Sir Mark Oliphant – Australia’s – and Britain’s – J. Robert Oppenheimer?

Published August 2018
updated October 2018

Sue Rabbitt Roff

At the end of a long television interview in 1992 in which he discussed with clear pride his role in making the first atomic bombs in the USA that were to end the Second World War, the then 91 year old Sir Mark Oliphant said pensively

‘I wouldn’t like somebody to dig up some dirt — and there might be some dirt in my past — that I’m unconscious of. Such as being concerned with the development of the nuclear weapon and I might be cursed for it. I, hate that idea, I don’t want to be cursed by anybody.’

I wasn’t aware of that when I interviewed Sir Mark in Canberra in 1993 and it’s only now that I have had time to work in the UK National Archives, the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, the Cadbury Special Collections at Birmingham University, the Wren Library of Trinity College, Cambridge University, Dundee University Library, and the British Library that I have pieced together what Oliphant was afraid of. The material that emerged forces a major revision of our understanding not only of Australia’s premier atomic scientist but also of the end of the Anglo-Australian defence alliance of the early post war period and how it segued into Australia’s current role in the USA’s Extended Nuclear Deterrence (END) strategy.

What emerges is that, despite his public speechmaking throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Oliphant was determined to get an independent Australian nuclear capacity as quid pro quo for the development of the British H bomb in South Australia. The development tests went on at Woomera, the Monte Bellos, Emu Field and Maralinga until seven weeks before the opening of the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. But Oliphant, Australia’s senior atomic scientist, had been sidelined from any participation in the testing because the goal of the British atomic tests in Australia was to earn British re-entry into nuclear partnership with the United States that had been cut off by the McMahon Act of 1946.

The only book-length biography of Sir Mark was published in 1981. For the 1940s it relies heavily on US archives, especially the papers of Ernest Lawrence in Berkeley. It cites only eight sources from the British archives, although several relevant files were declassified in the 1960s and 1970s. Several more have been declassified since the publication of Oliphant (Axiom Books, Adelaide 1981). They compel us to re-read – and perhaps re-write – the narrative that Sir Mark himself created and perpetuated . And they also shed new light on the transfer of Australia from Britain’s Forward Defence Policy to American’s Extended Nuclear Deterrence (END) strategy.

Oliphant’s War: Making the Jitterbug Work

It was Oliphant who told J. Robert Oppenheimer that an atom bomb could be made in time to end the Second World War. Suddenly the use of atomic fire power wasn’t for the next war, as James Conant, chairman of the US National Defense Research Committee, still thought in 1941.

Oliphant was at the forefront of the development of radar in the early 1940s. As Professor of Physics at Birmingham University he recruited two refugee scientists though they were not cleared to work on the top secret radar project. Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls wrote a Memorandum in 1940 calculating that a much smaller amount of fissile uranium-235 would be needed to make an atom bomb than had previously been thought. In March 1941 Peierls wrote to Frisch (who had moved to work with James Chadwick at Liverpool University) in very clear and explicit English about what they referred to as ‘ the jitterbug’ in a letter now in Trinity College’s Wren Library in Cambridge that

‘I showed it [the latest calculation about ‘the spontaneous effect’] to Oliphant who thought it was almost hopeless to try and convince the Authorities that we had, in fact, sufficient proof now. He thinks, in fact, that one will never get sufficient support for a large-scale scheme before anybody has every seen the heat produced by the chain reaction, and for this purpose he wants to speed up the production of D for Halban… I hope the Authorities have more imagination than he credits them with, but of course he has more experience. He thinks, even, Blackett does not believe in the scheme.’

Eventually Oliphant’s advocacy led to the creation of the MAUD committee (named after a governess in Neils Bohr’s household) to investigate the military and industrial uses of uranium. Fifteen months later the development of a British atom bomb began in a project code-named Tube Alloys (TA).

The Frisch-Peirels Memorandum was sent to the Americans but Oliphant was frustrated that they did not appreciate its significance. In August 1941 he visited Berkeley to see the cyclotron Ernest Lawrence was building. He was instructed as a representative of the Department of Scientific Research & Experiment that he was to collect as much information as he could from the Americans and

‘To pass over freely to those people with whom you make contact similar information in your own possession’

but with the rider

‘provided, of course, that such persons are already “initiated” and under bond of secrecy.’

He discussed the MAUD report and the Memorandum with Lawrence in the presence of Oppenheimer before he realised that the latter knew nothing about the project to build an atomic bomb.

‘Oliphant’s behaviour does not help the cause of secrecy!’

Conant wrote to Vannevar Bush, head of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development. This would not be the last time such a complaint would be made. It is notable that Oppenheimer himself did not get a full security clearance to work on the Manhattan Project until July 1943 and then only through pressure from General Groves. Neither Oliphant nor Oppenheimer gained the trust of all their colleagues, and both would pay the price once the bombs they built ended the Second World War. It might be said that Oliphant became Australia’s Oppenheimer.

But Oliphant’s intervention jump-started the US commitment to the development of an atom bomb to end the Second World War. The British Tube Alloys project was merged with the American efforts, to become the Manhattan Project.

Oliphant largely recruited the team of British physicists who went to America to join the Manhattan Project in 1943, and was the third mostly highly paid of the British scientists seconded to it. His contribution to the development of the atom bomb used at Hiroshima is indicated by the fact that he was the only Australian among the foreign physicists to be nominated (by General Groves) for the US Medal of Honor, the only one with Gold Palm.

Less than a decade later he was declared persona non grata in the USA.

On his return to Britain from the USA in 1941 Oliphant remarked on the disconnect between the levels of secrecy about topics that were being openly discussed and indeed published in scientific circles. He pointed out that the US Navy was trying to develop atomic power for submarines while at the same time scientists working in the universities such as Berkeley were openly discussing nuclear fission. Fermi for instance discussed in detail the fast neutron bombs using Uranium 235 at an open scientific meeting. It has been remarked that the Germans were first alerted to military implications of nuclear research by the sudden cessation of published papers in the early stages of the Second World War.

However Oliphant was criticised for assuming that these matters could be discussed so informally. He was told he was out of order in talking so frankly with the National Defence Research Committee.

Oliphant then resigned in a huff from the MAUD Technical Committee, noting that although he had been personally responsible for what he termed ‘the recrudescence’ of the feasibility of making an atom bomb in time to use in the current war, he had been left off the Policy Committee in the reorganisation of MAUD. He told James Chadwick that he was thinking of setting up ‘a rival show’ to MAUD in two or three university physics departments and get out from under the ‘busybodies’ of committee politics.’

It’s not clear if Oliphant told either his British or American colleagues that in August 1941 he had also informed the Australian Ambassador in Washington, R.G. Casey, about British war research using uranium, and his concern that it was being rapidly patented. Or that he was urging Australia to do similar work

‘so that if and when she wishes to exploit it she will have something with which to bargain.’

Like other Australians, Oliphant was shocked by the fall of Malaya and Singapore and he urged Chadwick to help him break through what he termed the complacency and lack of will or spirit to risk commitment to a big venture. But he had been eased off MAUD’s major committees and thought his period of usefulness had ended.

In fact, Oliphant’s experimental and engineering brilliance ensured him a place on the team of British and British-based physicists who went to join the Manhattan Project in 1943. But it is clear that the widely acknowledged skills that would help to make the first atom bomb came with an unwillingness to suffer fools. He could be charming (as I found when I interviewed him in 1993) but also irascible. He could also be devious to win an argument. In 1944 one colleague on the Manhattan Project, physicist Norman Feather, described Oliphant’s behaviour in an unidentified dispute that was

‘rather that of the agent provocateur!’

The same year Chadwick noted that Oliphant could be

‘sometimes incautious and injudicious in his statements’

but argued his many high virtues made him worth putting up with, and anyway he had to be handled gently because he reacted badly to high-handedness.

Oliphant spent the months before he went to the USA to join the Manhattan Project in Australia. He told fellow physicist Egon Bretscher in March 1942 that he was going home to help Australia confront some of its own defence problems, on loan from the Admiralty, where he had been at the forefront of the development of radar. During that trip, he later told Chadwick, he saw to it that the Government froze the exploitation of Australia’s uranium resources.

In June 1943 the senior scientists and administrators of Tube Alloys said that they wanted Oliphant’s participation, but only if it was a full time commitment because it was well known that he could be impetuous and indiscreet. They did not want him to let him in on all the secrets of their work unless he was properly tied to the project. It was noted too that Oliphant was

‘suspicious of the commercial element in the work.’

It is clear that from the outset of the merger of British and American atomic weapons research there were tensions in the bilateral relationship. In a letter of June 2, 1943 to Oliphant urging him to go to the US to work with Ernest Lawrence in Berkeley, he was told it would be good to have him working alongside Lawrence whose work was ‘being kept especially secret’ even before ‘relations with the Americans had become difficult.’

The British Tube Alloys scientists joined the US Manhattan Project shortly after the Quebec Agreement between Britain and the USA was signed in August 1943. This was a top secret bilateral agreement but it was signed in Canada – where the raw materials for the bombs were being refined at Chalk River from Canadian uranium.

