Miltonian in a Mushroom Cloud

In Milton Parish there are many residents with fascinating stories to tell of the part they played in events in this country’s history. One man, now happily living in retirement, is Reg Robson who in the 1950s was involved in the British atomic bomb tests in Australia.

Reg Robson with his wife Pamela.
Courtesy of the Robson family archives

Reg was born and brought up on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. It was here, at the age of 15 he met Pamela, also 15. They were together forever after until sadly Pamela passed away in February 2020.  On leaving school he applied to join the RAF as a pilot. After various interviews and aptitude tests he was offered the opportunity to train as a navigator.

Reg attended RAF Cranwell for officer training from 9th of September 1952 to the 21st of January 1953. He passed out of Cranwell as a Pilot Officer and was posted to the Air Navigation School at RAF Hullavington. It was here that Reg received his basic navigator training in aircraft such as the Vickers Valetta and the wartime Avro Anson. These were twin engine aircraft adapted as flying classrooms for trainee navigators. Reg was taught how to track plots on the map and how to use radio navigation equipment such as GEE which was a very accurate piece of wartime navigation equipment. He was also taught how to use a sextant and navigate without the aid of electronic devices. In addition Reg carried out night flying exercises to train him to navigate in the dark.

A further navigation course consolidated the skills he had learned in basic training and taught Reg more technical skills to equip him to flying on fast jets. At the end of this course Reg had flown 148 hours in daytime and 51 hours 30 minutes at night. Other training courses included a short pre operational conversion course involving jet familiarisation on Gloster Meteor twin engine jet fighters. The next course Reg attended was at the Bomber Command school where he was taught how to be a bomb aimer. After successfully passing this course Reg went to 231 Operation Conversion Unit at RAF Bassingbourn where he was trained to operate the English Electric Canberra. This aircraft had been introduced into RAF service in May 1951 and could fly higher and faster than most aircraft of the time.

These are 76 Squadron Canberra Bombers aircraft at Weston Zoyland about to depart for Australia. The aircraft third from the camera is the one that Reg flew into the mushroom cloud.

Reg was crewed up with Flying Officer Jock Burton who would be his pilot for most of his time on Canberra bombers.  On this course the pair of them trained to work as a team and become totally familiar with their aircraft and its equipment.  In addition the crew practiced bombing attacks on targets using small practice bombs.

In January 1955 Jock and Reg passed the course and soon afterwards were posted as an operational crew to 76 Squadron at RAF Wittering. Here they practiced all that they had been taught and became ever more proficient. Flying was not without its dangers.  On the 24th of March Reg records in his log book that their aircraft suffered a double ‘flame out’ – both engines failed, at 30,000 feet. They managed to get them restarted at 15,000 feet.  As the year went by they were tasked with more and more cross country navigation exercises and practice bombing sessions including simulated attacks on designated targets.

In January 1956 Reg, Jock and other 76 Squadron crews were deployed to RAF Weston Zoyland near Bristol. Here they practiced navigation by day and night and use of all radio navigation aids. In March 1956 it was announced to the public that this detachment was going to Australia to take part in Atomic Bomb testing as part of Operation Buffalo. On the 4th of July 1955 the group set off from Weston Zoyland flying to Australia via Pakistan, and Singapore. They arrived at Pearce Field, Perth on the 11th of July after a long gruelling flight.

Left to Right: Flt Lt Reg Robson. Flt Pat Low (Nav) and Pilot Flt Lt Jock Burton.
11th October 1956. Courtesy of the Robson family archives

On 11th of October 1956 Reg as equipment operator, Jock as pilot and Pat Lowe as Navigator along with a Wing Commander Eyre who was overseeing their health and welfare took off from Maralinga airfield in Canberra WT754  for phase 3 of Operation Buffalo. They observed a Vickers Valiant bomber drop an atomic bomb. This was the first time the British had dropped an atom bomb from an aircraft. Reg and his crew were not there just to witness. They were required to fly into the mushroom cloud of the exploding bomb, open their bomb bay and collect samples of radioactive dust from the explosion. Reg recorded in his log book that they did this on three occasions and spent 1 minute 57 seconds in the radioactive cloud.

Entry in Flt Lt Reg Robson’s log book relating to the atom bomb dust sampling.
11th October 1956. Courtesy of the Robson family archives

On landing their aircraft at Maralinga, Jock parked their Canberra in a decontamination zone. They were then handed in overshoes which they donned before exiting the aircraft. Reg and his colleagues were required to strip off their flying kit and go into portable shower cubicles. After showering they were issued new uniforms.

Reg recalls that their Canberra was left behind at Maralinga airfield. He and his crew came back to the UK by ship. On his return he was offered the opportunity to train for another role. He elected to fly in Fighter Command and ended up involved in the air defence of Great Britain as a navigator on Javelin all weather fighters.

Reg Robson in retirement August 2019. Courtesy of the Robson family archives

At the end of his 12 years of service with the RAF Reg left and became a salesman. He is plagued with health issues probably linked to his involvement in the Op Buffalo trials. He and his family have been happily settled in our town since 2000.

We thank Reg and all the UK armed forces servicemen and women and all our veterans for serving and protecting our country.

Sadly, since this article was first published in 2019 we have learnt that Reg’s beloved wife Pamela passed away in February 2020.