Operation Hurricane by John Carr (Ex RN)
An account of my journey to the Monte Bello Islands off the NW coast of Australia and Britain’s first atomic bomb test on 3rd October 1952.
It was on a cold wet and grey day in early January 1952 that I first saw the ship that was to take me and 86 others to Australia. The ‘buzz’ was that we were going to that part of the world but nothing more. No clues as to our ultimate destination, or indeed what we were going to be doing out there. It was all very hush-hush but we understood that the ship’s company had been ‘screened’ for want of a better word and that there would be no politically shady or anarchistic characters on board. My first thought on looking down into the dock below me was “Am I going on that?”
There was 1400 tons of metal and machinery in an advanced state of poor preservation swallowed up in a dry dock big enough to take a battleship. It so happened we were in the next dock to the one that had been refitting the ‘Victory’ before her illustrious action at Copenhagen.
HMS Plym was launched on 4th February 1943 and destroyed on October 3rd 1952.Displacement 1370 tons, length 301 feet, beam 36 feet, draught 14 feet, propulsion twin screws, oil fired three drum boilers driving reciprocating steam engines of 5500 hp, speed 20 knots.
Our pride was further dented by the fact that she had been denuded of anything resembling a weapon. No gun or light armament of any kind. Numerous dockyard maties swarmed all over her. She was terribly small, terribly untidy and rusting in many places. There were great splodges of red lead and strange looking fixtures and platforms. The frigate was grey, interspersed with garish yellow wherever you looked. The dirty light grey was streaked with the pollution of ages courtesy of the dockyard chimneys which in those days belched out black smoke ably assisted by the small dockyard locomotives that shunted in and out of the Royal Navy Dockyard at Chatham.
The frigate’s decks were littered with the debris of a major refit, cable hoses, drums of various fluids, steel rods and angles, boxes, crates and dirt. This was HMS Plym a river class frigate launched in 1943 and intended for escort duty to the many convoys that kept the country going during World War 2.
From a warship point of view it was obvious we weren’t going to engage a potential enemy and from a time factor point of view we weren’t going anywhere for a long time to come. We understood she had been called back from the Far East where she had been part of the great assault on the Japanese mainland which never took place, the atom bomb having seen to that. Here was a clue to our destination but we weren’t aware of it then. Subsequently we cleared lower deck to hear the Captain tell us that the ship was to become a test bed for Britain’s first atom bomb test in the Monte Bello Islands, off the NW coast of Australia.
The ship left Chatham and sailed to Shearness on the 12th March 1952 They left Shearness on 9th June and headed for Gibraltar. By 16th June they were off the African coast arriving in Sierra Leone on 23rd June. They crossed the equator with the usual ceremony for first timers arriving in Simonstown, South Africa, on 4th July, John’s birthday. They rounded the Cape in 35 knot winds and 30 feet high waves. Mauritius was the next port of call followed by Freemantle in Australia, arriving on 31st July. After a few days they headed to the Monte Bello Islands. After a voyage of 12,900 miles they anchored the Plym in her last resting place. John speaks of the wonderful sealife of coral, fish, sharks, stingrays and whales along with the crystal clear skies at night showing the constellation.
D-Day minus one was declared with the weather deemed suitable and more importantly the wind which would take the atom cloud and debris away from the mainland of Australia. The final evacuation of the islands took place the following day and all ships steamed some 15 miles out at a safe distance to observe the explosion. At 0900 hours on 3rd October 1952 the whole ship’s company were invited to assemble on to the flight deck of HMS Campania. I was a brilliant tropical morning with a cloudless blue sky and slight breeze that ruffled the sparkling waves. The atmosphere was very subdued as no one really knew what to expect but there was awareness that we were about to witness an historic event that relatively few people in the world had seen. At 0920 hours the order came over the tannoy ‘Turn around and face the aft’. The silence was tense as the countdown commenced 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 NOW! A blinding flash 50 times brighter than the sun immediately confused the beautiful morning and seared into our brains. It’s reflection on everything around us was startling. Then silence, absolute silence except for the humming of the generators below. After just 10 seconds the order was given ‘you may look now’. Gasps were heard as our eyes took in the unforgettable sight, a monstrous grey and black cloud was racing to a great height (33,000 ft) while its base was filling out to cover the islands. This was not the classic picture of an atom bomb blast, this was a Z shape unfolding before our eyes. Then some several seconds later a deep rumbling sound came from beneath us. Our ears were filled with a loud prolonged thunder and severe pressure was felt inside our heads. The sound was followed by a warm breeze and the previously calm sea was awakened from its slumber. A second after zero hour and in a flash the Plym had just vaporised. It was staggering to think of 1400 tons of steel just disappearing and that a further several thousand tons of sand, rock and vegetation hurled in the air settled as dust on the sea.
The explosion had a yield of 25 kilotons and the resulted in a crater on the seabed 20 feet deep and 1000 feet across. After about a week we were invited to take a boat ride into the lagoon to see the extent of the damage. I will never forget the scorched and blackened vegetation or the site of a sandy cliff off shore showing no sign of having been the highest point of the island now completely gone. This like most of the surrounding land had been totally and irrevocably changed forever.
The Atomic flagship, as we were referred to in the press, arrived in Portsmouth on 15th December 1952 and we received salutes from other ships.
John Carr was born in London and joined the Royal Navy in 1949 and after completing his service of 7 years continued as a reserve stores assistant for a further 5 years. He lived in Maidstone with his wife Anne until his death.