A light-hearted account of a very unusual Royal Air Force Operation
This was to be a special mission and one that was without precedent for the Royal Air Force. Our flying task would be a leap into the unknown in a potentially dangerous environment, on the far side of the world with little or no backing possible from the UK. On top of that it would be undertaken purely as guests of another nation. To explain, our specialised RAF detachment had been tasked to fly nuclear cloud full penetration sorties, as part of the US Government’s forthcoming atomic test series in the Pacific. We would operate from a US Navy airfield on a tiny Marshall Islands atoll, in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. It was now late into 1953, and the tests were due to start in March 1954.
The whole situation was far from the norm. The United States was about to hold the series of these atomic tests in the Pacific at Bikini and Eniwetok, names then largely unknown. Some months earlier, their government had quietly requested of ours that the RAF provide Canberra aircraft to take samples of the radioactive debris directly from the active atomic cloud created by the explosions. In those days American sampling aircraft could not do the same job as our specially adapted Canberra’s. We were No.1323 Flight, a Canberra research unit at RAF Wyton, and because we had been associated with sampling of the upper atmosphere for some time, we had been given the task.
Four 2-man crews were selected: myself and my navigator Phil Demmer and one other crew were from our Flight and, since it was already heavily tasked, the other two crews came from No. 540 Photo Reece. Sqn. – also at Wyton. The two Canberra’s and all our ground support came from 1323 Flight. Far from our routine passive sampling missions, now it was to be collection of the highly radioactive atomic material immediately following each detonation.
In those few weeks of frenzied activity, our aircraft had been much modified and fitted with the only long-range navigation aids then available. We had been briefed, inoculated against everything (from ingrowing toenails to beri-beri!), sworn to secrecy, ‘jabbed’ again for things unmentionable, re-briefed, and finally briefed again …… until reduced to a state of exhausted preparedness!
The Trip out
On 15th February 1954 the two special Canberra’s B2s left for the Pacific, accompanied en route by Hastings transport aircraft carrying our ground support plus, turn and turn about, two of the four Canberra crews as passengers. The whole operation was under a veil of secrecy since the UK was not officially involved in these American tests, and I recall that the plan was to paint out the RAF markings on our Canberra’s on arrival.
The deal, apparently, was that whatever we collected as atomic samples for the US Government, part would be flown home in the empty Hastings transports for our research people at Aldermaston. Seemingly the intense scientific interest lay in the fact that the US intended to detonate the world’s biggest thermonuclear weapon during these tests – the advent of the hydrogen bomb!
Shades of the Distant Past!
All had gone fairly smoothly until we all arrived at Darwin in Northern Australia. As one of the Canberra crews my navigator and I were due to do the next leg of the journey to Townsville in Queensland as Hastings passengers, some 2000 miles across the top of Australia. At Darwin, on the eve of our arrival, both of us had gone to eat with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) at their Officers’ Mess. The Hastings crew had instead gone into town for a seafood dinner and the following morning, after some half an hour of flight the Hastings navigator complained of feeling ill. Within minutes the rest of the Hastings crew became decidedly unwell and, one by one, they lost all interest in the flight. Although unqualified on this type of aircraft I ended up flying the Hastings with Phil doing his bit to get us from A to B. They say troubles never come singly. Some hours later, during one of his rare excursions from the loo to the cockpit, the Hastings flight engineer declared an engine to be overheating and that it had to be shut down.
I thanked my stars that at least I’d had some experience of flying four-engined ‘steam-driven’ aeroplanes, but wondered how I would cope with a 3-engined landing at an unknown airfield. Maybe my guardian angel heard me, because the Hastings captain recovered sufficiently to take over and to do the arrival himself, with my help from the co-pilot’s seat. I did the rest of the outgoing journey by Canberra, but the same Hastings crew had more problems on the way. At one of the remote island staging posts unfamiliar ground-crew had refilled the engine tanks with the wrong detergent oil. The poor captain ended up with each engine in tum overheating to the point where it had to be shut down. For hours out over the lonely Pacific the aircraft flew with a permutation of any 2 out of four engines, whilst the others cooled down before each could be restarted. With typical sang froid the captain declared afterwards that it had been
“A fairly unusual trip”.
The Last leg
Our last outbound leg was directly across the Pacific to this tiny isolated atoll south of the atomic test area. The lack of time had meant that we were ill prepared. One important factor to us was the dearth of Canberra engine performance data at the abnormally cold temperatures to be found at great heights in the tropics.
