How an Australian ‘safety adviser’ detonated the world’s first atomic bomb.

Jul 16, 2020

On July 16, 1945, an English scientist, later the founding Professor of Physics at the ANU and Menzies’ safety adviser for the British atom bomb tests,  detonated the world’s first atomic bomb at Alamagordo in New Mexico.

Ernest Titterton earned his PhD at Birmingham University developing radar with his supervisor, Australian physicist Mark Oliphant. Two refugee scientists in the Birmingham Physics Department who were not allowed to work on radar because of security constraints wrote the Frisch-Peirels Memorandum that calculated how an atom bomb could be made with far less uranium than had previously been thought.

Oliphant lobbied the military chiefs and mandarins in London and the MAUD Committee was formed to explore the possibilities. He went to the USA and told Robert J Oppenheimer and other physicists how a bomb could be made to end the Second World War.

And so it was. And also a second, plutonium bomb. It was this model codenamed Trinity that was tested at Alamagordo, detonated by the twenty nine year old Titterton. Less than a month later it was used to bomb Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945, three days after the bombing of Hiroshima.

Oliphant recruited a score of British physicists (including the now naturalised Frisch and Peirels) to America to work on the Manhattan Project that built the vastly expensive structures required to refine uranium and extract plutonium into ‘weapons grade’ fissile materials.

The ‘Oliphant Group’ included William Penney, a specialist in measuring blast effects in conventional warfare who inspected the rubble at Nagasaki in the days following the Japanese surrender a week after the two atomic bombings. Penney had recommended Hiroshima and Nagasaki as targets because the surrounding hills would concentrate the blast effects.

Oliphant was the first of the scientists to return to Britain, in early 1945. He was greatly alarmed at the realising that the Americans wanted to monopolise atomic weapons science and technology after the war, even to the extent of cutting out Britain. Oliphant, it is clear from documents in the UK National Archives, was a leading advocate of an independent British atomic arsenal in the immediate postwar years.

His fears were vindicated when the US passed the McMahon Act in 1946, terminating the wartime scientific alliance.

Titterton was the last British scientist to leave the Los Alamos Laboratory and test site, in April 1947. He and Penney both had essential skills for the first postwar US tests called Operation Crossroads at Bikini in the Pacific. Titterton in fact conducted the countdown for the Shot Baker test – he can be seen online on Movietone and other news footage from July 1946, a year after he had detonated Trinity in New Mexico.

Oliphant had returned to his job at Birmingham University but was in close dialogue through the late 1940s with Prime Minister Ben Chifley about Australia being a central player in a post war Commonwealth ‘forward defence’ policy that it was hoped would provide ‘an arsenal’ to support Britain in future conflicts.

Archival documents in the UK National Archives make it clear that Australia envisaged getting tactical atomic weapons as a reward for ‘hosting’ the testing of atomic bombs and development of components for Britain’s H bomb. When that was detonated in the Pacific in May 1957 it paved the way for the resumption of the Anglo-American nuclear weapons alliance.

In 1950 Oliphant accepted the foundation directorship of the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering at the newly created Australian National University. He recruited his protégé Titterton to the Professorship of Physics, his first academic post at the age of thirty four.

Oliphant was kept well away from the British atomic tests in Australia because he was anathema to the Americans. He had been very outspoken in his conviction that Britain needed its own arsenal. And he was compromised by the confession of Klaus Fuchs, another of his Birmingham recruits, as a spy throughout the 1940s. Suspicion fell on more than one of the ‘Oliphant Group’ who had gone to the Manhattan Project in 1943.

Within months of arriving in Canberra it was not Oliphant but Ernest Titterton who became Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ close advisor and ‘Australian representative’ at the British atomic tests in Australia.

The 1985 Royal Commission bitterly concluded that he had been ‘planted’ on Menzies and that he had colluded in the poor safety measures that William Penney allowed as Scientific Director in the rush to test a British H Bomb before the ban on atmospheric testing came into effect.

It was Menzies too who on return to office in 1949 had agreed to host the Summer Olympics in Melbourne in November 1956. He and Titterton permitted Penney to continue testing until a month before the Opening Ceremony with its thousands of athletes and spectators.

By 1960 Britain had re-entered nuclear alliance with the United States. Menzies and his Defence Chiefs realised that Australia might end up (again) with nothing to defend itself with. Prime Minister Menzies, his chief safety advisor Titterton – the man who detonated the world’s first atomic bomb, and another member (and Chairman in 1956, the Olympics year) of the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee, Leslie Martin, energetically lobbied in London in mid-1961 for Australia to be bequeathed tactical nukes and the aircraft to deliver them. British Prime Minister Macmillan told them that would be an American decision. Which explains a great deal about what goes on today at Woomera and Pine Gap et al.

If Titterton was a plant, he had gone native by this stage. And there are documents in the UK National Archive that show that the Secretary of Menzies’ Prime Minister’s Office, Allen Brown, proposed to the London civil servants that the honorarium for Titterton’s initial recruitment to the first British atom bomb detonation off the Monte Bello islands in West Australian in 1952, should be made out of Australian rather than British funds. ‘in order to emphasise participation of Australian scientists in test.’

Oliphant had been nominated for the US Medal of Freedom with Gold Palm by General Groves, who had been in charge of the Manhattan Project. The citation cited his brilliant work in the development of radar, and his ‘outstanding contributions to the development of the atomic bomb.’ Of all the British members of the Manhattan Project, Oliphant was the only one to be nominated for a Gold Palm medal. But Australian rules about the decoration of civilians during war meant he couldn’t receive it. His role is specifically namechecked in the Smyth Report prepared to justify to the US Congress the expense of building the atomic bombs that ended the war.

Oliphant sat out the testing of British atomic weapons in Canberra. He was visited after the 1953 Totem test by a journalist, Leonard Bertin, who had been among a party allowed to observe the explosion from several miles away. Bertin wrote

‘forty hours later when I visited the laboratory in Canberra of Professor Oliphant, the eminent physicist, counters that he had dispersed above the ground were registering the passage overhead of the cloud and indicating activity due to X-rays fifteen times higher than that normally present due to the natural radioactivity. The level, which was well within safety limits, nevertheless indicated quite clearly the presence of radioactive explosive debris in the clouds overhead.’

Seventy five years after the ‘Australian safety representative’ at the British tests detonated the world’s first atomic bomb we should look again at the documents still held in the UK National Archives (although several hundred at least have recently been withdrawn from public access.) The transcripts and Report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear (sic) Tests in Australia are available online from the National Archives of Australia. More than half of the files relating to the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee have not yet, after thirty five years, been released to the public. Tempus fugit.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!