Nuclear test veteran 'always blamed himself' for family health woes

Robert and Jean Fleming, whose grandchildren and great grandchildren have suffered. Photo: Luke Powe

Nuclear test veteran Bob Fleming, pictured with his wife Jean before he passed away - Credit: Luke Powell

A nuclear test veteran blamed himself for the birth defects which he believed he passed on to members of his family, his daughter has revealed.

Suzanna Ward spoke as a new study was launched into the mental health of the children, wives and widows of nuclear veterans.

Around 22,000 British servicemen witnessed nuclear tests on mainland Australia, the Montebello Islands off Western Australia and Christmas Island in the South Pacific, during the 1950s and 1960s.

Aylsham, collect pic of Christmas Island nuclear bomb test. belonging to John greenacre. edp 01/01/0

A new study is being launched in to the mental health of nuclear test victims and those close to them - Credit: John Greenacre/Archant Library

Many went on to suffer health problems, including rare cancers, infertility, musculoskeletal issues and digestive problems. Ill health and a higher rate of birth defects has also been observed in veterans’ descendants, attributed to the bomb tests.

Suzanna Ward's father, Bob Fleming, witnessed an atom bomb test from a Pacific Island in the late 1950s. Mr Fleming, from Downham Market, died at the age of 86 last May.

"My dad suffered," said Mrs Ward, 57. "He couldn't let it go, he always blamed himself. My children aren't healthy, my grandchildren aren't healthy, he blamed it all on himself."

Mrs Ward, who still lives in Downham, added: "I've got extra knuckles on my fingers that shouldn't be there, tumours on my thyroid, my saliva turns to crystal and kidney stones - they run in the family big time, most of us have got kidney stones or gall stones.

"I've got six grandchildren, three have got health problems. They've all got eye problems, one doesn't have any tear ducts, one is autistic and one has severe hyper-mobility, so he struggles with every day things."

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Now, for the first time, psychological health and wellbeing of those closest to those who took part in the nuclear testing programme is being placed in the spotlight.

David Freeman next to the war memorial on the River Green at Thorpe St Andrew

David Freeman wh witnessed nuclear tests in the late 1950s - Credit: James Bass

David Freeman, 82, from Thorpe St Andrew, near Norwich, said: "I keep busy, that's the answer. Once you sit down and start thinking about things that's when the problems start.

"We've suffered heart and lung conditions doe to the radioactive dust and the DDT they sprayed us with to keep down the flies. We breathed it all in." 

Fellow veteran Gordon Wilcox, from Attleborough, witnessed tests in 1957 and 1958.

Mr Wilcox, now 83, said: "The radioactive material did lots of damage, it affected the genes it was passed on through childbirth to the dependants. It's still being passed on, it's affected lots and lots of children.

"If people have had their health affected, their children's health affected, it can only have caused them lots of stress."

Gordon Wilcox, 79, witnessed two nuke tests on Christmas Island in the 1950’s. Picture: Ian Burt

Gordon Wilcox, who witnessed two nuke tests on Christmas Island in the 1950’s - Credit: Ian Burt

The BNTVA has been invited to participate in a UK-wide research study led by Dr Nicola Fear, epidemiologist at the King’s Centre for Military Research, King’s College London, and Dr Cherie Armour, trauma and mental health researcher at Queen’s University, Belfast.

The study aims to understand the psychosocial determinants of psychological health and wellbeing for veteran families across the UK, and the experiences of being part of a military family. The study is looking for participants from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The stories of witnessing a nuclear bomb explosion at close proximity, with little or no protection, and potential genetic effects impacting family relationships, is still very real to the 2,500 - 3,000 veterans who are still alive today. 

Many veterans felt unable to speak to their families about their personal experiences of the tests, for fear of breaking the Official Secrets Act. This caused frustration within the family, impacting on physical and mental health and contributing to relationship break-ups.

Ceri McDade, chair of the BNTVA, said: ““Study findings may well reveal the unique attributes that we believe lie within the British nuclear community compared to the wider UK military population, and lead to the production of tailored physical and mental health services."

Last summer, the government said veterans who believe they have suffered ill health can apply for "no-fault compensation" under the War Pensions Scheme which has no time limits and a low standard of proof. There are no time limits but money is only payable from the date the claim is made.

To sign up for the study call 0208 144 3080 or e-mail