Tom’s Maralinga Memories – from the Fifties

The following has been extracted from an email conversation I’ve been having with “Tom”, over a period of a few months. Tom served at Maralinga in the fifties.

I was at Maralinga as a soldier 1956/57 and have a photo taken of the actual explosion, nothing like that depicted on the movie Operation Buffalo, and the only aboriginal people that came near the camp arrived in February 1957. Three men and some women and a few children, one of the men saw me rolling a smoke from a packet of Champion ruby tobacco and made a sign that he wanted one, so I rolled him a smoke. He smoked it and offered me a boomerang for more, so I gave him the packet, and he gave me the boomerang, I still have it, and also an Operation Buffalo tie a maroon colour with little buffaloes all over it. The aboriginal people were showered and given some army working dress clothes from the Q store, and then taken to the mission station somewhere down towards Ceduna.

Attached are photos of the boomerang and the buffalo tie, I also took a photo of the label showing the maker of the tie, and a close up to show some of the etchings on the boomerang. A member of our local indigenous community told me the etchings on the boomerang most likely relate to a journey. Then I asked another member of a different community, and he said about the same thing except he said they are probably directions as well. He thought that one of the markings meant something about water, but wasn’t sure, and it was so long ago that I can’t remember which of the etchings it was that he said was water.

My wife did not watch the movie about Operation Buffalo, and I am so glad she didn’t, as we had been going together for quite a while when I was posted to Maralinga. I had already asked her to marry me, and we had planned our engagement and a party to be held in Brisbane. I had told her all about the place, including that it was all men and no women. (Except the two air hosties who arrived on the plane with a load of politicians). The bad weather kept them overnight, but we never saw them, I think they gave them rooms in the officer’s lines and took meals to them there. As we heard about them being there we knew the plane was held overnight, and the driver who brought them from the airport told us they were there, but as said, nobody saw them, and if my wife saw that movie with prostitutes, etc. there, I would have to convince her all over again 63 years later!

I was posted as the Orderly room Corporal, the Sergeant was an RAF Sergeant clerk, and as the majority of service personnel there were Australian he had a real problem because he knew nothing about Australian Defence Force admin. He was just a total loss and did everything that had nothing to do with Australian Defence Force people. We had RAAF and RAN as well as Army, plus a group from the Durham Light Infantry. He knew nothing about British army admin either, so I looked after the Aust admin and the Runner, who was there to run messages round the place as there weren’t phones everywhere, his name was Miller, and of course, we called him Dusty. Anyway, he knew a bit about British army admin, and one of the British Corporals knew a bit, so we managed to muddle through

I also did the typing for the Health Physics group (Harry Turner, a scientist head that group) and he had Sgt Frank Smith (R Aust Signals Corps) and two RAEME craftsmen, both instrument fitters. Blue Stirling and Graham Newgreen. I lived in the second hut back from the road shown in that photo on the website, and share a room with AC Tony forget his name, RAAF came from Penguin in Tassie, Les Sutherland, a RAASC Cpl, and Paul Cadet, also RAASC and s steward in the officers’ mess. The projectionist who ran the movies was Sgt Alan Brickhouse, or a surname similar to that, and Ted Collins was also a projectionist, and I think he took over from Alin in about March 57. I remember the electrician, he was RAN, and I met him years later when in Malaya as when he left the RAN, he joined the Army. He served with the Royal Aust Engineers, and his name was Colin something, can’t remember (I have an excuse though at 82) I have lots of photos of people, and a photo of a bomb exploding.

I have so far watched each episode of the film about Operation Buffalo, and even though it is described as historical fiction, in my opinion, it is all fiction!

They appear to have got two things correct in the series; there was an atomic test called Buffalo, and the name of the place was Maralinga – not sure than anything else I have seen so far is fact.

Colonel R (Dicky) Durance was one of nature’s gentlemen, do you know, he knew the first name of every member of the military, airforce and navy staff, and probably most of the civilians as well. He did not spend his day sitting in his office, as a couple of his other senior officers did, he got around, mostly walking, and spoke to servicemen and civilians in their workplace. His background was in transport and logistics, and he was a great commander for Maralinga and was liked by all.

About here I asked Tom:

I have a book written by Sir Arthur Lawrence called Maralinga Man, largely written on notes of his time as adjuntant?? to Squadron Leader Folly, RAF. I’m not sure if the names were changed but apparently the Squadron Leader was a bit of hard drinking character with a hell of a sense of humour. I wondered how much of it was true while I was reading it. He refers to a Range Commander General Charles with whom the Squadron Leader was often at loggerheads. What’s your recollection?

