Oral Testimonies  

Fact-Check the  

Official Narrative  

of the British  

Nuclear Tests in  


Oral Testimonies  

Fact-Check the  

Official Narrative  

of the British  

Nuclear Tests in  


There are important discrepancies  

between oral testimonies transcribed from  

a Royal Commission into the British nuclear  

tests and the documentary evidence in  

Australian and UK national archives. 

Sue Rabbitt Roff 

University of Dundee Figure 1. A document from the UK National Archives referring  to ‘sanitised’ data on Australian participants in the nuclear  

weapons tests. The National Archives, UK 

There is a wealth of material—much of it oral testimony  still publicly accessible but not yet examined—about how  the United Kingdom field-tested the components for its  hydrogen bomb in Australia despite its assurances that it  would not escalate the program from fission-based nuclear  weapons to more powerful fusion bombs. Conspicuously,  what has been totally ignored in official narratives is why  Prime Minister Robert Menzies and his Cabinet permitted  the tests to take place up to a month before the 1956  Olympic Games opened downwind of Maralinga. 

How the Aboriginal Community’s Oral  Witness Triggered a Royal Commission  into British Nuclear Testing in Australia 

In 1984, Yankunytjatjara man Yami Lester travelled to  London as head of an Aboriginal delegation to lobby  the British government to take responsibility for the  consequences of its nuclear tests. He met with high 

ranking British government officials and received  assurances that the British would fully cooperate with the  judicial enquiry set up by the Australian government. The  

Aboriginal delegation told investigators they had been  caught in the path of what came to be known as the ‘black  mist’ after the first ‘Totem’ test at Emu Field in South  Australia on 15 October 1953.1 

The Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in  Australia published its three-volume report in November  1985.2 It is based on oral testimony transcribed from  participants including the Aboriginal community,  military servicemen, scientists, politicians and settler  inhabitants. At least 5000 indexed pages of the transcripts  of these submissions can be read and downloaded from  the National Archives of Australia.3 They are remarkably  unstudied by researchers. 

Seventy years after the tests, many of the documents  relating to the British weapons tests in Australia are  marked in the Australian National Archives catalogue  as ‘not yet examined’, and haven’t been opened to the  public. In recent years some of the material held in the  UK has been removed from public access.4 

Sue Rabbitt Roff, ‘Oral Testimonies Fact Check the Official Narrative of the British Nuclear Tests in Australia,’ Agora 58:2 (2023), 34–37 

34 58:2 (2023) agora 

Even so, we can detect important  discrepancies between the oral testimonies  of participants and the documentary  evidence that has accumulated in the  Australian and UK National Archives and  other depositories. 

Did Lord Penney Lie to the Royal  Commission about the Black Mist? The Australian government commissioned  an official History of British Atomic Tests in  Australia that was submitted to the Royal  Commission in 1985.5 In a section headed  ‘Strange Phenomena after Totem 1’, its  author J. L. Symonds wrote:  

Of recent years, there have been  

claims of strange phenomena after  the explosion of Totem 1 such as ‘a  

rolling black smoke or mist’ and ‘big  coiling cloud-like thing like a dust 

storm.’ At the time, no such reports  

appeared in the newspapers nor were  they announced by radio stations. 

However, prior to the staff meeting  

at Emu on the evening of 25 October  [1953—in preparation for the second  Totem detonation], Sir William Penney  was informed that the Totem 1 cloud  had been seen from Oodnadatta  

[directly due east of Wallatina]. At the  meeting Sir William raised the question  of mass reaction to the sight of the  

cloud by the civilian population and  informed those present that the cloud  had been seen at Oodnadatta. He  

is reported as suggesting that it had  probably been seen from an aircraft.  The report of the meeting recorded  that ‘It was agreed that should there  be any reactions arising from reports  of the cloud having been seen, the  

Meteorological Service should announce  that normal clouds were within the  quoted region and the observed  

cloud was probably a rain cloud.’6 

So it is clear that Penney misspoke—or  lied—to the Royal Commission in his oral  testimony in 1985 when he said:  

I did not hear at the time, nor did  

I hear in the next few months. The  

first that I ever heard of it was  

perhaps two years ago when I read  it in the British newspapers.7 

agora 58:2 (2023) 

Were Thermonuclear Materials  Tested for the British Hydrogen  Bomb in Australia?  

