Joe Mitchell

Joe Mitchell spent his National Service with the Royal Engineers - working on Christmas Island in 1956, preparing for Operation Grapple, Britain's thermonuclear bomb tests.

In 1956, 18-year-old Royal Engineers Sapper Joseph Mitchell boarded a troop ship bound for the tropics. He didn’t know it then, but Joe was part of the biggest military operation since D-Day. Britain’s controversial post-war nuclear weapons testing programme, Operation Grapple, took place at Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean.

In later life Joe became isolated in his own home by ill-health and the pandemic. SSAFA Merseyside helped him regain some independence.

After enlisting in the Army in Liverpool, Joseph Mitchell caught a train to Worcester to begin his training on 14 February 1955.

“My mum and dad took me down to the station to see me off,” he says. “I remember sitting on the train beside two vicars thinking, ‘What have I done?’ It was freezing cold, and I went in on Valentine's Day which made it worse. I was thinking about girls and parties and all kinds!

“It was National Service, so I had to enlist anyway but I signed up to be a regular with a three-year option to come out.”

After Worcester, Joe was posted to Aldershot, then Erlestoke Army camp in Wiltshire.

“We had our first big parade on the square,” he remembers. “In the Army, you're told to look over the man's head in front of you. But this Sergeant Major had a permanent twitch. I didn't know about that. I'd never seen him before.

“He was inspecting us all, and he looked at me and I saw him do that twitch. I thought he knew me. So, I winked back.

My feet never touched!

“My feet never touched! He got a corporal to march me down to the guard's room, and when the parade had finished, he came storming down and the first words out of his mouth were, 'Are you taking the p*** out of me?' I said, 'No, sir!' Which I wasn't.

“He said, 'Why did you do that?' I said, 'I saw you do it and I thought you knew me.' It sounds daft now. But I was only 18, I didn't know any different!”

“That was the start of that camp! I got on alright with him when we got on Christmas Island. He was a good Regimental Sergeant Major.”

Joe’s next posting was more exotic – and mysterious.

“Before I left, my mum and dad asked, 'Where are you going?' I said, 'We're going abroad somewhere.' My dad said, 'You must know, you don't just sail away!' I said, 'Dad, I'm telling the truth, I don't know anything!'

“All we knew was BFPO, British Forces Post Office 175, Honolulu. That was our address, where all our mail went. I haven’t forgotten that number."

Joe’s regiment, the Royal Engineers, commissioned a former cruise liner to transport troops and equipment to the unknown tropical destination. But conditions on board during the seven-month voyage were far from luxurious.

“It was an old coal ship with stokers on it,” Joe remembers. “You pay a fortune for a cruise like this now, but it didn't cost me a penny. The Queen paid for it!

Our ship was bug-ridden!

“We were allocated cabins but when we banged the bed springs, all these bugs fell out! The beds had been dragged out of a scrapyard and they had just slapped some paint on. Our ship was bug-ridden! We had to sleep on the deck that night. They got it fumigated and said, 'If it doesn't work, we'll have to fly you out to Fiji and go a different way.' Anyway, they said the fumigation was successful, so we sailed.”

“We left Southampton and then stopped at the Azores, then stayed overnight in Cristóbal before we went through the Panama Canal. When we came out the other side we went to Honolulu. I got picked up for jaywalking in Honolulu!

“We knew nothing about where we were going or why. Top secret. We only found out later,” says Joe. “The Yanks told us in Honolulu. They had already tested their atom bombs in the Pacific. They knew that we were going to Christmas Island. That was the first we heard of it. People put two and two together and we worked it out for ourselves. We were all guinea pigs, being sent there to see if we could fight after atomic warfare.”

'Kiritimati or 'Christmas Island' was one of 33 low-lying Pacific islands now known collectively as the independent Republic of Kiribati. It is 1,200 miles from Honolulu and 7,500 miles from England. Here, in the crystal water and blue skies of the Pacific, the British government tested nine thermonuclear weapons between May 1957 and September 1958.

Around 22,000 British servicemen, along with soldiers from New Zealand and Fiji, took part in Operation Grapple, the bomb tests that established Britain as the world’s third nuclear power, alongside the United States and the Soviet Union.

A few coconut trees, land crabs, and sand greeted us.

