WHEN Mike Hollen set sail for Christmas Island, it was his first time overseas. By the time he returned, eight months later, he’d been half way round the world - and witnessed three nuclear explosions.

Mike was in National Service when he took part in Operation Grapple, a set of British nuclear weapons tests carried out in the Pacific ocean in 1957.

Now Mike, of Low Moor, has been awarded the Nuclear Test Medal, honouring veterans of Britain’s nuclear testing programme in the 1950s and 1960s. The medal recognises their “invaluable contribution to the safety and security of the UK”.

This weekend Mike will wear his medal at the Remembrance service at his local church. “I’ve waited nearly 70 years for this,” he said. “I doubt there are many recipients left now.”

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Mike will wear his medal at a Remembrance serviceMike will wear his medal at a Remembrance service (Image: Newsquest)

The Nuclear Test Medal, awarded by the Government, recognises military, civilian and overseas personnel who participated in the tests. Its design features an atom surrounded by olive branches, with the obverse bearing the King’s face, and a ribbon of white, yellow, black and red, with lighter blue representing the sky and Pacific ocean.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Mike's Nuclear Test Medal, right, and his National Service medal, left Mike's Nuclear Test Medal, right, and his National Service medal, left (Image: Newsquest)

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Johnny Mercer said that, following the recent release of the Oppenheimer film, “it is important to remember the contributions of the veterans, scientists and staff who worked on Britain’s nuclear programme.

“Our nuclear deterrent continues to underpin both our security and the security of our NATO allies and this new medal is a fitting tribute to all those who worked to develop this vital defence.”

Mike’s National Service began with a medical in April, 1956, followed by an entrance exam for the Royal Navy. He enlisted as a steward on June 18. “I was delighted to be accepted as I hoped to get the opportunity to travel to countries which under normal circumstances I’d never visit,” said Mike.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Mike in his Royal Navy uniformMike in his Royal Navy uniform (Image: Mike Hollen)

He was sent to Portsmouth for “three weeks of intensive square bashing”. When it was announced that Princess Margaret was to visit the barracks the men were tasked with “painting coal black and white-washing stones” prior to the royal arrival. Transferring to Wetherby for training, Mike was awarded the Captain’s Prize for outstanding merit.

Four months later he was posted to HMS Victory then, in January 1957, to HMS Warrior for wardroom duties. The Naval ship sailed from Portsmouth on February 2. “We knew it was destined for Christmas Island - we were the Guinea pigs,” said Mike. “By the time we reached open sea a considerable gale was blowing. The ship’s boats were damaged and life-rafts were washed away. Once past the Azores, there was better weather. We slept in hammocks, it was very cramped. There were 443 of us on the mess deck.

“Our first port of call was Kingston, Jamaica, for two days. Then we headed for Christmas Island, via the Panama Canal. The ship scraped the side of the lock, we only just got in. Once clear of the canal we arrived at Christmas Island on March 4. After a short time on board, the Leading Steward, who looked after the Executive Officer, fractured his arm and was flown home. I was called upon to undertake his duties.”

Once the ship anchored at Christmas Island, the men enjoyed rest and recuperation in Hawaii. “About 400 soldiers and airmen went on a trip to Honolulu, met by a troupe of Hula girls who performed for us on the flight deck,” said Mike. “I have vivid memories of visiting the Armed Services YMCA in Honolulu, which in 1957 was out of this world. It had a marvellous swimming pool.”

Back at Christmas Island the crew “got down to the job in hand” but Mike recalls leisure time too, with a boxing tournament, deck hockey, volley ball, table tennis and the ship’s concert party providing entertainment: “We were anchored in the bay and lived on the ship, we didn’t go ashore much. We held an impressive Crossing the Line ceremony on April 2. I lost count of the times we crossed the equator, between Christmas and Malden Islands.”

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Mike and his fellow crewmen enjoyed some leisure time Mike and his fellow crewmen enjoyed some leisure time (Image: Mike Hollen)

Soon the day approached for the first test. “After much preparation it was decided that it would be Wednesday, May 15,” said Mike.

At 11.38am a bomb was dropped by a Vickers Valiant bomber off Malden Island. “All the ship’s company were assembled on the deck to witness the historic occasion,” recalled Mike. “We were all wearing anti-flash gear and special goggles to protect our eyes from the flash. We were told to turn away. Even through thick clothing, an intense flash of heat penetrated our bodies.

“Shortly after the burst, we turned to see the dying explosion. High above the sea and rising rapidly was an enormous ball of fire. A feathery white cap spread over the top of the cloud, extending downwards to form a gigantic snowball, poised on a white stem that appeared in sections between cloud and sea.

"All eyes were fixed on the mushroom cloud, bridging sea and sky like a giant watersprout. Two minutes slowly passed while waiting for the shock wave - when it came, it was a double boom like distant gunfire.”

Mike has an album full of remarkable photographs that he took on board before being ordered below deck, to await clearance from radioactive fall-out.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Mike took photographs of the mushroom cloud from the deckMike took photographs of the mushroom cloud from the deck (Image: Mike Hollen)

The second test was on May 31. After the third test the operation was over. “In July we left for Honolulu, then home, via South America, visiting many places, including Pitcairn Island, Port Stanley, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. We arrived in Portsmouth October 11, 1957, having travelled 39,851 miles.”

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Mike's handwritten diary from his time in Operation GrappleMike's handwritten diary from his time in Operation Grapple (Image: Newsquest)

Reflecting on Operation Grapple, Mike said: “I hope nuclear weapons are never used, but they are needed for security.”

After National Service, he returned to work in a mill, but “having sailed half-way round the world I couldn’t settle.” He served with the police in Bradford for 30 years. With his late wife, Christine, Mike has two daughters and four grandchildren. “Chris and I went on 55 cruises - I got the travel bug from National Service,” smiled Mike.

Looking back on his extraordinary time in the Pacific, he said: “At school I had a book called The World: A General Geography by L Dudley Stamp. My unique experience enabled me to visit most places in that book.”