On October 3, 1952 Britain joined the nuclear powers of the world.

On the Montebello Islands off the western coast of Australia a 25kt bomb was exploded inside the hull of HMS Plym, leaving a 20ft crater in the seabed, as the UK matched the United States and Soviet Union in possessing the most deadly weaponry ever created by humanity.

Those are the raw facts, but how does it feel to experience that level of ruination?

What was it like to stand in awe at the destructive power that led J Robert Oppenheimer to declare, “now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”?

The Herald: John Lax during his days in the RAFJohn Lax during his days in the RAF (Image: John Lax)

“When the bomb goes off it’s like a pistol shot, except it’s about 1000x louder,” says John Lax, 81, an RAF veteran.

“It’s horrendously loud with a sharp crack. It’s not like a normal bomb going off, it’s not like an explosion as such.

“It’s just a loud bang, like a crack.

“When the bombs went off it was dark, it was about 4am. The sky turned blue just like it was midday. In fact, military terminology calls a nuclear weapon a bucket of sunshine because it’s like somebody has spilled a bucket of sunshine and the sky just lights up.

“The next thing is you feel the heat from the fireball, and a couple of minutes later you feel the blast. It’s a hot wind, but only for a short time. Then it all goes quiet.

“There isn’t anything that could prepare you for it, because it’s something that is unique. Every person feels it differently. Some people were absolutely petrified, whereas I was just annoyed because it was getting me out of bed at 3am – usually with a hangover!

“Our instructions were to put on long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and, I don’t know why, a jungle hat. We got issued with these dark googles, you would put them on and you couldn’t see your hand in front of you.

“Then we had to go and sit on the football pitch with our back to the detonation, the reason being that even with these dark goggles the fireball is so intense it would burn your eyes.

“The light was so bright that there’s a guy sat with his back to me about a metre in front and I could see his spine and his ribs just like an X-ray. If you put your hand up in front of your face you could see all the bones. You could watch the blood pumping.

“I could tell you all about it, but it wouldn’t really prepare you for sitting on a football pitch while a nuclear bomb goes off.”

He should know. Lax, who lives in Dunipace, is one of around 75 surviving nuclear veterans in Scotland. He bore witness to 25 nuclear detonations in the space of a year, as part of the U.S Operation Dominic.

President John F. Kennedy had authorised the testing programme, the largest in the nation’s history, after the USSR had detonated Tsa Bomba, a 58mt device which remains the most powerful weapon ever detonated in the history of humanity. The site chosen to conduct the operations was Christmas Island, then a Royal Air Force base in the South Pacific.

Lax explains: “I went to Christmas Island in September 1961 a month after my 20th birthday. It was a dream posting for me, I was an air wireless mechanic, I serviced aircraft radios.

“We had four aircraft to move once a week, two in, two out. Money for old rope! I spent the rest of the time swimming, sailing, water-skiing, scuba diving – until the Americans came out in March 1962.

“The nuclear tests started in April ’62 and went on for 78 days. In that 78 days we sat through 24 nuclear bombs and one Polaris missile test.

“The Polaris missile was the only time that missile was fired with a live nuclear warhead.

“When I went to Christmas Island it was just like a holding unit, a staging post for aircraft flying across the Pacific to call in for fuelling, servicing – or even just to use the loo.

“It was an easy job, it really was. The first we knew anything was happening was when we got a load of American aircraft.

“In typical American organisational fashion they brought everybody: cooks, clerks, cleaners, whatever – but they didn’t bring any ground crew.

“So for two weeks we were handling something like 10-20 American aircraft a day, seven days a week.”

It was a time of raised tension where the Cold War looked as though it had a genuine possibility of going hot. The Cuban Missile Crisis took place in October of 1962, with the Soviets and Americans standing perilously close to mutually assured destruction.

On Christmas Island though, the threat of apocalypse didn’t loom large in the mind.

The Herald: The mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosionThe mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion (Image: Getty)

Lax recalls: “We were just getting on with the job, I don’t suppose we even considered it. It was a Cold War, so it was ‘my black cat’s blacker than your black cat’ between Russia, the UK and America.

