Call The Midwife season 11 begins with an unusual case for the midwives of Nonnatus House.
A young couple, Derek and Audrey Fleming, who we first met in season 10, return to Poplar due to concerns about the health of their unborn baby because Derek was exposed to radiation poisoning years before, and their first child, Christopher, was born with birth defects, before dying shortly after.
The Flemings are worried that Derek’s exposure could affect their new baby, so Sister Turner starts researching other medical cases of men like him who suffered radiation exposure as part of Operation Grapple in 1957 and 1958.
What was Operation Grapple?
Operation Grapple was the name given to four British nuclear weapons tests of atomic and hydrogen bombs that took place on islands in the Pacific Ocean in 1957 and 1958 during the Cold War.
The USA and the USSR were the only two nations with thermonuclear weapons at the time, but British authorities wanted to develop similar weapons to increase the country’s standing around the world.
The tests – which were made up of nine nuclear explosions – were carried out at Malden Island and Christmas Island (now known as Kiritimati). While Malden Island is, and was, uninhabited, Christmas Island had a few residents in the 1950s (the 1947 census listed 47 inhabitants) with British, New Zealander and Fijian servicemen also stationed there and on ships in the vicinity.
Malden Island was initially chosen for the nuclear tests, with Christmas Island selected as the base of operations, and an advance party arrived there in June 1956.
Many of the British servicemen sent to the area were taking part in National Service, the programme of post-war conscription that required all healthy men aged 17 to 21 to serve in the armed forces for 18 months.
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In May 1957, the first three tests took place, with bombs dropped and detonated over Malden Island, but for the next test the bomb was dropped at the southern tip of Christmas Island, just 23 miles from an airfield where 3,000 men were based. In April 1958, Grapple Y – the largest British nuclear weapon ever tested – was dropped near the island, and was followed by four more tests later that year.
The programme stopped after US President Dwight Eisenhower declared a one-year moratorium on nuclear testing, beginning on 31st October, 1958, which Britain and the Soviet Union also agreed to. While US forces used Christmas Island for testing in 1962, the UK did not continue to test there.
As well as those who were stationed on Christmas Island at the time of the nuclear tests, there were also hundreds of sailors on naval boats near the island, and in the years following the tests many suffered ill effects from the radiation they were exposed to.
In the short term, exposure can cause nausea and vomiting, and in the long term radiation can lead to cancers, leukaemia and even DNA damage. Those who were present at Christmas Island during the tests later reported cancers, fertility issues and birth defects in their children, including spina bifida, scoliosis and limb abnormalities (in the series, Derek’s baby son was born without legs below the knees).
In 2018, the Daily Mirror dedicated a website to those who had been affected by Britain’s nuclear bomb tests. Among the servicemen the site listed who were present during Operation Grapple are Royal Engineer Michael Watson, whose wife suffered nine miscarriages and whose daughter was born with S-shaped bones. Mick Clark, who was also there, experienced mysterious rashes at the time of the tests. He died in 1992, aged just 54, from cancer of the lung, lymph nodes, glands and bones.
Raymond Webber, who was 21 when his ship was docked at Christmas Island, witnessed the bombs and was ordered to drive through the fallout to collect contaminated equipment.
"When we left, there was a mobile decontamination point… and they had shower after shower because their readings kept showing radiation. They washed me down, too, but we all put our uniforms back on…"
After many years of campaigning, a question about the effect of the Operation Grapple exposure on men and whether they should receive compensation was raised in parliament in 2019. The reply from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence at that time, Mr Tobias Ellwood, was as follows:
"A revised MOD policy statement for armed forces personnel was published in December 2017, and it takes into account scientific studies that have been published since 2003. It is important to make clear that the Government do not accept in general that those present at sites were exposed to harmful levels of ionising radiation."
Read more on Call the Midwife:
- Everything you need to know about Call the Midwife season 11
- Call the Midwife’s Stephen McGann discusses “big” season 11 moment
- Call the Midwife’s Jenny Agutter teases what’s in store for season 11
- Call the Midwife’s Helen George hints at “obstacles to overcome” for Trixie and Matthew