The Agreement declared that

‘in view of the heavy burden of production falling upon the United States as the result of a wise division of war effort, the British Government recognize that any post-war advantages of an industrial or commercial character shall be dealt with as between the United States and Great Britain on terms to be specified by the President of the United States to the Prime Minister of Great Britain. The Prime Minister expressly disclaims any interest in these industrial and commercial aspects beyond what may be considered by the President of the United States to be fair and just and in harmony with the economic welfare of the world.’

As well as giving the US primacy over post war commercial and industrial development of atomic energy, it was agreed that

‘we will not either of us communicate any information about Tube Alloys to third parties except by mutual consent.’

‘Great Britain’ was not held to include the Dominions – such as Australia or indeed Canada, which was integral to the Manhattan Project. Britain had handed over its Tube Alloys research in the hope that the United States would be able to manufacture atomic bombs to end the war.

This was the deal that Oliphant had to work within when he joined Lawrence’s laboratory at Berkeley in late 1943.

In March 1944 Oliphant was cautioned for letting ‘a British officer in uniform, who is believed to have been a New Zealander’ visit him in his office because

‘Evidently this happening is considered to be one of those items which could emphasise too much the existence of a British link with the American office and activity on our project in Berkeley.’

Within six months of arriving in the USA in August 1943 the British scientists on the Manhattan Project were beginning to contemplate the post war future. Meetings were held in Washington and London but it was hard to get the main players – Chadwick, Cockcroft and Oliphant – together in any one place. Chadwick advocated a ‘frank discussion’ with the Americans about post war industrial and military development. And relations with the scientists had to be kept on an even keel so that the British contingent could learn as much as it could before leaving to start its own development. Oliphant always said that the Manhattan Project was basically an engineering project, building and combining the components of the two types of bomb – uranium and plutonium – once the theoretical work had been done. There was only one test detonation – Trinity, at the Alamagordo site in New Mexico in July 1945.

Oliphant believed that Britain could make its own nuclear weapons once the war was over and more industrial capacity was available again. There were also discussions about possible tripartite partnership between the Americans, the British and the Canadians who were active in the Manhattan Project. Already by February 1944 there was talk of some of the British scientists returning to England to begin post war planning and fill the many vacancies in university science teaching and research.

Oliphant was expected to visit Britain in July 1944 but he couldn’t leave Berkeley then. In September 1944 he was enraged by remarks of General Grove confirming America’s intention to control post war development, to retain its monopoly on nuclear technology that was being developed with critical British theoretical and engineering input. Oliphant was called to London by the TA planning group under the Chancellor of the Exchequer in November 1944 and spent six weeks talking to industrial leaders about the work that would be needed. In early January 1945 he circulated ‘Notes on T.A.’ (Tube Alloys) (a handwritten copy of which is in the UK National Archives along with the cyclostyled version.) Its opening paragraph stated

‘The proper development of T.A. offers – (a) a military weapon of great power’

followed by industrial and medical applications.

As the Director of TA told the Chancellor,

‘Oliphant has strong views on the question of development in the UK at the earliest possible moment.’

The Chancellor met with Oliphant on January 9, 1945 and told him

‘that he could not believe that, if T.A. were to have important industrial applications, any country would be able to adopt a selfish policy in regard to its exploitation.’

He reminded Oliphant the first priority was to build the bombs to end the war and secured him a priority seat on a bomber to return to Berkeley.

But Oliphant and several of his team were back in Britain by April 1945 and actively planning the establishment of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell in Oxfordshire. While senior British scientists such as Sir Edward Appleton still believed in April 1945

‘we might expect collaboration [with the USA] might go on well after the big bang day.’

Oliphant was equally sure that the British would be cut out – as they were by the McMahon Act of 1946. There are many documents in the UK National Archives indicating that Oliphant was at the centre of planning for post war British atomic research through the late 1940s.

Despite these issues, Oliphant’s work – not least his initial networking – were publicly acknowledged in the United States as soon as the war ended, beginning with the official report commissioned by General Groves Atomic Energy for Military Purposes that was published in the American Physics Society’s journal Reviews of Modern Physics.

The late 1940s

However, the poor prospects for continued British-American nuclear collaboration after the detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were apparent from General Groves’ evasiveness when asked in Washington DC on January 9, 1946 what part Canada and Great Britain had played in the development of the atomic bomb.

Oliphant returned to Britain before the Trinity test in New Mexico in July, 1945 and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki detonations in August.

He wrote scathingly to A.V. Hill in June 1945 about

‘the subservience of this country [Britain] to the U.S.A. Cherwell [Churchill’s primary scientific advisor] is so jittery that he will not allow the most innocuous move without consultation and continued delay. In the T.A. [Tube Alloys] field there will be a story to tell of appeasement and of a most undignified servility, dictated by Anderson and Cherwell under orders from Churchill, and fostered and carried out by Chadwick and Halifax in Washington. I believe we have been sold down the river as a nation. Our actions in this field of science and its control may have a very unfortunate effect on our future relations with U.S.S.R.’

He saw clearly that

‘The creation of an Anglo-American technical bloc appears to be a substitute for a military alliance against Russia and it cannot help but be regarded as such. I am quite certain that in the fields where our scientists have knowledge of most secret American-British developments of military importance, every effort will be made by American security authorities to prevent any possible chance of leakage to Russia.’

At the beginning of October 1945 Oliphant wrote to Chadwick himself reporting and endorsing critical comments made by Professor Patrick Blackett.

‘He expresses himself as appalled by the incompetence and sheer stupidity revealed by his examination of the political and administrative history of the British T.A. [Tube Alloys] effort and he regards the Quebec Agreement as a degrading document. He is very critical of your views and says that you do not serve as a representative of your country, putting the British point of view as given you from this side, but that you ‘side with Groves against your own country’. He regards as dangerous and ridiculous the proposals put forward by you, that, as Plutonium is the obvious choice at the moment for a military weapon, effort should be concentrated on it, and that the plant should be in Canada. He takes the point of view that the British effort should be devoted primarily to research and development into the industrial and other possibilities, as well as the weapon, and that any manufacture of weapons must be subsidiary to development. He argues that we must have such supplies of all fissile elements as may be required to secure full development in every direction. If he repeats the substance of your cables and letters correctly I must say I am on his side, but I cannot believe you are of that extreme opinion and feel that he is exaggerating, as he so often does, or that he has not got all the facts.’

In late October 1945 Oliphant also expressed his views about the Quebec Agreement – still top-secret – to a British Member of Parliament, Raymond Blackburn. Sir John Anderson noted on the correspondence flying around Whitehall that

‘This is a monstrous abuse – and incidentally a clear breach of the Official Secrets Act.’

Sir James Chadwick was informed that

‘this affair is rather a serious matter and [Sir John Anderson] is wondering whether we ought not to tell Oliphant that in the circumstances it would be better that he should not remain a member of any of our Committees.’

In March 1946 Oliphant’s views were again rocking the boat

‘considering what a critical stage had been reached in our negotiations with the Americans’

as a senior Whitehall civil servant put it. Oliphant said in London in mid February that

‘the atomic bomb was now out of the hands of scientists and in the hands of the fire-eaters.’

In early March he complained that atomic research in British universities was being held up by the lack of radio and electronic equipment which was available in Government dumps. Civil servant Rickett wrote to his colleague Lindsell in the Directorate of Atomic Energy that

‘I do not suggest that any of these statements, or the numerous other statements recorded in this file, amount to any serious breach of security. It has always been a rule, however, that members of advisory committees who may be presumed to have special knowledge of Government policy, and the facts relating to it, not available to members of the public, should exercise discretion in what they say to the public.’

In May 1946 Oliphant sought advice from Sir John Anderson about the line should follow when acting as technical advisor to the Australian representative on the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. Anderson replied

‘You will, I am sure, agree that it is of the utmost importance at the present stage of our relations with the Americans that there should be no departure from our understanding with them about disclosure of information to other Governments. Under this [Quebec Agreement] we are bound not to disclose any information about atomic energy to any other Government (even to another member of the Commonwealth) except in accordance with agreed common policy or after consultation with the United States Governments.’

Sir John hoped that a time would come when Britain could share atomic information with its Dominions but for the present ‘you will I feel sure, agree that no other course is possible in the circumstances.’ Oliphant undertook to ‘do my best to fall in with the suggestions you make.’

James Chadwick wrote to W.G. Marley as most of the British contingent prepared to leave the Manhattan Project that

‘I am quite sure that help from the U.S. is not necessary to enable us to carry out this project [continued atomic research] in England. We can stand on our own feet. What I am anxious to do is to preserve our good relations and to extend them into the future.’

Throughout the late 1940s Oliphant was a key member of the planning group for post war British atomic and then nuclear research – the ‘military weapon of great power’ of January 1945 ‘Notes on Tube Alloys’. He was a forceful member of the committee that chose to build the Atomic Energy Research Establishment  at Harwell in Oxfordshire in 1946.

He also argued that

‘Fundamental research in nuclear physics and cognate chemical processes must be fostered in direct connection with T.A. and also in university centres capable of pursuing such problems.’

And he insisted that no Americans should be allowed to work with the British in their development of an atom bomb

Like Neils Bohr, whose July 1944 memorandum Oliphant helped to draft had reached President Roosevelt a full year before the Trinity test, many of the scientists on the Manhattan Project were advocating ‘international control’ of the new weaponry because they were alarmed at US monopoly of atomic and nuclear technology in the immediate post war period. Roosevelt died in April 1945 and it was Truman who decided to bomb Japanese cities. Oliphant told me when I interviewed him in 1993 ‘Truman was a hit-’em man.’

