Water in the Blood
I was only 11 when my Grandad, Bertie Wilfrid Chalk, died in 1985. I knew him pretty well, and heard much about his amazing travels as part of the RAF during the Second World War and afterwards. He was a camera man, filming extraordinary events such as the famous 1943 Barnes Wallis bouncing bomb trials at Chesil in Dorset which went on to achieve the strategically important Dam Buster raids. Post-war he filmed daring world land speed records – but there were two parts of his amazing career that intrigued me the most.
One he told me about – was when he and colleagues were stationed on Christmas Island tasked with filming the atomic bomb tests! The other, I sadly only learnt about after his death, was his scuba diving career! He qualified in the early 1950s (around the time of the launch Jacques Cousteau’s film “The Silent World”) and in 1956 qualified to dive using rebreathers.
Piecing together the scarce photos I have uncovered, Grandad photographed and filmed a great deal in controlled environments – man-made tanks where the RAF would test new equipment such as underwater escape system for ditched planes.
Malta 1966 – Exercise Seasnail
Perhaps the most exhilarating find though, was a series of photos from 1966 of beautiful clear blue water – in what transpired to be a trial for an underwater living environment just over 2 metres in diameter, made from Perspex, sunk in 10.4m in the Med off the coast of Malta. Grandad was the official photographer, as noted in his copy of the 1966 Royal Navy Diving Magazine.
The camp was established on the Island of Cominotto, with the station sunk just outside the Blue Lagoon between Cominotto and Comino (a place I am now desperate to go and explore!). At the time the generally accepted theory was that decompression illness could not occur shallower than 10m, but this was (rightly!) felt to be suspect and Exercise Seasnail set out to prove this. The structure had a domed top and open bottom. Entry was through the opening in the floor and the whole structure was held 3 feet off the sea bed (with the lip at a depth of 9.5m) by legs weighted down with 8 tons of metal ballast.
The exercise was able to carry out seven 12-hour exposures and two 24-hour exposures, despite regular distractions from curious schools of fish which quickly surrounded the dome. The dive doctors were “incoherent with joy” when a joint bend occurred after a 24-hour exposure! The victim was successfully treated at the local Manoel Island chamber.
Christmas Island 1957-1958
In 1957 and 1958 the British Military conducted numerous atomic and hydrogen bomb tests on the remote Pacific island of Christmas Island, in what was known as Operation Grapple, in order to declare Great Britain as a nuclear power.
I remember Grandad telling me that their “protection” was pretty minimal and that they were told to just turn their backs when the bomb went off!
When going through some recently discovered photos, I was so shocked to see their “PPE” consisted of what looks like a mechanic’s overalls and a cloth mask and hat! These photos show Grandad (second from right) and his mates, without and then with their PPE on. Many legal battles ensued over the decades that followed for diseases related to radiation exposure. Grandad didn’t ever join that particular battle although with hindsight his health was undoubtedly affected.
He did tell me he absolutely loved being there – clearly the weather was amazing and it seems the work wasn’t too taxing (albeit highly dangerous!!). They were in 3 men tents, and provided only with camp beds, so they made themselves chairs and desks, and had to prop their camp beds up on jerry cans to stop the large land crabs from joining them in bed at night!
Grandad would spend his down time swimming, fishing and snorkelling (sadly no dive gear on this trip) in the azure seas, and he even collected and brought back some coral (this was only before we were educated enough to know this is not a sensible thing to do) which I remember being fascinated with as a child.
There is an amazing Pathé News reel on You Tube featuring some of Grandad’s footage: https://youtu.be/4AlUJUWoIzY