Qui custodiet ipsos custodes? Counting down to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics

Jul 18, 2021

In April 1949 Chifley agreed to host the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, the first time they were held in the southern hemisphere. Six months later, within days of returning to office as Prime Minister, Menzies agreed in principle to UK atomic weapons testing in Australia. Thirty kilotons were detonated at Maralinga in the three months before the Games opened. How was that allowed to happen?

From the outset, the goal was to develop the British thermonuclear H bomb that was detonated on schedule off Christmas Island in May 1957.

In the 25 years I have been researching the British tests, I have only seen one official reference to the approaching 1956 Olympics. There were six major detonations between May and October 1956, until a month before the opening of the Olympics. Despite repeated public statements, ‘the true character of these tests is understood’ by the senior Australian ‘authorities immediately concerned’.

Menzies appointed “three Australian scientists” to advise him on the safety aspects of the first three detonations – at the Monte Bellos in 1952 and Emu Field in South Australia in 1953. A close reading of even the opening pages of the Report of the 1985 Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests [available online] shows that Menzies was well aware that Ernest Titterton, the newly appointed inaugural Professor of Physics at the Australian National University, had been a pivotal player in the development and detonation of the first atomic bomb in July 1945 and its deployment at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and had been actively working with the British weapons development team led by Dr William Penney in the postwar years.

Menzies may not have been aware that Titterton was invited to be Trials Director at the 1952 Monte Bellos test before he left England for Canberra, but the Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department was informed by Titterton himself that he had offered to take a similar role at the Emu Field Totem tests from his post in Canberra in 1953. Nevertheless, Menzies called him into his office and asked him to look out for Australian interests whilst he was pitching in with the UK scientific team. Penney was particularly keen to have his telemetry skills to ensure detonation.

The 1985 Royal Commission stated baldly: “Titterton had been intimately involved in ensuring the success of the atomic tests at Hurricane and Totem and could not be described as a guardian of Australian public interest.” But the other two “safety advisors” were also active weapons scientists.

Documents in File A6455, RC599, Part 2 [supplied to the Royal Commission, available online from the Australian National Archives] show that in August 1952 Penney proposed to Lord Cherwell that the Scientific Adviser to the Australian Department of Defence,

Professor LH Martin
should be “invited to join the Health Physics team at Monte Bello”. Martin had been chairman of the Australian Defence Research and Development Policy Committee since1948.

Martin had worked at the Cavendish Institute in Cambridge for several years where he impressed Penney as being “able, sensible and discreet.” He “already has shown an excellent spirit of collaboration and a realisation of the security aspects of the matter when he carried out a preliminary reconnaissance of the proposed A.W. [Atomic Weapons] Site.”

Penney commented, “We have not treated the Australians very generously in the way of inviting their scientific help, and the invitation to Prof. Martin would, I think, give them pleasure and would make them feel that we were not attempting to use their land but at the same time were keeping them out.”

It was agreed that the UK should approach the Australian Government to propose Martin as an Australian adviser at the first atomic bomb test but also as a working member of the Health Physics and Meteorology teams.

Since “The Commonwealth Government are likely to be nervous about the use of a site in the heart of the continent for atomic weapons tests, and may have to face criticism from their own people. It is obviously desirable that one of their own scientists should be able to advise them from first-hand knowledge, and it seems right to use the Monte Bello test as an opportunity for indoctrinating such a scientist.”

The writer acknowledged that “the best way” to proceed would be to ask the Australian government “to make a nomination for this purpose, but we cannot risk their unfettered choice.” This was because they might nominate their senior atomic physicist Mark Oliphant who had been blackballed from any revived Anglo-American collaboration – the goal of the British rush to develop their own H bomb – as a security risk.

This proposal “may cause fresh trouble with Oliphant, but no doubt the Commonwealth Government can deal with that.”

In August 1952 a British official wrote “I have only one comment as regards procedure. As Professor Martin is Scientific Advisor to the Australian Department of Defence, I am sure that we must approach the Australian Government, though we can leave it to our people on the spot to decide whether to do this before Martin has been sounded or afterwards.”

Martin was duly invited to “join the Health Physics Team at Monte Bello.” The official memo to Martin – from the British officials – informed him “official action is being taken to inform Australian government.”

In mid-September 1952 the Australian Minister for Supply was reported to be asking British officials if W.A.S. Butement, in charge of the Woomera Weapons Research Establishment, could attend the Hurricane test. Penney was already actively looking for a new test site on the mainland with Butement.

The UK High Commissioner in Australia was instructed on 18 September 1952 that “We are agreeable to attendance of Butement at Hurricane test. Please issue appropriate invitation to Australian authorities as soon as possible.”

Which is to say all three had been nominated and/or vetted to join the scientific team by Penney, ratified by the UK government and then proposed to the Australian government as “Australian scientists” who would each also be assigned a scientific “task” in the operation to build Britain’s first atom bomb.

In May 1955, after three bombs had been detonated, Prime Minister Menzies formed an Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee. While his Department of Defence thought it would be sufficient to constitute the Committee from just these three scientists, Menzies favoured adding two more – J.P. Baxter and C.E. Eddy. He wrote to his Minister for Defence McBride “I believe that the Committee must include members who are sufficiently well known to command general confidence as guardians of the public interest and who are not in any way to be identified as having an interest in the success of defence atomic experiments. I doubt whether a Committee of less than five could be constituted which would meet these requirements, particularly if the Defence Scientific Advisor and Chief Scientist of the Department of Supply are to be included.”

Even the official UK historian of the tests was surprised that “Professor Oliphant, Australia’s most distinguished nuclear scientist, was not included.”

But the AWTSC had very little room for manoeuvre given that its press releases were written for its “sponsorship” by the Department of Supply as is evidenced in File A6455, RC596, submitted to the Royal Commission in 1985 (online).

The releases stated there would be “no hazards to any living thing outside the test area” in the weeks up to and including the four detonations of Operation Buffalo at Maralinga up to a month before the1956 Olympics opened in Melbourne – of which there was absolutely no mention.

Drafted by two officers of the Department of Supply, they were vetted by the Minister, then sent virtually on the eve of their publication to the AWTSC Chair, Professor Martin.

By August 22, 1956, three months to the day before the Olympics were due to open, the AWTSC was asking that the Ministry of Supply, which was responsible for the Australian contribution to the tests “should obtain an alternative sponsor for these articles.”

Minister Beale was advised by his Secretary to remind Professor Martin that:

“THE QUESTION OF SELECTING A SPONSOR FOR THESE ARTICLES IS A VERY DIFFICULT ONE. IT WAS CLOSELY AND CAREFULLY EXAMINED BY YOURSELF AS MINISTER, THE DEPARTMENT AND PRIME MINISTER’S DEPARTMENT AND FOUND UNDESIRABLE TO ATTRIBUTE THEM TO ANY INDIVIDUAL PERSON, INCLUDING THE MINISTER. THEREFORE WE WERE FORCED TO DECIDE ON SOME AUTHORITY…WE WERE FORCED TO THE CONCLUSION THAT, ON THE GROUNDS OF KNOWLEDGE, STATUS AND AUTHORITY, THE SAFETY COMMITTEE WAS THE OBVIOUS SELECTION.”

Two months before the Olympics began, Penney signalled from Maralinga that “really exceptional weather” was delaying firing but “Have Olympic Games dates in mind” as he prepared four detonations. This is the only reference I have seen to the Games in official records – not including the scores being withdrawn from the UK archives or lie “unexamined” in the Australian National Archives.

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