Moving from job to job every couple of years, you always hoped to be given something different which would provide a new and interesting experience. Having recently completed two years as an Instructor at the Portsmouth Command Seamanship School, I was due to return to a seagoing job. As an experienced Seaman Petty Officer I was open to a wide range of possibilities: in the event my new posting exceeded my most optimistic expectations.

My usual August Summer leave was augmented by two weeks of Overseas leave. I was both pleased and surprised to receive a “Draft Chit” to join the Tank Landing Ship HMS Messina. Apparently she had been on station at Christmas Island in mid Pacific since December 1956 and many of her ship’s company were due for relief. Not surprisingly, one’s first question was what was this former wartime landing ship doing in that location and what was her role.

It transpired that, under a blanket of tight security, the planning of the British nuclear trials under the name of “Operation Grapple” had been underway since 1955. Messina was part of a comprehensive Naval Task Group whose composition and size would vary with the implementation of individual planning stages. Obviously a Landing Ship such as Messina would be absolutely essential for transferring stores and equipment onto the open beaches of the two islands selected for the Grapple series of tests, Malden and Christmas. The presence of extensive coral reefs frequently made it impractical for the landing ship itself to run ashore to discharge laden vehicles as designed via the bow doors and ramp. 

To provide greater flexibility, Messina’s extensive modifications for Grapple included the provision of six LCMs ( so called for landing Mechanised vehicles) and two amphibious DUKWs.

The end of September, 1957, saw a collection of enthusiastic sailors bused up to Heathrow to fly out to Christmas Island, situated some 1200 miles South of Hawaii. I was surprised to see that our conveyance was to be a venerable Douglas DC4 – one jump up from the ubiquitous DC3, aka Dakota, but at least it had 4 engines. This aircraft was on charter from the American company Overseas National Airlines and had a capacity for 46 passengers.

American Airlines Skymaster
American airlines, Douglas C-54B, Skymaster – Wikimedia Commons

Once we were embarked a stewardess came down the aisle and asked “Any of you guys weigh over 200 pounds” – not exactly confidence boosting when about to fly halfway round the World. A pamphlet informed us that the aircraft’s max speed was 280mph at 14,000ft – how times have changed! Our first stop was to be Keflavik in Iceland, a journey of about 5 hours where we would have a meal. I recall about an hour into the flight a loud report issued from the galley. A distraught looking stewardess then emerged to announce that there would be no more coffee on that leg.

At that time we followed the standard Trans-Atlantic route for prop-driven aircraft. Owing to their limited range it was necessary for them to make several refuelling stops; Keflavik was the first. Our DC4 had an advertised range of 3,300 miles but obviously that was very much qualified by headwinds. Our other scheduled stops were Goose Bay, Labrador, a journey of some 1,500 miles which would have taken us about 6 hours. Next was Winnipeg, Canada, at a similar distance. Approaching in daylight, I remember well the magnificent scenery of forests and countless lakes. There we had the usual hour or so break for a meal – I seem to remember a succession of breakfasts. The most notable event at Winnipeg was the problem that the captain had in starting the Port Outer engine. After it made a succession of ineffective wheezes, we were all invited to disembark.

With the other 3 engines running at full chat, the captain rushed up and down the runway hoping that the slipstream would induce a favourable response from the reluctant starter. As the next 1,500 mile leg to Oakland, California, was to take us over the Rockies, it seemed like a good idea to have the benefit of 4 happy engines. After 3 or 4 runs, the recalcitrant engine suddenly burst into life to the appreciative applause of we apprehensive passengers.

We were invited to reboard at the rush. We were relieved to arrive at Oakland without incident after another sector of about 5 hours. Fortunately, Oakland was the base for Overseas National. We had a crew change and the defective starting system received what attention it required. The next leg of our journey to Hawaii was the longest at about 2,400 miles. We arrived in Honolulu Hickam Airforce Base in time for yet another breakfast after a long, tedious overnight ocean flight.

Here at Hickam we were pleased to find a rather more commodious RAF Hastings of Transport Command from Christmas Island awaiting our arrival. Although it heralded another long flight of about 6 hours, we were all looking forward to the end of our protracted journey. Indeed our first view on arrival over the island was a revelation.

The British Cabinet had made a decision to proceed with the development of thermonuclear weapons in June 1954. Christmas Island, situated some 1,200 miles South of Hawaii, the largest coral atoll in the pacific, was selected to be the operational base.

The Grapple advance party arrived on the island in June 1956. Since that date, spurred on by the progress of an international anti-nuclear lobby, development work continued apace. Thousands of tons of stores and equipment had already been delivered by both Royal Fleet Auxiliary and charter ships. The airfield was improved by RAF and Army Royal Engineers so that it could operate large and heavy aircraft. The lagoon port landing facilities were extended, base sites and adjoining roadways were all set up to accommodate living quarters, stores and workshops. Thousands of specialist military personnel arrived by both troop ship and charter aircraft. At the peak of the build up the Island base supported a workforce of some 4,000. The Main Camp consisted of over 700 tents, marquees and hutments.

