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Brian receives his Nuclear Test Medal from military attaché Captain Stephen McGlory. SUR
Nuclear test veteran on the Costa del Sol recognised after 65-year wait
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Nuclear test veteran on the Costa del Sol recognised after 65-year wait

Estepona resident Brian Higgins was awarded the medal for his service during the atom bomb tests on Christmas Island in 1958

Tony Bryant

Estepona

Friday, 15 December 2023, 12:23

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A former member of the British armed forces who has lived in Estepona for 30 years has been honoured for his services during the UK's nuclear test programme which took place between 1952 and 1967. Brian Higgins is one of the nuclear test veterans who are finally receiving the new Nuclear Test Medal to recognise their service after a more-than-70-year wait, although the majority of these servicemen have since died.

The medal's design features an atom surrounded by olive branches, and bears an image of King Charles III on the reverse.

Some of the service personnel who experienced these tests, most without protection from the radiation, developed numerous health problems (as have some of their descendants), although the Ministry of Defence has maintained that no "causal" link can be proved.

Brian is among thousands of British servicemen who took part in the British and US nuclear tests and clean-up campaigns in the Montebello Islands, Christmas Island, Malden Island, and Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia.

Brian took part in the notorious Operation Grapple Y in 1958, which was more than 100 times more powerful than the bombs that levelled Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The 85-year-old, who was in the Royal Air Force, talked candidly to SUR in English about his participation in these controversial tests and his views about finally receiving the medal, which was presented to him at his home on Wednesday by British Embassy Defence Attaché Captain Stephen McGlory, who travelled from Madrid to perform the honour.

Born in Horsham, Sussex, in 1938, Brian received his conscription papers in 1956 and decided to join the RAF's fire and rescue service. He was based at the Army Aviation Centre in Middle Wallop (Hampshire) when he received his instructions that he was to be posted to Christmas Island, a place he says he had "no knowledge of at that time". He also had no knowledge about why he was going to the island.

The mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb explosion in the Montebello Islands in 1952.
The mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb explosion in the Montebello Islands in 1952.

"I knew absolutely nothing about why we were going but I was quite excited because it was in the Pacific. Until then, I had never been abroad, in fact, I hadn't really been anywhere. At 19 years of age, it was something of an adventure," Brian explained.

Brian soon realised something big was happening, although as he points out, "You must understand, they did not tell us anything".

Brian witnessed four tests; two from balloons, and two from aircraft. He was on the airfield runway with the fire and rescue unit when the Valiant jet bombers were loaded with the weapons.

Like thousands of other servicemen that experienced the atom bomb tests, Brian was given no training, or any real protection from the blasts, apart from a pair of sunglasses, which he thought was to protect his eyes from the sun because they were just two degrees from the equator.

"They gave us sunglasses when we arrived on the island, but we didn't realise at first that they were to be used for protection from a nuclear bomb blast. It wasn't until we were sat outside that we were told the weapon was being released. I didn't even have my sunglasses with me, nor did many others.

"We had a loud speaker on a post that was relaying what was happening and what we had to do. We were told to turn our backs to the blast and close and cover our eyes with our hands," he said.

Brian described three phases: the flash, which was followed by the blast and the wind, and then the heatwave. "Once this was over, we were told we could turn and look at it: I was mesmerised. What we saw was an enormous fire ball that absolutely filled the sky, after which, the mushroom cloud formed: it was awesome," the veteran declared.

Very eerie and very silent

Brian said that no one spoke, or had anything to say - adding, the only real way to describe the experience was "very eerie and very silent". However, he says he was "not nervous".

Brian considers himself as one of the "lucky ones" because, unlike many others, he has never experienced any health problems or disabilities as a result of the tests he witnessed. Many veterans have blamed the radiation for chronic health problems, including infertility, cancer and birth defects in their children. Others have had to have multiple lesions removed from their bodies, which many attribute to exposure during the tests.

"I have certainly not suffered health wise because of the tests and neither have any of my family. I am as healthy as they come. I am ultra-fit and very energetic. My friends say that I'm radiated," he said, bursting into laughter.

Cover up

Even though Brian enjoyed his time on Christmas Island, and especially his rest and recuperation period in Hawaii, he claims he is not proud of the fact he participated in the British government's nuclear weapons programme. He also feels that the Ministry of Defence has tried to cover up any possible links between the health problems suffered by so many veterans and the atom bomb tests.

"I am no authority on the matter, but it seems they have definitely tried to cover up medical records. We must appreciate that the pilots of the aircraft that supported the bombers had to fly through the mushroom clouds. These people suffered immensely, but all the medical records are being kept secret. They have put up every barrier and excuse to stop the details becoming clear," Brian declared.

He also feels that the veterans have been "grudgingly" awarded the Nuclear Test Medal, and he expressed his disappointment at the way the medals are presented.

"There is an enormous amount of unhappiness at the way the medal is being distributed, especially in the UK, because it is just sent in a jiffy bag by post. There is no official military presentation. I would not have received mine from the attaché if my wife hadn't intervened. He was very sympathetic, because he has a full understanding of what has been going on," Brian concluded.

Veterans and next of kin can apply for a medal, which will also be awarded posthumously. For details, see the Justice for Nuclear Tests Veterans Facebook page.

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