In October 1945 Oliphant wrote to Chadwick that he had attended a meeting on ‘The Social Implications of the Atomic Bomb’ where it was agreed that

‘the peacetime applications might prove more important to the Empire than to any other nation. [emphasis added]… It was a bad state of affairs where one nation alone possessed the weapon or was in a position to do anything about the industrial applications.’

It is clear from documents in the UK National Archives that Britain tried to form an alliance with Canada for nuclear research as the war was coming to an end. In a May 1944 memo Oliphant wrote that after the end of the war ‘It might be expedient to withdraw completely from direct participation in work in U.S.A.‘ and work solely with Canada. But Canada chose to continue its bilateral alliance with the United States. And all that preceded the passing of the McMahon Act in 1946 that excluded Britain from the further American development of nuclear weapons. Where did that leave Britain – and Australia? And Marcus Oliphant as an Australian nuclear scientist working in Britain – and then in Australia?

Oliphant the Uranium Prospector

Above: Official visit to the East Painter Camp in 1947. Mark Oliphant, the atomic physicist (later Governor of South Australia), is seated fourth from left next to the South Australian Premier, Thomas Playford.

Oliphant had been alert to the value of Australian uranium from 1941 onwards, stimulating the search for weapons-grade Australian uranium during his visit in early 1943, six months before he went to Berkeley to work on the Manhattan Project. There is evidence in the UK National Archives that the UK was willing to allow the USA to have first option on Australian uranium both during and after the war – unbeknown to Australia.

Oliphant was back at Birmingham University from mid-1945 but travelling regularly to Australia during the late 1940s before he returned permanently to help establish the Australian National University. There are many newspaper reports of Oliphant accompanying senior South Australian officials to uranium sites such as Mt Painter in 1947. At the same time the press was reporting that his brothers Harry and Nigel had developed a lamp and a form of Geiger counter to aid in the search for more uranium lodes. They incorporated companies called Oliphant Laboratories Limited and Laboratory Supplies Limited.

According to the Adelaide Advertiser of 24 January 1947

‘Mr. Harry Oliphant, who was with Sir Kerr Grant in the physics department, University of Adelaide, for 14 years, made the first betatron tube in the nuclear physics laboratory. University of Melbourne while with Professor L H Martin. Mr Oliphant was engaged in work in the valve development section of radar research, making proto-type tubes. Mr Nigel Oliphant, who was an armament officer in the RAAF, was a teacher in the Education Department before he joined the Air Force.’

The Sydney Sun ran the story a few days later, with sketches of the two brothers, who were keen to remind readers of their connection with their famous atom scientist half-sibling.

The Sun (Sydney, NSW) Sun 2 Feb 1947

An ASIO file entry dated February 1953 states that Mark Oliphant wasn’t involved in the company ‘but occasionally advises his brothers on technical matters… Oliphant Laboratories do lot (sic) of work for rocket range & Uranium project.’

Another brother, Kenneth, was also a skilled lab technician who had worked briefly at the Cavendish in Cambridge during a year-long visit to the UK in the 1930s.

In the UK National Archives file labelled Uranium Australia there is a letter Oliphant wrote to Perrin, Director of the UK Tube Alloys Project just before he left Birmingham for California in 1943:

‘If it is thought worthwhile I could run over for a week or two to Australia and see what it is possible to arrange in connection with uranium production in that country. You will remember that while out there I arranged for the supplies to be declared a national asset. I believe that the Australian Government would gladly arrange the air trip across the Pacific and back.’

Other messages in this file passed between London and Washington discussing the best way to approach the Australian Prime Minister about how much uranium could be shipped to the Manhattan Project as Australia’s contribution to the ‘joint war effort.’ Oliphant wrote a MOST SECRET Note for British and US officials in September, 1943 telling them that

‘the deposits are situated in somewhat inaccessible parts of the Flinders range, some 600 miles from Adelaide, and elsewhere, and can be reached at present only on foot or by camel.’ He noted that ‘all the facilities of supplies etc. of chemicals for purification and extraction of the oxide are available on the coast at Port Pirie, where there are large smelting works and acid factories.’

But there was a major hitch in the proposal. Perrin thought that US acquisition of Australian uranium would have to be referred to the Joint Policy Committee that was ‘charged with the duty of allocating materials in such a way as to further to the best advantage the realisation of the bomb‘ as Oliphant put it in his Note. But Australia was not represented on the Joint Policy Committee although Canada, the other British Empire country already supplying uranium to the Manhattan Project, was.

The British officials didn’t want Australia to realise this, and in their negotiations with Stanley Bruce, Australia’s High Commissioner in London and the Australian Prime Minister it wasn’t mentioned. Indeed, the Lord President of the Council who was responsible for Tube Alloys was reported as being ‘not very pleased about the amount of information which Oliphant gave to Bruce, and clearly considerable care must be taken in discussing this subject with Oliphant.’

A 1944 memo notes that

The Australian Government is presumably also unaware of the moves under consideration to set up a U.S.-British control of the uranium supplies within their grasp. [emphasis added] Should this control not materialise, or not materialise to the satisfaction of H.M. Government, it is important to ensure that any uranium production resulting from the development of the Australia deposits should be earmarked for use within the British empire. Unless this can be achieved by direct agreement, it is suggested that simultaneously with the approach to the Australian Government to embark on development, a substantial contract should be placed by H.M. Government covering the whole or a substantial proportion of any production within the next 5-10 years.’

In a 1992 interview Oliphant recalled that he was telephoned while in Berkeley with Lawrence’s laboratory at the height of the rush to develop an atom bomb by W.S. Robinson,

‘a very famous Australian who was the Head of South Broken Hill, and the Chairman of the Zinc Corporation – later became Conzinc Rio Tinto and of course ran all the Broken Hill, South Broken Hill activities, and he was adviser to Mr Churchill on the procurement of metals during the war. He helped them to find metals that were difficult to get for production of munitions of various kinds… And I said, ‘What can I do for you W. S.?’ you see. He said, ‘Well I – look I want to talk to you about uranium’. Now uranium of course was a secret word which wasn’t mentioned in public by anybody, and I was horrified you see and I said, ‘Wait a minute W. S. Wait a minute W. S.’, and he said, ‘It’s alright Mark. It’s alright Mark. I know all about it. Winston’s told me all about it’. I said, ‘Well I’m sorry but I really can’t answer any questions at all’. But it was a delicate moment I can assure you.’

On the eve of the first test of an atomic bomb at the Trinity test site in New Mexico in July 1945, the Combined Policy Committee of the US-UK collaboration minuted that because the lion’s share of the development costs for the atom bombs was being borne by the USA, it had

‘determined that while the war lasts all uranium supplies received by the Combined Development Trust for the joint account of the United States and the United Kingdom should be allocated to the United States Government for the production of weapons for use against the common enemy.’

The Minute further noted that

‘The British members of the Combined Policy Committee called attention to the fact that this Policy will leave Great Britain without any reserves of supplies of this material for future use.’

The officials wrote from the British embassy in Washington

There is, we think, nothing sinister in the American attitude

but they admitted they could not ‘peg the point’ about the British position after the war.

In the event, the United States continued its wartime nuclear collaboration with Canada, securing its uranium supply. Archival files show that Britain tried to enter a bilateral relationship with Canada too but were cut out.

In August 1947 the widely circulated Australian news magazine Pix published a four page spread headed ‘Peace with the guns ready’, by its Foreign Editor Harry Nield. The article had photographs of the Mt Painter uranium mine of which ‘Famous nuclear physicist, Prof. Oliphant, said 1000 tons of uranium might be found here.’

A handwritten comment on drafts of a NOTE BY SECURITY SERVICE in the UK National Archives outlining the urgent need for an Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in May 1947 suggests that there should be reference

‘to the fact that a deposit of uranium has been discovered at Mount Painter which in size and grade may be the richest in the world. The significance of this discovery… is regarded as highly secret. References to the existence of uranium in this part of Australia have of course already been made, but no information has been disclosed as to the real size and grade of the deposits.’

The NOTE itself points out that

‘Under present conditions in Australia, the dangers of leakage of secret information (similar to the serious leakage which took place in Canada) are considerable and the reduction of such risks is not likely to be an easy problem. Any leakage in, for example, the field of long range weapons, might seriously affect future exchanges between ourselves and the United States of America.’

And so ASIO was formed, its Main Tasks being

‘To ensure that the secret scientific defence experiments being carried out in South Australia in co-operation with Britain, are screened from spies’


‘To prevent Communist infiltration of defence establishments.’

Formation of ASIO

Within three years of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while Mark Oliphant was still at Birmingham University, plans were being agreed to develop a British Hydrogen thermonuclear bomb and long range nuclear ballistic missiles in Australia, starting with the establishment of the Long Range Weapons Project (LRWP) at Woomera in 1947. The whole point of the British atomic and nuclear progamme in Australia was to resume the nuclear alliance with the United States. As well as achieving a thermonuclear weapon, the UK was acutely aware of the need demonstrate to the Americans that the host country for the developmental work on the H bomb, Australia, could in fact achieve defence security before any sharing of nuclear information with USA would resume.

There aree frequent references in memos from British intelligence officers to the ‘political uncertainties and intrigues’ as D.G.White put it in September 1946 while Prime Minister Chifley was being brought to understand the urgency without becoming aware that the Americans were the drivers.

