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The University of Southampton

Historians record the experiences of Britain's nuclear test veterans

Published: 12 June 2023
Test veteran on Christmas Island.
Nuclear test veteran Gerard Bowler on Christmas Island in 1958. Credit: Fiona Bowler

Historians are set to record around 40 ‘life stories’ with British nuclear test veterans in the UK, to enrich the understanding of the role that test participation played in their lives.

Dr Fiona Bowler, visiting fellow at the University of Southampton and postdoctoral researcher at the University of South Wales (USW), Dr Chris Hill, lecturer in History at USW and Dr Jon Hogg, senior lecturer in 20th Century British History at the University of Liverpool, have been awarded £250,000 to study the ‘forgotten community’ of test veterans.

Their two-year project, funded by the Office for Veterans’ Affairs within the UK Cabinet Office, is part of a package of recognition for nuclear test veterans, announced following the introduction of the Nuclear Test Medal in November last year.

The project also seeks to generate wider public recognition for nuclear veterans’ service, and to understand what might be learned from nuclear veterans for the benefit of other former servicemen.

The team of academics aim to interview veterans from the full range of test experiences: from Operation Hurricane in October 1952 to joint atmospheric tests with the US in 1962; from the detonation of hydrogen bombs to ‘minor trials’; from the test sites of South and Western Australia to those of Malden and Christmas Island in the Pacific.

Veteran Gerard Bowler, Christmas Island in 1958. Credit: Fiona Bowler
Veteran Gerard Bowler, Christmas Island in 1958. Credit: Fiona Bowler

Dr Fiona Bowler, the granddaughter of nuclear test veteran Gerard Bowler, recently completed a PhD on Britain’s nuclear testing community at the University of Southampton, funded by the Wolfson Foundation. She continues her connection with Southampton as a visiting scholar in History at Southampton.

Dr Bowler said: “This project will preserve the memories of Britain’s nuclear test veterans for future generations, and bring their experiences to life through a series of public engagement events. We hope to amplify the voices of the community by creating an open access archive and support veterans in their longstanding struggle to receive recognition for their service.”

Dr Chris Hill, who has expertise in cultural, environmental and socio-political aspects of nuclear history, said: “This project provides a unique opportunity to ensure that nuclear veterans’ perspectives and voices become an integral part of British nuclear history, as well as the history of the Cold War more widely.”

“Most of these veterans are now in their 80s”, added Dr Jon Hogg, “and they tend to look back on their service as the defining moment in their personal and professional lives.”

The veterans’ stories will be stored and made publicly available on British Library Sounds, one of the leading archives for recorded sound in the world, as well as feeding into a documentary film, educational resources and touring engagement events, all of which are designed to promote awareness of nuclear test veteran history: among the public, in schools and in communities. The film will be led by Sasha Snow, an award-winning filmmaker who lectures at USW.

This research also aims to help policymakers to better appreciate the long-term and psychological risks that can arise from perceived exposure to manmade sources of radiation. As well as benefiting nuclear test veterans, this work will lay the foundations for research into other cohorts of veterans who believe they may have been exposed to toxic contaminants in the course of service.

The project has been endorsed by the major nuclear test veterans’ organisations, LABRATS (Legacy of the Atomic Bomb Recognition for Atomic Test Survivors) and the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA). Alan Owen, founder of LABRATS, described the project as: “…an essential one to ensure education and awareness of the testing programme for future generations.”

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