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Tristan : Tristanians Officially Hear About 1958 Atom Bomb
Submitted by Tristan Times (Sarah Glass) 22.05.2006 (Article Archived on 05.06.2006)

Peter Jennings (not the late Broadcaster) has published the attached in Gibbons Stamp Monthly and has given Tristan Times permission to publish it.

Atom Bomb Exploded above Tristan Da Cunha during 1958


Contributed by Peter Jennings


Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory no matter whether it’s fact or fiction! What follows is true and it makes compelling reading.  At the height of the Cold War between the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, the US Navy exploded an atomic bomb in the upper atmosphere above and close to the remote British dependent territory of Tristan da Cunha, in the mid-South Atlantic Ocean, in the early hours of the morning of 27 August 1958. The islanders were given no forewarning of the explosion and, as far as can be ascertained, no medical monitoring or treatment has ever been offered.


Operation Argus


The top secret operation, codenamed Argus, carried out by the US Navy during August and September 1958 in the South Atlantic Ocean, was the only clandestine atomic bomb test series in the 17-year history of atmospheric testing. More than 4500 military personnel and civilian scientists participated in the operation that could not have taken place without the knowledge of the British and South African governments of the time. Argus consisted of three very high altitude test shots of the W-25 warhead to investigate the effects of nuclear explosions outside the atmosphere—charged particles and radioactive isotopes released would interact with the Earth’s magnetic field which could potentially interfere with radar tracking, communications, and the electronics of satellites and ballistic missiles.


All three shots were launched by a specially modified Lockheed X- 17A threestage missile fired from the USS Norton Sound, which was operating as part of the nine-ship top secret Task Force 88. The W-25 warhead produced yields of 1.7kt. To investigate the effect of trapped radiation in the Earth’s magnetic field it was important to pick a test site where the magnetic field configuration could trap and hold charged particles efficiently. This necessitated a test between 35 and 55 degrees—either north or south of the equator. The altitude limit of the available missile dictated a southern hemisphere test because of the densely populated areas at these latitudes north of the equator.


Atom bomb


The site chosen for Argus I was South 38.5 degrees, West 11.5 degrees—close to Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island. The top secret atom bomb test was carried out at 02:28 on 27 August 1958 at an altitude of 100 miles. Argus II followed on 30 August, South 49.5 degrees, West 8.2 degrees, at an altitude of 182 miles, and Argus III on 6 September, South 48.5 degrees, West 9.7 degrees, at an altitude of 466 Miles. The New York Times broke the story of this nuclear test series on 19 March 1959.




Now nearly 50 years later it would appear that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office would prefer Operation Argus remained secret. Certainly Mr Michael Clancy, Governor of St Helena and its Dependencies, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, expressed his complete surprise when I spoke to him about Argus I during the journey on the RMS St Helena to Tristan da Cunha in February.


Gough Island


It would also appear that members of the 1955–56 Gough Island Scientific Survey could have been unwittingly used by the British Government of the time as part of the preparations for Operation Argus.  Why did the Colonial Office in London, and the government of South Africa, want a weather station on Gough Island during the Cold War? The logical answer must be in order to gather military intelligence and data at the time of Operation Argus. Yet, John Heaney, leader, and Sir Martin Holdgate, the distinguished zoologist, two of the six Goughalites, as they are known, who made a nostalgic 50th anniversary visit to Tristan and Gough Island in February, both expressed surprise when I told them about Operation Argus, at the Town House Hotel in Cape Town, on Sunday 29 January, the evening before we embarked on the RMS St Helena for the special Quincentenary voyage to Tristan da Cunha. Only Michael Swales, now Chairman of the Tristan da Cunha Association of the United Kingdom, admitted to knowing about Operation Argus.


Also, no one I spoke to during my seven days on Tristan da Cunha,  Sunday 5 to Saturday 11 February, appeared to know anything about the Argus tests. I set out to find out if the Colonial Office had briefed any Administrators of Tristan da Cunha, in particular those who served during the mid-1950s and early 1960s! Operation Argus certainly came as news to Mr Peter Wheeler, the Administrator of Tristan da Cunha who ordered the evacuation of the island on 9 October 1961 following a volcanic eruption. I spoke to him before the 19th AGM of the Tristan Association, held in Bournemouth, on 22 April. His predecessor as Administrator, Mr Peter Day had arrived less than eight months after Argus 1 unleashed its deadly radiation into the atmosphere high about Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island.