For example,

‘Under present conditions in Australia, the dangers of leakage of secret information (similar to the serious leakage which took place in Canada) is not likely to be an easy problem. Any leakage in, for example, the field of long range weapons, might seriously affect future exchanges between ourselves [i.e. Britain] and the United States of America.’

It was pointed out that

‘The establishment of British Long Range Weapon Organisation Australia (L.R.W.O.A.) means that some of Britain’s most secret weapons will be sent to Australia for testing and experimental purposes. It is obviously of vital importance that the Security arrangements on which the secrecy of the development of the weapons depend should be of the highest order. The physical security of the range should be comparatively easy owing to their isolation, but the security of the research work, for which Australian scientists are already being recruited, and some of which may have to be carried out in cities such as Melbourne and Sydney, will be a very difficult matter.’

In discussing the ‘General Security Situation in Australia’ in the NOTE it is considered that ‘The main danger to security is, of course, through Soviet espionage, and the Australian Communist Party‘ with its 25,000 members and a strong influence in several unions. ‘They have also penetrated the Australian Society of Scientific Workers, from which they are trying to form a Scientific Trade Union.’ There was penetration of government departments, and Dr Evatt’s Sydney secretary was held to be a Communist sympathiser.

The official history of the Woomera Rocket Range reports that

‘On 1 July 1948 the Head of the Australian Military Mission in Washington was formally advised that Australia would receive no more classified information from the United States. Later the same month came confirmation that this edict also applied to information coming via another country, for the Director of the UK Signals Intelligence Centre had to advise Melbourne that it had been forbidden to pass on US secrets to which it was privy.’

In early October 1948 London was advised of a meeting with Sir Frederick Shedden, Secretary of the Department of Defence with Prime Minister Chifley who ‘is at last becoming aware of the seriousness of the Australian security situation‘ and was preparing to set up a special organisation under his personal control.

‘There was also, Sheddon [sic] told me, much talk about the withholding of technical intelligence from Australia because of the American suspicion. At this Chifley apparently blew up and stated that while he was prepared to deal with the security situation as he saw it, he would not tolerate U.S. censure any longer and went so far as to say that he would close the range down if he could not get assurances that all the technical information was available to Australia. He also indicated that if the “bloody” Americans would be any happier, they could have a “bloody” liaison officer with his new Security Service as well.’

At much the same time, Chifley wrote to Prime Minister Attlee that ‘I must bring to notice the serious repercussions of the stoppage of the flow of classified information on British Commonwealth and Australian Defence Policy‘ at a time when Britain was seeking a larger financial contribution from Australia as part of the joint ‘Empire Defence’ strategy.

It is, Chifley wrote,

‘an invidious position for a Government to be placed in, if the flow of information is to be arbitrarily stopped, as would appear to be the position at present. Furthermore, I do not see how the machinery that has been established for the development of planning in British Commonwealth Defence can possibly function without the fullest flow of information.’

He pointed out that

‘In regard to a leakage that is alleged to have arisen from Australia over two years ago, I would confidently assert that there has not been a country, and least of all the Great Powers, which has not had a similar experience of this nature. The records of espionage and counter-espionage confirm it. Even in the present instance, judging by press reports emanating from Washington, the Americans have not been able to safeguard the fact that they have stopped the flow of information to Australia. The Australian Government views this leakage with concern and embarrassment, in the absence of any official advice from the United States and United Kingdom Governments, and a statement of the reasons for the action.’

Chifley reminded Attlee that Australia still had forces in Japan supporting the American Occupation at considerable cost.

‘I therefore ask that it be put clearly to the U.S.A. that either the embargo be lifted as soon as possible, or that we should be informed of the reasons why this cannot be done, so that we will clearly know whether we should go on expending money, material and labour in connection with certain defence developments.’

British intelligence officers in Australia wrote frequently to their London colleagues about ‘the American bogey’ that was, in fact, inhibiting the progress towards a stronger Australian intelligence organisation. One warned of the ‘embarrassment’ that could be imminent:

‘The [British] Prime Minister will remember that the United States authorities have firmly refused to allow us to mention to the Australians that the United States were the discoverer of the existence of a spy-network in Australia. [emphasis added] If, therefore, the Americans should give the existence of this spy-network as the reason for their refusing to lift the embargo. Mr Chifley may receive the impression that we warned the Americans about Australian insecurity and were thus responsible for the embargo.’

Another October 1948 memo reported that

‘Apparently all the Ministers have offices in Parliament House, none of which are ever locked and it is the regular habit of most Ministers to leave their papers in these rooms overnight. In the same building, the representatives of the Australian press have their offices and work there all through the night. Burton told me that he went into Dr. Evatt’s room and emptied the drawers and his desk of Top Secret C.R.O. telegrams which must have been there for months unlocked!’

Attlee replied to Chifley in late October 1948 noting ‘that you are prepared to have an organisation similar to our M.I.5. attached to the Prime Minister’s Department.’ This was essential because, while

‘I understand and sympathise with your anxiety that the flow of classified information should be interrupted. I can assure you that the Government here is entirely at one with you in this. I do not, however, feel that we could make any effective approach from London to the United States Government until the measures outlined in your letter, and in particular the new Security Service with its responsibility for counter-espionage, are actually in being.’

London was also warned in November 1948 that

‘The American side of the case is beginning to assume greater importance, at least here in Australia… the Australians are really beginning to kick. The suspicion is growing that the Americans have more detailed knowledge of internal Australian affairs than they have any right to. Recently Dedman [Minister for Defence] approached the U.S. Ambassador here and pressed him pretty violently for a reversion of policy in the passing of classified information, or an explanation of the high-handed attitude of the U.S.’

In riposte the US Ambassador complained that ‘his Embassy is being watched and his telephones tapped. This is only a battle of the pygmies, but I hope it does not have any effect on Washington opinion to make it worse than it already is.’

London was also advised by this report that Chifley was instituting a receipt system for the handling of Top Secret U.K. documents and this was giving rise to ‘an ecstatic period of polemics as to the relative merits‘ of which sort of receipt should be used – those with a butt to be left in the receipt book, or loose receipts to be enclosed with the document. (This problem of Parliament House security was to recur, most recently in January 2018.)

Chifley sent Dr Evatt and Sir Frederick Shedden to Washington to meet with President Truman. Roger H. Hollis (who became Director of MI5 in 1956 and was later suspected by some of being a spy for the Soviet Union himself) wrote to London about the politics surrounding the proposal to put the new intelligence service under the ministerial control of Dr Evatt. ‘If we knew that Evatt was a Russian spy we should be justified in intervening. But we neither know it nor believe it.’ In another memo of February 1948 Hollis reported that in Washington there was a general distrust of Australian politicians, and an outstanding distrust of Dr. Evatt.’

ASIO was formed in March 1949 just as Mark Oliphant was about to announce his return to Australia.

Oliphant’s Return to Australia

In August 1947 the widely circulated Australian news magazine Pix published a four page spread headed ‘Peace with the guns ready’ prepared by its Foreign Editor Harry Nield.

There was a map that ‘shows that each of the Powers is aiming at distant defence. Each of the Powers controls territory so widespread, that none can tell from which direction attack might come, so all are forced to build costly defence arcs that leave no chinks in their geographical armour.’

Neild explained: ‘Distant defence serves a double purpose. It begins by preventing an attacker reaching the homeland [of the Powers] and ends as serving as a springboard to carry the attack into the enemy’s homeland.’

This, he pointed out

‘is why Australia is inextricably involved in the war plans of the world, though more distant from possible trouble centres than any other part of the world. In the Pacific war Australia became an American base from which Japan was finally defeated. It will always be a US base in any war in which both countries are involved and therefore will always be subject to attack by an enemy in a world war.’

The ‘defence arcs’ over Australia were both British – the Forward Defence Policy as it came to be called – and American, the Extended Nuclear Deterrence (END) of the last sixty years.

The article had photographs of the Mt Painter uranium mine of which ‘Famous nuclear physicist, Prof. Oliphant, said 1000 tons of uranium might be found here‘ and of the Woomera Rocket Range being built in South Australia.

A month after ASIO was established in March 1949 it was announced that Mark Oliphant would return to Australia in 1951 as Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences at the new Australian National University (ANU). He insisted ‘I would emphasise that there will not be any secret work carried out unless war, or the imminent threat of war, should make it necessary to mobilise the scientific facilities of the country.’

But he also said

‘If, and when, work in atomic energy commences in Australia, research workers in the National University will help in every way they can, short of undertaking secret work within the laboratory itself.’

The official history of Australian National University reports a meeting between Prime Minister Chifley and Oliphant in London in 1946. ‘Chifley, already immersed in discussions at the Prime Ministers’ Conference about defence strategies and the impact of the atomic bomb‘ was ‘responsive’ to Oliphant who

‘was at his spellbinding best, conveying the excitement of his research on the Manhattan Project, speculating on a world dominated by atomic energy, and imagining Australia at the forefront of nuclear research. “The impact on Chifley”, H.C. Coombs later wrote, “was tremendous.” ‘

Australia would participate in a Joint Project with Britain to develop its industrial and medical nuclear capacity – and, if Prime Minister Chifley and Professor Oliphant had their way, an independent Australian nuclear deterrent.

