Norfolk’s legacy of love for the children of nuclear test island

Hundreds of Britain's nuclear test veterans blame the experiments for decades of subsequent illness, pain and cancer among themselves and their families.

But with the angst of unanswered questions also came an enduring friendship with the inhabitants of the tiny Pacific island rocked by the first H-bomb explosions in the late 1950s.

Now, as a second generation steps forward to continue the legacy, Norfolk widow Barbara Penney has been inundated with donations for a toy collection guaranteed to bring smiles this festive season.

When her husband, David – who was based on the island – died suddenly following a heart attack last August, Mrs Penney and their daughters knew he would want any money collected at his funeral to benefit children living on Christmas Island.

The 76-year-old, a founder member of the East Anglian branch of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA), suffered deteriorating health for many years after serving as a radio engineer with the RAF during the atomic tests.


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'Planes would fly through the clouds after the explosions, which were, of course highly radioactive. It was David's job to test the radios on those planes,' said Mrs Penney, of Narborough, near Swaffham.

'He saw Britain's first H-bomb explode on the island and others as well. They covered their eyes as it went off and could actually see the bones inside their hands illuminated like an x-ray by the power of the flash.

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'David had a lot of health problems towards the end of his life, but nothing was ever proven as to whether it was a result of being on the island. The experience always stayed with him.'

The East Anglian branch of the BNTVA, the largest in the UK, formed around 10 years ago and takes an active interest in life on Christmas Island today.

Many of its members have serious medical conditions including diabetes and cancer and are still battling through the courts for compensation nearly 60 years after the nuclear weapons tests began.

Mr Penney's daughter, Kathryn Crofts, said: 'We have quite a few second generation members now who are keen to carry it on. So many of the veterans have died prematurely and the problems they have experienced could have been passed on to their children or beyond.

'They are hoping for the government to hold its hands up and say 'ok, we did this; we did this to you.' They want to be recognised.

'Dad probably would not have gone for compensation, but he was always concerned about the effects it had on people and their families. That's why he thought of the children.'

Donations from Mr Penney's funeral, coupled with money collected at a Lincolnshire school, totalled �4,000 and Mrs Penney decided to deliver it to the children herself.

She was joined by her eldest daughter, Ann Clark, son-in-law Graham and veterans John Conning, from Narborough, and John Munton, from Bradford, on the long journey at the end of June.

'Life there is very difficult,' the former teacher said. 'There is only one flight a week and there is no shop, no television and no optician. Some of the schools were so poor.'

Mrs Crofts and her children, Holly, nine, and Fern, seven, posted supplies to be distributed to the children during the visit, including a selection of toys and art equipment.

'They asked us if we had any dolls and we hadn't,' Mrs Penney said. 'I showed a film of our trip at the next veterans meeting mentioning they needed dolls – and this is the result!

'We have more than 200 dolls and some teddies to send and I was also given donations to help cover the postage costs.'

The boxes of dolls will take around five weeks to arrive and Mrs Penney also plans to send some boys toys next year.

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