A tribute to our late tenant by Susie Boniface, Daily Mirror columnist
This specially written article pays tribute to our late tenant, the indomitable Shirley Denson, who died in March at the age of 86. Shirley spent much of her life fighting for justice from the Ministry of Defence after her RAF husband was ordered to fly through a nuclear cloud in 1958. This is her story, which isn’t over yet …
To her neighbours on the Haig Homes estate in Morden, Shirley Denson was the woman whose door was always open.
Through it flowed, daily, a multitude of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who like many who lived nearby knew her simply as ‘Nainie’.
But her small home in Trenchard Court was also the hub of a rebel alliance which had fought successive British governments for decades. Over the years of her involvement, this formidable widow became the unofficial matriarch of Britain’s nuclear test veterans, and took delight in being an official pain in the backside for the Ministry of Defence.
I first met Shirley in 2009 in the High Court, a few years after I had begun reporting on the veterans’ campaign for recognition for the Sunday Mirror. Its editor Richard Stott had first demanded justice for the ‘Babies of the Bomb’ in 1984, and subsequent editors continued the fight.
The veterans had long claimed an appalling legacy of illness as a result of witnessing dozens of nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s and 1960s: cancers, blood disorders, sterility. In 2007, genetic evidence had first emerged showing they had the same rate of damage to their DNA as clean-up workers at Chernobyl, and the University of Liverpool found their wives were three times more likely to miscarry. Now, 1,000 veterans were taking their chance to sue the MoD for negligence.
“Come and sit by me, Susie dear,” said Shirley, as I tried to find a seat on the benches at the back. And then she didn’t stop talking, explaining her own story and those of the people sitting with us.
Shirley was born well-to-do, the daughter of a doctor who to her dying days she still referred to as ‘daddy’. She married a young RAF pilot named Eric Denson, and photos taken soon after their marriage show her in a fur coat and pearls, and him looking dapper in a sharp suit.
The couple, both in their 20s, were sent to Germany where Eric flew radar runs along the Iron Curtain, as the West feared an imminent Soviet invasion and an all-out nuclear war. One day in 1958, when she was pregnant with their second daughter, he came home and told her his unit, 76 Squadron, had been posted to the Pacific to take part in trials of Britain’s own nuclear bomb.
Shirley often told me the story, and would always say: “We knew he had to go, there was no choice. We believed the Russians could destroy us at any moment. And if he’d known what would happen to him, he’d still have gone - but he would never have let me have the babies afterwards.” Then she’d shake off her sadness, and say: “He was the best they had. That’s why they sent him.”
Eric’s task was to pilot a “sniff plane”, or converted Canberra bomber, through the boiling maelstrom of the mushroom cloud soon after the blast. The flying conditions were mostly unknown, and utterly perilous. “That’s why they needed the best,” said Shirley.
Eric flew first to Edinburgh Field in South Australia, then on to Christmas Island in the South Pacific. Now known as Kiritimati, it had become the base for the British race to build the hydrogen bomb which, by then, the US and USSR already had.
The UK had detonated its first atomic weapon off the coast of Australia in 1952, and in a series of land-based explosions and ‘minor trials’ had finessed the mechanisms and material to create the vastly more-powerful H-bomb. It had also contaminated vast swathes of the Outback to do it, and lied repeatedly to the Australian government while doing so.
As the race neared its conclusion, Britain needed more space, and fewer prying eyes, and moved its operations to a coral atoll thousands of miles from anywhere. Patrolling warships kept an eye out for enemies, and the native islanders were told nothing.
On the morning of April 28, 1958, Eric and his crew rose before dawn for briefings and breakfast. As they waited for the weather to clear, thousands of troops who had built runways, maintained generators, and helped the scientists set up shop, were mustered on beaches and warships to watch. Shortly after 10am, a Valiant bomber dropped the weapon codenamed Grapple Y. On the ground, men were told to turn their backs and cover their eyes. After the flash of the detonation they heard the double-crack of the blast, and felt a hot wind burn past them. Told to turn and look, they saw a fearsome, unnatural cloud fill the sky.