“We accepted that they were testing the nuclear deterrent, but we never for one moment considered that anybody would use it. The lesson for that had been learned at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“We never even thought about it to be honest, and we certainly never talked about it. When we were sat around the table in the evening having a beer no-one was saying ‘I wonder what’s going to happen if Russia drop the bomb?’.”

It’s probably not unfair to say that the early days of nuclear testing were fairly haphazard. In 1956 the HMS Diana – built in Glasgow - was ordered to sail into the fallout zone of two nuclear explosions to discover the effects of fallout on the ship and crew, as well as collecting debris.

On Christmas Island, it wasn’t just the protection offered by a hat and long trousers the servicemen had. They were also given a film badge, in theory to record the levels of radiation they’d been exposed to.

“The only trouble was no-one kept a record of who had which badge,” says Lax with a rueful laugh.

The Herald: Soldiers at work on Christmas IslandSoldiers at work on Christmas Island (Image: Unknown)

“So when you got one exchanged there was no record, you took your old one off, threw it in a box, and picked a new one out of another box.

“The other thing that I found out two or three years ago is that these film badges are susceptible to damage through humidity - apparently it melts the emulsion off the film so it doesn’t record anything.

“Bear in mind Christmas Island is 115 miles north of the equator and the highest point is only 5ft, it’s humid. Hence no record.”

For the servicemen themselves, young and fit, not much thought was given to the long-term effects the testing could have.

In later years though many began to suffer from health issues, and a charity was formed – the British Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association.

Lax says: “Descendents of nuclear test veterans are suffering weird diseases, possibly attributed to radiation and possibly transmitted from the veteran to the descendent.

“When my eldest son was 14 he got a tumour on the wall of his carotid artery that grew to the size of a golf ball before they finally took it out. It turned out to be benign but he still had to have radioactive needles implanted in his neck to ensure that any further cancer would be killed off.

“My daughter has had several tumours in her breasts, again all benign, so whether it can be attributed to me being irradiated or not I don’t know.

“A couple of years ago I met up with a guy who was in the Navy. I hadn’t seen him for 58 years and he’s got lung cancer, he’s in remission at the moment, he’s almost lost his sight. By coincidence, another guy who was in the same room, same branch of the navy… nothing. Not even a bad cold.

“I, personally, had a stroke when I was in my 70s. That could be attributed to nuclear radiation, but then I say ‘how come I lived for 50 years before it happened?’.”

The Herald: A U.S bomb explodes off Christmas IslandA U.S bomb explodes off Christmas Island (Image: Newsquest)

The Ministry of Defence has commissioned a number of studies into the long-term effects of the radiation.

The first, published in 1988, found that overall mortality was lower among participants compared to the general population and a control group of non-exposed servicemen – an entirely expected result given that, by definition, the servicemen selected for foreign service would be fitter than an average person. However, there were higher levels of leukaemia and multiple myeloma compared to the control group – but not the general population - with the leukaemia of a type “known from other evidence to be associated with radiation exposure”.

A follow-up study found slightly lower levels of both compared to the control group – though not at a statistically significant level – and in line with the general population. A third study, in 2003, concluded leukaemia risk was “somewhat higher” while “there was also a suggestion of higher rates of liver cancer in participants”.

The most recent, by Gerry M Kendall and Mark P Little for the Society for Radiological Protection found it “hard to disagree” that the risk of non-CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukaemia) was “higher in participants than the matched control group”. However, the study stated “recorded radiation exposures are much too low to account for any detectable increase in cancers, accounting for perhaps one induced death overall if current risk estimates are approximately correct”. They put the higher risk of cancer compared to the control group, but in line with the general population, down to “chance” but concluded “the findings prompt sufficient questions to be worthy of further investigation”.

For Lax, the science can be a source of frustration.

He says: “This is what’s going to happen next week: I’ll go and listen to some scientist give me a lecture on what the effects of nuclear radiation are on me.

“He’s never been anywhere near one, he’s done all his studies in the laboratory or through scientific papers – to put it bluntly, how the hell does he know?

“I’ve got an HNC so I don’t know anything about the science, so I can’t argue the case for or against. All I can say is it didn’t happen to me but I’ve seen it happen to other people.

