“We are like ghosts, they don’t see you, they don’t hear you,” Jeff Liddiat reflects on the struggle of more than a half-century to get justice for servicemen who were exposed to nuclear tests by the British government. “I suppose they hope those remaining of us will die sooner rather than later, so there’ll be no one left to bother them.”
To these men, the experience over the years has been one of Whitehall cynicism and neglect. They were given no warnings about the possible dangers they faced at the time and, since then, denial by the Ministry of Defence that the illnesses suffered by them and, in many cases, by their offspring had anything to do with the radioactive fallout they faced.
Successive UK governments have so far spent around £5m blocking legal action by the veterans to get compensation. The official position is that there is no correlation between the veterans’ medical conditions and the tests. In any event, it is held, the time limit for such litigation has passed
The MoD’s medical stance is based to a large extent on a Japanese study, carried out in the 1940s on the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The veterans point out that advances in medicine has meant those test results need to be reviewed. It is unfair, they maintain, to enforce time factor on bringing cases as important aspects of what took place has only emerged gradually, partly, at least, due to government secrecy.
Other countries, including America and France, have accepted responsibility to their personnel and paid out compensation to those affected by the tests in the Pacific and Australia. The US administration awarded $ 75,000 to Pat Spackman, whose husband Flight Lieutenant Derek Spackman, was a navigator on a Canberra aircraft sent from its base in Darwin on a mission. codenamed Aconite, to sample radioactivity from tests carried out by American scientists in the Marshall Islands in 1954. The MoD had repeatedly refused to give her a war widow’s pension.
A debate will take place in the Commons this week about the plight of the servicemen on a motion by John Baron, the Conservative MP for Billlericay, a persistent campaigner on the issue. The exact number of those affected was thought to be around 25,000, often watching the mushroom cloud wearing just shorts and sandals. Many have since died.
Mr Liddiat, of the British Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association (BNTVA) said: “Three years ago our membership stood at 2,000, now it’s a thousand. I think there are similar falls in numbers among others who are not members. We are not focused purely on getting compensation any more, but we would like official recognition of what happened and help in starting a benevolent fund for those who fell ill as well as for their children and grandchildren. Some of these illnesses have gone through generations.”
Mr Liddiat, from Portishead near Bristol, was a leading aircraftsman stationed in Maralinga, in Australia. He has experienced liver disease and skeletal degeneration. A daughter had cancer, one son has a low sperm count, another skeletal malformation: “I know of few hundred cases where children have been affected. It’s not something uncommon,” he stated.
With the exception of a few, like Mr Baron, he and his comrades have received little help from politicians. “Tony Blair’s parents were teaching at Adelaide University when tests were taking place, he was staying with them. Nuclear dust got to Adelaide. Both his parents died of cancer, he has heart problems, so we thought he’d at least be interested. But we have written to him several times without even the courtesy of a reply.
“The fact is that both the parties make lots of promises of help when they are in opposition, but then nothing much happens when they get into power, that’s been the reality for us.”
Douglas Hern, from Lincolnshire, was a 23-year-old naval cook based in the Christmas Islands at the time of the tests. His daughter died of cancer at the age of 13. “I am the archivist for BNTVA and there are dozens and dozens of cases of children being affected” he said. “The doctors say they have noticed this, but they also point out that the NHS is there to treat people and not carry out the type of research this would take.
“I think there was callous disregard by those who carried out these tests, not just towards us, but the local people as well. We were told, for instance, to get fish so they could see the effects of radiation. The scientists we took the fish to wore protective clothing, but of course we were given no such thing. They told us to give the surplus fish to the locals to eat.”
Mr Hern, now 75, continued: “What went on at the time was astonishing, but so few people know about it. I was doing a collection recently for the British Legion and out of 200 people I spoke to only five knew about these tests and how people were exposed. We need to tell the public what happened, we should not be simply forgotten.”