The 1953 Totem tests and ‘Kittens’ trials  began the escalation from atomic to hybrid  boosted nuclear devices, culminating in  the British hydrogen bomb tests off Malden  Island in the central Pacific Ocean in 1957  and 1958.8 This occurred despite repeated  public statements that the testing in  Australia would not move from fission to the  far more powerful fusion devices. 

The Australian government permitted more  than 100 Kittens trials at Emu Field and Naya  in South Australia from 1953. They were tests  of the trigger detonators or ‘initiators’ being  designed for the hydrogen bomb. Essentially  the tests were to determine how much fission  energy would be necessary to trigger a fusion  explosion. In other words, they were working  out how an atomic bomb could become  ‘a mere detonator’ for a thermonuclear  hydrogen bomb.9 

It is possible to use TROVE’s collection  of digitised newspapers to trace the oral  statements to the press of Menzies and  Howard Beale, the Minister of Supply who  was responsible for Australia’s contribution  to the British testing program. For instance,  a report on 27 November 1954 stated:  ‘Supply Minister Beale said there was no  question of a hydrogen bomb being tested  on Australian territory.’10 On 22 February  1955 it was reported that Beale ‘concluded  by repeating his earlier assurances that no  hydrogen bomb tests or any tests of that  character would be carried out’.11 

In contrast to this, a British memo dated  20 April 1955 stated:  

As far as we know the initiator  

programme is still unchanged. … It has  already been announced here that these  minor tests are to take place. Originally Mr  Beale hastily assured the press that these  would not be in any way related to the  hydrogen bomb. This was incorrect and  he has since covered himself by saying  that there will be no hydrogen bomb test  or tests of that nature and magnitude.12 

1 ‘Meeting Yami Lester,’ Black  

Mist Burnt Country, https:// 



meeting-yami-lester; https:// 





2 Justice J. R. McClelland, The  

Report of the Royal  

Commission into British  

Nuclear Tests in Australia  

(Canberra: Australia:  

Australian Government  

Publishing Service, 1985). 

3 ‘British Nuclear Tests at  

Maralinga,’ National  

Archives of Australia,  






4 Chris Hill, ‘Nuclear History  

and the Archive,’ https:// 



5 J. L. Symonds, A History of  

British Atomic Tests in Australia  

(Canberra: AGPS, 1985). 

6 Ibid, 177. 

7 William Penney, ‘Transcript  

of Proceedings, Royal  

Commission into British  

Nuclear Tests in Australia,’  

National Archives of  

Australia, A6448, 4348. 

8 Sue Rabbitt Roff, ‘Making  

the British H Bomb in  

Australia: From the Monte  

Bellos to the 1956 Melbourne  

Olympics,’ Vol. 2, The  

Rabbitt Review, https://www. 


9 Otto Frisch, What Little I  

Remember (Cambridge:  

Cambridge University Press,  

1991), 175. 

10 ‘1955 A-Test at Woomera  

Likely,’ The Daily News, 27  

November 1954, https:// 








Seventy years  

later, many of  

the documents  

relating to the British  weapons tests in  Australia are marked  in the Australian  National Archives  catalogue as ‘not  yet examined’, and  haven’t been opened  to the public.

11 National Archives of Australia,  Series A6455, Control Number  RC 559 Part 3, Item ID 190516,  https://recordsearch.naa. 

gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/ Interface/ViewImage.aspx? B=1905216/  

12 Ibid. 

13 Ibid. 

14 Symonds, A History of British  Atomic Tests, 321. 

15 National Archives of Australia,  File A6455 RC 559, Part 3. 

16 ‘Royal Commission into  British Nuclear Tests in  

Australia,’ online transcript,  National Archives of  

Australia, A6448, 14. 

