by Jim Sauer
This month’s cover is of a type we’ve all seen before— all, or most, of a set of stamps applied to a cover—some being first day of issue and some not. Our example is not a first day of issue. In looking at this one, however, a couple things caught my attention— Task Force Grapple and the name Rear Admiral G. Serpell Patrick. I had seen both before. A search on the internet brought them to the fore:
Patrick was born Goldsborough Serpell Patrick on Goat Island in San Francisco Bay, California. He was the son of Jane Deakins Serpell of Norfolk, Virginia and Navy Chaplain Capt Bower Reynolds Patrick. He died 21 March 1999 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was, evidently, part of a United States observation group for England’s first nuclear bomb trials in the late 1950s.
The Pacific program of British thermonuclear tests, Operation “Grapple”, began in 1957, following the earlier atomic trials in Australia. The testing of a large megaton-yield weapon had dictated that a new site be found and Christmas Island, a remote coral atoll 2 deg. north of the Equator, was chosen. The tri-Service and civilian task force for “Grapple” was commanded initially by Air Vice-Marshal W. E. Oulton and later by Air Vice-Marshal (later Marshal of the R.A.F. Sir John) Grandy. The Scientific Director was Mr. (later Sir William) Cook. Although inhabited, with an economy based on the export of coconut products, the island had been largely neglected since World War II. Preparations had started the previous year to construct the support facilities and a 7,000-ft. runway, 25 miles of roads, a control tower, buildings for weapon assembly and a seawater distillation plant were some of the building works needed.
The domestic accommodation was tented but more substantial buildings were provided for recreation purposes. Most of these works were carried out by the Army Task Group which included a detachment of Fijian troops. The dropping point was off Malden Island, an uninhabited atoll some 400 miles south of Christmas Island. By dusk, on 14th May the scientists had made the final checks on the apparatus sited on Malden that was designed to measure the air blast, heat and radiation levels. They withdrew and embarked in H.M.S. Narvik, Warrior, and Messina.
The hours prior to the release of the bomb were tense and dramatic. Long before dawn the Shackletons of Nos. 204 and 206 Squadrons and Canberras of Nos. 76 and 100 Squadrons had thundered off from Christmas Island on weather reconnaissance and sampling sorties—with the added duty for the Shackletons of searching the danger area to ensure that it was free of shipping. At first light, Hastings of No. 24 Squadron and Dakotas of No. 1325 Flight had left for the target area laden with observers.
The delicate task of loading the weapon into Valiant XD818 had been completed the previous day and now, crewed and ready, the aircraft waited in the gray cool hours of early morning. The signals traffic rose to a peak. “All clear” was received from Malden. Ships were reported in position. “All clear” came from the search flights and a constant stream of weather information came in from dozens of sources. The messages flashed between the Task Force Commander on the Scientific Control Ship Narvik and the operations room on Christmas Island, culminating in the order for XD818 to take off. Piloted by W / Cdr. K. G. Hubbard, Officer Commanding No. 49 Squadron, the gleaming white aircraft taxied out on to the runway. For the few who watched it leave, the graceful rise and climb into the morning sky was so nonchalant as to be an anti-climax. On 31st May a second and larger weapon was dropped, witnessed by representatives of the world’s press. Testing continued at Christmas Island until November 1958 (“Grapple X, Y and Z”) during which time the Valiants of No. 49 Squadron dropped a total of seven thermonuclear weapons.