“Another guy I knew, who lives in Fort William, was on the same aircraft as me when we flew out to Christmas Island. He had all sorts of problems: cancer, problems with his heart, that kind of thing. The consultant in Dundee was pretty much convinced it was caused by an excessive dose of radiation.

“He was about a mile nearer to the bomb than I was.”

The MoD states that “veterans, including Nuclear Test Veterans, who believe they have suffered ill health due to service can apply for no-fault compensation under the War Pensions Scheme” which has “no time limits and a low standard of proof”. Entitlement is accepted as a presumption for non-CLL leukaemia, while claims will be considered “on the case facts” for other cancers.

Crucially, however, the policy is “not an acknowledgement that those present at the tests were exposed to harm”.

The U.S Government operates the Atomic Veterans Cancer Benefits Program providing $75,000 to ex-servicemen who develop leukaemia or other types of cancer, or their descendents. Half a million veterans are also eligible for an ‘atomic veterans medal’.

France agreed to pay compensation to former servicemen involved in nuclear testing in 2008 and recently awarded them a medal and New Zealanders involved in the tests were given recognition in 2002 – by royal decree.

On the subject of medals, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote to the veterans in September of this year stating his “firm belief” that medals would be in order, and promising to “look again at the case for medallic recognition”.

For Lax, at least, that doesn’t hold much water.

“I probably wouldn’t get a medal even if they did issue one, because according to the Ministry of Defence I was involved in foreign tests, therefore I didn’t qualify – despite the fact the British government sent me there a year before this was all going on.

“Personally I couldn’t give a damn.

“I came out of the RAF in 1975, if they’d given me a medal some time between 1962 and 1975 I’d have been delighted, I’d have worn it with pride. Now I’m 81, if they give me a medal the only time it would come out would be on November 11, like my general service medal.

“I believe it’s unfair, but do I care now? Not really. I’m quite happy to be seeing tomorrow.”

Perhaps his peace of mind is related to his work with the BNTVA, for whom he handles Scottish operations.

“We think there are about 75 test veterans left alive in Scotland,” he says.

“One of them I happen to know quite well, a guy called Jack. He lives in Glasgow and he’s quite a character.

“He finished his apprenticeship in Glasgow at the age of 19 and got called up for his national service. His first posting after training was Christmas Island.

“He sat through three nuclear bombs and then when he left the army he did some engineering jobs and finished up working out on the oil rigs.

“He lived on his own when I first got to hear about him, and I was in communication with him quite regularly on the phone, perhaps a couple of times a month.

“Then I heard from his daughter that he’d had a fall. He was on his way to bed, he had a fall. One daughter lives in London, the other one lives in Glasgow, his son lives in Glasgow.

“Anyway, he managed to contact his daughter in London, she got hold of her brother who was at a party and probably had one lemonade too many, so he walked from wherever he was to his father’s house and Jack lay on the floor, he couldn’t move, he’d banged his head and he was bleeding. He waited nine hours for an ambulance.

“He was 82 at the time. That’s when I got involved. His daughter in London phoned the BNTVA, they phoned me, and we tried to sort something out for him because he obviously couldn’t live on his own anymore.

“His daughter had got him into a care home in Glasgow, and she said she was really worried about him because he became pretty much a recluse. He never went out of his room.

“So I phoned Erskine, which is run for ex servicemen, and I said, ‘does this guy still qualify if it’s national service’. They said, ‘oh yeah, if he did more than one day in the Armed Forces he qualifies;.

“We got him into Erskine and he is as happy as a pig in manure. I went to see him a couple of weeks ago. He likes a dram and I asked if he was getting one and he said, ‘oh yeah I just pick up the phone and they bring it to me. They won’t let me have a bottle in the room but they’ll bring it to me anytime of day or night’.

“He’s surrounded by like-minded people, he shares a table with a Royal Marine and a Navy veteran so you can imagine the banter there. Especially as Jack is a dyed-in-the-wool Rangers supporter and the Navy guy is a Celtic supporter. You can imagine what it’s like!

“But that’s the kind of thing we’re trying to do.

“We’re still trying to get the list of who the Scottish ones are, but I can get in contact, if necessary I can go and visit them and see what we can do.”

You can find out more about the BNTVA here and make a donation here.