Eric’s plane, with the call sign Sniff Two, was circling above. A little over an hour after the bang, with the cloud stabilising, he was ordered into it. Records show Sniff Two made two cuts through the cloud, at 51,000ft and 53,500ft - within touching distance of the stratosphere. “He must have been flying by his fingernails,” said Joe Pasquini, a navigator on the same squadron.
In all Eric spent just under 9 minutes in the cloud. On landing, he vomited for two days - a classic symptom of radiation sickness. His plane was not decontaminated, and when back on duty he was ordered to fly it again for ‘radar calibration’ checks.
But it was clear that Eric had, in the words of his superiors, ‘exceeded his dose’. He was sent home, where Shirley was delighted to see him but horrified to find he had a red welt right across his torso. He was also a changed man. “We made love, then he lay there and talked for hours about seeing the face of God,” said Shirley. “It wasn’t like him at all.”
Eric did not speak at all to her of his flight. But later, she overheard him telling ‘daddy’ about the vomiting. In the years that followed, they had two more daughters, and Eric became extremely unwell.
Shirley came home one day and found him putting cigarettes out on his chest. Later, she got up in the night and found him drinking whisky in the kitchen, with an axe beside his chair. When she asked what he was doing, he said: “I’m going to finish this whisky, then I’m going to kill you and the children.”
The RAF noticed something was wrong. His work and reputation suffered. Eric would clutch his head, telling Shirley of incredibly painful headaches, and a “black cloud” over him. She told me: “I took him to every psychiatrist and doctor I could find. Military, civilian. They all said they didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t depression, wasn’t schizophrenia, wasn’t mania. It was undiagnosable.”
Eric was, by now, a Squadron Leader, but unwelcome in the RAF. Shirley had dreamed of teaching young pilots in places like Saudi Arabia, where his skills would earn them a fortune to see them into old age and set up their girls for life. But it was not to be. He was pensioned off, and, in the long hot summer of 1976, he took himself into the woods outside Oxford, and cut his left wrist. He was 44 years old.
He had left a note for Shirley, saying he could go on no longer. It took a few days to find his body, and then Shirley was taken to the woods to identify him.
She was in the prime of her life, but a widow, with four young girls to raise. After half a lifetime in military housing, she had no home, and no income. Haig Homes stepped in, and the family moved to the charity’s housing estate in Morden, Surrey, where Shirley found work and the girls had to come to terms not only with the loss of their father, but an utter change in circumstances.
Those years were hard, and they did not all emerge unscathed. At times, Shirley had to raise her grandchildren, too. But in the 1980s she began to hear about veterans of those nuclear tests, and the strange litany of illnesses their families suffered. She noticed many of her family had missing and extra teeth, as well as spinal and bone problems. She joined the campaign begun by Ken McGinley, who had been a 19-year-old Royal Engineer on Christmas Island at the same time as Eric. He set up the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, with the aim of campaigning for official recognition of their suffering. He told me: “Shirley led the way. I said to her once, ‘you know, Shirley, you should ask for Eric’s records, because he was an officer. They’ll have a note of his dose’. She did so, and what she found opened the door for others to do the same.”
In fact what Shirley had opened was ‘The Blue Book’, an official note of the radiation dose received by members of the RAF at various tests. In it, Eric was recorded as having experienced a blast of 13 Roentgen - equivalent to about 1,300 chest x-rays. She applied for a war pension, was denied, and appealed.
“Do you know,” she would often say, just as furious every time she thought about it, “the MoD stood up, and said Eric’s death was linked to the fact he wet his bed as a child? Well, the lady running the tribunal wouldn’t have that! She looked over her glasses at the MoD man, and said ‘I hope you’re not going to rely on THAT’, and he shrivelled!” The story usually ended with a hoot of laughter at the government man’s expense, and she won a pension on the basis that, yes, his death was attributable to his service.
Shirley became a mainstay of the campaign, regularly telling her story to journalists, waving a placard and having her picture taken whenever it was called for. Then one day she received a letter from the MoD, apologising that the enclosed information had not been sent sooner.
