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H-Bombs & Hula Girls: Operation Grapple 1957 and the Last Royal Navy Gunroom at Sea

27 Feb 24

320 pages

Capt. Andrew Welch (retd.)

This is the most entertaining book I’ve read in ages. It tells, with many personal photos, the story of the last Gunroom in the RN – and an RNVR one at that. The 10 midshipmen in the Gunroom joined HMS Warrior on 1st January 1957 and sailed a month later for the Pacific, to support Operation GRAPPLE – the UK’s first live H-bomb tests. Nine of the 10 midshipmen have pooled their journals, diaries, letters home & memories to produce this book. The author (the oldest of the Mids) has also made much use of other published and unpublished records, as well as the official records from Kew. The overall result is an account of a historic couple of months (March-June ’57) around Christmas Island followed by 4 months ‘Showing the Flag’ across the Pacific and around South America.

The period on Operation GRAPPLE is the most interesting historically. Much of the technology being employed was very new and barely tested. The RAF’s Valiant was the only one of the V-bombers in service and dropped the three ‘H-bombs’ – which, when the records were finally made public 35 years later, turned out to have yields of only 300kt, 700kt and 200kt. The middle test was, in fact, an ‘enhanced’ atom bomb, whilst other two were proper H-bombs, albeit of a disappointingly low yield. One of the main objectives of these tests was to enable the UK to claim a seat ‘at the top table’ as a nuclear power and these tests provided ‘proof’ that Britain had a megaton weapon.

The subsequent ‘cruise’ from Hawaii to Pitcairn, via the Cook Islands and then on to Peru, Chile, the Falklands, Argentina (Port Stanley direct to Puerto Belgrano) and Brazil is much the most entertaining part of this book. It provides a fascinating picture of the RN returning (briefly) to the glories of the inter-war years. With CINCSASA (Commander in Chief South Atlantic and South America) embarked in Warrior, there were guards, bands, wreath layings and cocktail parties galore. Warrior was subsequently (and as had been planned before her deployment) sold to Argentina and became the ARA Independencia.

The Mids describe their lives onboard and ashore during Op GRAPPLE, the joys and perils of boat running, painting ship (required often when showing the flag), watchkeeping, exotic destinations that none of their contemporaries would, or even probably could, have visited and the heartbreak of leaving yet another of ‘life’s loves’ in a foreign port. When this book was published (2017), the Warrior Mids were still meeting up every couple of years, as they had since 1977 and these lifelong friendships are clearly at the root of this very enjoyable book. Highly recommended.