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Navy had drinks with canapes of crayfish caught in nuclear test site

September 27, 2023 — 1.32pm

PAUL BASS: 1925 - 2023

Rear admiral Paul Bass, who has died aged 98, rose from the lower deck to flag rank, and witnessed some of the key events of the 20th century.

In March 1957 he joined the frigate Ulysses as engineer officer; after a few weeks on patrol off Cyprus, intercepting arms being smuggled to the Greek insurgents EOKA (The National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters), orders arrived for it to return to the UK to prepare for a special assignment.

Ulysses was required as replacement for the New Zealand frigate Rotoiti during Operation Grapple Y, one of a series of four British nuclear weapons tests conducted over Christmas Island (Kiritimati), one of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (Kiribati) in the Pacific Ocean.

Paul Bass aboard navy vessel during Christmas Island nuclear test.

Paul Bass aboard navy vessel during Christmas Island nuclear test.

Bass recalled the bucolic nature of the islands: “At night the place was teaming with land crabs that scuttled everywhere. In the lagoon I saw manta rays about six feet across, and the ship’s company had good fishing from the quarterdeck for wahu, a very tasty game fish.

“A fishing vessel was stationed in the islands whose sole task was to catch fish every day and test for radioactivity. So far as I know, they never had a positive finding, and all the fish finished up in the galley. Crayfish were also plentiful and small eats with our evening drinks usually consisted of one-inch cubes of [them] which we dipped in tomato ketchup – a nice change from chips!”

The bomb was dropped at 10:05 on April 28, 1958 from a Valiant bomber [between May 1957 and September 1958, the British government tested nine thermonuclear weapons on Kiritimati for Operation Grapple]. It had an explosive yield of about three megatons, the largest British nuclear weapon ever tested. Its design was regarded as successful because much of its yield came from its thermonuclear reaction instead of fission, making it a true H-bomb, and because its yield had been closely predicted, indicating that the scientists knew what they were doing.

“When the test was imminent,” Bass recalled, “we had to sit on the upper deck, on the side remote from the target area, with our heads between our knees and eyes tightly shut. About 20 seconds after the burst, we were allowed to open our eyes and go to the other side of the ship, where we saw an enormous orange ball of fire in the sky, which slowly developed into the now familiar mushroom cloud.

Britain’s third nuclear test explosion, on June 19, 1957. The device was dropped in the Christmas Island area of the Central Pacific.

Britain’s third nuclear test explosion, on June 19, 1957. The device was dropped in the Christmas Island area of the Central Pacific.Credit: Fairfax

“Twenty minutes later there was a loud crack, like the sound of an aircraft breaking the sound barrier, and a short breeze – which was the blast and sound of the explosion reaching us. We were told that this test had been very clean as it had taken place at a height which did not suck up sea or earth which could become radioactive and subsequently contaminate the area.”

Bass was not affected, and did not campaign with veterans of Grapple for compensation for exposure to radioactivity, nor did he claim the campaign medal which the government instituted in late 2022.

Paul Eric Bass was born on March 7, 1925 in Ipswich, Suffolk, England, where his father was a businessman, and he was educated at Northgate Grammar School. While a wartime evacuee in Leicester, at the age of 15 Bass joined the navy as an artificer apprentice. The admiralty was already thinking of its post-war needs for engineer officers, and in 1943 Bass’s potential was spotted: he was promoted to cadet and joined other “special entry” cadets at Eaton Hall in Cheshire (where the naval college had been evacuated from Dartmouth).

Bass remembered his first voyage to sea in the destroyer Cambrian on a stormy day in September 1944: “We emerged from Scapa into the Pentland Firth where we hit the most enormous waves, into which the bows would sink and then suddenly lurch upwards, shuddering from the external water pressure, and sometimes clanging like the sound of a biscuit tin lid recovering from a dent. At the same time there was an all-pervading smell of fuel oil below decks as the tanks breathed in and out from the flexing under varying pressures.”

In October, Cambrian was in a fleet carrying out an offensive sweep in the Norwegian Sea, and in November it was part of the escort to Convoy JW61A. Pressed into duty as a cypher officer, Bass learnt much of what was going on around him, though he rarely managed more than three hours’ sleep and suffered badly from sea sickness.

The convoy was part of Operation Golden, the forced repatriation of 11,000 Soviet citizens, mostly Ukrainians, who had been captured while fighting with the Germans on the Western Front. Stalin, at the recent Yalta conference, had insisted they should be repatriated to Russia.

The Age’s front page for May 17, 1957, a year before the test witnessed by Paul Bass.

The Age’s front page for May 17, 1957, a year before the test witnessed by Paul Bass. Credit: Fairfax

Bass’s sea training continued in the cruiser Mauritius, where on January 28, 1945 it was in engagement with German destroyers, and next in the slow so-called “Woolworth” carrier Premier and the elderly battleship Rodney, before joining the Royal Naval Engineering College at Keyham in Devonport to train as one of the navy’s future engineers.

By 1966 Bass was weapons engineer in the cruiser Tiger, when he and other senior officers had to vacate their cabins to accommodate the prime minister, Harold Wilson, as well as the PM of Rhodesia, Ian Smith, and representatives of the rebellious Southern Rhodesian government.

Bass was liaison officer for Smith’s team while talks were held at anchor in Ceuta Bay near the Straits of Gibraltar. By the third day it was rumoured that the “Tiger talks” were progressing well, when Bass helped Smith to communicate with Harare. Subsequently, however, Smith refused to sign the agreement he had previously initialled, and the talks broke up. Bass’s reward was an invitation from Wilson to a reception in 10 Downing Street.


Bass held a number of senior engineering, administrative and operational appointments including, in 1973 to 1975, assistant chief of staff (intelligence) to the supreme allied commander Atlantic, at his headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia. In 1979 Bass was promoted to rear admiral and became flag officer, Portsmouth, and one of only a few who climbed from artificer apprentice to rear admiral.

In a second career, Bass was a consultant to several companies building naval bases in various parts of the world.

Throughout, his reports told of an officer who was intelligent, possessed of excellent judgment and a good negotiator. He showed calmness and poise in difficult spots and was devoid of pomposity, despite his professional success.

Bass was appointed CB [Companions of the Order of the Bath] in 1981.

In 1948 Paul Bass married Audrey Tomlinson, a flight attendant with BOAC, who died in 2002 after he had cared for her during a long illness. He is survived by their son.

The Telegraph, London.