Hurricane exploded in the hold of a frigate
|Test site||Monte Bello Islands, Western Australia|
|Number of tests||1|
|Max. yield||25 kilotonnes of TNT (100 TJ)|
|Next test series||Operation Totem|
Operation Hurricane was the test of the first UK atomic device on 3 October 1952. A plutonium implosion device was detonated in the lagoon in the Monte Bello Islands in Western Australia, just over three years after the Soviet Union detonated a similar device in August 1949.
Several key British scientists had worked on the British contribution to the Manhattan Project, and after returning to the UK worked on the British atom bomb project. The British weapon was therefore unsurprisingly similar to the Fat Man device used in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Operation Crossroads, but the United States Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (McMahon Act) prevented any British access to the US bomb design data. The bomb design used a 7 kg levitated core of plutonium produced mainly at Windscale in Cumbria. The yield was estimated at 25 kilotons.
To test the effects of a ship-smuggled bomb (a threat of great concern to the British at the time), Hurricane was exploded inside the hull of HMS Plym (a 1,370-ton River class frigate) which was anchored in 12 metres (39 ft) of water, 350 metres (1,150 ft) off Trimouille Island. The explosion occurred 2.7 metres (8 ft 10 in) below the water line, and left a saucer-shaped crater on the seabed 6 metres (20 ft) deep and 300 metres (980 ft) across.
The December 1938 discovery of nuclear fission by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann—and its theoretical explanation and naming by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch—raised the possibility that an extremely powerful atomic bomb could be created. During the Second World War, Frisch and Rudolf Peierls at the University of Birmingham calculated the critical mass of a metallic sphere of pure uranium-235, and found that instead of tons, as everyone had assumed, as little as 1 to 10 kilograms (2.2 to 22.0 lb) would suffice, which would explode with the power of thousands of tons of dynamite. In response, Britain initiated an atomic bomb project, codenamed Tube Alloys.
At the Quebec Conference in August 1943, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill and the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, signed the Quebec Agreement, which merged Tube Alloys with the American Manhattan Project. The British contribution to the Manhattan Project included assistance in the development of gaseous diffusion technology at the SAM Laboratories in New York, and the electromagnetic separation process at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. John Cockcroft became the director of the joint British-Canadian Montreal Laboratory. A British Mission to the Los Alamos Laboratory led by James Chadwick, and later Peierls, included distinguished scientists such as Geoffrey Taylor, James Tuck, Niels Bohr, William Penney, Frisch, Ernest Titterton and Klaus Fuchs, who was later revealed to be a Soviet spy. As overall head of the British Mission, Chadwick forged a close and successful partnership with Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, and ensured that British participation was complete and wholehearted.
With the end of the war the Special Relationship between Britain and the United States "became very much less special". The British government had trusted that America would share nuclear technology, which the British saw as a joint discovery, but the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (McMahon Act), which was signed by Truman on 1 August 1946, and went into effect at midnight on 1 January 1947, ended technical cooperation. Its control of "restricted data" prevented the United States' allies from receiving any information. The terms of the Quebec Agreement remained secret, but senior members of the United States Congress were horrified when they discovered that it gave the British a veto over the use of nuclear weapons. The 1948 modus vivendi allowed for only limited sharing of technical information between the United States, Britain and Canada.
In response, the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, set up a cabinet sub-committee, the Gen 75 Committee (known informally by Attlee as the "Atomic Bomb Committee"), on 10 August 1945 to examine the feasibility of a nuclear weapons programme. In October 1945, it accepted a recommendation that responsibility be placed within the Ministry of Supply. The Tube Alloys Directorate was transferred from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to the Ministry of Supply on 1 November 1945. To coordinate the effort, Lord Portal, the wartime Chief of the Air Staff was appointed Controller of Production, Atomic Energy (CPAE), with direct access to the Prime Minister. An Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) was established at RAF Harwell, south of Oxford under the directorship of Cockcroft. Christopher Hinton agreed to oversee the design, construction and operation of the new atomic weapons facilities. These included a new uranium metal plant at Springfields in Lancashire, and nuclear reactors and plutonium processing facilities at Windscale in Cumbria. He established his headquarters in a former Royal Ordnance Factory at Risley in Lancashire on 4 February 1946.
In July 1946, the Chiefs of Staff Committee recommended that Britain acquire nuclear weapons. They estimated that 200 bombs would be required by 1957. Despite this, and the research and construction of production facilities that had already been approved, there was still no official decision to proceed with making atomic bombs. Portal submitted a proposal to do so at the 8 January 1947 meeting of the Gen 163 Committee, a subcommittee of the Gen 75 Committee, which agreed to proceed with the development of atomic bombs. It also endorsed his proposal to place Penney, now the Chief Superintendent Armament Research (CSAR) at Fort Halstead in Kent, in charge of the bomb development effort, which was codenamed "High Explosive Research".
