"Rare Fish"

Operation Grapple



Colin Heape




I was brought up as a “child of Empire”, living with my father and mother in the West Indies during the war. My father was Colonial Secretary to the Duke of Windsor in the Bahamas. We came home to the UK in 1945 and I was sent to school. I did not see much of my father again until he came home for good in 1949.

A career in the Colonial Police was one of the suggestions given to me by the careers advisory service when I left school in 1955. I had volunteered for the Royal Marines and served with them for my National Service from 1957-1959. I was coxswain of a landing craft on Christmas Island during the final H-Bomb tests in 1958.

Colin Heape 2015

“ Rare Fish”

Noticing my Royal Marines tie at the Inverness Concert last year, the Colour Sergeant who was selling CDs for the Band asked me where I had served. “I was only a National Serviceman,” I replied. “Well” he said, “You were a Rare Fish, Sir. We did not have many National Servicemen in the Corps.”

As soon as I had left school, I applied to join the RMFVR so that I would have a chance of serving my National Service with the Royal Marines. I was delighted when I received instructions to report to Lympstone Barracks in the summer of 1957. I had set my heart on being sent to Norway for training in Artic Warfare. I might have known that you seldom get what you ask for in Her Majesty’s Forces. I had just completed my basic training with 42 Commando at Bickleigh and was waiting to go to Norway after Christmas, when one of my friends told me that my name had come up on the Company Notice Board. “Report to Stonehouse Barracks for your Tropical Kit” the notice read, “You have been posted to an unspecified destination East of Suez“. After a short leave at Christmas, I was on my way to Christmas Island in the Pacific. There was not much chance of snow warfare there, but what I had to take part in was just as exciting.

The Commando barracks at Bickleigh
© Richard J. Brine

I found myself playing a minor role in Operation “Grapple“, at that time the largest Joint Services Operation ever mounted in peace time. All three services were required to work together in an operational role for the purpose of testing Britain’s first thermonuclear weapons. The Hydrogen bombs, which were in the megaton range, were to be dropped by R A F Bomber Command V Force. Christmas Island was chosen because of its remoteness in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. Operation “Grapple” involved building a base and an airstrip for large jet aircraft to land on. At one time there were over 3,000 personnel living on the base. As far as I can remember there were only 2 women permanently stationed there as WVS to look after the welfare of all those young men.

Colin Heape in 1958

de Havilland Comet C.Mk.4C of RAF Transport Command

Six of us young Royal Marines flew from R A F Northolt on 21st January 1958 in a Comet Jet airliner to Travis US Air Base near San Francisco in California. The Comet had a very short range and we had to fly via Iceland and Goose Bay in Canada where we spent the first night. I remember Captain Carmen RM, who was in charge of the party, telling us that if we got drunk at Goose Bay we would freeze to death in the snow outside the huts. The outside temperature was about minus 30 c. It was the first time I had tasted maple syrup on my toast for breakfast. The next morning we flew on to San Francisco stopping off at Chicago to refuel. We spent a week at Travis and I enjoyed several trips into San Francisco on a National Serviceman’s pay. How well I remember the difficulty in hitching a lift back over the Golden Bay Bridge when returning to camp. From Travis we eventually flew on to Honolulu in a civilian aircraft. I bought my first brightly coloured tea shirt in Honolulu and nearly got into a fight with an American Marine who called me a limey “Jar Head“. The last leg of the journey from Honolulu to Christmas Island in an old R A F Transport Dakota was very uncomfortable. When we landed on the Island, the heat and glare of the sun reflected from the white coral sand of the Pacific Atoll hit you like a ton of bricks. New arrivals on the Island were called Moon Men, until they had been burnt brown. There was no thought of wearing sun cream in those days and my nose and the back of my neck was permanently red and sore. As part of the Naval Party, we were packed off to HMS Resolution, a shore base named after Capt. Cook’s ship in the Port of London on the west side of the Island. Any sophistication we might have observed at the main RAF Camp was spectacularly absent from the rows of old tents that made up the accommodation at the Port Camp.

Christmas Island is the largest coral atoll in the Pacific and is about 35 miles long by 24 miles at its widest. The land rises to about 20 ft above sea level and parts of the island are covered with Palm trees. The only wild animals on the island were rats, but I remember someone had a pet dog. At night, the shoreline was covered in land crabs, which scuttled out of the bushes in search of food. One sailor had a large crab attached to a string, which he took on parade with him.

Christmas Island - Bombing Run

Landing Craft LCM 18

The Royal Marines were there to man the Landing Craft and Royal Engineers and Fijian sailors assisted us to unload the ships. Each LCM was crewed by four Royal Marines and was used to unload all the heavy stores and equipment from the ships moored in the Bay. Ships could not enter the lagoon and had to lie off the island, weather permitting. When the ships were in, we were required to work 10 to 12 hours per day Saturdays and Sundays included to unload them. This involved a round trip of about 8 nautical miles from Port London to the ship and back three or four times a day. When the sea was rough, this meant navigating the passage through the surf breaking over the barrier reef, which surrounded the island. In bad weather the channel was closed and the ships had to put to sea again. The surf breaking on either side of the entrance was quite dramatic and the flat bottomed landing craft slammed into the waves as you put to sea. The roar of the surf along the barrier reef round the island still comes back to me after almost fifty years. I was promoted to coxswain of boat No 18 after about three months on the island. My boat was used to take stores and personnel ashore on both Malden and Fanning, two other coral islands within about 400 nautical miles from Christmas Island. The LCM was hoisted aboard HMS Narvick for these trips. To reach Malden Island involved crossing the equator, and I remember having to pay my forfeit to Neptune by being shaved and ducked in a canvas bath. I left Christmas Island on 15 December 1958 and reached UK on 22 December just in time for Christmas so I never spent Christmas on Christmas Island.

Vickers-Armstrong Valiant V-Bomber W2365

The first H-bomb test that I witnessed was exploded in May 1958. I think I was present for all the tests, which were carried out that year. The bombs were dropped from a Vickers Valiant bomber by Group Captain Ken Hubbard RAF who commanded 49 Squadron Bomber Command. I learnt more details about how the bombs were dropped by reading his obituary in “The Times” dated 27 January 2004. The bomb was released from the aircraft flying at 45,000 ft at a point 1.5 miles from the target and was timed to explode at 8,000 ft over ground zero at a position over the sea just off the south point of the island. This was approximately 20 miles from where we were sitting on the beach at Port London. The bombs were released manually as the aircraft passed over a target indicator positioned on the ground on the southern tip of the island. One minute before the explosion, we were ordered to sit down facing away from ground zero. We were told to cover our eyes with our hands and on no account to look at the test until given the all clear. I do not remember hearing the explosion, but I did feel a blast of hot air. When we did look round the whole sky was filled with a vast mushroom cloud, the top of which rose to an altitude of 60,000 ft with ice caps forming on it. The cloud grew bigger and bigger until it filled the whole horizon. It was certainly an awe inspiring sight. I think we were given the rest of the day off! The last test on 11 September 1958 produced an explosion with a yield in the three megatons range. Great Britain certainly had its own independent nuclear deterrent and the means for delivering it, which is one of the last decisions that Winston Churchill made before he retired. The words of Churchill’s final speech- “never flinch, never weary, never despair” have always stayed with me. National Service taught me to get on with life and mix easily with my fellows. I had an interesting time and have lived to tell the tale.

R C Heape, RMV 203101


Britain’s nuclear test




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