10 Seconds That Shook the World

By Cathcart, Brian | The Independent (London, England), September 11, 1994 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

10 Seconds That Shook the World


Cathcart, Brian, The Independent (London, England)


THE MONTE BELLO Islands lie off the north-west coast of Australia. About the size of the Scilly Isles, they are in fact desert islands, the last afterthought of the great arid wastes that dip beneath the sea 80 miles away. Over the years they had seen the occasional shipwreck, turtle hunters and pearl divers had stopped off there, but no one had ever really settled. In 1952, however, their peace was broken by the arrival of a party of military engineers. Roads, jetties and camps suddenly appeared, cables were laid and odd buildings sprang up. In August an aircraft carrier HMS Campania delivered about 100 British scientists - from Fort Halstead in Kent, Woolwich Arsenal in London, Shoeburyness in Essex and Aldermaston in Berkshire, all military research establishments. Along with them came a frigate, HMS Plym, which was anchored securely in a lagoon at the centre of the islands. Inside the Plym was an atomic bomb.

The second half of September was taken up by painstaking rehearsal of the elaborate procedures of a nuclear weapon test: the priming of equipment, evacuation of personnel and the countdown itself. On Wednesday 1 October, unfavourable winds forced a day's delay, but by the next morning the forecast was improving.

At 6.30am Leonard Tyte, the technical director for the test, and Rear Admiral David Torlesse, the naval commander, decided to gamble on the weather. The signal "Tare Dog" went out to the task force, meaning: "Today is D-1 Day" and with this began Phase Mercury, the first stage of the countdown, which involved the final preparation of scientific apparatus and the evacuation of personnel. The centre of communications was divided between the flagship Campania, where Torlesse, Tyte and William Penney, the director of Britain's atomic bomb project, were in charge, and the control centre on the islands, H1, where two senior scientists, Charles Adams and Ieuan Maddock, were monitoring the build-up. After another favourable weather forecast, four of the five ships of the task force - all except the Plym - began their withdrawal from the islands leaving 60 men behind.

At H1, strung along a bluff near the south tip of the islands, a fretful night was beginning. This would be the only land site occupied when the bomb went off; the nearest manned point to ground zero. "It was cold and windy in the camp that evening and conditions superficially did not seem to be suitable for the trial," wrote John McEnhill, a scientist who acted as the operation's historian. "A sense of tenseness was evident in the mood of the company. However the repeated rehearsal of final activities was now paying dividends and there was no sign of panic or last-minute chaos."

Late in the evening there was a short lecture in the mess hut to explain to anybody in need of reassurance what they were likely to experience. A bank of knowledge had already been built up from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and from American test explosions. H1 was nearly seven miles from the Plym, a range considered safe from radioactive contamination provided there was no dramatic change in the wind direction immediately after the blast. And those at the site would be evacuated on to the task- force ships after the bomb went off.

That was assuming it did. Any minor hitch could cause a postponement and, given the vagaries of the weather, this could mean no other opportunity for a test that year. There was also the chance that it might not work at all. The British bomb was the closest possible imitation of the American plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki, but the United States, jealous of its atomic monopoly, had refused to help, and inevitably the design had diverged in various ways from the original. As a result, what lay in the hold of the Plym was an unproven design and no one was certain that the components were up to standard. All they could do was go through the prescribed motions and hope.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

10 Seconds That Shook the World
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?