With our early Rolls Royce Avon engines, if conditions were right, at the higher power settings an engine would without warning surge and ‘flame-out’, giving total loss of motive power. It could not then be relit at height and one had to come down to lower altitudes and warmer temperatures to regain power. That meant delay and unplanned use of precious fuel etc., but it was not disastrous – that is unless both engines flamed-out’ simultaneously. This could and did happen, and that meant an emergency descent to relight whilst one still had sufficient strength in the battery.
I remember that I had one double and two single engine ‘flame-outs’ during one sortie, and other pilots had similar problems. On our last leg to the Pacific base the temperatures that day were critical and our Canberra that arrived safely had suffered with engine surges and one ‘flame-out’ at height. We had our hands full on that sortie; what with engine problems, navigation equipment failures, aircraft electrical faults and massive thunderstorms well over 50,000 feet high, it was hardly surprising that our thoughts barely included the problems of others.
Disaster At The Start
Our first operational aircraft had only just landed at Kwajalein, our final destination – and already we had a major problem! We were worried as to why our second Canberra had failed to arrive on schedule within minutes of my similar aircraft. The boss, our detachment commander, had been on the island for a while to get things set up and was rightly anxious. I had just landed and he buttonholed me as we climbed out of our Canberra and quizzed me with “Where the devil can they have got to? We’ve had their take-off time from the Australian staging post but we’ve heard nothing from them since” I responded with, “Well, they took-off just before us and we had sight of them on the climb out. I caught glimpses of them on and off for the first hour as we each threaded our way around the tops of the thunderstorms but, with problems. of our own, we were not unduly worried when we lost contact with them. We certainly heard nothing from them nor any distress call.” The other crew members confirmed that they also had seen or heard nothing of our sister aircraft. The boss pondered this information and then made up his mind. He said “No one has heard an emergency call from them. They do have ample fuel reserve so since they too may have had difficulties which delayed them, we ‘I’ll hold on a bit before we push the panic button.” Shortly afterwards we did have to declare the Canberra missing and the full air/sea rescue system swung into action ……… And we waited …….. and waited!
No trace of our other Canberra was ever found. We could only surmise that the crew had had a ‘flame-out’ of both engines, and had been forced down into a thunderstorm which had broken up the aeroplane. The Canberra, the Hastings and US Navy ships and aircraft all searched for three days but tragically, neither wreckage nor crew were ever found. In their wisdom the then Air Ministry decided to send out a replacement Canberra, with even less preparation time available before the tests began.
We charted its progress eastwards across the world, and again sat waiting for it in vain at the expected arrival time on its last leg to our Pacific isle. It didn’t arrive, and yet again history repeated itself and we all searched over hundreds of square miles fruitlessly for any trace. The RAF personnel on the island helped to man the Rescue Coordination Centre and I remember that as the only time I have ever had to resort to drug stimulants so as to stay awake; as I recall, for the whole 72 hours of the search.
This part of the saga does have a happy ending. Some nights after the aircraft had disappeared I was woken by a puzzled US Navy officer. He showed me a grubby sweat-stained scrap of paper on which were the pencilled words “We ‘re down but safe, come and get us!” followed by a signature I knew well. The note had been handed in to a US_ Coastguard station on a neighbouring atoll by a native who had paddled his outrigger canoe over 100 miles to get there. He must have had some sort of sixth sense to find his way for he had no map, charts nor instruments of any kind.
Our American friends despatched a flying boat at dawn that day and confirmed sight of our missing Canberra and crew sitting forlornly on a coral beach below the tide line, on the atoll the native had identified. It turned out to be the only inhabited island in the area and was actually some 110 sea-miles south from our base. The flying boat landed in the lagoon and, sharks notwithstanding, our pilot and navigator swam out to them. That was some reunion! They were safe and had the story to tell, but the boss was faced with yet another problem. What on earth was to be done about the Canberra – and the time was by then very short?
It seems that they too had had navigation equipment and radio problems and with nothing else to rely on, had descended early to look for their destination. They never did see it, and we worked out later that our tiny speck of an atoll must have been concealed beneath a puff of cloud. They searched in vain until their fuel ran low and spotting, just in time, this other atoll they had put down on the coral beach. For the next week they had lived in the tiny village, speaking no word of the native tongue, and being feasted right royally as ‘intrepid birdmen from the sky’. Knowing them both I can see how the prospect of being ‘King for a week’ must have appealed -but they swore that they would never look another coconut in the face! The situation had its good side for from it I was able to acquire an authentic grass skirt for my then-girlfriend.
