The Value of live Indoctrination at a Nuclear Weapon Trial


In September 1956, 250 British and Commonwealth officers attended the first of the British BUFFALO nuclear weapon tests at Maralinga, Australia. The object of their ‘indoctrination’ was to give them a better idea of the nature and possibilities of nuclear warfare. In order to ascertain whether any measurable change had occurred in the attitude of the Indoctrinees towards nuclear weapons as a result of their experiences, the British Army Operational Research Group devised a pre-bomb and post-bomb questionnaire that was to be completed by the attending officers. The answers provide some fascinating insights into the minds of soldiers who had to ply their deadly trade under the looming shadow of the atom.

After a short delay, during which time some of the more impatient officers were reported as being extremely ‘browned-off’, the Indoctrinees were finally treated to not one, but two nuclear explosions. The yield of the first bomb was measured at 12.5 KT, the second 10 KT. In general, the officers appeared to be impressed by the flash and heat-wave of the nuclear explosion, but were underwhelmed by the noise and the blast from their viewing platform 5 ½ miles away. I’m not sure what they were hoping for, perhaps a good old fashioned 20 kilo-tonner would have done it for them? Nonetheless, the Army Operational Research Group promptly distributed the questionnaires. The questions were designed to assess the Indoctrinees knowledge of, and attitudes towards, nuclear weapons. One of the questions asked was:

Lying down in the open on fairly flat ground, would you rather be:

a)      2 miles from a 20 KT bomb explosion

b)      400 yards from a 2000-lb HE bomb explosion

c)      50 yards from a 25-pr HE shell explosion

*Also, put a cross (x) under the one you dislike the most *

None of the above? Unsurprisingly, the majority of the participants ‘disliked’ nuclear weapons much more after experiencing the explosions. Another questions asked:

If you were an Army Commander who required a blitz on an enemy concentration 4 miles behind their front lines, which would you prefer as the most likely to achieve your object:

a)      An atomic missile

b)      A HE bomb air attack of equivalent explosive force

c)      Heavy artillery bombardment of equivalent explosive force

94% of the Indoctrinees answered that an atomic missile would be the best tool for the rather difficult job of blitzing the enemy position. The pre-bomb answers had shown that 84% of the officers would have chosen the atomic missile, however. The atom was certainly becoming conventionalized in the minds of the officer corps. Considering the British Army of the Rhine’s nuclear posture in Central Europe during this period, the acceptance of all things nuclear would have certainly been pleasing news for the Army Council. Yet, curiously another set of answers indicated that the majority of officers who witnessed the explosions believed that nuclear weapons would make war as an ‘art’ much more difficult. This is not the place to argue whether war is more akin to an art or a science (not now, Carl), but it does highlight the complexities and uncertainties that surrounded the profession of arms during the nuclear era.