It included a butchery, a bakery and a laundry, The target date for achieving full base operational status was 1st December 1956. It was into this well practiced cauldron of activity that I arrived on 26th September 1957.

Messina had first appeared on the Christmas Island scene back in August 1956. With her complement of 6 LCMs and 2 DUKWs complete with their Marine crews, the rate of unloading increased significantly. While at Christmas, she would be anchored off the lagoon entrance; supply ships would be assigned an adjacent anchorage. My role, with a party of our seamen and army stevedores, was to supervise the off loading of the chartered ships’ cargo. In commercial ports this would be done by the port stevedores. The ships’ crew would not be involved; such was the case at Christmas. 

The range of consigned equipment was – shall we say challenging. With the exception of the specialist Heavy Lift ships, we had to supply all lifting equipment and slings for off loading by a supply ship’s derrick. Only occasionally did I get an advance copy of the Bill of Lading. Military vehicles and most of their heavy equipment had fitted lifting points. 

Generally large civil engineering equipment such as bulldozers, graders and tractors did not; some interesting improvisation was required. Normal cargo ships were incapable of handling the heaviest items such as lighters, and LCMs, so it was necessary to secure the charter of a Heavy Lift Ship. In the first instance this was Ben Wyvis whose derricks were capable of a single lift of 120 tons. I recall getting her captain to turn into the swell while we off loaded a 30 ton water lighter; fortunately the bosun controlled the heavy lift derrick. Even regular military vehicles could prove tricky to sailors. 

SS Benwyvis
SS Benwyvis, Heavy Lift Ship – Allen Collection

We were able to offload heavy and bulky items directly onto self propelled Mexe pontoons for transfer into the lagoon’s Port London. It was essential to utilise all available space, therefore it was necessary to start up a vehicle and gingerly park it as near as feasible to the open sided edge. This could pose a problem as some of these large vehicles had gearboxes like railway signal boxes. Discretion was the order of the day. The LCMs and DUKWs also ran a virtual ship/shore shuttle service for more regular loads.

By the time that I joined Messina in September, 3 individual tests of the Grapple series had already taken place during May and June. These were air burst detonations from bombs dropped by a Valiant bomber over Malden Island, some 400 miles SSE of Christmas. Unfortunately the results were unsatisfactory. The fact was not publicised, but it was necessary to reinstitute a further series of tests. The first of these was known as Grapple X.

To save time and money, and due to the unavailability of elements of the Naval Task Group, it was decided to drop the bomb off the Southern tip of Christmas Island instead of off Malden. The new site was only 20 nautical miles from the airfield where 3,000 men were based. This relocation required further additional major construction on the island base. It included the duplication of installations that had been set up on Malden, and the provision of 26 blast-proof shelters.

The news of this extension was not well received by the troops who interpreted this as an extension of their time away from home. It was recognised that they all had been having a pretty arduous time despite efforts made to improve living conditions. Assurances had to be given that no personnel would spend more than 12 months on the Island. Doubtless this proviso explained my own presence.

As part of the preparations for the new test series, Messina was tasked to recover redundant equipment from Malden. The island was featureless, low lying and guano covered. There was limited access through a narrow gap in the coral reef surrounding the island. Deep water moorings had been laid outside the reef from where the LCMs or DUKWs could be launched.

Our trips to Malden required both improvisation and skill to cope with the usual heavy swell on the open beach. A system was devised of attaching hawsers from beached bulldozers to the quarters of the LCMs to prevent them from broaching in the surf. Previously we did lose one which was broached, rolled and swamped.

Given the right conditions, landing and recovery of stores and equipment would be made normally via the bow doors and ramp as designed. Air transport was also available for the island as required. A small runway had been constructed at Malden to provide an air link to Hawaii before one was available from Christmas. Earlier on 7 March 1956, Messina made a beach landing to discharge a full load without using restraining bow lines from LCMs. She developed a shear in the narrow gap, damaging several of her plates on a coral head and causing a leak into her fuel tanks. This later necessitated a 4,000 mile journey to New Zealand for repair. As this occurred over the Xmas period, it provided the ship’s company with a welcome break.

Securing the bow doors for ocean passage incurs considerable physical effort. Once the ramp is up there is only a small space between it and the bow doors. The only access is via a hatchway on the main deck through which 4 heavy H section steel girders have to be lowered by hand purchase. These then have to be lowered and bolted horizontally to raised brackets on the hinge sides of the doors. Several large turnbuckles completed the job. Of course the reverse is necessary for preparing to open.

Early in the New Year problems developed with the fastenings of these bow doors. This necessitated a ten day visit to Pearl Harbour for repairs. It also provided a most welcome break for our ship’s company and a group of embarked military, all of whom enjoyed the Lavish facilities and hospitality of the United States Navy. Adverse comparisons made by some of our lads generated an article in the local newspaper under the invidious title “Sad Sacks of the South Seas”; here our well worn Messina was awarded the pseudonym of Rust Bucket!