Chifley told the first post-war conference of prime ministers of the British Commonwealth that ‘Australia now wished to build up her own defence industry‘ that

‘would increase the capacity of Australia to defend itself with the latest weapons, which is important in view of our small manpower and large territory. It would strengthen the security of the British Commonwealth by providing for the dispersal of these resources.’

According to draft material written in London in 1982 for what eventually became the official history of Woomera in 1989:

‘One should not interpret Chifley’s quick acquiescence as simply answering a call from the Mother Country for continued help in the defence of the Empire. The Labor Government had been in power in Australia since the early years of World War II. Its leaders were acutely aware that in 1943 Australia had asked for supplied of British armaments for use in the Pacific war but had been denied them because Britain needed them in Europe. Chifley was thus very interested in the possibility of Australia manufacturing the new guided missiles for her own defence in any future war.’ [emphasis added]

The proposals ‘might lead to Australia becoming the arsenal for the whole Empire‘ – increasing immigration, new industries, scientific research and boosting the economy. ‘Australia clearly stood to benefit provided there was an acceptable agreement on how the control, work, costs and information were to be shared.’

In February 1949, the Australian press reported proposals for a ‘Vast Atomic Project for the British Empire’ that would ‘stretch from Woomera to the mammoth Snowy River defence and irrigation scheme.’

The London Recorder commented in July 1949 that

‘If power politics are to move to South-East Asia and beyond, as many indications in the world situation suggest, Britain will not lack resources there. Both short-term and long-term arrangements are in hand to make of Australia an arsenal of Empire.’

Two months later Chapman Pincer predicted in the Daily Express that ‘Atom weapons to be made in Britain will probably be test-fired in Australia.’ He quoted Oliphant as saying that atomic weapons could be produced in Australia, although shortage of high grade uranium ore would be a handicap.

On arrival at the ANU in August 1950 Oliphant was more equivocal about the role of his research laboratory – ‘The school would be purely for academic research, although members might be called upon to undertake secret work on defence outside of their university duties.’

In March 1951 he warned

‘The United States and United Kingdom are developing weapons designed for their own defence. They may not suit Australia’s needs if she has to defend herself. We must develop our own methods of defence and build for ourselves.’

In July 1951, Oliphant’s former graduate student Eric Burhop, an Australian who had accompanied him to Berkeley, was forbidden to leave Britain to travel to the Soviet Union. Oliphant said ‘If Dr. Eric Burhop has elected to announce himself as a Communist, he should elect to take the consequences in such times as these.’

In late 1951 Oliphant himself was not given a visa to visit USA to attend a nuclear physics conference in Chicago. The next month, he was reported as worrying that Australia would be strategically “expendable” in the event of war.’

In February 1952 there was continued press speculation about ‘Britain’s new secret weapon’ and reports that

‘It seems certain that the test will take place in the vicinity of the Woomera Rocket Range, 350 miles north-west of Adelaide, and that it may involve a special type small atomic weapon,’

noting also that

‘Australia’s top nuclear physicist, Professor Marcus Oliphant, is expected to play an important part in the tests. Professor Oliphant said to-night: ‘I am sorry I cannot say anything about this. I am tangled up in it.’ [emphasis added]

The ASIO file record of the Sydney Morning Herald version has Oliphant saying

‘For obvious reasons I cannot comment’

and notes that

‘Such a statement would indicate to any foreign intelligence agency that Professor OLIPHANT is associated with the testing of atomic weapons in Australia… They could perhaps target the School of Physical Sciences at the Australian National University as a likely source for further information.’

The Argus report noted that

‘a doubt exists over the possibility of American scientists visiting the site. America’s refusal to share fully atom secrets with Britain and the recent exclusion of Professor Oliphant from America, may influence the decision, though it is unlikely that either Britain or Australia would wish take any action that would offend the U.S.’

In the event the USA aircraft took cloud samples from the British tests in Australia and the UK had to negotiate for access to them. The USA refused to reciprocate with samples from its tests in the Pacific.

Security Concerns about the ‘Oliphant Group’

Six months after the detonation of the first Soviet nuclear bomb in August 1949, Klaus Fuchs was convicted in Britain of systematically passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union since he had been recruited by Pierels and Oliphant to join them at the University of Birmingham in 1941. Naturalised as a British citizen in 1942, Fuchs was one of the British Tube Alloys group who went to the USA, working in New York and Los Alamos. He was almost the last of the British scientists to return to Britain, and was present for the two American Operation Crossroads tests in the Pacific. In August 1946 he became head of Theoretical Physics at Harwell, at the heart of the post-war British atomic programme.

When the atomic establishment in Britain became aware of Fuchs’ feeding of information from both the US and the UK programmes to the USSR, their first response was to accept that he couldn’t remain at Harwell and they started to look for a university post for him. Mark Oliphant was about to return to Australia and it was suggested that he might be able to place Fuchs at Adelaide University. This did not come to pass as Fuchs was quickly prosecuted and after a 90 minute trial was sentenced to the maximum sentence – fourteen years, of which he served nine – for violations of the Official Secrets Act. He couldn’t be charged with treason because Russia was Britain’s ally for most of the years he had passed information.

According to the official MI5 website

‘Fuchs later stated that he had been motivated by a belief that the Soviets had a right to know about the atomic bomb project. Dick White, who became Director General of MI5 in the 1950s, contrasted Fuchs’ motives with the desire for money that motivated many other spies and concluded that his motives “were relatively speaking pure. A scientist who got cross at the Anglo-American ploy in withholding vital information from an ally fighting a common enemy.” ‘

The MI5 website also states that

‘When combined with information from other sources, this helped the Russians to make rapid progress in developing what was effectively a copy of the American atomic bomb design.’

Fuchs confessed in London in late January 1950. Within days a telephone tap was put on Dr Eric Burhop, the Australian scientist teaching at University College London. The warrant for the tap stated ‘It is desired for a temporary purpose* to investigate his activities and contacts more closely.’

A handwritten annotation states *The Fuchs Case.

Eric Burhop was a Tasmanian who had scholarshipped his way to the University of Melbourne and then on to Rutherford’s Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, where Oliphant supervised his doctorate. He returned to teach at Melbourne in 1936.

In 1941 he was asked to give a talk at the Army camp at Seymour and, somewhat surprisingly, offered one on Splitting the Atom. But when he got to the camp, there were no working projector lanterns available. Saying that trying to give his talk without his images would be like offering Hamlet without the prince, he offered to talk on his visit to Russia in the 1930s and this was agreed. However the officers present took umbrage at his enthusiasm for many aspects of Soviet life.

His talk was definitely not suitable for troops undergoing compulsory training‘, especially in regard to freedom of speech as Burhop reported it to be in the Soviet Union, wrote Captain Richardson in a memo that found its way into Burhop’s ASIO file. The next morning there were fisticuffs among the men over breakfast and Burhop left precipitately.

In a file created by British security on Burhop now in the UK National Archives there is a Secret telegram sent from London to Canberra in May 1944 stating

‘Doctor E. Burhop, Lecturer Melbourne University Age approximately 33 nationality unknown believed left Australia for U.S. A. recently for work highest national importance stop our record indicate membership F.S.U. [Friends of the Soviet Union] stop anxious earliest confirmation and any information of security interest.’

Burhop’s ASIO file has a report dated 25 May 1944 from the Commonwealth Security Service (Victoria):

‘V. Stooke interviewed the Registrar of the Melbourne University, Mr FOSTER… Asked for his opinion as to Subject’s loyalty, Mr FOSTER stated that he knew BURHOP well, and although somewhat “pink”, he was intensely loyal, as evidenced by the energy which he applied to his researches, which, when associated with the other scientists at Berkeley, may quite likely, Mr FOSTER believes, considerably shorten the duration of the war.’ [Emphasis added] Foster thought him to be a socialist rather than a Communist ‘and in any case, very definitely anti-Nazi.’

On 30 May 1944 a telegram was sent from the London office of Tube Alloys to the head of the British Scientific Central Office in Washington assuring him that ‘As result of enquiries in Australia, U.K. Security report that Burhop is believed to be completely loyal.’

His membership of Communist front organisations ‘happened long before the war and there is no recent information of any activities in this direction on his part.’

It was left to the discretion of Chadwick ‘whether to disclose to Groves.’ A June 1944 a letter from the Department of Scientific and Industrial research in London (recipient not clear) states ‘as for BURHOP, I have left it to the discretion of Professor Chadwick at the other side whether he should inform the Americans about BURHOP’s “misdemeanours” many years ago.’

There is a 1945 REPORT FROM “CLAUDE” ON THE AUSTRALIAN SCIENTIST ERIC BURHOP in the Venona files on Russian spy activity in Australia in the UK National Archives that states ‘On an assignment of the Party, he conducted great [1 word unrecovered] amongst scientific workers’ since 1937‘ but the Canberra–based writer has no address for him since he left for America.

ASIO’s Director was advised on 14 October 1946:

‘Reported in Daily Telegraph 12 Oct 1946 that Oliphant, [Harrie] Massey and Burhop all Australian-born scientists at present in England, have expressed their dislike of certain aspects of the Atomic Energy Bill which was put through the House of Commons on 11th October, 1946.

Professor OLIPHANT is reported to have said that he felt so strongly about the matter that he may be forced to make a public demonstration of his feelings. According to reports, OLIPHANT was largely instrumental in having BURHOP included amongst the scientists engaged in special wartime projects. BURHOP is suspected a Communist.’

