by Alex Norwick |
“One provides a link to an item concerning the effort of Sir John Philip Baxter KBE to equip Australia with tactical nuclear weaponry in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Sir John Philip Baxter, KBE (1905-1989)
One met Baxter in 1977 and was associated with him for a couple of years thereafter. Baxter understood where the population food crisis of the Third World would lead and was an advocate of Fortress Australia.
Australia First Party’s magazine ‘Audacity’ issue No. 15 (website) contains a copy of Baxter’s 1977 Speech to a nationalist student meeting on the world war for resources and territory yet to be fought.”
Sir John Philip Baxter, later in life, always loyal to Australia
With the outbreak of World War II, Australia’s Department of Defence decided to strategically acquire land around coastal Hobart, Tasmania at Piersons Point and South Arm on the opposite bank of the Derwent Estuary on the seaward approach into Hobart.
Fort Direction was built on Piersons Point; its guns, though no longer used, are still in place.
The only enemy action to ever affect Hobart happened on 1 August 1942, when a submarine-launched Japanese spy plane flew from the submarines mooring in Great Oyster Bay south along the east coast of Tasmania, before flying northward along the Derwent River surveying Hobart and then returning to its mother submarine.
Few Australians know that the Imperial Japanese over flew Hobart on a pre-emptive strike spying mission in 1942.
[ABC Archives, broadcast August 22, 2002, http://www.abc.net.au/tv/documentaries/stories/s650355.htm]
Fortress Australia uncovers one of the most extraordinary chapters in Australia’s history – the brazen attempt by successive Australian governments to fortress their nation with atomic weapons. Recently released top-secret documents finally allow this astonishing story to be told. They reveal a web of intrigue, in which Australia’s nuclear industry became inextricably linked to a quest for atomic weapons technology.
Set against a backdrop of cold war paranoia and fear of Asian aggression, Fortress Australia explores the motives of the politicians, defence chiefs and scientists who set out to buy, then ultimately build, a nuclear arsenal.
From uranium exploration and guided weapons research to A-bomb tests on Australian soil, the film shows how Canberra aided both Britain and the United States in the hope of sharing their nuclear secrets. But it proved to be an extraordinary double-game in which both allies and enemies treated Australia with mistrust.
This groundbreaking film penetrates the murky world of atomic espionage and counter-espionage. It exposes KGB infiltration of crucial political offices, which almost thwarted Australia’s nuclear ambitions. It also brings to light the secret role of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission in the quest for nuclear weapons — in particular, the ill-fated Jervis Bay Nuclear Reactor Project, which could have enabled Australia to build as many as 30 nuclear weapons a year.
Fortress Australia had a long gestation. Two decades ago I picked up a self-published book – Without Hardware – penned by Catherine Dalton, daughter of British poet and historian Robert Graves, of I, Claudius fame.
The story dealt with the mysterious death in the late 1950s of Catherine’s husband Clifford Dalton, a leading engineer at the newly established Atomic Energy Commission’s research facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney. Dalton drew a picture of a highly secret institution, which she believed had a malicious hand in her husband’s untimely demise. In 1983, with the financial assistance of the Australian Film Commission, I set about writing a feature-length dramatic screenplay based on the book.
Some years later, when the American nuclear film Silkwood and two Australian features with nuclear themes were released, I realised the project would not survive in an already saturated market. After more than a dozen drafts, I relinquished the option. What I didn’t drop was an interest in the affairs of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) in the 1950s and 60s. That interest deepened when I came upon an extraordinary interview in the archives with the Commission’s Chairman, Sir Philip Baxter, in which he called for a biological, chemical and nuclear-armed Australia.
I also discovered a newspaper article from the early 1970s in which Baxter suggested that Australia was capable of producing nuclear weapons within a matter of years.
I wondered how this could be achieved without the scientific infrastructure, the means to produce plutonium and the years of research and development required for such an enormous undertaking.