Because of the security blackout then in force the aeroplane, still with its distinctive RAF markings, could not remain where it was. Its pilot was adamant that with more fuel it might still be flown out, so the boss, myself and an engineering team embarked on a US Navy salvage ship to go and see. for ourselves. Airsick l never was, seasick I might well have become, because for the 15 hour journey we were confined in misery below decks in this thoroughly unstable flat-bottomed vessel as it battered its way through mountainous seas. The RAF has a saying “If you can‘t take a joke then you shouldn‘t have joined” which aptly covers that situation! We anchored finally some hundred yards from the coral beach. The sailors swam in while the Air Force arrived with much more dignity in a rubber dinghy – after all we did have the tools to carry!
Removing the Evidence
It was plainly obvious to us that the aircraft could never fly again. Force of water on landing had bent metalwork and salt-water corrosion had taken a terrible toll, even in that short time.
The coral beach was razor-sharp and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why the aeroplane’s tyres were still intact. I know how deadly the coral spines were because I slipped and gashed my leg on them and had to have my backside injected by the US Navy to prevent coral poisoning. We stripped the aircraft of everything we could remove, even the engines, and had it all transferred to the ship. We did have to swim out with some of the equipment, and had to be ever mindful of the sharks that abounded in the area. The Navy crew had warned us to be very careful and always had an armed guard standing by when anyone was in the water: they reminded us that shortly before we arrived one of their transport aircraft had ditched off the end of the· runway at the base with 40 nurses on board – and that the sharks had taken over half of them before the rescue boats could get there .. l do recall that, on .one occasion, an enormous Manta-Ray swam by underneath me and scared the hell out of me!
The remaining hulk was winched off the beach by the ship and towed out to sea. First, they tried gunfire to sink it but it wouldn’t go, in desperation, it had to be rammed several times before it finally sank beneath the waves. I got quite emotional as the tail disappeared – by an unfortunate coincidence, it had been my own aircraft since the early days in Germany. The wingtip fuel tanks we had removed. They were far too corroded for our purposes so, since the village headman had signified his interest in them, we left them with him in gratitude for all his help to our people. He was quite overcome and insisted that we accept in return twelve grass skirts and a rush mat. I quite forget where the rush mat went to.
We loaded the engines and all the equipment we had removed from the downed aircraft onto a Hastings and sent it home. The Canberra crew concerned passed a thorough medical check by the US Navy, and went home on the same Hastings. It was very plain that with so little time left, we might have to rely on just the one aircraft to do the task.
Back at base we were thrown into yet more frantic preparations for the forthcoming atomic tests. These were very early days in that field, so both our flying techniques and our ground handling procedures for the highly radioactive samples had to be worked out and practised, and practised again and again until we had minimised all the risks. In that process, we set up probably the first nuclear decontamination centre the British Forces had ever seen. Our mentor in all this was an RAF senior officer who, because of his unmilitary approach and the depth of his knowledge, we suspected actually to be a scientist from the British Atomic Energy Authority. He did a superb job in training us, the more so since no one at that stage had any experience of thermonuclear detonations. He wanted to see and photograph the test sites for himself and my navigator and I were duly authorised by the Americans to take him in our Canberra to look at them beforehand: the three of us were I think the only Brits to have seen the atolls at Bikini and Eniwetok before they were vaporised.
At first light on 1st March we, everyone on the base, were outside facing as taught away from the direction of the explosion. Precise to the second the whole dawn sky lit up as though from below from one horizon to the other. This changed rapidly to become a pearly pink glow and then, of course, the inevitable mushroom shaped cloud climbed to the stratosphere: probably the most awe-inspiring spectacle I have ever witnessed. I don’t recall exactly how many tests there were after that but I know that each Canberra crew flew at least three or four sampling missions through the upper cloud – usually with several aircraft penetrations for the same explosion. We had expected severe turbulence inside but in reality, it was quite smooth. The cloud itself contained particles of coral, sand, saltwater and earthly debris and its whole colour varied from grey through amber to a pinkish tinge. Our internal cockpit air was filtered and radiation was closely monitored on a system of Geiger counters. When radiation reached a certain limit we had to turn and seek a ‘cooler’ spot. Better late than never, a second Canberra finally did arrive with us to help do the job. Sometimes then we flew a penetration as a single aircraft and sometimes as a pair in formation. Despite all the precautions, this exposure meant that every pilot, navigator and crewman picked up radiation, some more than others.