The next paragraph is redacted in heavy black ink.

An Atomic Scientists Association (ASA) was being formed in Birmingham, though both Burhop and Massey worked at University College London. On 12 June 1946 a memo to Director Attorney General’s Department, Investigation Branch from Deputy Director Sydney, headed Dr E.H. S. Burhop forming of ASA in Birmingham stated:

‘You will recall that Dr Nunn-May, an English Scientist (sic) [in text] working on a secret project in America during the War (sic) [in text] (presumably in a similar capacity to Burhop) was later sentenced to ten years imprisonment for giving information to Russia. There is a campaign commencing in Sydney at the present time for the lifting of secrecy restrictions and the release of Nunn-May and the evidence suggests that this campaign is directed by the Australian Communist Party.’

In June 1946 the Attorney General’s Department Investigation Branch Sydney wrote to the Director, Canberra A.C.T. that it had been reported in the London Daily Mirror that Dr Burhop was Secretary ‘of a group now being formed in Birmingham, England, named Atomic Scientists Association which, the article infers, will in due course “demand” the lifting of the secrecy provisions in respect of the development of atomic energy.’

The Sydney office advised that

‘This man was reported here to be either a member of the Communist Party or a sympathiser who had worked for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research from 1942 to 1944. Then as a result of representations made by Professor Oliphant, he proceeded to America under the British Department of Research on “most secret” work at Berkeley.’

Burhop resigned from his post at Melbourne University to take up an appointment in England at the end of 1945. Dr Burhop had been associated with the League for Peace and Democracy and the Australia-Soviet Friendship Association in Victoria in 1939 through to 1941 and was active in the Australian Association of Scientific Workers.

Five years later, on 1 May 1951 a TOP SECRET memo stated ‘We have received from the F.B.I. a report which they think is reliable‘ reporting that

‘As late as 1945 an Australian atomic scientist, who worked on an Atomic Energy project was in close touch with Communist Party members in Brooklyn, New York, and through them with the highest Communist officials in the United States. This Australian atomic scientist passed on everything he knew about our Atomic Energy Programme, including “the setup in New Mexico”. The Australian scientist is no longer in the United States. He was in this country in 1943, 1944 and 1945.’

The memo identified Burhop as ‘the most probable suspect in the investigations which we now propose to make‘ and asked the recipient to consult with ASIO about any information held on him.

On 3 May 1951 a Top Secret memo stated that ‘the real leader of the “progressive” element’ at UCL [University College London] is ‘a comparatively unknown man called E.H.S.BURHOP ‘ who’ has not an original mind’ but ‘is acquainted with practically everyone in Britain who is engaged on atomic research and similar subjects. There can be little doubt that he is a crypto-Communist.’ The memo states that ‘BURHOP has been careless on one or two occasions, and subsequently he was warned… and told to deny his political interests rather than get himself into trouble.’

A TOP SECRET memo originating in Washington on May 15, 1951 enquired ‘if anything was said to General Groves about BURHOP‘ but there was no firm evidence that the ‘telegram which was sent from Tube Alloys to the Head of B.C.S.O [British Central Scientific Office in Washington]’ was seen by Groves or any of his colleagues, although they may have been warned informally.

On 23 May 1951 a UK memo stated that since he took up a lectureship at UCL after the war ‘it has become clear that BURHOP is a thorough-going Communist.’ He was subscribing to the funds of the Party branch at Surbiton ‘but is not thought to hold a Party Card.’ He was a member of the Association of Scientific Workers and participated in the activities of the British Soviet Friendship Society.

”We have recently been informed that a scientist whose description appears to fit BURHOP and who was employed on the Atomic Energy project in 1944 and 1945 in the United States, passed information about this project to members of the Communist Party in New York. Although BURHOP no longer has access to classified information it is possible that he is in touch with persons who have such access. We are therefore investigating him as closely as possible to determine who his contacts are and what his present activities amount to.’

In July 1951 Sir Roger Makins, UK Deputy Under-Secretary of State, was informed ‘we are taking steps to intensify our investigation of Dr Burhop’s activities.’ Burhop was intending to travel to Moscow on a British passport on 22 July. Although ‘we had no knowledge of any classified information he might have acquired at Berkeley‘, Lord Portal, head of atomic research at Harwell, was ‘strongly of the opinion’ that whatever the risk of Burhop passing classified information to the Russians, his visit to Moscow would create an unfavourable impression in the U.S.A. He ‘asks whether any action could be taken by way of any legal means to event (sic) Burhop from going to Russia.’

In the event the passports of Eric Burhop and all but six of the nineteen scientists who were planning to travel to the Soviet Union were withdrawn by the Home Office. In September 1951 Mark Oliphant, by now in Australia, failed to get a US visa to attend a nuclear physics conference in Chicago.

In November 1951 Burhop was seeking permission to visit colleagues at Harwell about unclassified particle work. A memo in the UK National Archives dated 29 November 1951 advises that

‘the only danger which I could see was that BURHOP might try to make political capital if he were admitted to Harwell after having his passport withdrawn for security reasons in July this year. His argument might well be that the Government on the one hand refuses him permission to leave the country and on the other allows him to visit a Top Secret Atomic research Centre. Arnold replied that though this might be so, it was official policy to admit many kinds of persons under proper supervision and that a number of Soviet press representatives had been over Harwell in the past.’

A year later Burhop won a libel action against the Daily Telegraph for suggesting that he was planning to disappear into the Soviet Union and disclose atomic and nuclear research information. His passport was restored.

Nevertheless, the Legal Attache of the Foreign Service of the United States of America in London wrote in a memo dated December 4, 1951: ‘In view of the derogatory information developed to date‘ concerning Marcus Oliphant, Harrie Massey and Maurice Wilkins, ‘these three individuals, together with BURHOP, appear to be the most likely suspects in this [the allegation that an Australian scientist had passed information to the Russians in New York in the mid 1940s] case. ‘

There are three ASIO files relating to Mark Oliphant available online from the National Archives of Australia. Two of the files consist of press cuttings and informants’ reports of meetings addressed by Oliphant. A 25 January 1947 Sydney Morning Herald accout of his visit to the Mt Painter area of South Australia reported that

‘Professor Oliphant commented that indications were such that “it would be a bold man who would deny the probability that some hundreds of thousands of tons of materials exist from which quantities of uranium approaching a thousand tons might be obtained.’

Four days later an unidentified newspaper reported Oliphant worrying that ‘Without Freedom Science Might Perish’ because ‘Academic laboratories are accepting money from Government departments under conditions which often impose restrictions on free publication or discussion of the results obtained.’

Oliphant declared that

‘This insidious growth of secrecy in pure science is a cancer which will kill it at the root unless drastic steps are taken to eliminate it at once.’ He insisted that ‘No secret work whatever should be allowed in academic research laboratories and no restrictions should be placed on the free movement of fundamental information between countries or between scientists within a country.’

The Bulletin of 29 January, 1947 reported a public lecture Oliphant gave at Melbourne University in which he said ‘that the bomb that fell on Hiroshima was a baby compared to the ones the scientists have up their sleeves at the present moment.’ The reporter commented that

‘just when the audience was getting bemused with the enormity of the figures the professor brought it up against the grim realities of his subject by remarking that if he added another letter or figure to the formula he was chalking on the blackboard he would land himself in jail.’

There was concern reported in the ASIO files that Oliphant was being ‘baited’ by being asked questions at his speaking engagements, the answers to which would aid and abet other aspirant nuclear powers by giving helpful information techniques that were proving successful in the British project. But the file also contains a clipping from the Sydney Morning Herald of 30 January 1947 reporting from Washington that the Chairman Designate of the US Atomic Energy Commission had said that

‘scientists had been responsible for many serious breaches of atomic secrecy… [he] wanted secret Senate hearings regarding bomb espionage by foreign agents in the United States but ‘he said that most of the leakages came from scientific publications open to public scrutiny.’


‘The worst violation occurred in a Government report [the Smyth Report linked above] released shortly after the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, in which four ways of splitting the atom were described.’

There were concerns about Oliphant’s willingness to speak at ‘communist front’ organisations and conferences as well as church and school groups on his hopes for international control of nuclear weapons even if that meant their proliferation. He argued for their banning, and when he recognised that would be unlikely to happen, the banning of war. He was considered indiscreet, irresponsible and injudicious in some of his statements and lacking in a sense of security or awareness of the possibility that he was being provoked into public statements that could help countries such as the Soviet Union confirm advances that were being made as weapons design moved from atomic to nuclear.

It was also pointed out in the ASIO files that he had recruited a dozen of his former Birmingham University employees to the ANU. The line wasn’t however explicitly drawn to the activities that had taken place at Birmingham, from the role of Fuchs to the formation of the Association of Scientific Workers. Although reports were submitted from Tasmania and New South Wales suggesting that Oliphant was a Communist or at least a fellow traveller, ASIO’s Director Colonel Spry firmly overrode them.

In early 1952 it was reported that Oliphant was angling to return to Birmingham. A report based on information from one of his ANU colleagues in the ASIO file says that he was very upset about the US failure to provide a visa to go to the physics conference in Chicago and no-one would give him any explanation for it. He was losing authority as Head of School because ‘He gets all steamed up about something and then forgets all about it. Before he used to get things done and never rest until he got what he wanted, but now he has lost his fire.’ He was regarded as ‘a solid slugging type‘ who built the machines that the new nuclear physics needed, although he wasn’t making way with the cyclotron he said he would build at the ANU.

