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Kent MPs back campaign to give medals to British ex-servicemen who took part in nuclear tests in 1950s and 60s like Terry Quinlan from Leybourne

Veterans who had to get up close to nuclear blasts have been left disgusted after it was ruled they did not deserve a bravery medal even though their work.

Many died before their time or they were left battling serious cancers from the radiation exposure, here reporter Alan Smith looks at whether momentum is building among Kent MPs to change the government's stance.

The mushroom cloud from one of the tests at Christmas Island
The mushroom cloud from one of the tests at Christmas Island

As a young man in 1957, Terry Quinlan fulfilled his orders to prepare for a huge nuclear blast by 'sitting on a bench a few miles away, turning his back to the explosion and closing his eyes.'

Once the Grapple X H-bomb had been detonated Mr Quinlan, from Leybourne, and his Royal Army Service Corps pals were knocked over by the blast wave 120 times more powerful than the the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima during the Second World War.

A flash of light lit up the sky like an X-ray with Mr Quinlan, wearing nothing more protective than a pair of shorts, recalling seeing a flash of his bones inside his hand.

Once this was over he and his friends watched as a mushroom cloud filled the sky.

But the real horrors for Mr Quinlan and thousands of others were still to come. Two weeks later Mr Quinlan was in a sick bay, suffering the after-effects of radiation exposure. In later years many fellow servicemen fell victim to cancers which in many cases were passed on to their children.

A damaged hut after the blast on Christmas Island, 1957. Picture: Terry Quinlan
A damaged hut after the blast on Christmas Island, 1957. Picture: Terry Quinlan

Today Kent's MPs seem largely supportive of a demand to issue a campaign medal to the British ex-Servicemen who took part in this series of tests to develop Britain's nuclear deterrent.

Yet the government's official position is still that the men and women involved did not face enough risk to deserve a medal.

That stance has infuriated those surviving ex-servicemen - now few in number - who believe that although their lives were not at risk from enemy action, the usual requirement for a medal, they were at risk from the unknown or poorly understood effects of radiation poisoning.

More than 22,000 Army, Naval and Air Force personnel were involved in Britain's nuclear the test programme in Australia and the South Pacific between 1952 and 1967, though sadly only a few thousand survive today.

The test programme was seen as essential in developing the UK's nuclear capabilities which helped to keep the country safe during the Cold War, but the price paid by the veterans has been horrific, with many suffering from early cancers and other illnesses.

British ex-serviceman Terry Quinlan, survivor of the nuclear tests carried out on Christmas Island. Picture: Matthew Walker
British ex-serviceman Terry Quinlan, survivor of the nuclear tests carried out on Christmas Island. Picture: Matthew Walker

Research has shown that the children of test veterans were 10 times more likely to be born with birth defects or suffer sterility later in life than the average in the general population.

Many of the personnel involved were National Servicemen - teenagers - with no concept of the dangers they were being asked to run.

The country provided them with no protective equipment against the nuclear blasts which were triggered just 20 miles from their bases and they were allowed to watch the mushroom clouds from the atomic explosions (comprising radioactive dust) rise into the sky.

Although nuclear weapons were a relatively new invention, the dangers of radiation had first been made public decades before by Marie Curie, the famous French scientist, who had died of radiation poisoning herself in 1934.

The devastation resulting from the two atomic bombs dropped by the Allies on the Japanese at the end of the Second World War was also widely known.

It seems the government scientists were well aware of the potential dangers from radiation
It seems the government scientists were well aware of the potential dangers from radiation

So although it is arguable whether the lack of protection stemmed simply from an ignorance of the possible harmful effects of radiation, or was, as some veterans believe, a deliberate exposure of the men as guinea pigs.

It is known that the crew of the destroyer HMS Diana were ordered to sail through the fall-out after the test of a 98kt bomb on June 19, 1956, during Operation Mosaic off the Monte Bello Islands in Western Australia, to see what the effect would be.

Air crews were also ordered to fly through the mushroom clouds to collect samples and readings.

Mr Quinlan was one of 3,000 servicemen based on Christmas Island during the series of Grapple H-bomb tests there in 1957 and 58.

Serving with the Royal Army Service Corps, his job was to drive huge trucks delivering supplies and materials all around the island - including construction materials for the bomb shelters for the scientists' equipment erected near to the test site on the southern corner of the Pacific Ocean atoll.

Young national servicemen on Christmas Island in 1958
Young national servicemen on Christmas Island in 1958

He recalled how trucks, boats and even two tanks were deliberately left at varying distances from point zero to see what the effect of the explosion would be on them.