Implicit in the decision to develop atomic bombs was the need to test them. Lacking open, thinly-populated areas, British officials considered locations overseas. The preferred site was the American Pacific Proving Grounds. A request to use it was sent to the American Joint Chiefs of Staff in the summer of 1950, but no reply was received until October 1950, when the Americans turned down the request. As a fall back, sites in Canada and Australia were considered. Penney spoke to Omond Solandt, the chairman of the Canadian Defence Research Board, and they arranged for a joint feasibility study.
The study noted that what was required was an isolated site with no human habitation 100 miles (160 km) downwind, from which fallout would be blown out to sea but away from shipping lanes. It had to be large enough to accommodate several detonations over a period of years, and ready by mid-1952. The first test would probably be a ground burst, but consideration was also given to an explosion in a ship to measure the effect of a ship-borne atomic bomb on a major port. Such data would complement that obtained about an underwater explosion by the American Operation Crossroads nuclear test in 1946, and would therefore be of value to the Americans. Seven Canadian sites were assessed, with the most promising being Churchill, Manitoba, but the waters were too shallow to allow ships to approach close to shore.
In September 1950, the Admiralty suggested that the Monte Bello Islands in Australia might be suitable, so Attlee obtained permission from the Prime Minister of Australia, Robert Menzies, to send a survey party out to have a look at the islands. }Major General James Cassels, the Chief Liaison Officer with the United Kingdom Services Liaison Staff (UKSLS) in Melbourne was designated the principal British contact in Australia, and Menzies nominated Sir Frederick Shedden, the Secretary of the Department of Defence, as the person with whom Cassels should deal. At the time Britain was still Australia's major trading partner, although it would be overtaken by Japan and the United States by the 1960s. The two countries still had strong cultural ties, and Menzies was strongly pro-British. Australian and British troops were fighting the communists together in the Korean War and the Malayan Emergency. But, unlike Canada, Australia was not a party to the Quebec Agreement or the modus vivendi, and Britain would not share technical information with Australia for fear that it might jeopardise its far more important relationship with the United States.
The three-man survey party, headed by Air Vice Marshal E. D. Davis, arrived in Sydney on 1 November 1950, and embarked on HMAS Karangi, under the command of Commander A. H. Cooper, who carried out a detailed hydrographic survey of the islands. The charts at the Admiralty had been made by HMS Beagle in August 1840. Soundings were taken of the depths of coastal waters to measure the tides, and samples of the gravel and sand were taken to assess whether they could be used for making concrete. The work afloat and ashore was complemented by RAAF aerial photography of the islands. The British survey team return to London on 29 November 1950. The islands were assessed as suitable for atomic testing, but, for climatic reasons, only in October.
On 27 March 1951, Attlee sent Menzies a personal message saying that, while negotiations with the United States site were still ongoing, work would need to begin if the Monte Bello Islands were to be used in October 1952. Menzies replied that he could not authorise the test until after the Australian federal election, which was held on 28 April 1951, but was willing to allow work to continue.Menzies was re-elected, and the Australian government formally agreed in May 1951. On 28 May 1951, Attlee sent a comprehensive list of assistance that it hoped that Australia would provide. A more detailed survey was requested, which was carried out by HMAS Warrego in July and August 1951.  The British government emphasised the importance of security, so as not to imperil its negotiations with the United States. The Australian government gave all weapon design data a classification of "Top Secret", with all other aspects of the test being "Classified". Nuclear weapons design was already covered by a D notice in the United Kingdom. Australian D Notice No. 8 was issued to cover nuclear tests.
Meanwhile, negotiations continued with the Americans. At the Combined Policy Committee meeting in August, they made a counter offer of allowing the British to use the Nevada Test Site. This would be cheaper than Monte Bello, but it would not be possible to test from a ship, and there were political advantages to demonstrating that Britain could develop and test nuclear weapons without American assistance. A final decision was deferred until after the 1951 election. On 27 December 1951, the new Conservative Party government decided on Monte Bello. Churchill announced in the House of Commons that the first British atomic bomb test would occur in Australia before the end of the year on 26 February 1952. When queried by a Labour Party backbencher, Emrys Hughes, about the impact on the local flora and fauna, Churchill joked that the survey team had only seen some birds and lizards. Fortunately, amongst the AERE scientists was an amateur biologist, Frank Hill, who collected samples of the flora and fauna on the islands, teaming up with Commander G. Wedd, who collected marine specimens from the surrounding waters. In a paper published by the Linnean Society of London, Hill catalogued over 400 species of plants and animals. This included 20 new species of insects, six of plants, and a new species of legless lizard.
To coordinate the test, the British government established a Hurricane Executive Committee chaired by the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Edward Evans-Lombe. It held its first meeting in May 1951. To deal with it, an Australian Hurricane Panel was created, chaired by the Australian Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, Captain Alan McNicoll. It's other members were Colonel John Wilton from the Army, Group Captain Alister Murdoch from the RAAF and Charles Spry from ASIO. Cassels or his representative was invited to attend its meetings. A pressing question was that of observers. Churchill decided to exclude the media and members of the UK parliament. While Canadian scientists and technicians would have access to all technical data, Australians would not.
