"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"The Brits exploded 12 atomic bombs in friendly Australia"
Until now, I never realised the full extent and impact of Britain's nuclear bomb tests in Australia. While the Yanks dropped two bombs on the enemy to end World War II, the Brits exploded 12 atomic bombs in friendly Australia. Maralinga in South Australia was the most extensive test site.
At first, the British had no plans to test in Australia. In 1946, when the Americans discovered that a British spy was working on the Manhattan project, they enacted the McMahon Act. This act excluded the British from working on secret military programs. Hence the Brits had to find new test sites as they went it alone.
The quirky and disjointed Netflix show, 'Operation Buffalo', pulls back the curtain on this shabby chapter in Britain's history. The series is a highly fictionalised account of events at the Maralinga test site between 1956 and 1963, an area of land claimed to be empty.
In truth, the site is Aboriginal land and occupied by the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people. Further, not all these people had the opportunity to evacuate. A single warden was to ensure their safety, as they roamed as nomads in an area the size of England. Many didn't know about the tests, as evidence emerges that the dead found after the blasts had secret burials.
Better documented are terrible tales of people, including children, blinded and poisoned by the tests. Caught in the fall-out zone, many suffered horrific lingering deaths.
I must say that the Netflix series is a confused dramatisation of events. I can't decide whether it's a black-comedy, Cold War thriller or a mystic drama piece. At times the convoluted storyline is so unconvincing that you have to laugh. Nonetheless, it's entertaining and thought-provoking. I found it best to go with the flow, although the ending took me by surprise and disenchanted; the series offers no real closure.
For the record, besides testing seven nuclear bombs at Maralinga, the Brits burnt large plutonium quantities to see what would happen, as you do. This open-air burning spread contamination far and wide. Much of that burnt plutonium will remain hazardous for about 24,000 years. By comparison, 24,000 years ago was the middle of the last ice age.
The tests at Maralinga aimed to assess the functioning of the bombs and the impact on military personnel. For this purpose, both British and Australian soldiers lined up in the open, beyond the blast range, to observe the detonations. As a precaution, they turned their backs. Then, without protective gear, they were marched through the blast zone. As a consequence, 30% of the service personnel who attended the tests died of cancers. By comparison, in a normal population, about 5% of people die of cancer.
The British and Australians kept all this secret until the 1970s when whistleblower Avon Hudson began talking. Subsequently, a Royal Commission revealed a litany of cover-ups, recklessness and wanton disregard for public safety.
Attempts to clean up the site began in the 1960s. But these were far from successful. A more thorough cleaning began in 1995 lasting until 2000. That project cost $100 million, 75% of which Australia covered. Yet, even today, vast tracks of the test site remain off-limits to humans.
Campaigners shamed the British into covering some of the medical costs of indigenous people poisoned by the tests. In 2017, the exhumation of a child's remains helped reawaken sentiments around the test's legacy.
'Operation Buffalo' takes in the political machinations of the day. In brief, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies authorised the tests without consulting his parliament. Keen to curry favour with the British, he wrapped the operation in secrecy and, for obvious reasons, hid the broader impacts.
Without giving too much away, 'Operation Buffalo' has wonderfully colourful characters. Topping the list is General 'Cranky' Crankford, an old-school warrior sitting out his 'grace and favour' posting pending retirement. Played with restrained strength by James Cromwell, Cranky is the good-conscience who does the right thing.
He recognises the absurdness of the tests. At the same time, he connects with the Aboriginal people in a bizarre series of events. Meanwhile, there is plenty to enjoy in the cartoonish portrayals of vile politicians and the incompetent Australian secret service.
If nothing else, 'Operation Buffalo' raises many questions. I came away disgusted at the indignity visited on the indigenous people by the men making clouds.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.