After the bomb blasts, he and his comrades - dressed under the blistering tropical sun usually only in their khaki shorts - sometimes had to drive the boffins from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment to their forward bases to carry out their tests.

He said: "They would wear full protective gear and masks, while we were wearing next to nothing. No-one ever suggested we also needed protection."

Mr Quinlan recalled that following each explosion hundreds of fish would wash up dead on the island's shoreline.

He said: "Whether it was the shock wave or radiation that killed them I don't know, but I know that I continued to live on that island for 12 months after that first explosion and most of our diet was fish from the sea and all of our drinking water was desalinated sea water - so if there was radiation in it, we were eating and drinking it."

Servicemen on Christmas Island in 1957. Picture Terry Quinlan
Servicemen on Christmas Island in 1957. Picture Terry Quinlan

Mr Quinlan was a keen amateur photographer and took a number of shots of the damage wreaked by the blast on the abandoned test vehicles, which - still ignorant of the potential danger - he and his chums would often clamber over.

Mr Quinlan was present on the island during five nuclear explosions.

Within two years of his discharge on the completion of his service, he was in hospital battling a cancerous growth in his side, the first of many health problems he was to suffer.

After a long campaign by the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, the government finally asked the Advisory Military Committee to look into the question of whether a medal should be issued.

The committee took two years to investigate before declaring last year against a medal.

The effects of the shock-wave were felt miles away from the point of explosion
The effects of the shock-wave were felt miles away from the point of explosion

During the Second World War, campaign medals such as the Burma Star were issued to all those who had served in a theatre of war for a significant amount of time - regardless of whether they personally had been under fire.

The Atlantic Star for example was issued to sailors who had served for six months afloat in the Atlantic or in home waters within the period from 3 September 1939 to 8 May 1945. It was also awarded to air crew who had served for two months in an operational unit.

But the Advisory Military Committee ruled that: “The key criteria for the award of a campaign medal is the exposure of deployed personnel to a significant degree of risk to life and limb, and to arduous conditions, in excess of what might be expected as part of normal service duties, whether deployed or in the home base.

“We have concluded that although the efforts of those involved in the nuclear test campaigns should not be discounted, the cases did not meet the level of risk and rigour which is generally required for the award of a campaign medal.”

Mr Quinlan disputed the suggestion that their service wasn't arduous. He said: "It was like punishment duty. The heat was immense. I spent the whole year sleeping under canvas - eight men to a tent.

Terry Quinlan brewing up - there was no fresh water on Christmas Island
Terry Quinlan brewing up - there was no fresh water on Christmas Island

"We were plagued by mosquitoes the whole time. Every few days the RAF would fly over and spray the camp with DDT."

DDT, an effective insecticide, has since itself been banned because of its carcinogenic properties.

Mr Quinlan said: "And to suggest we were not at a high level of risk is disgusting.

"I and my colleagues have suffered so much ill health as a result of these tests - most of my pals died young, well before their time - how can they say there wasn't a significant risk to life or limb?"

It seems many MPs agree.

Kelly Tolhurst MP: wants to see the servicemen get medals
Kelly Tolhurst MP: wants to see the servicemen get medals

Kelly Tolhurst, MP for Rochester and Strood, said: "I am forever grateful for the service of nuclear test veterans and the risks that they were put through.

"These servicemen were instrumental in the development of our nuclear defence programme at great personal danger to themselves.

"Worries over the long-term effects of radiation exposure still hangs over many families today.

"I know that a number of veterans in Medway were involved with the nuclear tests, some who were still in their teenage years at the time they were sent to the test sites.

"I fully support a medal to recognise these individuals and have recently written to the Minister for Veterans to raise this issue with him on behalf of a veteran in my constituency.”

MP Tom Tugendhat said the test survivors deserve a medal
MP Tom Tugendhat said the test survivors deserve a medal

Tom Tugendhat, MP for Tonbridge and Malling, said: "The test survivors deserve a medal.

"I have raised my support for Mr Quinlan and his courageous colleagues on several occasions and will continue to back their campaign to get the recognition they deserve for such tremendous bravery.

"They paid a sad price with many suffering lifelong health complications as a result.

“I am sure I speak for many in the community in offering my personal thanks to Mr Quinlan and all the British Nuclear Test Veterans who experienced the tests, and hope their reward will come soon.”

Gordon Henderson, the MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, and Sir Roger Gale, the MP for North Thanet both said they supported the giving of a medal.

Only Craig MacKinlay, MP for South Thanet, voiced some hesitation.