The only conclusion I could come to was that these essential precursors to bomb prodigious concern between 1946 and 1971 about Australia’s inadequate defences in the atomic age:
- Prime Minister Robert Menzies in the early 1950s believed that the defence forces would inevitably be armed with nuclear weapons.
- Growing doubts as to whether Australia’s allies, the United States and Britain, would provide nuclear protection.
- The Menzies government had made numerous but unfruitful approaches to Britain and America to secure nuclear technology.
- In 1958 Menzies made a direct approach to his British counterpart Macmillan to buy British nuclear weapons.
- Sir Philip Baxter, the Chairman of the AAEC, continually pressured the government to either acquire the weapons or create the infrastructure to build them in Australia.
- A growing fear of our northern neighbours (especially after China exploded its first atomic bomb in 1964, and Indonesia boasted that it would soon have the bomb) resulting in the government calling on the AAEC to provide costs for building the bomb.
- How Australian uranium was denied to Britain in 1966 so that there would be enough radioactive materials to start a nuclear weapons programme.
- Baxter’s preferred tenders for the Jervis Bay Nuclear Reactor were those that could produce plutonium for building the bomb.
Other defence related documents provide an extraordinary insight into the mistrust held by Australia, not only of its potential enemies, but also of its allies. They reveal both a country fearful of its future and a belief that battlefield nuclear weapons were the answer to Australia’s defence needs.
With many of these documents in hand, I went to Film Australia, as it seemed a natural project for its National Interest Program. The greatest challenge was to bring the story alive on film. As a specialist in archive film, I knew sourcing newsreels and informational films dealing with defence and politics wouldn’t be difficult. But this project also required footage not in the public domain. More than 50 hours of archive footage was located, many hours of which have never before been released for public screening.
One such film was a ‘classified’ version of a documentary called Operation Blowdown, which covered the scientific and military aspects of a simulated nuclear blast in North Queensland in 1963. This bizarre experiment assumed that the next war involving Australia would take place in the jungles of South East Asia or even New Guinea and involve nuclear weapons. Out of the US National Archives came extraordinary footage of the first Chinese Nuclear blast in 1964 – an event that so worried Menzies he called for a report on the costs of producing Australia’s own bombs.
Spectacular colour footage of the British bomb tests in Australia, the Woomera rocket range and the Lucas Heights research facility was also uncovered. ANSTO – the modern incarnation of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission – generously supplied splendid historical footage and gave the production permission to film its HIFAR Reactor. Candid ABC interviews with AAEC Chairman, Sir Philip Baxter, provide a chilling insight into both the risks for Australia of another global war and the hazards of allowing scientists to plan for it. Baxter’s call, in 1972, for nuclear weapons to repel refugees from a global catastrophe is one of the most disturbing interviews I have ever seen.
A rewarding aspect of the production was meeting the twelve interviewees who bring the story to life with surprising insights about Australia’s bold bid for a nuclear arsenal. A fortunate find was Jim Walsh, a Harvard University researcher, who investigates countries that have pursued atomic weapons options and either failed or succeeded, then renounced them. Walsh’s grasp of the Australian nuclear weapons story is unequalled.
During production we were able to uncover many relics of Australia’s nuclear history. Central to the story is the proposed Jervis Bay nuclear reactor, which would have provided the plutonium required for nuclear weapons’ production. In 1970, hectares of eucalypt forest were removed to provide foundations for the reactor. Today, the scar on the landscape remains as a stark reminder of our secret interest in developing a nuclear bomb.
We also travelled to Woomera Rocket Range, where Australia joined with Britain to develop guided missiles for the nuclear age. The crumbling launching pads and the spent weapons that litter the range represent the last vestiges of our defence relationship with Britain.
The most striking aspect of filming these places is that we were visiting territory once prohibited to all but scientists and defence personnel. These were places that were meant to provide the nation’s protection in the event of another global war, yet at the same time they were escalating the tension and suspicions that could have precipitated it.
Ultimately, we have produced Fortress Australia to allow Australians to understand the thinking of their political, scientific and defence leaders who flirted with the bomb.
