Aldermaston March 1958 and Nuclear Weapons Test Blog
On 4th April 1958 a few thousand people gathered on Trafalgar Square. They marched for four days, often in unfavourable weather conditions, to Aldermaston. Some of them dropped out along the route, but the majority peacefully reached their destination.
The march was Britain’s first expression of mass protest after World War II. The still vivid memories of destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki unified people: they wanted to prevent a nuclear war. Pat Arrowsmith, the well-known peace campaigner, recalls:
“When the march came, it was a great success. We started with a rally in Trafalgar Square with 8,000 people – which was regarded as very large. The left was well represented in the campaign, as were the Quakers. And, although most of the marchers were middle class, there were also a few delegations of workers.”
Marchers, with organisational help from the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War with support of the recently formed CND, demonstrated not only their general opposition to nuclear weapons, but also their concern with Britain joining the Cold War, hence the final destination: the Atomic Weapon Research Establishment at Aldermaston, Berkshire. The Guardian’s article from 5th April 1958 echoes concerns of protesters:
“[…] Mrs Anne Collins, of Gillingham, encumbered with a pack and with her small daughter in a push-chair. “I’ve been thinking about this for ten years,” she said, a humble yet fixed light in her eye. “If I become a grandmother, I don’t want a bomb to drop on her and her children – I don’t want to drop bombs on the Russians, either. I’d rather let the Communists take over.”
It was during the Cold War, before Aldermaston, that the UK carried out its first nuclear test, Operation Hurricane in 1952 in the Montebello Island of Western Australia. It was followed by multiple other tests. The most well-known, Operation Grapple, was conducted between 1957-59 at Malden Island and Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean. During that time nine hydrogen bombs were tested. Some of them were described as not ‘successful’, because energy realised was lower than expected, even though one was around 200 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. These tests established Britain as the third nation to develop nuclear bombs after USA and the Soviet Union.
What is often forgotten, is that around 22,000 of RAF servicemen witnessed these explosions. It is said that the tests were conducted in the safest possible way. For example, they exploded high in the atmosphere to reduce the nuclear fallout. But soldiers based in the South Pacific describe they were directly exposed to the aftereffects of the explosion: they could feel the heat and the intense light, all of that with no protective clothing on.
Later, many of nuclear tests veterans reported health issues including cancers, rare blood diseases, fertility problems and passed down birth defects. The soldiers were on order not to discuss their experience and keep the exercise hidden from the public. Ignored for many years, veterans and their families are still fighting for recognitions from the Government. In late 2019 The Peace Museum opened a new temporary exhibition Over the Fence… to the other side of the world which explored the untold stories of these soldiers as well as wider impacts of UK’s involvement in the Cold War on the peace movement.
The Aldermaston marches were a response to these tests, showing how the peace movement was impacted. These marches took place yearly through 1905s and 1960s. As Peggy Seeger, one of the participants of the 1958 march, said:
“They were hopeful days and Aldermaston marches had a sense of optimism later marches didn’t have. We were fighting for something – peace – rather than fighting against something. Peace was like a big red balloon and we were heading towards it. We really felt that if we marched we could shut this bloody place down.”
Despite these marches and the continuing concerns about nuclear power, these nuclear tests were carried out until the 1990s. The Atomic Weapon Establishment is still in operation and still attracts protesters around the world, but its prominence in public debate has significantly decreased. But the threat atomic weapons pose, as well as consequences they already produced are as great as ever. While the UK is still spending money on armaments, we should not forget about those who were affected by them, in the case of Operation Grapple not only soldiers, but also the native inhabitants of Christmas Island and Malden Island, who were forced to leave their homes or, even worse, left in place and potentially exposed to radiation.
Written by Emilia Bazydlo (Museum Intern)