It was necessary for us to make periodic visits to several other islands in support of Decca, Met and monitoring stations. Penrhyn, 600 miles from Christmas, was the largest and most attractive. Fanning and Jarvis were regarded as being even less attractive than Christmas geographically, but at least Fanning had a pleasant Cable & Wireless staff. It was not possible to beach Messina at these places so all stores had to be landed by LCM. Onboard Messina the LCMs were traversed on pairs of fixed fore and aft rails to a position where they could be plumbed by one of the 2 derricks. We normally only carried a couple, leaving the others to work at the Christmas anchorage. 

The DUKWs were very versatile and easy to handle. There was ramp access from the main LCM deck down to the Tank Deck. They could be launched either by derrick or drive themselves off the open bow door ramp.

My first few hectic weeks onboard led up to the crescendo of the detonation of the Grapple X weapon. The bomb was dropped from a Valiant at 0847 on the 8th of November 1957. As was the practice, she was accompanied by a second observation Valiant. A certain amount of heartburn had been caused on that occasion when at 0100 in the morning a patrolling Shackleton reported sighting a Liberian registered ship, the SS Effie, in the exclusion zone. Despite its best efforts, the Shackleton was unable to get any response from Effie until 0615. The destroyer Cossack was sent to intercept her and she was finally escorted out of the area.

Vickers Valiant
Vickers Valiant B1 XD818 – RAF Museum Cosford – Wikimedia Commons
Avro Shackleton
Avro Shackleton – Wikimedia Commons

The anticipated yield of this trial had been 1 megaton of TNT. In the event it exceeded expectations producing a yield 1.8 megatonnes but that was still below the safety limit of 2 megatonnes. Nevertheless, due to the size of the explosion, some damage was caused to buildings, fuel storage tanks and helicopters on the island.

Although this was technically a true Hydrogen bomb its composition did not satisfy the Director, Dr. William Penny, so it was back to the drawing board. Apparently the physicists at Aldermaston had no shortage of ideas for improvements. A revised configuration, under the code name Grapple Y, was adopted in October 1957. Plans for the test were restricted to the PM and a small group of officials because of the continuing possibility of a moratorium on testing. It was calculated that the new device could reach 3 megatonnes of TNT although the safety limit remained at 2 megatonnes.

Meanwhile work to maintain the base and all its test supporting requirements continued. There were personnel changes in the RAF command structure and appropriate adjustments made to the overall base construction requirements. Otherwise routine life continued.

The Grapple Y bomb was dropped by a Valiant off Christmas Island at 1005 on 28th April 1958. It produced a yield equivalent to 3 megatons of TNT, largely as expected. This was the true thermonuclear weapon that Britain sought and remains the largest nuclear bomb that Britain ever tested.

At the time of this test, as with the previous one, Messina lay in the anchorage off the entrance to the Christmas lagoon. This was some 20 miles from the airburst detonation site. The ship was at immediate notice for sea. We had invited some 40 Gilbertese native

labourers and stevedores onboard to watch Disney cartoons down on the tank deck as a distraction. These were eminently more popular than watching the bomb test judging by the volume of the applause.

Once the Valiant and its partner took off, we had a broadcast running commentary of their progress. Their con trails were easily visible in a crystal clear sky. At that stage we spectators were squatted on the open deck with our backs towards ground zero, clad in our standard Action Working Dress (No. 8s). This was augmented by our regular service anti-flash hoods and long sleeve gloves. In due course we were given the count down to bomb release.

3 – 2 -1 and then we were subjected to the initial unimaginable flash of indescribable intensity. Despite dark glasses, gloved hands clasped over one’s eyes and head crouched down between your knees, every bone in the normal field of vision was brilliantly x rayed. The silent flash was accompanied by instantaneous heat of an alarming degree on your back. Seconds later, the noise equivalent to that of a violent thunderstorm crashed, rumbled and echoed across the sky. Shortly afterwards we were invited to turn and face the blazing tumbling cauldron as it gathered, forming into the familiar mushroom column and producing a succession of skirts as it rose. Transfixed by this awesome spectacle, we were aware of what appeared to be an accelerating pall of mist. This heralded the arrival of the powerful blast of the shockwave, almost knocking some of us off our feet. Even Dr. Penny, the project director, later admitted that the force of the detonation was greater than he had anticipated.

Here I will end my narrative. A final British test series known as Grapple Z commenced on 22 August. By this time HMS Messina had returned home to Chatham via the Panama canal. These were relatively small nuclear bombs suspended from clusters of Hydrogen filled balloons. Their purpose was to test a series of new technologies.

Much has been subsequently written about the possible radiation effects on personnel exposed to this and various other theatre nuclear trials. Despite a significant series of health abnormalities reported by the British participants, the UK Government has refused to accept the association of the various complaints, including cancer, to Ionising Radiation. It is significant to note that the United States, Australia and New Zealand have all accepted a causal link. Despite many reported cases having a less severe degree of exposure, all received compensation.

For my part, I subsequently developed skin cancer, a pituitary brain tumour and chronic Fibromyalgia. Two of my children also contracted multiple cancer conditions. Not surprisingly, this prompted me to make several representations to Brunel in the hope of being included in the advertised DNA testing programme, but all to no avail – Amen.

Grapple Y Test – Wikimedia Commons

David L Deakin
Cdr. LVO  OBE  RN.