On Friday 3 October 1952, Britain successfully detonated her first atomic bomb on the Monte Bello Islands, off the northwest coast of Australia.
That lethal cloud rising above Montebello marks the achievement of British science and industry in the development of atomic power, but it leaves unanswered the question of how this new-found power shall be used – for good or evil, for peace or war, for progress or destruction. The answer doesn’t lie with Britain alone, but we may have a greater voice in this great decision if we have the strength to defend ourselves and to deter aggression. That was the meaning of Montebello.The narrator of the closing sequence of the official 1953 Ministry of Supply film ‘Operation Hurricane’ on the detonation of Britain’s first atomic bomb reflected contemporary thinking about the test.
This blog explores some of the places associated with this extraordinary story of scientific and industrial endeavour.
Not long after the end of the Second World War (1939 to 1945), in January 1947, a small and secretive cabinet committee took the decision that Britain should develop an atomic bomb. At the time in which Britain’s overseas influence was in decline such a weapon offered a seat at the top table of international politics and the ultimate deterrent against an atomic attack on the United Kingdom.
The immediate challenge was then to create and harness the necessary specialised electronics, explosives, and nuclear materials. The bomb project was able to draw on expertise that had been developed during the war, as well as on an existing complex network of government defence research establishments and munitions works.
1. Fort Halstead, Kent
The headquarters for the project was established at Fort Halstead, Kent, a 19th century mobilisation centre which had been repurchased during the late 1930s for the Armament Research Department.
The bomb project was led by the physicist William Penney, Chief Superintendent of Armaments Research, and one of the British members of the wartime American team which had designed the first atomic bombs. Penney had also flown as an observer during the atomic attack on Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945.
Penney’s team worked under the codename Basic High Explosives Research, isolated within a fenced compound. However, this secret location was soon compromised in 1947 by the investigative journalist Chapman Pincher in the Daily Express with the headline ‘Dr Penney plans new weapons in 1807 invasion fort’.
2. Royal Arsenal, Woolwich
The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, with origins back to the late 17th century and despite the wartime dispersal of some of its activities remained as the centre of armaments research in the late 1940s.
A team, under Ernest Mott, was given the hazardous task of developing the conventional explosive lenses that would act on the plutonium core to produce a nuclear explosion. Mott’s group was accommodated in the Research Department’s Royal Arsenal East Site – in a handsome neo-Georgian style headquarters, with various workshops and a fenced enclave for the explosives work.
Very little information appears to have survived of the work, although it is known that, by late 1954, most activity had been transferred to the new Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. The Royal Arsenal finally closed in the 1990s and the site of Mott’s work has been cleared and is now largely occupied by a prison.
Also, at Woolwich on the edge of the common, the Signals Experimental Establishment was acquired. This establishment was experienced in the development and testing of experimental electronics and an official document noted the availability of ‘skilled and semi-skilled female electronic assembly labour’. The site provided facilities for the manufacture of bomb’s components more rapidly and securely than could be provided by private industry, or where products were too specialised or limited in number. In the mid-1950 the workforce stood at just under 500.
Atomic weapons related work ceased in 1964 and the site was cleared in about 2011 in preparation for shooting venues for the 2012 London Olympics.
3. Foulness Island, Essex
For a successful detonation of a nuclear device its electronic detonators needed to fire within microseconds of one another. This critical work on reliability and quality control was carried out at Fort Halstead, but a larger range was required where the detonators could be combined with the explosive lenses.
The site chosen was Foulness Island, Essex, lying at the mouth of the River Thames. It had been used for weapons testing since the middle of the 19th century. For the bomb project it offered seclusion and security and ranges where tests of the conventional explosive components might be undertaken. It was also close to the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, and convenient for scientists and officials based in London.
By Summer 1952 the preparations for the Hurricane trial, in which Britain would detonate her first atomic bomb, were nearing completion.
At Foulness, Ernest Mott and his team assembled the explosive components of up to three live devices codenamed Hero, Hengist and Horsa. The latter two named after two semi-legendary early 5th century Jutish warrior brothers, who along with their war band were invited to defend Kent from the Germanic tribes.
4. Springfields, Lancashire
Before construction of the bomb could begin many novel industrial processes needed to be devised and factories created to manufacture the bomb’s components.
Fortunately, many wartime Royal Ordnance Factories remained in government hands or had been recently relinquished. They provided level sites with roads and other infrastructure, often including accommodation for the construction workers and later the factory staff.
Other important contributions were made by private industry to provide industrial equipment and instrumentation. One of the more unexpected contractors to the project was William Freeman and Company, Peel Street, Barnsley – manufacturers of Suba Seal hot water bottles. They produced inflatable rubber air bags to prevent any movement of the explosive lenses. Percival Aircraft Ltd, then based at Luton Airport, was responsible for the suspension frame to hold the central device in a bomb casing.
5. Sellafield, Cumbria
After much discussion the atomic piles to produce plutonium for the bomb’s core were sited at the former wartime TNT factory at Sellafield, Cumbria.
Known as the Windscale piles construction began in September 1947 and was a huge project employing around 4,750 builders, and over 300 architects, surveyors and engineers. With knowledge that the Soviet Union was likely to be developing atomic weapons in common with other parts of the project it was carried out with a wartime urgency. Buildings were designed and started often before the plant they were to house was fully finalised. All this was against the backdrop of continuing post-war building material rationing and shortages. The haste of their construction is evident in their plain and utilitarian exteriors.
6. Monte Bello Islands, Australia
On Thursday 5 June 1952, one or more of the devices were taken by lorry to Shoeburyness and then by barge to a war surplus river class frigate HMS Plym moored at Stangate Creek, Sheerness, Kent.
From here, HMS Plym was escorted by the trials flagship HMS Campania to the test site, the Monte Bello Islands, off the northwest coast of Australia. The fissile core, machined to high tolerances at the newly opened Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, was flown to Australia in a Sunderland flying boat.
A concern at the time was that an atomic weapon might be detonated offshore in a ship’s hold to unleash a devastating tidal wave on Britain’s shores. Partly to understand the effects of such an underwater detonation the final assembly of the test device took place below decks of HMS Plym resulting in a successful detonation on Friday 3 October 1952.
We gratefully acknowledge Dr Jonathan Aylen’s diligent research in tracking down the story of the Barnsley hot water bottle factory.