It’s early in the morning of July 16th, 1945, in the plains of New Mexico.
23-year-old Joan Hinton drives a motorcycle up a low hill. As she reaches the top, her headlights shine on a group of her colleagues huddled together. Joan cuts the engine, hops off her bike, and walks toward her peers.
Joan is one of the graduate students and physicists who have been working to develop the United States’ first nuclear weapon. Today, she’s here to see the fruits of her labor; twenty-five miles away is a nuclear test site where the world’s first atomic bomb is about to go off.
As Joan joins her fellow graduate students, they whisper in nervous excitement about the impending detonation.
Joan shines a flashlight on her watch and stares as the secondhand ticks closer and closer to the appointed time. When the clock hits 5:30, the entire sky lights up. An enormous dark cloud boils up from the New Mexico desert.
Joan stumbles as a strong, scorching wind knocks her off balance. A deep rumbling envelops the hillside. Besides nothing, she has ever witnessed or even imagined. Joan looks over at her colleagues. All are quiet wearing the same stunned expression.
Eventually, the roar of the explosion subsides and the desert returns to silence. Joan and her colleagues keep still and quiet as they absorb the gravity of what just happened; the world as they knew it has changed.
In 1945, the United States detonated the world’s first nuclear weapon in Alamogordo, New Mexico, ushering in the Atomic Age. Three weeks after the successful test, US will drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing on Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II.
But the race for nuclear arms will persist even after the war’s end. The United States' technological triumph will set the clock ticking for its peers. Once a leader in nuclear development, Britain will find itself falling behind, desperate to catch up. Seven years after the US’s first nuclear weapons test, Britain will test its own atomic bomb on October 3rd, 1952.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is October 3rd, 1952:Operation Hurricane.
Act One: A Broken Partnership
It’s August 19th, 1943, in Quebec City, two years before the US will conduct its first nuclear test.
Inside the Citadelle de Quebec, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sits across a table from American President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Between them is a four-page document outlining the terms of a new secret project they hope will help them defeat the Nazis.
At this point, the world is four years deep into World War II. For the past two days, the heads of the British, American, and Canadian governments have met to discuss the German invasion of France. But today, Churchill and Roosevelt have halted that conversation to address another pressing issue: nuclear weapons.
That Germany’s nuclear program is close to developing a usable atomic bomb. Both Britain and America have been working to beat the Germans to the punch. Two years ago, Britain established its nuclear program, codenamed Tube Alloys. And last year, the US followed suit, creating its own organization called the Manhattan Project.
For the most part, the two programs have operated independently, keeping much of their scientific research a secret from one another. But the Allies believe they need to accelerate their efforts in order to beat the Germans. So, today the two powers plan to join forces.
Churchill watches as Roosevelt signs the document on the table between them, before sliding it across to him. The prime minister picks up his pen as he scans the terms one last time. Slowly, he flips through the document, page by page.
The proposed terms for nuclear collaboration sound favorable to Britain but are still daunting. The agreement promises to pool all British and American brains and resources. For Britain, this means getting access to the Americans’ facilities and funding. But it also means handing over some valuable materials and research that the Americans still lack.
But Churchill sees little other option. The demands of war are causing Tube Alloys to fall behind the Manhattan Project. Relying only on their own would take workers and money that Britain needs for other wartime efforts. And with the constant threat of bombings in the UK, it’s safer to concentrate nuclear development in America. So, Churchill raises his pen and signs the document before him.
With the signatures of the two world leaders, the Quebec Agreement, as this secret pact will become known, effectively absorbs Britain’s nuclear program into the US’s Manhattan Project. And for the next year, British and American scientists work together to develop nuclear weapons in America. In September 1944, Churchill and Roosevelt even secretly pledge to continue full nuclear cooperation after the war.
But the leaders’ arrangements for long-term collaboration quickly fall apart. In April 1945, four months before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Roosevelt dies from a cerebral hemorrhage. Three months later, Churchill loses Britain’s general election. And when the US and Britain jointly agree to drop atomic bombs on Japan in August, it’s the nation’s last show of true nuclear cooperation.
With both Roosevelt and Churchill out of power, the end of World War II marks the dissolution of the two powers’ nuclear partnership. Britain’s new Prime Minister Clement Atlee and US President Harry Truman, both ignored Roosevelt and Churchill’s pledge and never fully resume their collaboration on nuclear weapons.
Instead, as the Cold War sets in, America decides it can no longer share its atomic secrets with England deciding it’s too much of a security risk. Instead, the US classifies its nuclear technologies and makes it clear it will only collaborate on basic scientific research.
The news is a harsh blow to the British. But they don’t have time to dwell on the insult. Without access to the Manhattan Project, Britain must start rebuilding their own nuclear program at home. And time is of the essence. America is already in possession of an atomic bomb and no doubt the Soviets are well on their way to having their own too. If Britain wants to remain a first-class world power, it needs to work fast.
Quickly, the nation will scramble to build nuclear production facilities and begin developing their own atomic bomb. Despite the US classifying its nuclear research, British scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project will return home armed with valuable information. Together, they will detail and compile the notes of all who had worked on that project, and the nation will scramble to build nuclear production facilities and begin developing an atomic bomb of their own. But the Soviet Union will beat Britain to become the second nuclear power in the world. Still, the British will not be far behind. Soon enough they will have their own nuclear weapon. And all that will be left to do is find somewhere to test it.
Act Two: Operation Hurricane Begins
It’s November 1st, 1950, in Sydney, Australia, two years before Britain’s first atomic weapons test.
At a dockyard in the city’s harbor, a three-man survey party from Britain searches for the vessel that will take them to Australia’s Montebello Islands.
