Veterans – History in The Making … 5
These last few months have been very prominent in terms of historical events involving the military. And it is right to commemorate our fallen colleagues and veterans at all times.
The end of last month marked one of the greatest battles in the history of war with the 100th anniversary of the start of the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele as it is better known. A battle that raged from 31st July until 6th November 1917 fought back and forth over 5 miles of land with an estimated 250,000 casualties on both sides of the battle.
Much has been written about these events in history books, poetry and personal memoirs and diaries as well as startling images being caught in early photographs. The likes of Passchendaele will never be forgotten.
But in August 1945 one of the biggest events in history, let alone military history, took place. This event would change the world; leading to the almost complete annihilation of two major cities and many of its people. It was an event that would start and prove to be one the longest disputes between what would become known as the two Super Power countries of the world. And to a certain extent this dispute still exists between the US and Russia.
Colonel Paul Tibbets USAF had been briefed on his top secret mission in May 1945. He was lead pilot and even selected his plane which was still on the assembly line. A giant of the skies, made by Boeing for the United States Airforce, the B-29-45-MO Superfortress, more commonly known as the B29 Bomber was commissioned into the hands of the airforce on 18th May 1945. The B-29 that Colonel Tibbets had selected was for a specific mission and had a specific target. As soon as it was ready for its fateful mission Colonel Tibbets named the plane, after his Mother. Her name was Enola Gay Tibbets.
During the 1930s and 1940s Germany led the world in science and so it was no accident that the race to produce the first atomic bomb had started in Germany in 1939. In December 1938 German scientist Otto Hahn discovered Nuclear Fission, the way to split atoms and separate neutrons and gamma photons, which by doing so, he found the reaction released huge amounts of energy. In 1939 German scientists and engineers realising the enormity of what had been discovered started work on their own nuclear weapons programme which they planned to use during World War II.
But due to the impending invasion of Poland in September 1939, a few months after the programme had started it was stopped. This was not only due to rising costs for the development of heavy water required for the early tests but also many of the scientists involved in the project were drafted into the Wehrmacht, the German Army. Another nuclear weapons programme was restarted on 1st September 1939, the actual day German tanks drove across the Polish border but by 1942 it was assessed that nuclear fission would not significantly contribute to winning the war and the Nazi high regime ordered the programme be stopped!
But in the same year that the Germans abandoned their attempts to create a nuclear bomb, the United States were carrying out their own scientific tests into nuclear fission and fusion – the ability to make atomic nuclei come very close and then collide at a very high speed and join to form a new nucleus. Within an area near Los Alamos in the state of New Mexico a team of scientist, many of them German who had fled Europe in around 1933, with the rise of Nazi-ism, along with United States, Canadian and British scientists were working on what would become known as the Manhattan Project. This was the project that under Professor Robert Oppenheimer, amongst others, would lead to the creation of an actual nuclear bomb.
The Enola Gay had to be modified significantly to carry the weapon it was going to use and with the support of the British and Canadian forces much was done to test the weapon system and effects of what was to come. But no one was prepared for what was to happen.
Japan started war with the United States with a surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Service on the US Naval Fleet at Pearl Harbour on the morning of 7th December 1941. The attack was designed as a preventative measure by the Japanese to stop the US Pacific Fleet interfering with their naval operations. Japan had invaded China in 1937 with a view to controlling and commanding the whole of Southeast Asia and went on to form a military alliance with the Axis forces, Germany and Italy, in 1940. Their view was that if they could sink enough ships at Pearl Harbour then the United States would not enter the war.
The attack had the opposite effect. The United States formed an alliance with Britain and the allies the following day entering the war officially on 8th December 1941.
On 6th August 1945, with Tibbets piloting the Enola Gay, three B-29s took off from the Mariana Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean, with their target of Hiroshima, six hours flight from their airfield. The accompanying B-29s, one with scientific instruments and the other to take photographs of what was to come, all took off within minutes of each other but then separated and flew different courses towards the island of Iwo Jima where they met up again at over 8,000 feet and plotted a direct course for Japan.
The single load the Enola Gay was carrying was called Little Boy. A 9,800lb atomic bomb, 10 feet long and 2 feet in diameter. It had been set with a predetermined detonation height of 600 metres above land. The bomb was armed whilst in flight and around 30 minutes prior to reaching the target site all safety mechanisms were removed. At a height of 31,000 feet, directly above Hiroshima, the bomb was released from Enola Gay.
Little Boy took around 45 seconds to reach its detonation height before it exploded. The resulting blast and aftershocks destroyed around 1 square mile of the city below with resulting fires destroying nearly 5 square miles in total.
It is estimated over 70,000 people died instantly with around another 80,000 seriously injured. In effect a third of the population of Hiroshima. It is also estimated only 20,000 of those that died or were injured are believed to have been military personnel.
Two bombs were dropped by the United States on Japan, the second a Hydrogen bomb practically destroyed Nagasaki and whilst bringing about an end to world fighting and the ultimate submission of the Japanese Emperor and Government, the after effects of health issues created by this type of weapon have been discussed at length over the years.
It wasn’t until July 1954 that the British Government finally agreed to the development of nuclear weapons for British use although British scientists had been involved in the Manhattan Project. But in 1956 under the codename Operation Grapple, British nuclear tests were carried out at Kiritimati, commonly known as Christmas Island, the aftermath of which and health effects on the observers has been a matter of great discussion since that date.
We will be looking at those British tests and how they affected the veterans of that time in another article. But if any of your relatives were involved in the nuclear weapons programmes or the testing we would like to hear from you and hear your thoughts.