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The Palomares hydrogen bombs, 1966

Not many people know that hydrogen bombs have fallen on to European soil, but fortunately they did not explode, and could not have done so. The incident had nothing to do with enemy action and was the result of a tragic accident.

During the Cold War the United States was prepared at all times for the outbreak of hostilities and regularly flew bombing missions over Eastern Europe, although no bombs were ever released intentionally. The bombs were nuclear as well as conventional, and many flights by B-52 bombers took place on a daily basis.

On the morning of 16th January 1966 a B-52 was flying over the western Mediterranean and preparing to return to the United States. It carried a cargo of four 1.5 megaton hydrogen bombs, each about twelve feet long. As usual, the plane needed to be refueled before flying back across the Atlantic, and this entailed an aerial rendezvous with a tanker aircraft carrying 30,000 gallons of fuel.

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The procedure was a standard one, carried out at 30,000 feet. It was one that the captains of both aircraft had carried out many times before, and they had no reason to doubt that that morning’s operation would not also go according to plan. However, on this occasion things went disastrously wrong when a misjudgment was made as the bomber approached the tanker, with the result that the two planes collided.

Three crew members on board the B-52 were able to eject safely, but four others, and all seven men on board the tanker plane, were not so lucky. The planes fell from the sky and crashed on Spanish territory close to the coast, as did three of the four hydrogen bombs.

Because the bombs had not been primed there was no chance of a nuclear explosion, but there was certainly a danger that their casings could have been damaged by the fall, or more probably by explosions caused by their TNT detonators. If the casings had been breached, there was every chance that radioactive materials could have leaked out and threatened the well-being of local residents.

As might have been expected, the American military authorities were extremely anxious to hush the matter up as much as possible.Nothing could be less welcome to the general public than the news that nuclear weapons were regularly being flown over their heads and could – should disaster strike – land at their feet. The press were told that a military aircraft had crashed in Spain but no mention was made of its cargo. Reporters were, however, barred from the area which made them highly suspicious that they were not being told the whole truth.

Also kept in the dark were the inhabitants, mainly farmers, of the region near Palomares, to the east of Almeria in southern Spain. While being told to stay calm and not be unduly concerned, they were also instructed not to work on their land or venture outside their village. Reports of thousands of military personnel swarming over their fields clad in protective garb cannot have been particularly reassuring.

Two of the bombs, in open countryside, were found quite quickly, but the third had fallen close to a villager’s home and was not easily visible from the air. The villager in question had stood on top of it and given it a kick, possibly in the hope of stopping the flow of smoke that was issuing from it. It was probably a good thing that he went off to find someone who might know what it was and did not examine it any more closely, given that it was venting radioactive dust. This was also true of one of the other bombs that had already been discovered.

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(Casings of two of the recovered bombs)

As mentioned above, the B-52 had been carrying four bombs, so where was the fourth? It soon became clear that it had fallen into the sea, because it had been seen to do so by a local fisherman. However, his news took a long time to reach the Americans, partly due to the cloak of secrecy that they had thrown over the incident. Not even the local police – to whom the fisherman reported his sighting – were aware that anything had happened that involved nuclear weapons.

Eventually a huge operation got going with the aim of finding the fourth bomb. Although the chances of it threatening immediate danger were slim, the Americans were worried about the Russians finding it before they did. It took two months to locate it, through use of a mini-submarine, but it was eventually spotted on an undersea ledge above a 500-feet precipice. The operation to recover the bomb took another three weeks.

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(The bomb that fell in the sea, on board the recovery ship)

The net result of the accident was that nuclear disaster was averted, although the leakage of radioactive material did have long-term knock-on effects. Decontaminating the affected land was a huge job, given that about 50 acres were involved. Large quantities of soil were removed and taken to the United States for processing, but there is evidence to show that there is still contamination in the area more than 50 years after the event.

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(Barrels of contaminated soil awaiting transport)

Compensation was paid, although the amount was never disclosed and some farmers complained that they never received what had been promised to them.

The incident just goes to show how one person’s carelessness – for that is almost certainly what caused the accident – can lead to extremely serious consequences, especially when nuclear weapons are involved.

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