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Warship Wednesday8th September 2022

Warship Wednesday: Operation Hurricane 70

For the 70th Anniversary of Operation Hurricane, our Reading Room Volunteer Tony Peacock has written a special Warship Wednesday blog focusing on three Royal Navy ships involved in the test.

To begin, what was Operation Hurricane?

Operation Hurricane was the first British Atomic Test. The test was carried out at the uninhabited Monte Bello Islands, situated approx. 50 miles from the Western Australian coast. The test was officially announced by the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Winston S Churchill, at Noon on Wednesday 14th May 1952.

The test took place 09.30 Local Time on the 3rd October 1952. A Task Force of five Royal Navy ships, HMS PLYM, HMS NARVIK (ex LST3044), HMS CAMPANIA, HMS TRACKER (ex LST 3522) and HMS ZEEBRUGGE (ex LST 3532) supported the test.

HMS PLYM, NARVIK and CAMPANIA all had links to Chatham Dockyard. We know this as a result of the ‘Ships in Dry Dock’ ledger held within our archive which confirms they all underwent repairs or refits at Chatham.

Read on to discover more details about their Chatham links.

HMS CAMPANIA, TRACKER and PLYM formed a Special Squadron, being fitted to transport scientific staff and test equipment.

HMS PLYM:

PLYM was a River Class Frigate built by Smiths Dock, Middlesbrough and launched 4th February 1943. Her pennant number was K.309/K271 on build, but this changed to F271 post Second World War. She was 301 ft loa x 36.5 ft beam x 12 ft draught full load, 1950 tons displacement at full load. She had a complement of 140 men and an armament of 2 x single 4inch guns, 1 x Hedgehog launcher (anti-submarine weapon) and assorted Anti-Aircraft (AA) guns.

Before Operation Hurricane, where was she listed?

Image: HMS PLYM & HMS CAMPANIA in Freemantle.

She was selected from the Reserve Fleet for her role as ‘an expendable ship’ and she came to Chatham in July 1952 for a conversion refit for ‘Special Compartments’. The conversion consisted mainly of stripping out redundant electrical junction boxes, distribution boxes, cabling, sockets and fitting new items and cabling required for the test.

HMS PLYM was re-commissioned at Chatham on Tuesday 19th February 1952. However, conversion work continued, either in Chatham or Sheerness Dockyards, or in Stangate Creek in the River Medway.

HMS PLYM sailed from Chatham on Wednesday 4th June with a skeleton crew of 102, and arrived at Monte Bello Islands on 8th August. Final work was undertaken at Monte Bello when crates of “boffin stores” were taken onboard from CAMPANIA.

The test required a 25 kiloton atomic bomb to be detonated within the hull; HMS PLYM was vaporised by the atomic explosion for the test.

HMS NARVIK:

NARIVK was built as Landing Ship Tank LST 3044 at Vickers Armstrong at Barrow, and launched 20th July 1945. Displacement was 2256/3065 tons, 345ft long x 54ft beam x 4/11 ft draught.

Her name was changed to HMS NARVIK in 1947 after conversion to a Landing Ship Carrier. She was used as the Health Ship for the British Task Force for Operation Hurricane, and as such was extensively equipped with decontamination facilities, her role also included technical control and monitoring.

Image: HMS NARVIK returning to Chatham after tests.

After the test HMS NARIVK returned to Chatham. Her return was reported in the press with the comment “At Chatham a Royal Naval squad checked the vessel with Geiger counters for any traces of radio-activity”.

NARIVK served as a Depot Ship in Malta after the test. She was scrapped in 1965 and broken up in Antwerp in 1970.

HMS CAMPANIA:

CAMPANIA was an Escort carrier, 510ft loa x 70ft beam. She was built by Harland & Wolf as a refrigerated cargo ship for the Shaw Saville line. She was taken over by the Royal Navy in 1941 and converted to an Escort Carrier, launched on 17th June 1943 and completed March 1944.

Her war service was mainly in the Arctic and her aircraft sank U-921 and U-365. Post war her role was as an aircraft ferry and transport ship.

Image: HMS CAMPANIA, Escort Carrier, entering the basin. Passing the East entrance on 6 April 1954.

In 1951 she was refitted at Chatham, in No 9 Dock on St Mary’s Island, for the role of Flagship at the Atomic Test at Monte Bello Islands, her role included acting as the main base for the test. CAMPANIA proved to be unsuitable for the role, partly due the hot and cramped conditions on board, and partly due to insufficient small boats carried for ferrying the 85 scientists onboard from ship to shore.

HMS CAMPANIA was broken up Blyth 1955.

Operation Hurricane successfully showcases the ability for the British to become a nuclear power, alongside the United States and Soviet Union of the time. Following Operation Hurricane, two more nuclear tests were conducted in the Montebello Islands as part of Operation Mosaic, later in 1956.

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