John Gower was captain of the HMS Diana. He and his crew were exposed to the deadly effects of an atomic detonation
HMS Diana: the ship that went nuclear
By Sean Rayment
In 1956, HMS Diana sailed into the aftermath of an atomic explosion, testing the impact a war with the Soviets might have on British servicemen. The consequences were horrific, and yet those on board continue to be denied compensation. Sean Rayment reveals the full story
On a cold, clear morning in late March 1956, the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Diana, quietly and without ceremony, slipped her moorings at the Devonport naval base and set a course for the Indian Ocean.
Her destination was Monte Bello, a group of beautiful tropical islands 200 miles off Australia’s western coast, where British scientists were secretly developing an atomic bomb.
The young close-knit crew of 300, who were a mixture of regular and National Service seamen, knew little about the mission, except that on arrival they would be ordered to observe a series of nuclear explosions.
But the sailors were to be more than mere spectators. Britain’s military chiefs in the early 1950s believed that a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was inevitable.
If British troops were to have any chance of survival, commanders needed to know how long they could fight with and without protective equipment in an environment contaminated by radioactive fallout.
HMS Diana’s crew would help to provide the answers by being deliberately exposed to the deadly effects of an atomic detonation.
In a unique but ultimately lethal experiment, the ship would be ordered to steam through a radioactive cloud. For protection, the crew were issued only with Polaroid sunglasses, overshoes and face masks.
The results were catastrophic. Within weeks of the nuclear trials, several of the ship’s company had fallen ill. Some lost teeth, while others lost hair – all classic signs of poisoning by radioactive material.
Today, there are just 60 members of the original crew left alive. Of the 240 who have died in the intervening years, more than 100 had cancer.
Between 1952 and 1967, more than 22,000 servicemen from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the US and other countries witnessed hundreds of nuclear explosions in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Many were contaminated by radioactive fallout and thousands of veterans have died prematurely, often in extreme agony.
For 25 years, servicemen involved in the tests have been campaigning for the British government to accept liability for their plight, arguing that they are due compensation. However, the Ministry of Defence refuses to accept that there is a link to the atomic tests.
This refusal continues even in the face of new scientific evidence showing that veterans who witnessed the nuclear tests were three times more likely to have damaged chromosomes than other members of the population.
Such damage is known to lead to cancer-related illnesses and hereditary genetic disorders.
Today The Sunday Telegraph can tell, for the first time, the full story of HMS Diana – which was captained by John Gower, the uncle of the former England cricket captain David Gower.
Based on the personal accounts of those who took part in the secret atomic experiments – codenamed Operation Mosaic – and from legal testimony, we reveal how the Diana’s crew were deceived and betrayed by the Ministry of Defence.
. . .