When the order was given, the men turned their backs and clasped their hands over their faces. There was a blinding flash and through his tightly closed eyes Peter Webb could see the bones of his fingers. He felt a scorching heat on the nape of his neck; as the shockwave thundered past, covering him in dust, he turned to see a mushroom cloud forming on the horizon.
Webb, a private in the Australian Army, was standing on a small hill 1,000 yards from ground zero when Britain exploded its third atomic bomb at Maralinga, in the middle of the vast South Australian desert. Three hours later, he was crunching around the lip of the crater, where the ferocious heat had transformed the red sand into glass. "Being an inquisitive little bugger, I thought 'I wonder if it breaks' and I gave it a couple of kicks," he recalls. "It was like kicking a block of concrete. It was that solid."
The detonation witnessed by Webb was one of the 12 atmospheric tests that Britain carried out in Australia during the 1950s in its quest to become the world's third nuclear power. He had just turned 21, it was the height of the Cold War, and the testing programme was shrouded in obsessive secrecy.
Some 16,000 Australian and 6,000 British troops served at Maralinga and at the Monte Bello Islands, off the coast of Western Australia. Another 16,000 Britons took part in weapons trials on Christmas Island in the South Pacific. Almost half a century on, surviving veterans are still trying to uncover the truth about what happened to them in these far-flung spots when they were little more than boys.
Now in their sixties and seventies, the men are haunted by questions. Why was so little heed paid to their safety at a time when the dangers of radiation were already well documented? Why have governments in London and Canberra resisted their compensation claims despite studies showing high rates of cancer and birth defects? Why has there been a concerted effort, which continues to this day, to conceal the consequences of Britain's ill-conceived rehearsal for Armageddon?
Lately they have added another, chilling question. Were they used as guinea pigs, deliberately exposed to nuclear fallout so that British scientists could assess the effects of radiation on the human body?
Peter Webb, an apple-cheeked 65-year-old who lives in Melbourne, is convinced of it. He was attached to the Indoctrinee Force, a special group of mainly British and Australian officers whose sole function was to observe atomic tests at Maralinga and then shortly afterwards to go to ground zero the epicentre of the explosion to analyse its impact on tanks, aircraft, artillery and military equipment.
But the men themselves were being analysed, too. Documents unearthed last month in archives in Canberra revealed details of an exercise in which 80 Indoctrinee Force members were ordered to run, walk and crawl through radioactive dust to evaluate the protection offered by different types of clothing.
A second set of papers outlined secret plans to station nearly 2,000 servicemen in trenches "as close as possible to ground zero" during four atomic blasts that were scheduled for 1958. That project did not go ahead, but only because the series was cancelled as a result of a temporary moratorium on testing.
The documents suggest that the British government was being disingenuous when it told the European Court of Human Rights in 1997 that it would have been "an act of indefensible callousness" to use its own servicemen as guinea pigs in an "appalling scientific experiment".
The veterans still have vivid memories of watching the atomic bombs explode, of birds tossed out of trees and fireballs blotting out the horizon. It was a different era; nuclear war seemed a real possibility then and Britain was determined to have its own weapons.
It could not have found a more compliant host for the tests than Australia's sycophantically Anglophile Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. Menzies reassured the Australian public that there was "no conceivable injury to life, limb or property". (In fact, one radioactive cloud reached as far as Adelaide.)
Australia's role was to supply troops and not ask too many questions; men such as Len Butterfield, who was sent to Monte Bello as a teenage navy rating in 1956, were colonial cannon fodder. Butterfield has since developed four separate cancers: skin, kidney, stomach and oesophageal. The first bomb was detonated at Monte Bello in October 1952; testing began in the desert the following year.
Maralinga, set in an arid landscape of spinifex grass and mulga trees, means "field of thunder" in an Aboriginal language. Aborigines were moved off their traditional lands, and the British dismissed concerns for their safety, remarking that "a dying race couldn't influence the defence of Western civilisation".