The British were anxious to secure the services of Titterton, who had recently emigrated to Australia, as he had worked on the American Trinity and Crossroads tests. Menzies had the vice chancellor of the Australian National University, Sir Douglas Copland, release Titterton to work on Operation Hurricane. Cockcroft also wanted assistance from Leslie Martin, the Department of Defence's Science Advisor, who was also a professor of physics at the University of Melbourne, in the health physics area. The two men knew each other from their time at Cambridge University before the war. After some argument, Martin was accepted as an official observer, as was W. A. S. Butement, the Chief Scientist at the Department of Supply. The only other official observer was Solandt from Canada.
An advance party of No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron RAAF from RAAF Base Williamtown in New South Wales moved to Onslow, Western Australia, in August 1951 with heavy construction equipment, taking the train to Geraldton and then the road to Onslow. This was then taken across to the Monte Bello Islands. A prefabricated hut was taken across by Karangai, along with equipment for establishing a meteorological station. Other materiel was moved from Onslow to the islands in 40-measurement-ton (45 m3) lots in an Army ALC-40 landing craft towed by Karangai. This included two 25-ton bulldozers, a grader, tip trucks, portable generators, 400-imperial-gallon (1,800 l) water tanks and a mobile radio transceiver. The hut was erected, and the meteorological station henceforth manned by an RAAF officer and four assistants. Roads and landings were constructed, and camp sites established.
The next stage of work began in February 1952, in the wake of the December decision to proceed with the test. A detachment of No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron was flown to Onslow from RAAF Bankstown in two RAAF Dakota aircraft, and were then taken to the islands by the Bathurst-class corvette HMAS Mildura. Karangai fetched 90 measurement tons (100 m3) of Marston Mat from Darwin that was used for road works and hardstands. The SS Dorrigo brought in another 90 measurement tons (100 m3) three weeks later. A water supply was also developed. To bring water from the Fortescue River, a quantity of 4-inch (100 mm) Victaulic-coupling pipe was brought from the Department of Works in Sydney and the Woomera Rocket Range in South Australia. Because the pipe was laid around obstacles, this proved to be insufficient. No more pipe was in storage, so a firm in Melbourne was asked to make some. An order was placed on a Friday evening, and the pipe was shipped the following Thursday morning, making its way to the Fortescue River by road and rail. The system delivered up to 3,400 imperial gallons (15,000 l) per hour to a jetty on the Fortescue estuary, from which it was taken to the islands by the 120ft Motor Lighter MWL 251.
A small fleet was assembled for Operation Hurricane that included the escort carrier HMS Campania, which served as the flagship, and the LSTs Narvik, Zeebrugge andTracker. Rear Admiral A. D. Torlesse. Leonard Tyte from Aldermaston was appointed the technical director. The bomb assemblies were assembled at Foulness, and then taken to the River-class frigate HMS Plym on 5 June 1952 for transport to Australia. It took Campania and Plym eight weeks to make the voyage, as they sailed around the Cape of Good Hope instead of traversing the Suez Canal. The Monte Bello Islands were reached on 8 August. The plutonium cores went by air, flying from RAF Lyneham to Singapore in Handley Page Hastings aircraft via Cyprus, Sharjah and Ceylon. From Singapore they made the final leg of their journey in a Short Sunderland flying boat. Penney arrived by air on 22 September.
They were joined by eleven RAN ships, including the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney with 805 and 817 Squadrons embarked, and its four escorts, the destroyer HMAS Tobruk, and frigates Shoalhaven, Macquarie and Murchison. For safety and security reasons, a prohibited area was declared around the islands. The Defence (Special Undertakings) Act (1952) was quickly passed through the Parliament of Australia between 4 and 6 June 1952, and received assent on 10 June. Under the new act, everything within a 45-mile (72 km) radius of Flag Island was declared a prohibited area. That some of this was outside Australia's 3-mile (4.8 km) territorial waters attracted comment. The frigate HMAS Hawkesbury was tasked with patrolling the prohibited area, while its sister ship HMAS Culgoa acted as a weather ship. Logistical support was provided by HMAS Warreen, Limicola and Mildura, the motor water lighter MWL 251 and the motor refrigeration lighter MRL 252, and the tugboat HMAS Reserve, which towed a fuel barge. Dakotas of No. 86 Wing RAAF provided air patrols and a weekly courier run.
The bomb was successfully detonated on board Plym on 3 October 1952.
|Name||Date and time||Location||Elevation + height||Delivery, Purpose||Device||Yield||Fallout||References||Notes|
|Hurricane||3 October 1952
|Monte Bello Islands, West Australia||0 - 2.7 m (8 ft 10 in)||Barge,
|British Blue Danube design, levitated pit||25 kt||Unknown||||Exploded in the hold of the HMS Plym|
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- AWE history
- Original AWE page available from archive.org
- British nuclear weapons testing in Australia
- Operation Hurricane - Ministry of Supply made documentary
- Better quality extract from the same video of the Hurricane Nuclear Test
- Operation Hurricane by National Archives of Australia - Vimeo
- Declassified AWRE reports and National Archives files on Operation Hurricane's scientific and civil defence implications