The devastating atomic history of Christmas Island

The British nuclear weapon tests on Kiritimati Island had profound and lasting cultural consequences for both atomic veterans and local islanders, writes Becky Alexis-Martin

Friday 12 June 2020 15:51 BST
A British troop carrier flying over Christmas Island in 1956
A British troop carrier flying over Christmas Island in 1956

Ron Watson was just 17 when he experienced his first nuclear weapon blast. A British soldier from Cambridgeshire, he had completed his training in the summer of 1957 before departing on that fated tour with the Royal Engineers on Boxing Day. After the excitement of leaving on a specially chartered train, “all thousand of us”, and then sailing across the oceans, he was wholly unprepared for what awaited him in the tropics.

The now 79-year-old tells me, over a cup of tea in my office, that the first thing to strike him was an unbelievably bright light. “I had my back to the explosion,” he continues. “My eyes closed with my hands covering them. I clearly saw the bones in my hand, just like you see them if you look at the results of an X-ray.”

This was 28 April 1958, and he had witnessed the British army’s H-bomb test. He had been posted to Kiritimati (Ki-ris-i-mas or Christmas) Island, one of 33 low-lying islands that constitute the nation-state of Kiribati in the Pacific. It’s a stunning coral atoll with crystal-clear waters, blue skies – and a shocking legacy of British military occupation.

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