Bangs and Stinks

James Buchan

  • Test of Greatness: Britain’s Struggle for the Atom Bomb by Brian Cathcart
    Murray, 301 pp, £19.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 7195 5225 7

The story of how the secrets of explosive plutonium fission were spirited away from the United States to this country has if anything increased in interest in recent years. Alongside its narrative appeal – the improvisation and mathematics, the bureaucratic squabbles and triumphs, the precision engineering of high explosive – the scientific campaign that ended in the Hurricane test at the Monte Bello islands off Australia’s west coast on 3 October 1952 also dramatises the yearning and anxiety in British self-consciousness after the war. Soon after the test, the Daily Graphic apostrophised William Penney, the project’s leader: ‘Britain and the Commonwealth owe a debt – almost impossible to repay – to you ... the fact that you and your team have made it possible for Britain to make and store atom bombs has made the country a world power once again.’

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