December 31 2000BRITAIN
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Britain kept secret nuclear arsenal on Cyprus

Tom Rhodes

BRITAIN kept nuclear weapons at bases in Cyprus and Singapore during the cold war without telling the governments of the two countries, according to a study to be published this week.

Tactical nuclear weapons were deployed at RAF Akrotiri in southern Cyprus as early as 1960. Two years later Harold Macmillan, then prime minister, personally authorised the storage of nuclear weapons at RAF Tengah in Singapore.

"There are a number of people in those countries who will be none too thrilled to discover what the British government was up to at the time," said Stephen Schwartz, publisher of the Chicago-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which will publish the report.

"If this information had been available to the public in Cyprus and Singapore, I don't think these operations would ever have been carried out."

While the Foreign Office told its diplomats of strategic deployments, neither Tunku Abdul Rahman, then prime minister of Malaysia (of which Singapore was part), nor Archbishop Makarios, the Cypriot leader, were party to Whitehall's decision to keep the weapons on their soil.

The account is based on recently declassified British government documents showing that America was not the only country to have taken the controversial and secretive measure of deploying its nuclear weapons abroad.

The documents not only describe various British deployments but also the lengths to which London went to keep its allies unaware of covert weapon movements.

In one declassified 1960 memorandum, an official in the Air Ministry insists that all those involved maintain their silence. "All possible measures should be taken in Cyprus to conceal the arrival and storage of nuclear bombs," wrote the official, "whether they be inert or drill or the real McCoy."

Deployment to the Mediterranean island was seen by military planners as an inexpensive contribution to the region in the event of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the western allies.

As early as 1956 discussions had started about developing the British base at Akrotiri as a permanent home for Canberras, light aircraft that were able to drop nuclear bombs.

By 1960 part of the base had been prepared for 16 Red Beard tactical nuclear weapons. The following year permanent storage facilities for 32 of these weapons was opened nearby at Cape Gata.

Richard Moore, a historian of Britain's nuclear defences and author of the new study, said last week that by the end of 1962 facilities had been upgraded to handle heavier nuclear bombers. "We can assume that Britain had a full low-altitude nuclear bombing capability in Cyprus by that stage," said Moore.

Vulcan nuclear bombers remained on the island until 1975. Whitehall officials also advocated the deployment of nuclear weapons in the Far East, saying they would have to be used in the event of a war between China and the West or a war against Britain's regional allies such as Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand.

By 1960 the RAF was involved in nuclear planning for the region, drawing up targets and making plans to move 48 Red Beards to Tengah, an RAF base in Singapore, two years later. It was planned that Vulcans and Canberras would be based there. In 1960 a dummy Red Beard was flown for the first time by RAF transport aircraft to Singapore via Libya, Yemen and the Maldives.

The political problems inherent in moving nuclear weapons to the Far East were already clear. Duncan Sandys, minister of defence between 1957 and 1959, caused widespread controversy when he suggested nuclear weapons might be stored in Malaysia and Singapore.

In 1961 Lord Selkirk, British high commissioner to Singapore, advised that the presence even of dummy weapons in the region would be politically sensitive.

This did not prevent Macmillan from issuing his directive a year later, however, resulting in the deployment of Vulcans. The squadron at Tengah began low-altitude nuclear bombing exercises at the end of 1963 and remained in the region until 1970 - although it is still not known for how long it remained equipped with nuclear weapons.

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