17 R. W. Brisbane and L. B.  Silverman, Photographic  

Dosimetry: An Annotated  

Bibliography (n.p.: United  States, 1959). 

18 E. W. Titterton, ‘Slow  

Neutron Monitoring with  Boron- and Lithium-loaded  Nuclear Emulsions,’ Nature  163 (1949): 990–991 https:// www.nature.com/ 


19 E. W. Titterton, ‘Slow  

Neutron Health Monitoring  with Nuclear Emulsions,’  

Atomic Energy Research  Establishment Report AERE  G/R-362, June 1949. 

On 21 July 1955, a memo from the  Commonwealth Relations Office in Downing  Street to the UK High Commissioner in  Canberra instructed: ‘We certainly wish  knowledge that there will be full scale tests  in 1957 and connection between them and  subject of Mr. Menzies’ message be limited to  absolute minimum number of individuals.’13 The reference was to a June 1955 message  about the Monte Bello ‘Mosaic’ tests to be  held in May and June 1956. 

By 1956—only weeks before the Olympic  Games opened in Melbourne—even Menzies’  advisers realised that the testing had moved  to ‘something approaching an H-bomb’.14 

Another British memo states:  

We had agreed with the Australian  

Government that we would not test  

thermo-nuclear weapons in Australia  but Mr. Menzies has nevertheless agreed  to the firings taking place in the Monte  Bello Islands (off the north-west coast of  Western Australia), which have already  been used before for atomic tests. As  already explained, the Australians  

are very sensitive on the question  

of thermo-nuclear explosions, and  

although the true character of these  tests is understood by the authorities  immediately concerned, knowledge  

of the trials is restricted to a very small  circle and no public statement has so  far been made; when it is made, it will  therefore require very careful handling.15 

Did the Australian Government’s  Safety Advisor Lie to the 1985  Royal Commission? 

One of the first questions asked of the  Chair of the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety  Committee for most of the detonations,  Professor Ernest Titterton, in his initial  appearance before the Royal Commission  in May 1985 was whether he had ‘done  any work which today would be described  as health physics work? Had you done  anything in relation to radiation and human  biology?’16 

He replied: ‘I had, of course, because any  time one is involved in radioactivity and  

its possible health effects, so essentially I  began at the beginning and grew up with  this thing.’ But when he was asked, ‘Did  you ever publish anything in relation to  health effects?’ Titterton replied, ‘No. It was  no ambition of mine. I was interested in  publishing in relation to radioactivity and  nuclear physics; the other was incidental.’ 

In fact, several papers Titterton published  in the late 1940s at the UK’s Atomic Energy  Research Establishment (AERE) related  to the invention of personal radiation  dosimeters for atomic workers. A 1959  bibliography lists four articles in 1949 and  1950 alone, before Titterton left the UK  to take up the Foundation Professorship  of Physics at the Australian National  University.17 In 1949 he reported in the  scientific journal Nature that, for the  personal radiation badges he developed to  measure exposure, ‘An accuracy to within  5% can be achieved in dose determinations  without undue elaboration of measurement  and calibration.’18 

In the same year he confirmed in an AERE  report that ‘one observer working full-time  can determine fortnightly slow neutron  doses for between 100–150 individuals’.19 He  repeated these findings in the British Journal of  Radiology in 1950, stating: ‘The photographic  plate technique, using boron and lithium  loaded emulsions, has been applied to provide  a slow neutron personnel monitoring service.  The method is simple and economical in  operation, and is sufficiently sensitive to  reduce the necessary microscope work to  insignificant proportions.’20 

The oral and written statements of  participants to the Royal Commission are  particularly important in light of a document  I found in the UK National Archives (Fig. 1).  A fax message dated 25 June 1985 from the  British Defence Research and Supply Staff in  Canberra to the Atomic Weapons Research  Establishment in the UK enquired about  ‘the final volume of the sanitised version  of the “Blue Book”. We have so far received  the full sanitised version except for that  part dealing with Australian participants.  

