Square brick building
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6 Places That Tell the Story of Operation Hurricane

Not long after the end of the Second World War, a small and secretive cabinet committee took the decision that Britain should develop an atomic bomb.

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.
Sir William Penney, the scientific director in charge of the trials, through binoculars watches the developing atomic cloud.
A still from the Ministry of Supply film ‘Operation Hurricane’, made during the Montebello test. Sir William Penney, the scientific director in charge of the trials, watches the developing atomic cloud. With him on the deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Campania is Rear Admiral A D Torlesse, Commander of the Naval Forces on the test. Image © IWM GOV 5636.

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 (1939-1945), 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

A red brick building.
Fort Halstead, Kent, Listed Grade II, the building was specially designed to house a mock-up of the bomb to ensure all its components fitted within the casing designed for the bomb bays of the yet to be built RAF V-bombers. © Historic England Archive DP060631.

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.

The bomb chamber is a small rectangular building with a fence around it.
Fort Halstead, Kent, Listed Grade II*, bomb chamber designed in August 1947. This heavily protected structure was built to proof test the detonators used to create the explosive implosion wave.  © Historic England Archive DP060586.

2. Royal Arsenal, Woolwich

Woolwich from above.
Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, Research Department East Site. About a year after this picture was taken the buildings at the centre of the photograph were occupied by Mott’s team. © Historic England Archive RAF-10G-UK-1633 frame 6140 9 July 1946 (detail).

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.

A concrete framed building.
Atomic Weapons Research Establishment Woolwich Common, one of the utilitarian concrete-framed buildings constructed during the 1950s. Image © Historic England Archive DP093960.

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

A run down building.
Foulness Island, Essex, a building specifically designed in late 1947 for the assembly of the conventional explosive lenses that surrounded the bomb’s fissile core. It is a scheduled monument. In the summer of 1952, it was here that the test device was assembled before being shipped to Australia. Image © Historic England Archive DP035925.

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

Springfields from above.
Springfields, Lancashire, this former wartime poison gas factory was developed to produce uranium metals. © Historic England Archive RAF 541/561 5-6-50 frame 3073, June 1950.

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

Atomic piles with filter caps from above.
Sellafield, Cumbria. In the middle distance are the atomic piles with their distinctive filter caps and to their left the complex in which the plutonium was extracted. © Historic England Archive RAF 30226/SFFO/0051 14 August 1952.

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

Postcard of HMS Campania at sea.
HMS Campania was involved in the atomic trial as an escort vessel. A year before the ship had toured British ports as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations as pictured above.  Image courtesy W D Cocroft.

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 flag ship 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 scene from the Ministry of Supply film ‘Operation Hurricane’, Soldiers from the Royal Engineers build reinforced concrete structures on the Monte Bello islands
A scene from the Ministry of Supply film ‘Operation Hurricane’, Soldiers from the Royal Engineers build reinforced concrete structures on the Monte Bello islands, Australia, to test their ability to resist blast and radiation. Crown Copyright Central Office of Information.

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.

Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge Dr Jonathan Aylen’s diligent research in tracking down the story of the Barnsley hot water bottle factory.

Further reading

I work in Historic England's Landscape Archaeology Team. I started my career working on archaeological excavations at home and abroad. For the last 30 years, or so, I've specialised in the investigation of historic defence and industrial sites.

2 comments on “6 Places That Tell the Story of Operation Hurricane

  1. Very interesting article. I didn’t realise how close the island was to the mainland.

  2. One of my specialist interests is WW2 Defences in Britain, but I’m a lot less knowledgeable about the cold war buildings, and knew nothing at all about Operation Hurricane. Very interesting article. Cheers. 🙂

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