On return from a sampling mission, there was a very strict procedure. All other aircraft were held clear while the Canberra landed and was taxied to a specially prepared area, enclosed on three sides by a low concrete bund. Engines were shut down before we came to rest to avoid jet blast radiation. A monitoring team swathed in full protective gear approached the aircraft first to check radiation levels at specific points. Only when declared safe would we, the crew, open the aircraft hatch so as to leave. Samples were removed next using special long-handled grips, placed in custom-made lead-lined containers and spirited away.
A Hastings always took-off within the hour bound for home. Whilst the Canberra crew went through a full decontamination process, the aeroplane was washed down for hours and irradiated water held within the bund was washed into marked containers for disposal. It says much for the system that everyone knew his part and followed the procedures, and that no mishap ever occurred. Basics apart, we were all fairly ignorant of ‘things atomic’ at that stage, and I do remember how magnificently our lads worked night and day to keep the aircraft going under the most unusual and trying circumstances. It was for all of us a journey largely into uncharted waters.
About this time, the article above about our task appeared in an evening paper and deserves some explanation. Because of other media releases some people at home already had a vague idea of what we were about – and might have raised unwelcome questions. The rest of our special unit was actually detached and operating from a base in Australia at the time, so that’s why this cover story was used by the Air Ministry to quell speculation and to give our people some reassurance. In fact, none of us was ‘medically examined’ at the time – there was thought to be no need because we had been closely monitored. Could they possibly have been wrong?
On the lighter side, I have one abiding memory of these sorties. For this task we had been specially issued with a newly developed ‘air ventilated suit’ for wear in the tropics under our flying gear. This crude device was a sort of ‘clown’s undergarment’ in nylon with tiny plastic air tubes all over its surface, all of which finally connected to give cooled air to the body from a supply in the cockpit. Since, in the Pacific area we had pre-flight cockpit temperatures on the ground up to some 50 degrees Celsius, we wore these suits as our only underwear next to the skin. They chafed, scratched and ‘bit’ like blazes under a tight ejection seat harness – but “Oooh” the sensual bliss when we first started the engines and were able to tum the air on!!! When stripped for a later swim, one could always tell who had flown that day by the marks left by the suit. Shades of the ‘Spiderman’ perhaps, but we were certainly ‘deeply impressed’ by the suits!
Operational duties aside, life on this tropical island was very pleasant and our hospitable American hosts went out of their way to help us relax when off duty. We sailed, we swam, we went scuba diving, we learned to drive the Navy powerboats – and we became very familiar with their enormous T-bone steaks! My favourite pastime was to go game fishing with my American friends. Their boats, courtesy of the US Navy were wonderfully equipped and the local ocean teemed with predatory monsters. I soon learned that to land a strike successfully, the technique was not enough: one also needed a great deal of muscle and patience. I wasn’t very good at it!
Towards the end of our time there we all, Americans and Brits alike, were aware that we were privileged to have been part of one of the most significant events of our time. Before we left we held a parade for our hosts when the American admiral of the base congratulated the detachment and formally thanked us on behalf of the US Government -: we must have done something right! When the tests were finished and the good-byes said, we all left for home. We had hopes of completing our circumnavigation of the world by returning Eastwards through Hawaii, the United States and the Atlantic but no, for security reasons authority decided that we should go home the way we had come.
The RAAF who had looked after us on the. way out seemed equally pleased to see us on our return. When they heard that our detachment was coming through, the Australian staff at their outpost on Manus Island (North of New Guinea) prepared us a feast. In one of their long huts they presented us with a table full of seafood: not that unusual you might say – except that the trestle table was some 100 feet long and their proud boast was that no dish on it was repeated more then once. Seafood in that area was so abundant that all they had to do was to toss a stick of explosive over a boat’s side and collect the harvest in large nets. Whilst there one of our lads, while swimming, rescued a local child from drowning and was decorated for his efforts back in the UK .
I never missed any opportunity I could create to fly or to fly in, anything and everything possible. “He’s at it again’’ as my navigator would often say of me. I had flown the RAF Avro Lincoln before so, back at Darwin we had a day or two to spare and the RAAF were misguided enough to let me have a go in their maritime variant of the British bomber; this one with dual controls and an extra 7 feet or so of nose in front which completely ‘blotted out’ the runway on landing. Quite exciting until I got the hang of it!
The mention of Darwin reminds me: the living quarters where we stayed briefly were raised above ground level with their toilet cubicles open to the elements beneath them. I remember these ‘Dunnys’ (the Aussie term) because that area was infested with enormous green frogs, which would croak in unison at one during a visit – a bit disconcerting at night when one was half asleep!
