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Maidstone serviceman interviewed by Japanese TV about Britain's nuclear test programme

The motto of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA) is "Still fighting an invisible enemy."

The association represents the thousands of British servicemen involved in Britain's nuclear bomb testing programme in the 1950s, and the motto is a sad reference to the fact that many veterans including many in Kent have suffered - and are still suffering - severe ill-heath as a result of being exposed to radiation.

British ex-serviceman Terry Quinlan with Hideaki Ito, Misanthropist Kawagucki and Ai Tamura from Nippon TV
British ex-serviceman Terry Quinlan with Hideaki Ito, Misanthropist Kawagucki and Ai Tamura from Nippon TV

Terry Quinlan is one such. He has related to us how as a young National Serviceman he was posted to Christmas Island with the Royal Army Service Corps.

He was there when the bomb known as Grapple X was detonated off the southern tip of the atoll, just 23 miles from Mr Quinlan's base.

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

Mr Quinlan and his comrades had been issued with no protective clothing. Indeed in the blistering tropical heat, most were wearing nothing but shorts.

As a precaution, they had been told to sit on the beach with their backs to the blast with their eyes closed and their fists covering their eyes.

Terry Quinlan (second from left) on Christmas Island in 1958
Terry Quinlan (second from left) on Christmas Island in 1958

Mr Quinlan described a tremendous flash of light like an X-ray and a scorching heat on his back. He said: “I could see the bones in my hands."

Shortly after came the blast wave which knocked them forward in the sand, felled coconut trees in a nearby plantation and brought down their tents.

After a few brief minutes of horror, the servicemen were allowed to stand and watch as the mushroom cloud rose in the sky.

Mr Quinlan went on to endure four more nuclear blasts.

At the end of his service, he thought himself lucky to have survived unharmed. But just a few years later, at 24, he suffered a cancerous growth in his side. Since then he has suffered years of heart problems.

The mushroom cloud following the Grapple X blast
The mushroom cloud following the Grapple X blast

The sad story has also affected later generations. Medical research has shown that the children of the nuclear test veterans are 10 times more likely than the general population to be born with birth defects.

Mr Quinlan, from Baywell, Leybourne, later joined the BNTVA's campaign for all the servicemen involved in the nuclear testing programme to be awarded a campaign medal.

After years of lobbying, and with a General Election looming, they seemed to be finally getting somewhere, when in July last year, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced he would set up an Advisory Military Sub Committee to look into the matter.

A response was promised by November 2019, that has now been put back to "early February."

Meanwhile at the last election, the Labour Party promised to award every one of the 1,500 surviving servicemen from the testing programme £50,000 as compensation for their ill health. Of course, Labour was not elected and unable to carry out that promise.

British ex-serviceman Terry Quinlan: 'It worked as a deterrent.'
British ex-serviceman Terry Quinlan: 'It worked as a deterrent.'

Meanwhile, it seems the only ones interested in the plight of the test veterans is the Japanese.

They of course know a thing or two about the effects of radiation.

Last week, a film crew from the Nippon Television Network Corporation met Mr Quinlan in Maidstone to interview him for a film they are making called: "X Years After The Irradiation." (It's probably a catchier title in Japanese.)

The Tokyo-based company is planning both a TV show in April and a full-length theatrical release in January next year.

Mr Quinlan said: "We had to speak through an interpreter. That were particularly interested in what happened to the fish around Christmas Island, because apparently the Japanese do a lot of tuna fishing there. The answer of course is that they all died. The shore was littered with dead fish and birds after the blast.

"They also wanted to know how I felt about nuclear weapons. That's a difficult one. I wouldn't wish a nuclear explosion on anybody. It would be a lot better if the whole world would give them up.

"On the other hand, as a deterrent, they kept us safe through the Cold War."

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

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