On May 15th 1957, a Royal Air Force Valiant bomber commanded by Wing Commander Ken Hubbard dropped the United Kingdom’s first nuclear bomb. The bomb has been assembled in a rush – the last part, code-named Short Granite – had only arrived just five days earlier and scientists still argued about the bomb’s set-up. Hubbard flew his bomber at 45,000 feet above Malden Island in the Pacific Ocean waiting for the ‘go’ call. He received this from scientists on board ‘HMS Narvik’ and the bomb was released. It fell for a minute before a fuse started the ignition process and at 10.38 local time and at a height of 8,000 feet, the bomb exploded. An observer wrote that:
“An enormous ball of fire (appeared) that changed swiftly into a bubbling cauldron of coppery red streaked with grey. This fantastic mushroom bridged sea and sky like some giant waterspout.”
The bomb had an explosive force of 300 kilotons, twenty times that of ‘Little Boy’ dropped on Hiroshima but many times less powerful than the hydrogen bombs being developed in America and the Soviet Union. Regardless of this, the United Kingdom had joined the ‘nuclear club’ and was no longer reliant on America.
It was the 1945 Labour government under Clement Atlee that pushed for an independent nuclear bomb. Not all Labour MP’s and Cabinet colleagues agreed with this. Atlee set up the then secret Cabinet committee named GEN 75. It was at one of these meetings that the then Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, and the President of the Board of Trade, Stafford Cripps, expressed their belief that the country could not afford to develop such an expensive weapon. However, the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who claimed that he did not want any other Foreign Secretary to be humbled by the Americans, held the opposite view:
“I do not want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked at, or to, as I was. We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.”
Future sub-committees excluded Dalton and Cripps. Churchill’s Conservative government took up the stance taken by Bevin when they won the 1951 election. Churchill stated that the cost of development was “the price we have to pay to sit at the top table.”
However, international outcry over nuclear testing was reaching a crescendo. Ironically, both the USSR and USA took heed of these calls – but they could afford to do so as their research into hydrogen bombs and the technology required to make them had all but ended. All they needed to do now was make them. The UK was not in this position. Originally, the government had planned a deadline of Spring 1958 for a test explosion but this was brought forward by twelve months. This put a great deal of pressure on the scientists involved and both the military – all aspects – and the scientific world were combined in ‘Operation Grapple’. Christmas Island in the Pacific was to be the base for the personnel involved in the research. The explosion of the bomb on May 15th was hailed a success in the UK. In fact, though there had been a 300-kiloton explosion, it was not what the scientists had planned for. The first explosion within the bomb was meant to have triggered another explosion of much greater power. This did not happen but such information was not released to the press or public. On May 31st, another bomb was dropped that had an explosive power of 800 kilotons – far greater than the first one but still below the desired one megaton mark. On November 8th, 1957, ‘Grapple-X’ had an explosive force of 1.8 megatons. On April 28th, 1958, ‘Grapple-Y’ produced three megatons of explosive force. This was a weapon that could rival the USA and USSR.