I became aware of Operation Grapple in July 1956. There wasn’t a big ‘Top Secret’ written on it. Everyone in the country had an idea that Britain was trying to become a nuclear power. I was a twenty-two-year-old co-pilot in the RAF, just happy to be chosen for the mission.
My main rolewas to keep a check on the flight instruments to make sure the captain was flying correctly. We practised for months flying high-altitude bombers. After almost a year perfecting the drills, we left for Christmas Island, south of Indonesia. Our drop proper came on May the 31st 1957. The target was Malden, a tiny uninhabited island in the Pacific. After fifty minutes of flying we reached it and the bombardier, one of the five members of our crew, went to lie down on a mattress in the belly of the fuselage; from that position, he looked straight ahead through the bomb sight at the aiming point. We then did a practice flight up to the release point, then a sharp turn to get away.
When the order was given to proceed, we put metal shutters over all the windows in the cockpit so the violent light from the explosion wouldn’t affect our eyesight; the bombardier had to keep his shutter open until the drop, though. I could only see through a small piece of glass in one of them. Despite being 45,000 feet above the Pacific, we were in total darkness, the captain and I flew purely by instruments.
The bombardier took the safety latch off the weapon and said, “Steady, steady, steady...” As we arrived at the release point, he pressed the button and announced, “Bomb’s gone.” We felt some elation, and noticed the aircraft lifting as the 12,500-pound bomb – codenamed Orange Herald – dropped. But almost immediately came the escape manoeuvre: the captain turned the aircraft sharply to get away from the rush of the exploding nuclear bomb.
If we had carried on in a straight line, the fireball would have come up under the aircraft and that would have been it. The trouble was, the aircraft was stalling. We knew that if we didn’t turn, we wouldn’t escape the explosion. Thankfully, the captain regained control and 53 seconds after the moment of release, the weapon exploded.
Complete darkness turned to daylight. It was as if there was no dark glass in the small window. You could see the sky and the land below as clear as anything. Three minutes later, we felt a huge bump as the shockwave hit the aircraft, then a smaller one a second later. We saw the sky lit up; ten thousand feet above our eye level was a molten mass. I was in a state of awe.
At eighty-five, I’m one of three members of the crew still alive from Operation Grapple. And to my knowledge, I’m the only person to drop two nuclear bombs. For my second flight, instead of targeting an atoll like Malden, the drop was near Christmas Island itself. Same procedure, this time no faulty instruments, though this was a thermonuclear bomb – a hydrogen bomb carrying 1.8 megatonnes of TNT – more than twice the power of the previous one.
We were checked with a Geiger counter when we got back. To date, I haven’t had medical issues resulting from the operation, but I know that people on the ground who watched the explosions claim to have been affected.
As for the ethics, my feeling was, it was a weapon of war. Whether it’s a one thousand-pound bomb or a ten thousand-pound bomb, they’re not nice things to have, but they’re essential to defend our country. This was at the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was a powerful nation; we assumed it would use nuclear weapons if necessary, just as we would have done.