“We were the first lot out, the advance party,” says Joe. “A few coconut trees, land crabs, and sand were all that greeted us,” Joe remembers. “It was a desolate island, just three-foot above sea level, about a quarter of an inch away from the equator. It was shaped like a boot, and we were up near the toe cap.

“We were there to build the main camp. We set everything up and did all the preparation, building the airfield, huts, cinemas, scientists’ huts, everything.

“We had to sleep on the ship the first couple of nights, to get stuff ashore. Our landing stage was a pontoon anchored to the beach.

“My job was heavy goods driver, getting stuff off the ship and taking it wherever it had to go. We would pull up alongside in these LCMs (landing craft). The ramp went down, and I had to reverse my trailer into an LCM and put my wagon in the next one and sail out to the ship, which was anchored about a mile away on account of the coral reef.

“That was dangerous. Some heavy loads went overboard when cables snapped, bulldozing over the side,” Joe says. “I nearly got killed once! They loaded a net full of jerry cans on filled with Avgas – fuel for aeroplanes – from the ship, but there was a slight swell and it swung out over the sea. Someone shouted out, 'Grab it when it comes back!' and I was the only one who bloody grabbed it! I went out over the sea and coming back I would have been crushed between that and the ship. So, I leapt over to my wagon and scraped my leg on the cans. But that was better than getting crushed!

I always tried make the best of things.

“Everything was basic, there was no luxury at all. It was made do and mend. But everything was an experience. It was what you made it and I always tried make the best of things and enjoy what I did.

“I was always a prankster, tipping the beds, and pillow fights and stupid things. But it brought us all together. I tried to see the good side in everybody, rather than the bad side. I was lucky, I had a good gang of genuine mates. I’ve known some since 1956. That’s a long time to be mates!”

On the island, entrepreneurial Joe supplemented his Army pay as unofficial regimental barber.

“I was known for cutting hair. I bought these hair clippers in a shop in Honolulu. Don't ask me why, I just saw them in a window and got them! I wasn’t thinking about being a barber. This fella, Denny Redden he had jet black hair and when we left Honolulu, he said, 'Come on, Scouse. Give us a haircut,' and that's how it started.

“In the end, I did become professional, but I mostly did crew cuts. It was a tropical place, and everyone liked their hair short. A hair cut was five pence; that was my fee. The regimental policeman, Jock McGee, used to cut my hair. I told him how to do it. But he would go so far up, and then stop and pull. It was torture but I had to put up with it!

Christmas Island’s local fauna and flora included hammerhead sharks and a resident population of large land crabs. ‘They put shark nets at either end of the lagoons, so we went swimming in there,’ says Joe.

At night, soldiers hung nets and raised their beds on jerrycans to discourage crabs from crawling into bed with them.

“We used to tease the land crabs and then they started chasing us. We ran into the sea thinking they'd leave us alone, but they can bloody swim in there!”

“Lots of daft things happened. It was good fun,” says Joe. “But they're not all nice stories."

You're not sleeping in here, smelling like that!

“One fellow who slept in our tent, his job was to go around the toilets emptying the buckets into a tipper truck with a plank to stand on. One day the driver put his foot down and he fell back into the tipper. All they did was let the sea in and it got washed off, but we said, 'You're not sleeping in here tonight, smelling like that!”

“Once I tried to shake some coconuts down from a tree by banging it with the bumper of my wagon. It didn't work so I went a bit harder and eight or ten came down. One of them smashed through my windscreen! The locals used to more or less walk up the tree. I thought I could do it with a towel and I was doing all right, until I dropped down and scraped all my skin!”

“The local people were brilliant,” Joe remembers. “They were called Gilbertese, and they were nice people. I was very friendly with a lot of them, and the women used to do my washing. The khakis would go in, but they were nearly white when they came out because they used to hit them with rocks. They used to sing while they worked. I didn't know the words but the harmonising between them was lovely. That's the only music you could hear.

I made a bit of a mess of the fish!

“I have a true story: I was driving my wagon and trailer from the port. The villagers would go fishing and lay out their catch – masses of big fish – by the roadside. But going through the village, one of the women was doing some washing.

“She was topless. I was only 18 and you didn’t see things like that back then in the 50s. I was flabbergasted, mesmerised!