It’s gripping stuff, but none of it should came as any surprise considering the attitude taken towards the health and safety of the people of Tristan da Cunha, then part of the British Empire, during the dark days of the Cold War. The draft of a top secret memo dated March 1959, prepared by the ‘War Planning Department’ of the Ministry of Defence in London, and sent by the Colonial Office to Peter Day as the new Administrator of Tristan da Cunha, makes chilling reading.


Here is an extract: ‘The assessment of Soviet strategy in global war up to and including 1961 indicates that the United Kingdom is likely to be subjected to extremely heavy air attacks in the early stages of global war and that her resources other than those already deployed overseas before the outbreak of hostilities would be fully extended in meeting the threat in Europe.  ‘It must be assumed that these attacks would cause widespread devastation and a serious disruption of communications for some time between the central Government in the United Kingdom and the Colonial territories. In the event of global war therefore these territories must be prepared for a lengthy period during which they might well not receive any imports from any source or any form of military assistance; they must also be prepared for an interruption of communications with and therefore guidance from the United Kingdom.




Global war


Referring specifically to Tristan da Cunha, the memo states: ‘Tristan da Cunha must be as nearly indefensible as it is possible for a place to be. I should imagine that two or three 6-inch shells could finish off the whole settlement. In these circumstances plans for the military defence of the island would clearly be unrealistic. With the advent of nuclear weapons however and the possibility of the UK being severely crippled, it seemed to us essential to provide all territories whether large or small, with the necessary information to enable them to plan to stand alone so far as possible, and helping one another where possible, in global war.’ Ample evidence now exists to prove that that British governments since the mid- 1950s have kept the Governor of St Helena and the Administrator of Tristan da Cunha completely in the dark about the top secret Operation Argus and the then unknown adverse effects radiation may have had on successive generations of Tristanians!




Incisive questions should now be asked of the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister in the House of Commons about the effects of Operation Argus on the people of Tristan da Cunha. Were they, and the members of the 1955–56 Gough Island Scientific Survey, unwittingly used as pawns in a top secret Cold War conspiracy? These questions should also be addressed to the Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords. The obvious person to do so is the Catholic peer Lord David Alton, the former Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Mossley Hill, Liverpool. In July 1988 he married Dilys Elizabeth Bell, daughter of the Revered Philip Bell, the Anglican Minister on Tristan da Cunha from 1956 until the spring of 1961. Lady Alton is now a Vice President of the Tristan da Cunha Association of the United Kingdom.




Did a cloud of deadly atomic radiation fall on Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island?  Has the population of Tristan da Cunha suffered as a result of the tests carried out nearly 48 years ago? Did radiation from the test adversely affect the mice that have infested Gough Island and since that nuclear explosion have grown to an abnormally large size and are now attacking the unique indigenous birdlife including the Tristan Albatross chicks? Has radiation from that atom bomb contributed to deaths by cancer and the disproportionate number of Tristanians who have and still suffer from asthma?


UN monitoring station


Today, Tristan da Cunha is playing its part in monitoring illegal underground nuclear explosions anywhere in the world. The Island Council has allowed the United Nations Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation based in Vienna to site a seismic detection and tracking station on Tristan da Cunha. In return the Tristanians now have 24-hour electricity in the their homes. Three islanders are responsible for the day-to-day running of the tracking station which, as I observed when shown round, contains state-of-the art computer equipment.


Stamps to commemorate Argus I


The Island Council could significantly raise the profile of Tristan da Cunha by authorising its Post Office to release a special set of postage stamps on 27 August 2008 to mark the 50th anniversary of Argus I. These stamps would certainly create a lot of media interest worldwide and help to shed new light on dark secrets and Cold War conspiracies of the late 1950s.


This article is the Property and Copyright of Tristan Times.

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