A British study published in 1998 found that the veterans have suffered from 10 times the average rate of a rare bone-marrow cancer called multiple myeloma. Another study identified a high incidence of stillbirths, miscarriages and deformities among their children and grandchildren. But it is virtually impossible to link a cancer with a specific cause, and only a handful of ex-servicemen in Australia have won compensation cases. In Britain, legislation prevents them from suing the government.
Men in both countries have campaigned in vain to be given war pensions on the grounds that their service at the test sites was hazardous. New Zealanders stationed on Christmas Island receive such pensions, while the US compensated its atomic veterans many years ago.
Webb has failed to persuade the Australian government that the numerous skin cancers on his back were caused by his time at Maralinga; he was informed in a letter in 1984 that he "did not enter areas presenting a radiation hazard".
Clearly he did. But the Indoctrinees were not the only people placed at risk, whether for sinister motives or as in most cases out of a mundane but no less deadly disregard for their health. Men such as Lance-Corporal John Hutton, who was part of an engineer troop, worked month after month in the "forward area", as the increasingly contaminated test range at Maralinga was known.
Inhaling or ingesting radioactive dust is potentially lethal, as those running the trials were well aware, but Hutton, a 19-year-old Sydneysider, had no clue. He and his mates were "swallowing dust continually" as they dug up scientific instruments buried 100 yards from ground zero within an hour of three detonations in 1957. Once their task was completed, they washed the dirt off their shovels and used them as frying pans, cooking up steak and eggs over an open fire.
"You can't see radiation, you can't smell it, so we didn't even think about it," he says. "We were just kids and we did as we were told. We were lambs to the slaughter." Like many other members of his troop, Hutton fell ill with vomiting and diarrhoea classic symptoms of radiation sickness and spent 10 days on a drip in Maralinga Hospital. He developed massive stomach ulcers after he left Maralinga, and his health is poor.
"In the last three months, three of my mates from 1957 have died from three different cancers and a fourth has got prostate cancer," says Hutton, now 64. He adds, without a trace of self-pity: "I've got no doubt in the world that I'll finish up dying of cancer. We all worked together and ate together, so why should I miss out?"
As Peter Webb clambered over dust-coated Centurion tanks at ground zero in his regulation boots, shorts and short-sleeved shirt, he saw other men walking around in full-length white "space-suits" with gloves, hoods, masks and rubber boots. They were the scientists, and they always wore protective clothing in the forward area. The young servicemen who worked there almost never wore any protective gear. Webb was admitted to Maralinga Hospital with nausea and headaches, as were many others; the precise figure is not clear, as the hospital records have disappeared.
The average life expectancy of the men who helped Britain to achieve its place in the nuclear sun is 55.5 years. There are just a few thousand surviving veterans in Britain and in Australia, and they believe that their governments are simply waiting for them to die.
Frank Gray, from County Durham, was just 22 when he witnessed the first atomic test at Monte Bello from the deck of a naval ship, the Arvik. Two hours later, he sailed a landing craft through contaminated waters so that the scientists, dressed in protective gear, could collect their monitoring instruments. Other men were sent off to catch radioactive sturgeon. Gray died nine years ago, aged 62.
His wife, Sheila, who is the secretary of the British Nuclear Tests Veterans Association, miscarried their first child. They then had three children, including a girl born with a hole in her stomach and a boy who had duodenal ulcers by the age of two. All were virtually bald by the time they were 20. Mrs Gray also miscarried a six-month-old fetus that had no genitals.
The association's president, Peter Fletcher, is seriously ill with chronic obstructive lung disease; his consultant has told him that he hasn't long to live. His breathing problems began soon after he left Monte Bello in 1952.
"We've done our part for our country; now our country doesn't want to know us," Fletcher says. "They keep telling us the same thing: you were not harmed. They've ruined my life, that's for certain."Reuse content