Montebello Islands

At 8am on 3rd October 1952, Britain detonated its first atom bomb aboard the HMS Plym, which was anchored offshore of Trimouille, one of the Montebello Islands, situated approximately 75 nautical miles north of Onslow, off the West Australian coast.

The 25kilogram nuclear fission device vaporised the Plym and its surroundings in a test codenamed Operation Hurricane. It was the beginning of a series of 29 British nuclear tests in Australia and several South Pacific islands from 1952 to 1958, in which more than 22,000 British, 14,000 Australian and 500 New Zealand servicemen were involved.

Situated approximately 75 nautical miles north of Onslow and 20 km north of Barrow Island off the Western Australian coast, the islands were named by the French navigator Nicolas Baudin in August 1801. Baudin was evidently "discouraged by the seeming barrenness of the country, the scarcity of fresh water and the hostility of the blacks", so kept to the sea and did little else than survey the coast line and islands. Before he left, however, he named the islands after the battle of Montebello, where the victorious French general Jean Lannes (1769-1809), Marshall of France and later the Duke of Montebello, defeated the Austrians in 1800.

The flat limestone islands range in size from Hermite, the largest, at about 1,000 ha, to several small islets and rocks of less than one hectare. They are the remnants of an old coastal landform and have been separated from the mainland for more than 8000 years. No evidence has been found of Aboriginal occupation of the islands since that separation, although they probably lived there before.

The earliest known European use of the islands was in 1622, when one of Australia's first recorded shipwrecks, that of the Trial took place just west of the Montebellos. The survivors of the wreck spent seven days on the northern islands before setting forth for the East Indies. Only 30 could sail with the captain in the lifeboat, the rest were left to their fate on the wrecked ship. Other early navigators, Baudin in 1801, King in 1818 and Stokes in 1840 had less eventful voyages.

The development of the pearling industry along the north west coast in the late 19th Century formed the next exciting chapter in the history of the Montebellos. The pearlers who fished the waters and camped on the islands are probably responsible for the introduction of the cat and the black rat who in turn are accountable for the extinction of the golden bandicoot and spectacled hare wallaby.

In 1952 the British joined the exclusive nuclear club by detonating their first atomic weapon on H.M.S. Plym, moored in Main Bay, close to Trimouille Island. Further atomic bombs were exploded on Trimouille and Alpha Islands. Many relics of the infrastructure and detonation remain today. Regular monitoring of radiation levels shows that, with the exception of ground zero sites (the exact places the bombs were detonated) radiation has dropped below levels considered dangerous to public health.

Today the waters around the Montebello Islands provide excellent sheltered anchorages for vessels of all sizes and are frequently visited during the winter months by numerous boats. Some islands have been zoned for recreation, while others have been reserved for the protection of nesting seabirds and turtles. Montebello Island Safaris offers tours of the islands from their base in Onslow.

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Memories of 1955

The Recollections of Max Kimber, OAM. who was present at the atomic bomb testing: "I served on the Fremantle from June 1953 until July 1955 and during this time was involved in the Atomic Tests at Montebellos. In November, 1953, Fremantle was sent to the Montebellos Islands with scientists. I was part of the landing party and boats coxswain for the two week stay there. This, of course, involved us in the transportation of scientists to and from the Island daily, plus on land assistance to them. This involved destroying their protective clothing each day and having a salt water shower operating for them.

"While we handled their protective clothing etc., it should be noted that we only had on Navy issue shorts and shirts; no protective clothing was considered necessary for the ship's crew. I can remember on one occasion returning to the ship and was found to be so radioactive  that I had to remove all my clothing on the quarterdeck which was then burnt, while I was hosed down with a fire hose. My sandals were soaked in a bucket of sea water overnight. It was also interesting because the sea water was pumped direct from the bay within a few metres of where the atomic bomb was exploded.

"After my discharge from the Navy in 1958, I had already begun to develop skin cancer to all parts of my body and to this day continue to receive treatment from Comcare. It was through this that the Nuclear Veterans (later the Australian Ex-Services Atomic Veterans' Association) was formed. The biggest problem the Association faces is to have the Government accept responsibility for the thousands of service personnel who were used for the British experiments in Australia.

"The Government continues to state that we were exposed to no danger, yet as they were experimental tests, how would they know. Even to this day very little is known about the amount of exposure that is needed to cause any effect. In 1995 I was elected National President of the Association and have worked hard to have our cause acknowledged by the Government."

Recollection of Keith Ayres: "I was serving on HMAS Sydney and had not long returned from Korea when we were informed we were going to take part in Operation "Hurricane" in company with other ships of the RAN and RN. "Hurricane" turned out to be the exploding of the first British Nuclear Test at Montebello. The atomic device was placed in the hull of HMS PLYM, 2.7 metres underwater. At 0800 October 3, 1952, the bomb was detonated and from our position 100 kilometres away, shock waves were very severe."

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