Operation Grapple: We Were There

This exhibition closed on 16 October 2022

In 1957 and 1958, the New Zealand Government sent navy ships and hundreds of sailors in support of British nuclear testing in the Pacific. This deployment would have life-changing consequences for the sailors and their families. 

Phillip Payton

Phillip Payton. Photo by Denise Baynham, All Rights Reserved

In this portrait exhibition, photographer Denise Baynham honours and recognises the Kiwi veterans of the British operation, code-named Grapple.

The exhibition profiles 19 of the veterans who tell their personal story of service and the impact of witnessing the detonation of nuclear devices.

After the Second World War, Britain wanted to join the nuclear arms race, testing their first atomic weapon off the west coast of Australia in 1952. In June 1954, the United Kingdom Government authorised the development of thermonuclear or hydrogen weapons.

Two islands in the mid-Pacific, Christmas Island and Malden Island were chosen as sites for the testing. These islands, previously part of the Line Islands group, are now part of Kiribati. Christmas Island is today better known as Kiritimati.

The British assembled a large task force to carry out the operation. The New Zealand Government provided assistance by calling upon the Royal New Zealand Navy. In 1956, the survey ship HMNZS Lachlan carried out a survey of both islands. Two New Zealand frigates, HMNZS Pukaki and Rotoiti were present for the detonations.

Over the course of nine nuclear tests, one of which was hundreds of times larger than the Hiroshima bomb, 551 naval personnel manned the New Zealand ships. Their duties included witnessing the detonation of the nuclear devices and collecting weather data as close as 37 kms from Ground Zero.

Recognition of Service

At the time, many New Zealand Operation Grapple veterans felt that their service was not recognised. In 2002, the New Zealand Government awarded the Special Service Medal (Nuclear Testing). In the words of then Prime Minister the Rt Hon Helen Clark the award would “help resolve a long-held medallic grievance, by providing them [nuclear testing veterans] with tangible recognition of their service to New Zealand.”

The medal was awarded to New Zealand Service personnel and civilians who formed part of an official New Zealand presence at an atmospheric nuclear test. This included British nuclear tests in the Pacific and Australia between 1956 and 1958, American tests in 1957 and 1958, and French testing at Mururoa Atoll in 1973. An estimated 1,100 people were eligible for the award. The medal is also available to families of eligible personnel who are deceased.

The Photographer

 Auckland professional photographer Denise Baynham came across the little known story of Operation Grapple at the Torpedo Bay Naval Museum in Devonport. Determined to find out more, Baynham spent 2 years travelling the country meeting, photographing and interviewing veterans.

“Something about Operation Grapple touched a chord within me,” she says. “Growing up with a grandfather who served in World War Two and had been a prisoner of war, I know that sharing memories and keeping these stories alive means so much.

“The stories of nuclear testing veterans are incredibly sad. Particularly looking back, there are such common threads – infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths. They have all suffered such heartache, but they are all such incredible, amazing men and I felt a huge responsibility to tell their stories and to tell them accurately.”

List Image: Tere Tahi, President of the New Zealand Nuclear Testing Veterans' Association. Photo by Denise Baynam. All Rights Reserved.

This exhibition closed on 16 October 2022

13 May – 16 October 2022
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