It is a story about the all-too-trusting relationship between science and society. A tale from the height of the Cold War about secrecy and deception with poignant lessons for democracy – a story that powerfully resonates into the present day.
Biographies of those involved in producing Fortress Australia
Peter Butt (Producer/Director/writer/editor)
Peter Butt has been an independent documentary filmmaker for over 20 years. His first film No Such a Place chronicled the rise and fall of the Glen Davis shale-mining town and was selected to screen with Peter Weir’s Gallipoli in more than 60 cinemas around the country.
Butt went on to produce films for ABC’s landmark A Big Country series. Numerous independent one-hour films followed, including Out of Darkness (about Australia’s prehistory) Life’s Labour’s Lost (about the future of work) and China – The Long March (retracing Mao’s epic retreat).
In 1988 he produced and directed My Father, My Country (for Film Australia, National Geographic and the BBC). The film followed a woman’s epic trek through 2000 kms of Papua New Guinea retracing her father’s 1938 patrol, which made first contact with isolated tribes. In another Film Australia production, Sheep’s Back, Peter explored the fading influence of the bush on Australia’s national identity.
Butt also directed When the War came to Australia, a four-part series about the home front (Look Films for the ABC).
In 1996–97, he was writer, director and editor of another four-part series The Liners (Rob McAuley Productions for the ABC, Channel 4 in the UK and the Learning Channel in the United States). The high-rating series, which charted the influence of the ocean liner on world history, received directing and editing nominations in the 1998 AFI Awards.
In 1999, Butt (in association with Rob McAuley Productions) directed, wrote and edited Lies, Spies & Olympics for Film Australia’s National Interest Program. In the same year, he also directed a four-part history series The Battleships.
These programs consolidate his reputation as one Australia’s leading exponents of historical documentaries.
Rob McAuley (Co-producer)
Rob McAuley began his filmmaking career in Melbourne in 1956 as a member of the Olympic Games Official Film Unit. Since then he has worked as an editor, cameraman, director, producer, executive producer and writer, producing film and television documentaries in Australia for over 20 years.
Many of his programs have a nautical theme. Voyage to the Tip of the Earth takes the viewer on a yacht trip from Sydney to Tahiti, Easter Island and South America. The Logie-winning half-hour documentary King of the Channel follows Des Renford’s crossing of the English Channel while Ken Warby’s record-breaking feats are the subject of a one-hour television special, The Fastest Man in the World on Water. Another production, Little America’s Cup 1976, won first prize at La Rochelle International Film Festival.
In Marathon and 16 Thousand Miles to Mexico, McAuley turned his attention to the road to follow car rallies from London across the globe, while Window on the World of Classical Ballet ventures behind the scenes at the Australian Ballet Company.
From 1981 to 1990, McAuley was a producer at Film Australia, where he worked on a wide variety of projects including the official Bicentennial film Spirit of the Tall Ships and The Human Face of Indonesia. During this period he also produced The Entombed Warriors and Out of Time Out of Place for the Ten Network.
McAuley’s six-part series, The Sea and Australia, which explores the influence of the sea on this country, was released in schools throughout Australia. From 1995 to 1998, he researched and produced the acclaimed four-part series The Liners for ABC-TV in Australia, Channel 4 in the UK and the Learning Channel in the USA.
In 1999, McAuley produced Lies, Spies & Olympics for Film Australia’s National Interest Program, as well as a four-part documentary series The Battleships.
Dr Jim Walsh (Research)
Dr Jim Walsh is a political scientist and Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His research and writings focus on weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Middle East. Dr Walsh’s writings have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the LA Times, the Times of London, the Miami Herald, and numerous other domestic and foreign papers. His articles have also appeared in numerous scholarly publications including the Political Science Quarterly, the Nonproliferation Review, International Studies Review, and Contemporary Security Policy. He is currently working on a new book on Iran.
Before working at Harvard, Dr Walsh was a visiting scholar at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the country’s three nuclear weapons labs. Previously, he was named a Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar by the United States Institute for Peace and won the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship from the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.