58:2 (2023) agora 

‘It was agreed that should there be any reactions arising from  reports of the cloud having been seen, the Meteorological Service  should announce that normal clouds were within the quoted  region and the observed cloud was probably a rain cloud.’

20 E. Titterton and M. E. Hall,  

‘Neutron Dose  

Determination by the  

Photographic Plate Method,’  

British Journal of Radiology,  

23: 465–471. 

21 UK Health Security Agency,  

Has this been sent to us and perhaps lost in  transit or is it still in preparation?’ 

The Blue Book records have been the basis  of studies by the UK’s National Radiological  Protection Board monitoring the long-term  health status of nuclear test participants  since 1983.21 Veterans’ applications for  pensions relating to the health effects  from their participation in the nuclear  tests reference data from the Blue Book. If  those records have been ‘sanitised’ then it  is possible that many pensions have been  unfairly denied.  

More than 16,000 Australians and 22,000  Britons were present at the tests. Over  the past 25 years I have participated in  successful appeals against denials of  service pensions in Australia, the UK, Fiji  and New Zealand.22 Oral evidence from the  appellant serviceman, and often his family  and friends, has played a critical role in  convincing appeals boards of the possibility  that they were exposed to ionising radiation  during their work at the tests. There will be  further evidence to be found in the Royal  Commission transcripts if researchers can  ever afford to study the thousands of pages. 

As it is, we have already established that  the NRPB’s epidemiological studies ‘under  ascertained’ multiple myeloma, a marker  condition for possible radiation exposure,  in at least thirty per cent of test veterans.23 

Several radio and television interviews with  the scientists responsible for the Australian  tests, such as Sir Mark Oliphant and Sir  Ernest Titterton, are still available online.24 

agora 58:2 (2023) 

The Los Alamos National Laboratory  Library has tapes of several interviews with  scientists from the Manhattan Project.25 In  October 2022 about 12 hours of memoirs  recorded by Titterton were identified by  myself and Clare McLellan, Archivist of the  Fenner Archives Collection of the Australian  Academy of Science in Canberra (Fig. 2). 

Online technology permits a whole new level  of research. For instance, we can recover the  meteorological data that refutes the claims  of spokesmen that no potentially radiation 

bearing rain fell on the major cities after the  detonations.26 

A new generation of university researchers  is emerging in both Australia and the UK.  Here’s hoping that teaching about the tests  in high schools will rapidly multiply their  number. As Frances Bacon said 500 years  ago, ‘Truth is the daughter of Time, not of  Authority.’  

Figure 2. Tape recordings made by Sir Ernest  Titterton found in the Fenner Archives Collection  of the Australian Academy of Science in  Canberra in late 2022. Clare McLellan, Australian  Academy of Science  

‘Nuclear Weapons Test  

Participants: Epidemiological  

Study,’ 1 July 2013, https:// 





22 Sue Rabbitt Roff. ‘“Knocked  

over by a Pile of Bombs.  

Hasn’t Felt Well Since”:  

Nuclear Test Veterans and  

the UK Ministry of Defence  

Pensions System,’ in  

Festschrift for Roger Clark, ed.  

Suzannah Linton (Leiden:  

Brill/Niijhoff, 2015). 

23 S. R. Roff, ‘Under 

ascertainment of Multiple  

Myeloma among  

Participants in UK  

Atmospheric Aatomic and  

Nuclear Weapons Tests,’ BMJ  

Occupational &  

Environmental Medicine,  

60:12 (2003): e18, https:// 



24 ‘Mark Oliphant,’ Australian  

Institute of Physics, https:// 



oral-histories/4805; ‘Sir  

Ernest Titterton Interviewed  

by David Ellyard [Sound  

Recording],’ National  

Library of Australia, https:// 



25 ‘Val Fitch’s Interview,’ Voices  

of the Manhattan Project,  




26 Roff, ‘Making the British H  

Bomb in Australia’.