Operation Hurricane

This clip, from a documentary made by Anvil Films for the British Ministry of Supply, is about Operation Hurricane – the first British atomic bomb test, conducted in the Montebello Islands 100 kilometres off the north-western coast of Western Australia in October 1952. The clip begins inside British workshops where monitoring instruments, explosion-measuring devices, documentation equipment and parts of the bomb are manufactured and tested. The final stages and countdown, including the bomb’s detonation and explosion, are recorded on the island in both colour and black and white.

Educational value

  • Operation Hurricane was the first of three nuclear weapons testing operations carried out in Australia by the British Government in 1952 and 1956 with the support of the Australian Government. Concerned about communist expansion, particularly in parts of Asia, Prime Minister Robert Menzies felt that Australia needed to cultivate its ‘great and powerful friends’, such as Britain, and agreed to host Britain’s nuclear weapons tests on Australian territory in the interests of national security.

  • Operation Hurricane occurred in the context of an escalation in the Cold War and anxieties about the use of nuclear weapons by communist countries such as the Soviet Union (which had exploded its first nuclear bomb in 1949). In 1947, with the United States unwilling to share nuclear technology, Britain embarked on its own nuclear weapons program and began searching for a testing site remote enough to guarantee security and minimise the risk to public health.

  • The atomic explosion shown in this clip was produced by a 25-kiloton nuclear fission bomb, which was detonated in a lagoon 700 metres off Trimouille Island in the Montebello archipelago. It created a crater in the ocean floor more than 6 metres deep and more than 300 metres wide. The test was intended to provide information about how foodstuffs, shipping and defensive structures would be affected by nuclear explosions and subsequent radioactive fallout – hazardous airborne radioactive dust particles that fall to the ground.

  • This nuclear testing operation in the Montebello Islands was conducted in great secrecy. In agreeing to host the British tests in 1951, there is no evidence to suggest that Prime Minister Menzies consulted with Cabinet. The decision was made public in February 1952. Public understanding at the time about the tests and debates on their human and environmental impact was limited. However, as opposition to nuclear weapons grew in the 1950s, the public reacted more strongly to successive British tests at Emu Field and Maralinga.

  • In 1985 the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia found that the Montebello Islands were an unsafe and inappropriate location for the Hurricane tests and that the Australian Government was given insufficient information as to the possible effects of the radioactive fallout. Today, visitors to Montebello’s three ground zero sites are advised to spend no more than one hour per day in these areas and to avoid handling or removing objects, which may be radioactive.

  • The film, released in 1953, places an emphasis on the precision, testing and advanced technology used in the manufacture, testing and documenting of the effects of a nuclear explosion. It is likely that the film was used as propaganda to inform the British public of the value of nuclear weapons research for both domestic and defence purposes and to reassure them that the technology was safe. The film also underlines Britain’s independence from the United States.