Between November 1957 and September 1958, 4,000 British servicemen were stationed on Christmas Island, a remote coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean 1,300 miles south of the Hawaiian Islands. Although their daily routine included sunbathing, swimming, watching films in the camp's cinema or having a beer at the bar, the recruits' chief role was to facilitate and witness some of the largest man-made explosions ever seen.
These tests, part of Operation Grapple, were central to the UK's development of thermonuclear weapons and led to the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement that still stands today. Typical of Cold War rhetoric, the tests were seen as part of a larger scheme to deter the possibility of nuclear attacks from hostile adversaries, and were never viewed as something threatening in themselves.
The conscripts – most of them completing their National Service – were mainly brought in as engineers or tradesmen, assisting with the tests and maintaining equipment. During the H-bomb trials they were posted to various locations around the island and instructed to wear long sleeves and trousers instead of the usual shorts.
With their backs to the test site, heads against their knees and fists pushed into their eye sockets, they listened out for two countdowns delivered via loudspeaker. The first marked the moment of detonation thirty miles offshore, at which point an immensely bright flash made their hands look like X-rays and their sweat-soaked clothes dried instantly.
After a further count to 17 they were instructed to turn and face the explosion. The bombs were exploded in mid-air rather than on the surface, to reduce the effects of fallout. The soldiers marvelled at the immense ball of upturned fire as the shockwave surged into them, knocking some of them to the ground.
1,000 survivors of the Christmas Island blasts and similar tests carried out during this period have come together in a bid to sue the Ministry of Defence for negligence. Many of them believe that their exposure to radiation has adversely affected their health and that of their families, in some cases causing cancer, sterility and chromosome damage.
The MoD had spent £16m on legal fees by the end of 2008, arguing that the veterans were not exposed to the dangerous amounts of radiation they claimed. What is more, the MoD maintained that their allegations were belated, and any claims could only be valid for three years after the event.
Last year the veterans finally won the right to sue the MoD, with the judge urging an out-of-court settlement to prevent further legal proceedings. Nonetheless, if awarded it will be years before any compensation will be received and the struggle is far from over.
The UK lags behind New Zealand, France, Canada and the US in offering compensation to veterans who took part in nuclear tests. For thousands already dead or chronically ill, the decision has come too late. They are just a few of the many unrecognized victims of the Cold War.