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Leybourne nuclear test veteran Terry Quinlan continues fight for service medal with support from Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham


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It is 65 years since Terry Quinlan from Leybourne, sat on the beach at Christmas Island in the South Pacific and witnessed the detonation of Grapple X, one of Britain's nuclear test bombs.

Mr Quinlan, then a young National Serviceman in the Royal Army Service Corps, and his Army colleagues were knocked flat by the blast wave, even though the explosion was on a tiny atoll 23 miles away.

British ex-serviceman Terry Quinlan, survivor of the nuclear tests carried out on Christmas Island, is interviews by Japanese film crew from Nippon TV. Picture: Matthew Walker
British ex-serviceman Terry Quinlan, survivor of the nuclear tests carried out on Christmas Island, is interviews by Japanese film crew from Nippon TV. Picture: Matthew Walker

The explosion had been the equivalent of 1.8 megatons of TNT - or 120 times more powerful than the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima during the Second World War.

Tents were swept away and trees felled in the blast - and Mr Quinlan was injured in the throat by a piece of flying shrapnel.

Ever since then, Mr Quinlan has been campaigning to achieve some form of recognition for the 22,000 British servicemen who were involved in the UK's nuclear test programme.

Like many of the nuclear test veterans, Mr Quinlan went on to develop a range of health problems associated with the radiation fall-out - with some problems even continuing into the next generation, with a high instance of birth defects in the veterans' children.

The mushroom cloud from Grapple X
The mushroom cloud from Grapple X

Successive governments have repeatedly refused to give the veterans a medal for their part in developing Britain's nuclear defence, and have resisted paying compensation to those that suffered poor health as result.

But Mr Quinlan, now 82 has not given up.

Last Thursday, solicitors from the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA) were in London representing him at a tribunal in which he was appealing against a government decision to deny him a war pension.

The government's case is that the veterans were not exposed to the same imminent danger as those on active service, and it rejects as unproven links between the bombs and the veterans' subsequent ill-health.

Mr Quinlan suffered his first cancer tumour just two years after his service ended - he was only 24.

Young serviceman Terry Quinlan making a brew on Christmas Island in 1957
Young serviceman Terry Quinlan making a brew on Christmas Island in 1957

The tribunal was adjourned without reaching a decision.

The next day, Friday, the day of Storm Eunice, Mr Quinlan travelled to Manchester to take part in an international seminar calling for justice for the test veterans.

It was organised by LABRATS (Legacy of the Atomic Bomb, Recognition for Atomic Test Veterans).

It was a bad day for the conference with some keynote speakers unable to attend because of the weather. Nevertheless seven MPs appeared either in person or by video link to give their support.

They included Conservative Johnny Mercer, the SNP's Ian Blackford and the deputy leader of the Labour Party Angela Rayner.

Terry Quinlan, centre stage, with other veterans at the conference, being interviewed by Susie Bonniface (on screen)
Terry Quinlan, centre stage, with other veterans at the conference, being interviewed by Susie Bonniface (on screen)

Mr Quinlan was one of seven veterans invited on stage to recount their experiences - Mr Quinlan spoke of his health problems after enduring a total of five nuclear explosions.

He was accompanied by his daughter Anne, who recounted to the seminar how the families of the veterans had been affected.

She said she had taken the formidable decision never to have children herself after hearing of some of the birth defects that had been passed on.

While in Manchester, Mr Quinlan was collared by American documentary-maker Brian Cowden and interviewed for a film he is making about the veterans' experiences, to go out in the USA.

America had its own nuclear test programme, and Canadian and Australian servicemen were also involved in supporting the British test program, but Britain remains the only country not to have issued a medal to its test veterans. Even the Russians have done so.

From left, the Lady Mayoress of Manchester Carole Judge, the Metro Mayor Andy Burnham, Anne Quinlan, Terry Quinlan and the Lord Mayor of Manchester Tommy Judge
From left, the Lady Mayoress of Manchester Carole Judge, the Metro Mayor Andy Burnham, Anne Quinlan, Terry Quinlan and the Lord Mayor of Manchester Tommy Judge

The Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham was one of the speakers at the seminar held in the Pendulum Hotel in Manchester's Sackville Street.

He called for “truth, justice, and accountability.”

Mr Burnham said: "This is the greatest injustice of them all, because it betrayed brave people who signed up to serve our country, and it inflicted an ongoing and repeated harm to generations.

"How could anyone feel anything but shame for how these members of our armed forces have been treated?

"This is the year that this country should face up to what was done."

Manchester's Metro Mayor Andy Burnham: time to say sorry
Manchester's Metro Mayor Andy Burnham: time to say sorry

Mr Burnham said: "In this 70th anniversary year of Operation Hurricane, Britain's first atomic test, the Prime Minister needs to stand at the despatch box in the House of Commons and make a national apology to each and every one of the veterans, and every member of their families, who have suffered through these past 70 years.”

Angela Rayner MP called for service medals to go to all who took part in nuclear tests between 1952 and 1991, and a full compensation scheme for veterans and descendants, plus additional medical support. She said the government should carry out research into the complex health problems of test veteran families.

Mrs Rayner said: "These are not big asks. It’s impossible to deny that these servicemen were exposed to an unknown level of risk.

"These brave veterans were experimented on without consent, and most have reported suffering from medical problems since.

"At the very least our nuclear test veterans deserve to be honoured with service medals.”

Terry Quinlan and his daughter Anne
Terry Quinlan and his daughter Anne

After the seminar, a hopeful Mr Quinlan said: "There does seem to be increasing pressure on the government to act."

But his daughter, who described the seminar as "very emotional" said the government needed to stop dragging its feet.

She said: “I can’t pin a medal on a gravestone.”

Mr Quinlan said that at the time of that first explosion, he and his colleagues were ordered to sit on the beach with the backs to the blast and to cover their eyes with their hands.

They were issued with no PPE. Indeed, in the tropical sun, most were wearing only their shorts.

Young National Servicemen on Christmas Island in 1957
Young National Servicemen on Christmas Island in 1957

He said a flash of light lit up the sky and Mr Quinlan swears he could see the bones inside his hands like an X-ray.

Once they had picked themselves up off the ground after being knocked flat by the blast, they stood to watch a giant mushroom cloud fill the sky.

Two weeks later Mr Quinlan was in a sick bay, suffering the after-effects of radiation exposure.

In later years he and many fellow servicemen fell victim to cancers and sadly sometimes problems were also passed on to their children.

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.

The Army camp - the tents were destroyed in the blast
The Army camp - the tents were destroyed in the blast

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

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 herself died of radiation poisoning 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.

Many of the veterans now believe that rather than ignorance being behind their exposure to radiation, they were in fact deliberately used 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.

Mr Quinlan and a colleague with one of the trucks they drove
Mr Quinlan and a colleague with one of the trucks they drove

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

Serving with the Royal Army Service Corps, Mr Quinlan's 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.

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."

There was no fresh water on the island. The boys had to drink desalinated sea-water
There was no fresh water on the island. The boys had to drink desalinated sea-water

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."

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.

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 scientists from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment were equipped with full protective gear
The scientists from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment were equipped with full protective gear

But the Advisory Military Committee has so far refused nuclear test veterans a medal, saying: "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.

"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.

A vehicle tipped over in the blast
A vehicle tipped over in the blast

Mr Quinlan said: "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?"

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