a large-scale expedition.
A cavalcade of reporters, photographers and technicians under the leadership of Jack Nicoll left Perth on August 16.
Four men – a reporter and a photographer each for The West Australian and the Daily News – stayed at the Onslow hotel to keep a continuous watch on the explosion area.
The rest of the party established a camp at Mt Potter, 215km north-east of Onslow.
The main camp was next to a billabong containing a foot of brackish water which could be used for washing. Drinking water had to be carried from a pump 10km away.
The camp was directly under the north-south telegraph line, which was tapped and connected to machines on the table-top of a six-ton truck.
It was one of Australia’s most unusual post offices. It gave instantaneous communication with Perth by morse through two channels – one down the coast through Onslow and Carnarvon; the other through Port Hedland, Marble Bar and Meekatharra.
Two operators from the Postmaster-General’s Department and a junior reporter from The West slept next to the machines. Both lines had repeaters and on demand could be used simultaneously for half an hour continuously.
In the next six weeks the telegraphists sent 25,000 words to Perth. The nearest resident was 22km away at Mardie station.
An ironstone hill 76 metres high, 2½ km from the camp and about 100km from the Monte Bellos, was selected for an observation post.
To get to the top, the men had to scramble up a gradient averaging one in three. They called it Nick’s Nob in honour of their leader.
The observation post commanded a view of the atomic-test prohibited area.
The men set up special cameras, a dark room and crude living quarters. They couild not put up tents because there were winds up to 100km an hour, and gelignite had to be used to dig a post-hole.
Bill Mangini, a physicist, designed a 4 metre camera, the biggest in the world. The lenses were mounted in a big plywood box designed by Harold Rudinger, WAN’s senior photographic technician, and the assembly was called Long Tom.
A dark room was there to check results on the spot, the effect of radioactivity being unpredictable.
The men rigged an army field telephone to connect the observation post to the main camp. The plan was that when the bomb exploded reporters at the top of the hill, working in relays, would telephone their stories to the junior reporter at the camp, who had headphones and a typewriter. Since morse transmission was not fast, his typewriter could keep both telegraph channels fully occupied.
An Anson aircraft flown by Jimmy Woods was kept on standby at Mardie station for the pictures to be rushed to Perth.
Nearly every day an RAAF patrol aircraft buzzed the observation post at the lowest possible altitude. The WAN men arranged a notice in painted stones – TOP SECRET: KEEP OUT. Neither the Navy nor Commonwealth Security showed any curiosity about the special cameras, which had formidable-looking barrels pointing out to sea.
Captain McNicoll, vice-chief of the Australian naval staff, said the Navy had tried to arrange for the Press to inspect the Monte Bellos installations before the explosion, but this had been vetoed in London.
Macartney told the WAN board: “In view of our heavy cost (about £4600 pounds so far, including all wages) we felt justified in asking every Australian metropolitan publisher for a contribution of £500. We are now guaranteed assistance to the extent of at least £5000.
The sale of pictures overseas should produce a good deal more money and altogether we can feel confident now that we will get the story ourselves for nothing or next to nothing.”
The men on the job slept beside their equipment for nearly seven weeks.
The bomb went off on October 3 at 8am. They had no warning of it, but the organisation worked perfectly.
More than 12,000 words were telegraphed to Newspaper House and Woods landed in Perth with excellent pictures in time to catch all editions of The West – results that wouldnever have been achieved if we had relied on official releases.
Itwas a triumph for Macartney. The cost was more than £12,000, but WAN got most of it back by selling the coverage interstate and overseas. You can see Adobe robohelp 10 system requirements.
The bomb, code-named Hurricane, was detonated 2.4 metres below the waterline in the old 1450-ton Royal Navy frigate HMS Plym, which vaporised.
The bomb had a yield of about 25 kilotons of explosive at a million degrees Celsius and the radioactive cloud rose 549 metres in one second.
There was some fallout on the mainland about 30 hours later, but most of the radioactivity fell into the sea to the north and west ,as planned.
An Australian royal commission headed by James (“Diamond Jim”) McClelland, a former judge and former Minister in the Whitlam Government, reported in 1985 that the Monte Bellos were an unsuitable site because of the prevailing weather patterns and the limited opportunities for safe firing.
He said that information was concealed from the Federal Government. The Australian scientists did not know enough about the test to tell the Government whether the weapon could befired without posing a hazard to the mainland.
Two more bombs were exploded at the Monte Bellos, in 1956. The first, Mosaic G1, tower-mounted on Trimouille Island, exploded on May 16. It had a yield of 15 kilotons and its cloudmushroomed to 6400 metres.
Radioactivity was detected on the mainland from Onslow to Broome because of a change in wind direction after the explosion.
The next bomb, Mosaic G2, tower-mounted on Alpha Island, exploded on June 19. It was the biggest tested in Australia. Its yield was 60 kilotons and the cloud rose to 14,325 metres.
Fallout was again bigger than expected and again affected the mainland where none had been predicted.
The main cloud crossed the coast. It produced radioactivity at Port Hedland and Derby 24 hours after the explosion. The fallout was highest at Port Hedland, exceeding the permitted level for the general public.
The two Mosaic tests were conducted in a hurry under marginal conditions and predictions about the movement of fallout proved to be wrong.
McClelland accused the safety committee of having made a grossly misleading and irresponsible report to Menzies.
After the first Monte Bellos test, there were five trials at Emu Plains, South Australia, in 1953 in which two bombs were detonated.
The Australian Cabinet agreed in 1954 to Britain’s establishing a permanent proving ground at Maralinga, South Australia, and in trials begun there in 1955 eight more bombs were exploded. The trials continued to 1963.
Aborigines reported that a “black mist” after the Emu Plains tests in 1953 had made them sick; and in 1962 it was reported that radioactive contamination at Maralinga might be a health hazard.
Britain began a clean-up Operation Brumby at Maralinga in 1967, but McClelland claimed it was unsatisfactory. He recommended in 1985 that regular monitoring of radiation at the Monte Bello Islands should continue.
Griff Richards’ history of West Australian Newspapers 1939 – 1984