The packet was devastating - a top secret document detailing what it called “the initial experiment” which had been conducted on the crew of Sniff Two. Scientists wanted to study whether the onboard ‘Charlie meter’ which took radiation readings was accurate, and so before Eric’s plane took off special dose badges were glued to their seats. One on the head rest, two on the arms, and one on the seat pan, where each man would sit.
“Care was taken”, said the document, to ensure nothing would shield these places from radiation. After the plane landed and the crew had disembarked, readings were taken. They all had experienced a bigger dose than the Charlie meter had registered, but Eric had the biggest of all - a reading of 19 Roentgen was registered on the badge behind his head. It was the equivalent of an entire lifetime of normal background exposure, delivered to his skull in just eight minutes.
Shirley was adamant from that moment on that Eric’s mental illness and suicide were caused by radiation. From that, in turn, she could link all of her family’s problems. If you ever pointed out there was no evidence radiation could do that to a brain, she would look at you kindly, and say: “But my dear, HE is the evidence.”
In the 19 years that I’ve now reported on the nuclear test veterans, I have met many people as determined, and certain, as Shirley. From cancer victims to grieving parents, widows to disabled children, they have the unerring belief that the secret of what happened is in their bones, and perhaps buried somewhere in the MoD.
Science is increasingly on their side, and the Mirror is building a cross-party coalition of politicians urging the latest government to do what 25 previous ones have not, and see sense in recognising and honouring men like Eric and their families.
In 2018, Shirley was with us when we went to Parliament, and won the support of more than 50 MPs and peers by tirelessly telling Eric’s stories to each of them. She met Jeremy Corbyn, and government ministers, and then went on Sky News to tell the world about it, with comedian and test veteran supporter Al Murray at her side.
A few weeks later, despite finding it hard to walk, she tramped down Whitehall to become the first test veterans’ widow to meet the Defence Secretary. She walked in the room, looked Gavin Williamson straight in the eye, and said: “So, you’re the man responsible for killing my husband.” He was hugely impressed, and talked to her for two hours.
In the final year of her life, Shirley applied for an Elizabeth Cross in Eric’s name - one of Britain’s highest honours, awarded to any serviceman killed in action or who died as a result of their service. With her war pension, and documents proving he was used in an experiment, Shirley and her friends were certain the MoD must, at least, acknowledge his death was due official recognition.
She applied last summer, and was told the pandemic had slowed the process down. Earlier this year, when I heard from her family she had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung and bone cancer, Al and I harried the MoD to get a decision made before she passed away. At one point, we were ringing and emailing British Army generals and Royal Navy admirals, demanding to know what they were doing for Shirley. Gavin Williamson, although no longer at the MoD, also did what he could.
Twice they considered her case, and twice they refused it, on the basis that, while a war pension might have attributed Eric’s death to his service, they did not. Their final snub came a few days before her death, at home in Trenchard Court, surrounded by her large and loving family.
It was disgusting, but unsurprising. As Al said afterwards: “All those who serve today in the Armed Forces should ask themselves what the MoD would do for them, if they became as historically inconvenient as the nuclear test veterans.”
Those of us who ever had the good fortune to wander through Shirley’s open door, to hear her stories, and witness her lifelong fight will never forget her. She was impressive, in every way, and in fighting so hard for justice she served her country just as honourably as her husband did. She attended every court hearing and war pension claim she could, because she felt a duty to represent other widows and families who could not make it. She burned with anger not just at the damage done to her husband, but at the price paid by their children, grandchildren, and the descendants of other veterans. “It’s the babies,” she said, often. “Something must be done, for the babies.” Her determination to fix it was so strong that I am not surprised it took two cancers to slow her down. But every day I’m surprised that my phone isn’t ringing, bringing news of some new story or evidence, and Shirley saying to me “now Susie dear, have you heard…”
Shirley never forgot my daughter’s birthday, or Christmas presents. She always asked after my mum. And right to the end, she was in love with “my Eric”. Whenever I saw her, she had a floaty scarf draped around her neck, forever the young woman who had just stepped out of the squadron leader’s sports car. She was more than just a news story - she was the stuff of legends.