Our Aussie hosts would have us believe that some of their frogs were aggressive and poisonous, so the unscrupulous among us adopted the local habit of flicking a lighted cigarette end at the nearest one. The frog would make a dirty dart to seize it, leap several feet into the air and then depart hastily accompanied by all its startled companions. Not very nice perhaps, but it left one to one’s peaceful contemplation!
At Singapore we rested for a day or two and braced ourselves for the return to the cold of the English summer. Deciding that they needed a beer, one intrepid crew hailed a taxi and were confronted by a moon-faced driver who spoke no English. After several desperate attempts to transmit their wishes, one of them hit upon the right phrase, “Take us to a Number 1 Place” he said. The moon-face lit up, they scrambled aboard and were off into the Singapore night. Thirty minutes and some money later they arrived – at Number 1 Quay on the docks! That took some living down in the crewroom.
Once back home there was as always the welcome from families and colleagues, plus the ever-present pile of bills to be paid. Our most difficult part for the first few weeks was just how to explain where we’d been and what we’d done – because of course, we couldn’t say a word about it. We had supposedly been in Australia for several months, and could hardly be convincing about a country of which we’d seen so little. Snippets in the newspapers I mentioned didn’t help, and to begin with I’m quite certain that some of our families wondered what the hell it was all about! Of course in time, the broad detail filtered out officially and the facts fell into place. Later, there was also a visit for one of us to see Her Majesty but, regardless, all were recognised for their participation in this, a unique operation.
Our efforts in 1954 may have contributed to the development of our British nuclear deterrent – but at a human cost! At that time little was known of the long term effects of radiation and so it was that, long after they had retired from service, most of those who had flown through those thermonuclear clouds died from cancer in one form or another. At this stage, Phil and I are the only ones left. In 1991 an eminent surgeon removed successfully removed my tumour and Phil has escaped the problem. What I don’t know is what might also have happened to our lads who worked so long and so hard at Kwajalein, and who, as a result, must themselves also have received some nuclear contamination. My tribute to them!
© ‘Pete’ Peters
Tragically, in March 2019 Phil Demmer died after a long illness. He was undoubtedly the best navigator with whom I ever flew – and we shared the same cockpit for over 9 years. He was also my great friend, the ‘best man’ at my wedding and I at his.
Rest In Peace Phil!
‘Operation Bagpipes’ Detachment
Feb – May 1954
- Wg.Cdr. W.N. (Wally) Kenyon AFC – Detachment commander Ex- CO of 540 P.R.Sqn – awarded the OBE?
- Flt.Lt. (Frank) Garside 540 Sqn – Pilot Killed
- Fg.OffG. A.(Gordon) Naldrett 540 Sqn – Navigator Killed
- Fg.Off l.G. (Bunny) Warren 1323 Flt -Pilot – awarded the AFC
- Fg. Off. D.A. (Derek) Spackman 1323 Flt- Navigator- awarded the QC
- Fg.Off. J.W. (John) Crompton 540 Sqn – Pilot – awarded the AFC?
- Fg. Off. R.G. (Bob) Reeve 540 Sqn- Navigator- awarded the QC?
- Fg.Off. P.H.J. (Pete) Peters 1323 Flt – Pilot- decorated with the AFC by HM the Queen.
- Fg.Off: P.S. (Phil) Demmer 1323 Flt – Navigator – awarded the QC
- Sqn. Ldr. J.A. (John) Blythe BCAS- Health/Physics Adviser – awarded the OBE?
- Flt.It. S. W. (Pat) Pattinson – Engineer Officer
- Flt.Lt. J.O. (Black) Thomas Temp.1323 Flt Crash Landed
- Fg.Off. M.B. (Chalky) White Temp.1323 Flt Crash Landed
- Flt. Sgt. H.C. Dormer BEM. 1323 Flt – NCO i/c Killed
- Sgt. J.A.Crane Assumed NCO i/c – believed awarded
- Cpl. I.J.Malcolm
- Cpl. G.E.Blackall
- Cpl. E. Robinson
- Cpl. V. Bartley
- SAC A.R. Lewis – awarded the MBE
- SAC L. Warner
- SACP. Kemp
- SAC P. Richardson
- LAC J. Berrymen
- LAC J.W. Cash
- LAC A.H. Hicks
- LAC W.T.A. Bishop
WH881, WH887, WH738 (Lost en route)
WH697 (Crash landed then destroyed)