“When I looked in my mirror, I saw my trailer wheels going over the fish. I just kept going. The vehicle was heavy, so I imagine I made a bit of a mess of the fish. But I didn’t do it on purpose, I was side-tracked!"

Like many soldiers, Joe came back with souvenirs made by the local Gilbertese (now I-Kiribati) community.

“They made a pair of fans for me that I brought for my mum,” she says. “They were making a sword out of sharks teeth, but they got halfway, and I had to come home so somebody else would have gotten that!”

Like looking at an X-ray, they saw the bones in their body.

After two years on Christmas Island, it was time to return to England.

“After we'd done all the donkey work preparing, we were getting sent home,” Joe remembers. “At the time, we wanted to stay and be there when the bomb went off. With hindsight, I'm glad we didn't.

“The crowd that took over, that took our place, they were the ones that were there when the bomb went off,” says Joe. “They were the guinea pigs.”

After Joe left, bombs were detonated every three months. Soldiers, including some of Joe’s friends, were ordered outside without protective clothing, sometimes just 30 miles from the blast.

“They had to sit on the beach with their Army tropical hat, a pair of shorts, pair of boots, arms folded, legs crossed,” Joe says. "The bomb went off behind them, but they said it was like looking at an X-ray, they saw all the bones in their body, from the flash. Told the tests posed little risk to health (via radiation exposure), a significant number of veterans went on to experience serious health issues. The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA), believe these nuclear tests caused cancers, fertility problems and birth defects.

“It affected a lot of families,” says Joe. “It's gone down three generations.”

Today, the BNTVA is campaigning for medals for those who took part in the operation. In November 2022, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced medals would be awarded to British nuclear test veterans.

The return sea voyage, via Bermuda, was “a horrible experience,” says Joe.

“The waves were 50 or 60 feet high. One minute you're down in the trough, next minute you're up in the air! It was frightening. All you could hear was 'bang!' The bloody big wave comes over, hits the bulkhead, and goes right deep over the deck.

“I was on duty on the top deck with two other fellas and suddenly, the ship did a lurch, and I just stepped off that deck into the sea, just like that.

All I could see was white foam and saltwater.

“All I could see was white foam and saltwater. I held on but that's how easy it would have been to be washed overboard!”

Safely back in England, Joe weighed up an Army career but decided to leave.

“I regret it now,” he says. “But sadly, I was mixed with a lot of fellows who all wanted to get out, so I left. With hindsight I wish I'd stayed. I did like it.”

Instead, Joe spent 25 years in the Ambulance Service. His two sons Gary and Wayne joined the military: Wayne joined the Royal Marines and earned his Green Beret at 18 before becoming a Greater Manchester Police officer, and Gary served 38 years in the RAF.

He was a prisoner in his own home

A popular, sociable man who led an active life, in his later years Joe found himself isolated in his Liverpool home by ill-health and Covid lockdowns.

“I was high risk,” he says. “I couldn't even go out in the road, I had to stay in.”

Apart from a weekly trip to a local day centre, he had little contact with friends or neighbours. “I see them go past the window and that's it,” he says.

Mobility problems and a steep step made it impossible for Joe to leave his house via the front door without assistance.

So, his son Wayne contacted SSAFA Merseyside, whose caseworker Linda Bibby helped secure funding for an electric roller garage door, giving Joe some of his freedom and independence back.

Caseworker Linda explains: “For three years, Joe’s conversation with other human beings has been almost zero.

“He was a prisoner in his own home due to high steps at the front of the property. The only choice we were left with was to look at providing an electric roller door to the garage, to allow Joe to exit the property and be able to stand at the front of the house, to meet neighbours and be able to communicate with people.”

Joe says: “I'm not good on my feet or my legs but if I can get into the garage, all I have to do is push the button, the door goes up and I can walk out.

“I haven't been out far; I've been to the front gate. I talked to my neighbour a couple of nights ago and he's a smashing fellow. He’s got a couple of dogs and I love them to bits. I am a genuine animal lover.”

Joseph Mitchell sadly passed away aged 86 on 17 June 2023. His son Wayne said: “I can’t thank SSAFA Merseyside and Linda enough for everything they did for Dad. The last few years were hard for him and all the effort and work that went into helping was just fantastic. They went above and beyond.”

SSAFA would like to thank Joseph Mitchell’s sons Wayne and Gary Mitchell for kindly allowing us to share their late father’s story.