Operation Grapple – Britain’s Atomic Bombs

In 1957 my Dad, Antony Lawrence, was an 18-year-old Telegraphist on HMS Narvik. The Narvik had recently been refitted and Dad felt he was lucky to be posted to a ship with bunks, as many of the Royal Navy’s vessels at that time still had hammocks.

The voyage across the Atlantic from the UK was extremely stormy, Dad remembered waves a tall as double decker busses, and the Narvik had to dock in Kingston, Jamaica for repairs.

Ironically at the same time the Narvik was being repaired, Ian Fleming was writing Doctor No at his home, Goldeneye, in the hills above Kingston.  In Chapter 20 of the book, Fleming wrote about HMS Narvik arriving in Kingston and assisting the Governor of Jamaica in cleaning up the loose ends at Crab Key, following James Bond’s exploits with Doctor No.  As a result, we always joked that Dad had come to the aid of 007…

Image Copyright: United Artists Corporation / Danjaq LLC

Having sailed through the Panama Canal for his first time, the Narvik crossed the Equator on 22 March 1957 and thus it was time to be presented to Neptune’s Court during the infamous ‘Crossing the Line Ceremony’. As naval tradition dictates, Dad paid his respects to the Lord of the Seas, King Neptune to gain his acceptance and become one of his loyal subjects.

During the first three tests of Operation Grapple, the Narvik served as the Scientific Control Ship.  Helicopters from HMS Warrior would frequently shuttle scientists from the Narvik to and from Malden Island.

When it came to the bomb drops, the crew were assembled on the main deck.  They were luckier than those from earlier atomic tests because they were at least provided with some limited protective clothing.  During each test, the crew were ordered to sit on the deck with their back to the explosion and hands over their eyes.

Even with dark goggles on and eyes closed, my Dad could still recall seeing the bones of his fingers through the brilliant white flash of light. When signalled, the crew could stand up and turn around to watch the atomic mushroom rise high into the sky.

Between each test, the crew used enjoyed R&R time on Malden Island, where they would relax swimming in the lagoons and scavenging for metal cans that contained goodies like chocolate that had been placed around this island.  In hindsight this was probably not the safest snacks they had ever eaten but at the time they had no idea of the danger.

The Narvik returned home after the first three Grapple tests at Malden Island and therefore my Dad was (thankfully) spared involvement in the Christmas Islands tests and significantly Grapple Y.  However, in 2002 he was diagnosed with a high-grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma. With a pioneering new mixture of chemotherapy from The Royal Marsden Hospital, he did manage to fight off the cancer however the extensive treatment left him a much weaker person and he sadly passed away in April 2018.

My Dad had a small collection of pictures and memorabilia from this period but I am on the lookout for photographs that may have been taken either by or of the Narvik and her crew.

If you do have pictures that you’d like to share, please do get in touch.

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