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Operation Hurricane

The story of Britain's first atomic test in Australia

and the legacy that remains


Paul Grace

Sydney, NSW: Hachette, 2023

Paperback ‎     368pp     RRP: $34.99

Reviewer: Roger Buxton, September 2023


Paul Grace discovered a report in his deceased grandfather’s papers describing his involvement, as an RAAF Dakota pilot, in the first atomic test. To discover more about Australia’s role in the test he searched the available literature, but the sources were so meagre on this aspect that he quit his job and spent five years researching and writing this book.

After early work in Britain, development of the first nuclear bomb was moved to the United States where, as the Manhattan Project, it created the bombs that ended World War II. Nuclear weapon information was to be shared with Britain, but in 1946 the Atomic Energy Act prohibited sharing this information with foreign sources. Fearing that the Soviet Union would develop a nuclear bomb (it tested its first in 1949), the British government set out to develop its own bomb by 1952.

Selection of a testing site was a major problem. The Americans were reluctant to allow access to their testing sites, which was the preferred option, and the most promising locations were in the wide-open spaces of Canada and Australia. An Admiralty study suggested that the Monte Bello Islands off the northwest coast of Western Australia were a likely location and in September 1950 Prime Minister Attlee wrote to Prime Minister Menzies proposing an  examination of the Monte Bello Islands as the test site. Mr Menzies, without consulting the cabinet, immediately replied that “We agree in principle and to the proposed detailed reconnaissance”. Australia was now involved.

At this point I can state that the book is very comprehensive and shows the effect of the five years that were spent in its preparation. It is informative, does not avoid important technical details (an end note recommends the Admiralty Manual of Seamanship Volume III for information about the types of ship moorings) and records the ‘human interest’ experiences of many of the British and Australian service and scientific personnel involved so that interest is maintained.

An initial survey of the Islands was carried out by HMAS Korangi, and it was reported that ‘the site would be suitable for the trial’. This trial was followed by a rapid succession of further examinations and construction work, initially by Australian units and later also by British units when the first of two British task forces arrived. The amount of work carried out by RAAF Airfield Construction Squadrons and the RAN was astonishing, and Mr Menzies, who had accepted all British proposals volunteered to pay for the entire Australian contribution.

Paul Grace describes the very involved sequence of events from the first surveys, through the extensive creation of infrastructure and instrumentation in the Islands, the arrival of the Operation Hurricane commander in HMS Campania with the frigate HMS Plym, carrying the bomb in a forward hold, the test itself and the resulting fallout and radiation monitoring.

The trial was carried out in a way that was generally safe, within the knowledge of the time, but with some egregious exceptions, especially in aircraft radiation monitoring and the protection of servicemen exposed to gamma radiation from the explosion. The British nuclear testing in Australia became a controversial subject leading to a Royal Commission, and this very balanced book is recommended for anyone looking for a most readable description of the test and its impact.


The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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