The report says he had been persuaded to return to Australia ‘because England was vulnerable and he saw Australia as a vast shadow factory. Source thinks that OLIPHANT genuinely subscribed to that view.’ But Chifley was no longer in power and he was losing traction.

‘OLIPHANT has a great love for Australia and believes she should be building up her defences now. He cannot understand why he has not been asked to advise on defence.’

In March 1952 the Adelaide Advertiser reported on its front page that Oliphant had said at a public lecture at Sydney University that “if Australia had atomic weapons invasion would be absolutely impossible.”

Australia’s Role in Making the British H bomb

The British had promised not to detonate a thermonuclear, hydrogen bomb in Australia. But the component parts were brought from the UK and tested in Australia before the first H bomb was dropped off Malden Island in the Pacific in May 1957.

The official history of the Woomera Rocket Range – Fire Across the Desert – was drafted over thirteen years before it was published by the Australian Department of Defence in 1989. Drafts written in London and now in the UK National Archives state that Chifley was advised regarding the Guided Projectiles project that

‘It has been accepted in the United Kingdom that within a period of a few years there will inevitably be almost complete transfer to Australia of research and development associated with this project. This ultimate transfer will without question put Australia in the very forefront of the most modern developments in Defence Science.’

The British official in charge of negotiating with Australia advised in January 1947 (when Oliphant was in Australia) that

‘My impression is that there is no opposition at all in Australia to the Guided Weapons Project on the grounds of war-mongering, but there is serious opposition being engineered, which is assuming larger proportions every day, on the grounds of interference with the aborigines. So that anything you can do to persuade Rivett [Chairman of the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research – CSIR] and Oliphant to back us up in this direction will be of value. ‘

The official Department of Defence history states that while no live nuclear warheads were tested on the Woomera Rocket range ‘some were ballistic dummies of bombs intended to carry British nuclear warheads.’

Elsewhere it is reported that ‘From a Valiant was dropped an atom bomb at Maralinga on 1 October 1956 and the first thermonuclear device over Malden Island in the Pacific seven months later…’ In November 1956 a bomb dropped by a Valiant aircraft ‘was in fact a dummy of Britain’s most powerful megaton size bomb. ‘

The official history elaborates:

‘The atomic tests were not conducted under the joint project but under a separate agreement. The distinction, especially before the foundation of the Maralinga permanent test range, [in 1956] was in practice a hazy one. Working time then was not so closely accounted for as it was later, so much unrecorded joint project effort flowed into the tests, including the use of some facilities and staff at Woomera and Salisbury.’

The official history also states that the Australian Government accepted ‘the onerous task’ of hosting the long range guided weapons tests and the bomb tests in order to attract scientific expertise to Australia and to share in building up British Commonwealth defence.

‘And finally, extraordinary though it may seem, the third answer [to why Menzies agreed] was that Australia might wish to arm itself with Blue Streak or its successors. This last idea was floated in March 1956, when Butement [Chief Scientist in the Defence Scientific Service of the Australian Department of Supply and Development] was asked to write a brief for the Minister for Supply… In the brief Butement offered some interesting personal opinions on what the introduction of the new deterrent weapons would mean for the British Commonwealth as a whole and Australia in particular.’

According to a footnote this brief is still classified, though not apparently to the official historian.

Chapman Pincher wrote in the Daily Express 1956 that

The rocket range at Woomera, in the Australian desert, is costing £10,000,000 a year and only about £1,000,000 of useful work is coming out of it.

And the Range’s official history states

‘Even Australia’s hosting of the atomic bomb tests made more sense [than the Woomera Rocket Range]… For in the early 1950s [emphasis added] it was not impossible that the country might one day wish to possess nuclear bombs, which it had the resources and the technical competence to manufacture, and for which it could have produced or bought the delivery aircraft.’

Drafts emanating from London in 1981 and 1982 for the official history of the Guided Weapons Project at Woomera include the statement (some words have been struck through):

‘The development of a UK nuclear counter strike capability had always been programmed to follow the build-up of a GW [Guided Weapons] defence as soon as the techniques became available. One arm of this strike forced was provided by the Canberra and V bomber fleets armed with nuclear bombs. And The Joint Project itself was not closely concerned with these developments. However Nevertheless, a parallel [emphasis added] Anglo Australian arrangement concerning the testing of nuclear warheads [emphasis added] culminated in the highly important series of tests at Montebello (sic) and Maralinga. These trials proved the design of the warheads to be used in the bomber fleets and in Blue Steel and Blue Streak and stretched from 1952 to 1957.’

British Minister for Supply Duncan Sandys told the House of Commons on 31 July 1953 that ‘we were going ahead with the development of atomic weapons to meet various service requirements… The proving grounds for these atomic weapons trials is now being prepared on the Woomera Rocket Range. The trials will be conducted by Sir William Penney…’

The Manchester Guardian of 5 October 1953 published an article headed Marriage of Plutonium with the Jindivik? Effect of Atomic Tests on guided Missile Research suggesting that

‘The more imaginative Australians may hazard guesses that the coming atomic tests mark an important stage towards the marriage of plutonium with Jindivik [the first guided rocket developed at Woomera], and that Jindivik’s progeny will be a more fateful weapon than any stockpile of atomic bombs.’

That is to say, ballistic nuclear missiles and the H bomb were developed in Australia in the 1950s and indeed into the 1960s.

In August 1953 Oliphant wrote to his friend and colleague Egon Brescher in England asking ‘Is there any chance that you come out for any of the tests on the Woomera range? It would be great to see you here.’

The Argus wrote of the first Totem detonation in mid October 1953 that ‘The bomb was the shape and size that the RAAF could hoist into into bomb racks tomorrow.’

There are frequent references in the press to an atomic pile being built near Whyalla, close to Woomera and Maralinga that could be the engine of industrial development in South Australia.

The official History of British Atomic Tests in Australia, published by the Australian. Department of Resources and Energy in 1985 states that by the time the Maralinga test site became operational in 1956

‘a decision had been taken to look into the possibility of making thermonuclear systems… If the UK was to proceed with the development of thermonuclear weapons by about 1957, data were required for design purposes and these could only be obtained in a real weapon test.’

The 1956 detonations at the Monte Bellos and Maralinga ‘could be something approaching an H-bomb.’

Since 1953 at least there had been trials on the Australian mainland of ‘trigger’ devices for nuclear weapons in preparation for the UK thermonuclear H-bomb detonated off Christmas Island in May 1957. The initiator and other developmental trials for the H-bomb resulted in extensive radioactive contamination of the test site, particularly with plutonium and cobalt.

After he failed to get an American visa to a nuclear conference in Chicago in 1951, Professor Oliphant was never allowed to participate in the development tests for the British ‘military weapon of great power’ that he had been working for over the previous decade, a fact which surprised even the official British historian of the Australian test programme, Lorna Arnold.

The Australian government eventually required the formation of an Atomic Weapons Test Safety Committee in 1955. Its most forceful member was Professor Ernest Titterton, an Englishman who had been supervised for his doctorate at Birmingham University by Oliphant and then recruited by him to the Manhattan Project. Titterton was the last of the British scientists to return to Britain, having been present at the two American Operation Crossroads tests at Bikini in the Pacific and indeed conducted the countdown

Titterton requested funding for a cocktail party on his departure from Los Alamos in March 1947 which was supported by a memo from the Director of the UK Scientific Mission in Washington DC stating ‘Titterton has held a key position in Los Alamos for some years and he is the last British representative to leave the Laboratory. Very much depends on the continuation of good relations on this subject and we hope that live liaison will be re-established before long.’ And a cocktail party would not harm these prospects.

Oliphant recruited Titterton to become the foundation professor of nuclear physics at the nascent ANU. Titterton, unlike many others Oliphant approached to come to Canberra, accepted after a period at Harwell although he had other offers, including, according to his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), strong encouragement to remain in the USA. He arrived in Canberra in August 1951.

In September 1952 there was correspondence between the UK High Commissioner in Australia and the Commonwealth Relations Office in London reporting that Titterton had enquired if he would be paid an honorarium for his attendance at the Hurricane test at Monte Bello the next month. The initial request stated that the writer

‘was unaware whether Titterton had received special payments in connection with his previous services. He emphasised that he was not raising the question of who should pay honorarium and indeed that he saw possible advantages of payment to Titterton from Australian funds in order to emphasise participation of Australian scientists in test.’

The reply from London said

‘If “previous services” refers to Titterton’s attendance at Bikini we would regard circumstances as quite different and affording no precedent. His position in Hurricane test seems to be unique in that he is only non-Government employee taking part. We see no objection to payment os (sic) suitable honorarium and for reason given … there might be advantage in payment from Australian funds.’

The official Australian historian of the British atomic tests states that at the 1953 Totem tests ‘Titterton certainly made measurements of the neutron flux emitted by the devices, on behalf of AWRE’ [the UK Atomic Weapons Research Establishment.] [Emphasis added.]