After several years of research and development, Britain is close to having an atomic bomb ready to go. But they still need to find somewhere remote enough to test their device, a mission they’ve codenamed “Operation Hurricane.”
For months, the British have looked at a test site in Nevada. But the US has been resistant to granting them access. While negotiations with the United States drag on, Prime Minister Attlee has turned his sights to Australia. And today, the British survey group is here to evaluate the viability of Britain’s latest pick for a nuclear test site, the Montebello Islands.
At the end of a line of Australian warships, the small British party spots the navy vessel waiting for them. Quickly, the surveyors climb on board and embark on the journey to Western Australia.
After days on the open sea, a small archipelago finally appears on the horizon. As their ship approaches the shore of one of these Montebello Islands, the survey team gets to work measuring the depth of the coastal waters, sampling the islands’ sand, and noting the islands’ wildlife. As they work, the Australian Air Force flies overhead, taking aerial photography of the islands.
On November 29th, 1950, the survey party returns to London with their assessment: the islands are suitable for atomic testing.
Inside 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Attlee celebrates the news. But he’s still not convinced their search for an atomic test site is over.
Though viable, the Montebello Islands aren’t ideal. The costs to set up the testing ground there will be expensive. It would be much cheaper to use a US testing site. But the Americans are demanding that Britain share all information they gather in the test. And Attlee bristles at the thought. The US still refuses to share any of its data. And Australia is already willing to let Britain use their land without any similar stipulations. But Attlee also worries that testing in Australia instead of Nevada will further damage Britain’s relationship with the US.
So, the Prime Minister holds off on deciding on a test site, allowing negotiations with the US to continue. But soon, the problem is out of Attlee’s hands. With a general election looming, Britain’s government opts to defer the decision until new leadership is elected.
In the fall of 1951, Winston Churchill returns to Downing Street replacing Clement Attlee as Britain’s Prime Minister. Two months into his tenure, Churchill decides to halt negotiations with the US and use the Montebello Islands as their testing site. In February, he announces in the House of Commons that the first British atomic bomb test will occur in Australia before the end of the year.
Preparations begin immediately. By June 5th, the supplies for Operation Hurricane are assembled and on their way to Australia on a naval frigate called the HMS Plym. With it is a small fleet filled with troops, government officials, and scientists. The voyage takes eight weeks. But on August 8th, the Montebello Islands finally come into view. And once ashore, a team of British engineers get to work preparing for the nuclear test.
Instead of a ground explosion, the British plan to detonate their bomb on the HMS Plym about 1,000 feet offshore. On the island closest to the test site, scientists lay out every piece of measuring equipment they have. While they set up various thermometers and gauges, other engineers travel to an island farther away, where they build a control room from which they can detonate the bomb. They also set up generators for electricity and high-speed cameras to capture the detonation.
For weeks, the British work to be able to collect all information they can from the test and take all necessary precautions. They know nothing can be left to chance. Not only is the test dangerous, but with America and the Soviets already sitting on nuclear weapons, a failure will be humiliating for Britain.
After nearly two months of preparation and several rehearsals, everything for Operation Hurricane will be in line and ready. But for three days, bad weather will prevent the atomic test from proceeding. Soon though, the clouds will part, and Britain will finally get its chance to prove its power to the world.
Act Three: The Final Countdown
It’s the morning of October 3rd, 1952, near the Montebello Islands.
1,000 feet offshore, the HMS Plym is anchored in a lagoon. Deep in its hull is seven kilograms of plutonium, waiting to be detonated.
Aboard a nearby British ship, engineer Derek Hickman hears an order to muster on deck. As Derek congregates with his colleagues, the anticipation is palpable. For weeks, he and his teammates have worked on the islands to make sure Britain’s first attempt at a nuclear weapon will be a success. Now, after a three-day weather delay, British are only minutes away from seeing the fruits of their labor.
On deck, an officer orders everyone on board to cover their eyes and turn around from the testing site. As Derek puts his hands over his face, a countdown begins over a loudspeaker. The voice drones on counting down three...two...one.
At zero, an eerie silence falls over the ship. Then, Derek sees a sharp flash through the cracks of his fingers, followed by a loud crack and a bone-chilling roar.
The officer on deck then instructs everyone to turn around and look at the explosion. As Derek removes his hands from his eyes, he pivots to face the HMS Plym. But the 1,450-ton warship is gone, obliterated by a giant, rising cloud of fire and ash. Cheers erupt on board as the men realize their test was a success and Britain has detonated its first atomic bomb.
Fifty miles away, members of the press at a viewing tower will send word of the British triumph to the rest of the world. Back in London, the government will celebrate the victory as a re-assertion of British power. But Britain’s success will not come without fallout.
In the wake of Operation Hurricane, low levels of radiation will be detected all over the Australian mainland. Over the next five years, UK will conduct 12 more nuclear tests on Australian territories. In 1984, a Royal Commission established by the Australian government will find significant radiation hazards at many of these sites, persisting even thirty years later. The commission will also conclude that Britain did not give adequate consideration to the Aboriginal people living near the Montebello Islands and other test sites. Eventually, debate over the long-term health effects of Britain’s tests will lead the country to paying $13.5 million to Australia’s Indigenous population.
In subsequent years, Australia will organize mass cleanups to curb the test sites’ safety hazards. But radiation will continue to linger at the Montebello Islands. Today, the archipelago is a wildlife park. But visitors are advised against staying longer than an hour or taking home any fragments of metal that still wash ashore, even seventy years after Britain test its first atomic bomb on October 3rd, 1952.
Next on History Daily. October 4th, 1957. The Soviet Union launches the first manmade satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit, sparking the Space Race with the United States.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.