While I was at Maralinga the Range Commander was always Colone R (Dicky) Durance, the Adjutant was an Australian an Infantry captain, Captain Dick Whitton, a great officer, all the soldiers liked him, he was such a good fellow. He got on well with all ranks; Dick had served in Korea with 3 RAR, a unit in which I served later in Malaya. The Major was Squadron Leader Fletcher, RAAF, can’t remember his title but I think he was the man for logistics, stores etc. and had little to do with the parts of the place where I worked. I don’t recall him being a heavy drinker, but of course, I don’t know what he got up to after work, in the officers’ mess. Usually, a heavy drinker was easy to spot by the veins in their nose, and the stewards would have mentioned if he was a drunk in the mess because you can’t get stewards in officers’ mess to keep secrets.

I am not sure that there was ever a General at Maralinga while I was there, not even as a visitor, but lots of politicians used to visit for some reason, but only one-day visits, except that one occasion when the weather prevented them from leaving, and they had to stay overnight, and from all the stories we heard from officers’ mess staff, they just whinged and whined all night while they drank their free grog and got pissed.

What do you remember about the boffins? Penny and the others?

I did not see many of the boffins; they seemed to leave their huts and go out then come back and spend their time in the officers’ mess, I suppose drinking. The only civilian who had much to do with service people was Harry Turner of the Health physics group, he had Frank Smith the RA Signals Sgt plus the two RAEME instrument fitters working with him, Blue Stirling and Graham Newgreen, they were both Craftsman (Private soldiers), and they used to go and check all the various dials on instruments out in the desert all the time and keep them working, fix them if they weren’t working etc, and I used to do the typing for Harry Turner.

The typewriter had all the Greek symbols (I think that is what they were) for the various chemical or scientific things. It was not a matter of touch typing when I got to the symbols, as I had to search on the keyboard to make sure it was the correct symbol that I was typing. I could touch type quite fast on the typewriter, it was a manual typewriter, long before electric ones were available. I could handle the English writing easily, touch-typing, but had to stop and be careful with those symbols as they were not symbols with which I was familiar, and I couldn’t afford to make mistakes on them.

I will keep looking, as I know I have a photo somewhere of an atomic explosion in a photo album. It shows all the rockets that were fired at the same time, as they gave them [the boffins] an idea of the size of the mushroom cloud. I think they had a formula and could measure the distance of the rocket trails and the distance to where the camera was and from that could calculate the size of the cloud, you may understand that, but I don’t. You have to remember I was a young 18-year-old private soldier who could type fast but had no idea of anything scientific, so just typed from the handwritten notes given to me by Harry Turner.

They also had a civilian clerk in the Health Physics group, but he was a one-finger typist and used to take all day. I do remember him, and he was a short, skinny, blond feller. The soldiers used to chuck off at him as he wore those long shorts that the pommies used to wear, with socks and sandals, and had to stay out of the sun as he got burned red like a beetroot. I think he was a bit useless and was employed by the UK government. As I can recall, he went back to England in about March 1957 and was not replaced, so I guess they were happy with my typing of their reports – which I typed but did not understand.

My wife asked if you knew a bloke called Fred Brightwell, the dad of a friend of hers who served there.

I have just checked the list of the Australian army blokes who served at Maralinga and Fred Brightwell is not on the list but it is possible that he may appear on the navy or air force list, but I don’t have that list. You could go to your library and ask to borrow the book titled Nominal Roll of Australian Participants in the British Atomic Tests in Australia, ISBN 0-642-48739-1 published by the Aust government in 2001 by Dept of Veterans Affairs. I borrowed a copy from my local library many years ago, and for some reason, I appear on the nominal roll twice, first with my two Christian names correctly and then the second entry, on the very next page shows me with my two first names back to front, and one has my army number and the other has no army number, it was quite strange, I wrote to DVA to ask why they listed me twice and they didn’t bother to even reply to me, so I guess they thought if they said nothing I would just go away.

I finally found one of the photos I have of the atomic bomb explosion at Maralinga. Somewhere I have another one, it shows the bomb mushroom cloud and they let rockets off at certain space apart and from the photos and observation they could use the distance between to calculate the actual size of the mushroom cloud. at least, that is what Harry Turner, the Health Physic bloke told me.

Was that photo taken from the village?

The photo would have been taken somewhere out on the range, that was one of the responsibilities of the three soldiers in the Health Physics group, Frank Smith, ‘Blue’, and Graham, they had cameras set up all over the place, even when there were no bombs going off. That is how they found that group of aboriginals. [referred to at the beginning of this post]. They saw their photo when they were checking cameras and loading film then drove around till they found them camped somewhere out on the range and brought them into the camp [village].

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