He outlines Titterton’s special relationship with AWRE, travelling from Australia to Harwell and receiving information that he would not share with the rest of the Safety Committee. For instance, during the Vixen B trials in 1960

UK authorities had difficulty in releasing certain aspects of the reports they prepared because of the presence of US material in the document. They did provide copy for the personal use of the AWTSC chairman

– Ernest Titterton.

The Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia in 1985 was scathingly critical of Titterton as serving the interests of the UK rather than Australia in his role as member and then Chair of the Safety Committee. American security concerns had effectively nobbled Oliphant allowing Titterton to run the inaptly named Atomic Weapons Safety Committee, thereby leaving the Australian government and population poorly protected as Britain rushed to build its H bomb before atmospheric testing was limited or banned because of the dangers of radioactive fallout over mainland Australia.

Why Didn’t Oliphant Speak Out about Fallout Hazards?

Oliphant had been fully aware of the perils of deploying atomic and then nuclear bombs from 1940 when he forwarded the Frisch-Peirels Memorandum warning that

‘Owing to the spreading of radioactive substances with the wind, the bomb probably could not be used without killing large numbers of civilians, and this may make it unsuitable as a weapon for use by this country.’

Oliphant wrote in his cover letter ‘I feel that immediate steps should be taken to consult with the necessary authorities concerning the possibilities of palliative measures if such a bomb should be used‘ by ‘the other side.’

In a September 1956 letter to Hedley Marston as the British tests continued at Maralinga despite mounting evidence of contamination downwind to Adelaide and further east to Melbourne where the 1956 Olympic Games were due to open in a few weeks’ time Oliphant claimed he ‘had dropped right out of the military business when I came back to Australia.’

He recalled that from 1943 ‘it was clear that fission products would be a very great hazard if we ever succeeded in obtaining chain reactions of military significance‘ and that he had got into trouble at Berkeley when he sent this information to Chadwick in Washington. In 1946 he gave Dr Evatt as Chairman of the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission calculations for radiation fallout hazards deduced from published data and ‘the U.S. boys… persisted in the accusation that I had revealed secret information without authority! The hangover of this situation has taken 10 years to clear up.’

So, Oliphant insisted

‘I cut myself off from all military science. If I am asked a question I will answer, but I will not work [emphasis in original] on such things… Hence I will comment publicly on the basis of published, non-secret information. According to such information [emphasis in original] the tests in Australia are perfectly safe.

He had, for instance, been quoted on June 21, 1956 in the Melbourne Herald saying that it

‘was 100 to one against the cloud [reported off the Western Australian coast from the second Mosaic detonation at the Monte Bellos two days earlier] being dangerous, but he had no way of knowing how radioactive it was.’

In fact the Mosaic tests in May and June 1956 were, according to Arnold, the official British historian, ‘The first step to the H bomb‘ . And the development tests went on in Australia for nearly another year until the detonation off Malden Island in May 1957 of Britain’s H bomb with refining trials for triggers and initiators until 1960. Notwithstanding the November 1956 Olympic Games.

Oliphant never spoke out against the fallout etc of the British tests in Australia. He told me in 1993 ‘Menzies was glad to comply [with the testing]. I think at the time it was the right thing to do, it was impossible to leave the only nuclear weapons in the world in the hands of USA and USSR. It was an unstable situation that could not be allowed to go on.’

But were they safe? I asked. He said

‘The Brits thought they could ensure any fallout or contamination was not too big. They were very pig headed about it. The people in control were very haphazard about the estimates.’

So why didn’t he, Australia’s premier atomic scientist, speak out about the hazards? He replied ‘People seemed to have great faith in it. People whom I respected so I accepted it.’

And now, decades later, why didn’t he speak out about the residual radioactive contamination at Monte Bello, Maralinga and Emu Field, even when he was Governor of South Australia? He said

‘You can really decontaminate Maralinga by leaving it alone. Plutonium alpha particles contamination I think is grossly overplayed. The Aborigines are using it to the full. At the same time it was very naughty of the British to leave it and to think of spreading it that way in the first place was very nasty. The British people were very reticent about revealing contamination especially regarding food contamination. They hugged that to their chests very closely.’

The End of Australia’s Dream of an Independent Nuclear Deterrent

In late January 1958, the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Australia arrived in Sydney. Britain’s detonation of a hydrogen bomb in May 1957 and opened the way to renewed collaboration with the United States after a decade of exclusion from the former partnership.

Harold Macmillan’s message to the Australian Cabinet was that Australia would not be getting its own tactical nuclear deterrent despite permitting ballistic missile tests at Woomera Rocket Range since 1946 and nuclear bomb development tests right up to the eve of the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 that continued as ‘minor’ (but very toxic) trials of plutonium triggers and initiators into the early 1960s.

The briefing book for the visit now in the UK National Archives has the prepared answers for questions Macmillan could expect. Did he fear Australia might turn to the United States?

‘I do not fear a close association between Australia and the United States. Indeed, I welcome it – just as I welcome the close and intimate relations between our own country and the United States.’

He thought Australia had ‘vast potentialities’ and its stage of development ‘Comparable with pioneering days in North American in 19th century.’

Asked ‘Did you discuss the supply of atomic weapons to Australia?’ he replied

‘perhaps the most pressing aspect of the defence of this area… is to ensure that the free world has conventional forces on the spot deployed so as to discourage, and if necessary prevent, communist infiltration into the independent countries of South East Asia.’


‘it would be useful if discussions could be held… about the possibility of equipping Australian facilities (airports, bombers, etc.) in this area in such a way that that they could, if the need arose, use atomic weapons provided either by the United Kingdom or the United States.’

In other words, the UK was offering the USA the use of Australia as a forward post for its Extended Nuclear Deterrent just as it had used it for its own Forward Defence.

Thirty years later, in January 1989, the Canberra Times reported the release of secret Australian Cabinet papers of the discussions between Menzies and Macmillan. Menzies told his counterpart that ‘it may be possible for Australia to develop a nuclear capacity, and that there may be internal pressures in that direction.’

Macmillan replied that ‘the United States Government strongly desired that no further power should develop the capacity to develop nuclear weapons and that Britain shared that view‘ because he ‘hoped that Britain would be given the ‘key to the cupboard’ in military planning against possible atomic war in South-east Asia or the Pacific.’

The other major advocate of an Australian nuclear deterrent was the Royal Australian Air Force. In a study published by the Australian Government Printing Office in 1992, Alan Stephens, an RAAF Reserve officer, analysed the ‘vigorous campaign for an Australian nuclear force base on the manned bomber‘ to enhance the long-term security of a ‘small isolated Australia against the massive manpower of potential enemies in Asia and South-East Asia‘ especially if the northern hemisphere players were unable to come to Australia’s assistance.

On the subject of Anglo-American relations and interdependence, Macmillan’s 1958 briefing notes say

‘As regards nuclear questions, the United Kingdom has learned a good deal from her atomic and hydrogen bomb tests and as a result is now back on a basis of equal partnership with the United States.’

But the next line of the typescript is crossed out –

In this respect the United Kingdom regards herself as a trustee for the rest of the Commonwealth.’

Macmillan also warned that in the event of a nuclear war ‘Our experts’ view is that armed forces everywhere will have to fight the war with what they have when it begins.’

Pressed on the possibility of supplying tactical nuclear weapons to Australia, Macmillan said he would discuss it in London but

‘There is, however, one over-riding consideration. Co-operation in the nuclear field with the Americans must be our major objective. This cannot be achieved without amendment of the Macmahon (sic) act. This is a delicate question in Congress. We must be careful to do anything meanwhile which would rock the boat.’

And so it is American rockets that are tested at Woomera these days as UK’s ‘Forward Defence’ became USA’s ‘Extended Nuclear Deterrent’ (END).

Thirty years after Macmillan’s visit, Kim Philby was asked in Moscow by an Australian journalist which world leader, apart from his own (the Soviet Union), did he most admire? Philby opted for David Lange, then Prime Minister of New Zealand, because

‘He had the courage to ban nuclear ships from New Zealand waters. Now we [the Soviet Union] have no reason to target New Zealand with our intercontinental missiles and indeed we have ceased to do so. I’m sorry I cannot say the same about Australia.’

In 1955 Mark Oliphant told government officials that atomic power plants built for industrial energy could be converted to military use ‘in a matter of hours’ and argued for the reduction of conventional forces. His ASIO file contains a profile of him from the New Scientist dated 27 November 1958 reporting that ‘Oliphant himself is concerned with work on very high energy nuclear physics and the search for thermonuclear reactions.’

Oliphant had taken to referring to himself as ‘a belligerent pacifist‘. He was not alone in being unable to resolve the dilemma of how to contain nuclear weapons, and the concept of internationalisation – precisely because it promoted the proliferation of nuclear states as a deterrent on the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction – has at least until the current era averted nuclear war. What does irk, perhaps to people like myself who grew up in the Australia of the 1950s and 1960s, was his cultivation of a persona of moral superiority at the same time as he hid the fact that he was working both sides against the middle of the nuclear issue until finally in the early 1960s even his great supporter at the Australian National University, Nugget Coombs, worried that he ‘had missed the bus‘ and that ‘the gamble should be written off‘ on the cyclotron project that had come to be known as the White Oliphant. Having been the focus of US security concerns despite his pivotal role in developing the atomic bombs, and prevented from participating in post war nuclear development, he might be thought of as Australia’s – and indeed Britain’s – J. Robert Oppenheimer.


An excerpt of this paper appears at: