|IT was early in the morning on June 21, 1952, when the sound of two percussive “whumps”, coming from a small stretch of sea some 20 miles north of the Isle of Lewis heralded the dawn of a new age in British weaponry. The explosions came from two small 4lb bombs packed with plague and they had just been detonated in the open air at sea.
Britain had developed the most terrifying biological weapon of mass destruction ever created – a weaponised form of the Black Death, the bubonic plague. Even in 1952, such tests were illegal. Germ warfare had been expressly forbidden under the Geneva protocol which all countries, except Japan and the USA, signed in June 1925.
The Sunday Herald has been passed more than 40 pages of documents written by British naval intelligence officers and scientists from Porton Down, Britain’s secret weapons development laboratory in Wiltshire, which reveal in astonishing detail the secret history of what happened during Operation Cauldron: Britain’s programme of building and testing “plague-bombs” off the coast of Scotland.
The documents are so sensitive that they bear a rarely seen classification. They are marked “Top Secret Guard”. One former
intelligence officer said: “This is a term which was used by the government and the military as a way of saying ‘this is really top secret or top, top secret’. A person would have to have the very highest level of clearance to see these documents.”
The first plague tests took place in 1944 at Porton Down in a controlled laboratory environment, but by 1952 the navy was using bombs and aerosols packed with plague at sea in Scottish waters. Rhesus monkeys and guinea pigs were put on pontoon bridges some 20 miles off Lewis and exposed to the plague bacteria. However, plague wasn’t the only biological agent experimented with. It has long been known that anthrax was tested on Gruinard Island [which lies just off the Scottish mainland, between Ullapool and Gairloch] as early as 1942, but along with plague, the military was also testing tularemia and brucellosis off Stornoway in 1952.
Unlike plague, which can kill millions of people, it is rare for anyone to die from tularemia and brucellosis – although both are extremely debilitating. Tularemia, or rabbit fever, leads to ulcers on the skin, swollen lymph glands, a pneumonia-like illness, stomach pains, vomiting and diarrhoea.
The type of plague bacteria used in the Lewis tests was yersinia pestis, also known as Pasteurella pestis or P pestis, which can cause both pneumonic and bubonic plague. The trials took place between May 26 and September 8, 1952, and 34 tests were carried out. Six used aerosol sprays to spread the bacteria in the air, the rest used bombs.
More tests were carried out off Stornoway a year later – this time the trials were codenamed Operation Hesperus – during which there were 80 germ warfare tests using both bomb and spray methods. All the Stornoway experiments were conducted by scientists stationed onboard HMS Ben Lomond – Britain’s first floating bio-weapons laboratory.
The then prime minister, Winston Churchill, felt that Scottish coastal waters were not the best location for biological tests and ordered a new site to be found. Scientists and intelligence officers then settled on a tiny area of the Bahamas which they described as “the best place we could find on the surface of the globe”. This Caribbean experiment was codenamed Operation Ozone and it began in 1954.
The documents show that America and Canada were also carrying out germ warfare trials at the same time. A biological research advisory board was set up within the British government to fine-tune the development of biological weapons (BW) and it met at the laboratories of the microbiological research department at Porton Down.
During the initial meetings, one of the board members, Lord Stamp, raised concerns about testing plague and “questioned whether the services required an agent which would give rise to an epidemic”. But leading scientist Sir Paul Fildes said that “the employment of P pestis [plague] as an agent would be contrary to our present policy” but it should be tested as “a potential enemy might use it against us”.
The documents also show that the British government feared the US would use biological weapons during the Korean war, which was in progress at the time. “American colleagues of long-standing had become very offensively minded,” one report notes, “and the general attitude was that the sooner they could terminate the Korean war the better. The services in the United States had developed a most aggressive outlook the emphasis was now entirely on anti-personnel and anti-crop weapons.”
The report also reveals that Britain already had a bio-weapons facility, called Experimental Plant No 1, up and running and was planning to build Experimental Plant No 2 “as being the best chance of meeting an air operational requirement”. This second plant was completed in the late 1950s after receiving backing from the Treasury and being deemed “necessary for the full development of BW research”.
The scientists in charge of the experiments reported that they were disappointed that “the infecting dose of brucellosis in the field was about one third of that found in the laboratory. Clearly, there was something wrong”.
One of the most disturbing sections in the classified documents describes how up to 20% of the agent in a cloud of brucellosis “was viable and infective after 24 hours”. This means that live germs released by the explosions of bombs containing brucellosis off Lewis could have had time to drift towards the mainland. There were also warnings that “some viruses were known to last for weeks and even months in dust”.
Nevertheless, it was decided that “such trials were exceedingly valuable and in fact essential, and that they should be pressed on with at the earliest possible moment as a matter of urgency”.
The board was also worried that the tests at Stornoway could end in deaths. Part of the reason for deciding to shift bio-weapons testing to the Bahamas was down to the fact that attempting “any further trials in the Stornoway area was courting disaster”.
As concerns grew, it was decided that plans to test Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis “should await trials in the Bahamas” as the board was concerned that birds could “act as reservoirs and thus become a potential source of danger to livestock”.
The BW trials were fully supported by naval intelligence, which ordered HMS Ben Lomond to be specially refitted for the bio-weapons tests. The director of naval intelligence also ordered that the Scottish Office and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries be told that the tests were being carried out to “investigate the best means of defence against BW” rather than revealing that the tests had an offensive purpose in order to keep them on-side for the experiments. Even so, the Scottish Home Department was “most reluctant to agree upon the use of the site”.
The government imposed a five-mile exclusion zone around the test site during the trials to prevent all shipping from entering the area. On a number of occasions fishing boats had to be warned to stay out of the area, although at least one strayed into the test zone.
Despite a cover story being created that claimed the exclusion zone at sea was being used as a missile firing range, chiefs of staff were very worried that the true nature of the tests would leak to the press. One memo notes: “Undesirable publicity may take two forms: the fact that we are conducting trials with BW, which obviously has most serious political and international implications; and the fact that we are experimenting with animals, a subject on which the British public in general, and the Anti-vivisection Society in particular, are specially sensitive.”
Last night, a spokeswoman for Porton Down said: “We can add nothing as all the information about this issue is contained in the files which are now in the possession of the Sunday Herald. We do wish to say, however, that all the trials were carried out at the very height of the cold war, when it was felt that Britain was under significant threat. These experiments were carried out in a very different environment to the one in which we are now operating.”
Porton Down did not, however, answer any questions relating to whether or not biological weapons testing was still ongoing, or whether or not the Stornoway tests caused any human casualties”.
Copyright 2003 SMG Sunday Newspapers Ltd.
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.
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The Sunday Herald, March 9 2003
Revealed: how naval intelligence tested lethal ‘plague bombs’ off the Brisish coast (Video included)