He said: “Everyone involved in the British Nuclear Test programme made significant contributions to keeping our country secure during the Cold War.

"The result of their bravery is still being felt today through our advanced nuclear capability.

"That’s why I would support medallic recognition for nuclear test veterans, if this were to be recommended as part of an independent review."

Craig Mackinlay says he respects the panel's decision
Craig Mackinlay says he respects the panel's decision

“However, the review carried out by Sir John Holmes in 2012 concluded that the type of duty undertaken by the nuclear test veterans did not meet the risk and rigour criteria historically associated with UK Operational Medals.

"In recent months the independent Advisory Military Sub-Committee has also reviewed the case of medallic recognition for those same veterans and they arrived at the same conclusion.

"While I am disappointed by these outcomes, I do respect their findings.”

This week, British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA) submitted a new official request to the government calling for medals for nuclear test veterans,

The charity submitted a 90-page dossier of evidence, which included details about a Margate ex-serviceman, John Folkes, a former aircraft technician with the RAF.

John Folkes, a British Nuclear Test veteran from Margate, at Maralinga, aged 19
John Folkes, a British Nuclear Test veteran from Margate, at Maralinga, aged 19

He was just 19 when he was tasked with flying through the mushroom clouds to collect radioactive samples.

On one mission the blast flipped his plane over, the intense heat stripping the paintwork.

He was one of a number of RAF cloud samplers, given the job of taking readings from the air of radioactive fallout, just after the bombs were detonated.

Depending on the sortie, they flew next to the mushroom cloud or through the cloud to take the readings, exposing themselves to high levels of radiation.

Mr Folkes was involved in the Operation Buffalo tests at Maralinga, in 1956. He was present for seven nuclear explosions.

John Folkes now in Margate with Michelle Harding, secretary of the BNTVA
John Folkes now in Margate with Michelle Harding, secretary of the BNTVA

He recalled: “From my position, I well remember seeing on the primary instrument panel some of the gauges and flying instruments, fluctuating and registering readings off their normal scale.

“At a distance which is difficult to judge but uncomfortably close, looking down I was to witness the menacing sight of a turbulent inferno mixed with a crimson and blackened thick cloud of billowing smoke rapidly climbing towards us.

“Still climbing to rendezvous with our objective, we encountered the shock wave, which in an instant flipped the aircraft onto its back.

He said: "The crew owe our lives to the reassuring pilot who skillfully managed to regain control.

"We were pushed to our physical and psychological limits."

Johnny Mercer MP supports a medal
Johnny Mercer MP supports a medal

The episode left Mr Folkes experiencing mental strain and he developed a hand tremor, which he likened to ‘shell shock’, which remains with him to this day.

When he returned home, he was ordered to keep quiet about what he had witnessed under the Official Secrets Act.

The BNTVA said: "Although the British nuclear test participants did not take part in combat-related service, they spent long periods of time away from home working in difficult and arduous conditions.

"Shark-infested waters, giant crabs, monsoons, coral poisoning and heat conditions all posed a risk.

"One serviceman died of sunstroke after falling asleep under a coconut tree and was buried at sea as the land was too inhospitable to bury him."

"It is a huge injustice..."

The BNTVA’s medal application has cross-party support from MPs elsewhere in the country, notably former Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer, the Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View, and Ian Blackford, the Westminster leader of the SNP.

Mr Mercer said: “I firmly believe that these British nuclear test participants have met both the risk and rigour involved to satisfy the committee in the award of medal.

“The men have lived, and thousands have died after the British nuclear testing and radiation clean-ups from 1952-1967.

“The testimony from John Folkes is particularly moving. His role went significantly beyond normal duties and deserves recognition.”

Mr Blackford, the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber said: “It is a huge injustice that these veterans have never been properly recognised by the UK government after the suffering they and their families have endured.”

Ceri McDade, chairwoman of the BNTVA
Ceri McDade, chairwoman of the BNTVA

He added: “I hope nuclear test veterans are at long last properly recognised and thanked for the service and sacrifice they have given.”

Ceri McDade, chair of the British Nuclear Test Veteran’s Association, said: “Our 90-page submission contains documentary evidence and testimonies from the veterans, explicitly setting out the risk and rigour they endured.

“The transgressive act of participating in the nuclear tests was way beyond their call of duty, and has exacerbated feelings of guilt, shame, injustice and anger ever since.

“We hope that this application will be a step towards proper recognition of the participants individually."

Today, the UK is the only country in the world involved in the nuclear testing programme which has not recognised the contribution of its test veterans with a medal.

To read about the Armed Forces and how they have served Kent and beyond, click here.

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