A BLINDING flash, intense heat, the spectre of a mushroom cloud creeping skywards – mercifully few of us have seen the full horror of a nuclear explosion up close. But one Stirlingshire man witnessed no fewer than 25 nuclear blasts – and lived to tell the tale.

John Lax, from Dunipace, was one of some 30,000 servicemen who took part in Britain’s nuclear testing programme on mainland Australia, the Montebello Islands off Western Australia and Christmas Island in the South Pacific, during the 1950s and 60s.

The former airman said: “We sat through 24 bombs and one Polaris missile – the only Polaris missile with a live nuclear warhead that’s been fired. So it’s quite historic. But there are people who are blissfully unaware of what went on and what we went through.”

October marks the 70th anniversary of Britain’s first nuclear test, codenamed Operation Hurricane. This year also marked the 60th anniversary of Operation Dominic, a series of US-led nuclear tests, backed by British troops.

Lax, an air wireless mechanic in the RAF, was just 20 when he arrived on the tropical shores of Christmas Island in September 1961. He said: “I serviced the aircraft radio and there were four aircraft movements a week. They flew to Hawaii twice a week and brought supplies of fresh vegetables and fruit and, most importantly, our mail. It was an absolute dream posting. Then the Americans came in and spoiled it.”

READ MORE: Kate Copstick attacked by muggers who stole £8500 of charity money

Lax and his fellow servicemen were not told of the full story of why they had been posted to Christmas Island, but the presence of an increasing number of US troops started to arouse suspicion.

The 81-year-old said: “I was working on the airfield when the American aircraft started coming in and offloading. We were getting between 10 and 20 aircraft a day coming in offloading all sorts of things and people and then we got some extra RAF people come out.

“We were finally told round about March that we were going to be involved in these nuclear tests.”

The men who took part in the tests were routinely issued with little, if any, protective equipment, exposing them to high levels of radiation. Lax said: “We got a pair of black goggles and a radiation film badge. And that was it. Our instructions were that when a test took place we were supposed to go at a certain time and sit on a football pitch, wearing long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and goggles, with our backs to the explosion.”

When the airdropped bomb exploded, it lit up the sky, “like someone spilt a bucket of sunshine”, Lax said. He added: “It’s hard to describe how loud it was. It was extremely loud and just a sharp crack.”

The men were then told to turn around. “As it dissipated you could take the goggles off and you could see the mushroom cloud developing from the fireball,” Lax said. “It was quite a spectacular sight really.”

He added: “We were sitting 30 miles away from somebody dropping a bomb with the equivalent of 190,000 tonnes of TNT. Which is probably why I’ve got grey hair.”

Although a young Lax felt “excited” at the thought of participating in Operation Dominic, a few bombs later, the shine had left this particular adventure. He said: “The novelty wore off pretty quick, getting up at 4.30am and sitting on the football pitch. So most of us just stayed in bed and rolled over with our backs to the blast.”

Many British servicemen who participated in the tests went on to suffer ill-health, with an increased rate of cancers, infertility and birth defects observed in veterans and their descendants.

The National: John Lax was an RAF air wireless mechanic when he arrived on Christmas Island in September 1961John Lax was an RAF air wireless mechanic when he arrived on Christmas Island in September 1961 (Image: John Lax)

At the time, Lax didn’t feel any apprehension about the explosions, nor did he have any concerns about how his future health might be affected. He left the RAF in 1975 and moved to Rosyth, working as an engineer for Marconi Space and Defence, initially on test equipment for Seaslug, the first generation surface-to-air missile for the Navy.

It was during this time that his teenage son developed an unusual pea-sized lump in his neck.

Lax said: “My oldest son, when he was 14, developed a tumour along the wall of his carotid artery, which turned out to be benign. It was quite large, about the size of a golf ball, before they removed it in 1979.

“At the time I didn’t associate this with my attendance at nuclear bomb tests, there was no scientific research evidence made public that would direct to make that association. Much later I may have thought it was inherited from me.”

Lax’s daughter developed a series of benign breast tumours and suffered a stroke in his 60s. He said: “It might be a cardiovascular thing related to nuclear radiation. I’d like to think it wasn’t, because if it was caused by radiation, the damage has been done. I just don’t know.”

Former servicemen and their families have been battling the Ministry of Defence for recompense and recognition for their participation in the tests for decades. Although a high-profile medal campaign is gaining traction, Lax said: “I think it’s too far past the event. I think I would have appreciated that medal when I was in service, bearing in mind I came out of the RAF in 1975.

“It would have been appreciated then, because it would have been something that people would ask about. Now they won’t.”

It’s estimated that fewer than 1500 British nuclear tests veterans are still alive today. The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA) is aware of just 75 living in Scotland. Lax has recently been appointed the charity’s Scotland representative in a bid to discover more veterans living in the country.

The National: 81 year old John Lax81 year old John Lax

Charity CEO Ceri McDade said: “The BNTVA supports nuclear test veterans with a range of welfare services. These include peer-to-peer conversations, referrals for benefits’ help, counselling, bereavement services, a coffin drape service and assistance for family members.

“We’re thrilled that John is our new Scotland representative.

He has a great understanding of the issues close to our veterans’ hearts, is excellent at linking up with and visiting his nuclear test veteran colleagues.”

Nuclear veterans living in Scotland can get in touch with the BNTVA on 0208 144 3080 or email info@bntva.com