World War 2 History: Britain Prepared to Depopulate Northern Germany With Anthrax

Gruinard Island

500 acre Gruinard Island seen from the northwest Scottish coast. The island was quarantined for nearly 50 years because of anthrax contamination as a result of biological weapons testing during World War 2.
500 acre Gruinard Island seen from the northwest Scottish coast. The island was quarantined for nearly 50 years because of anthrax contamination as a result of biological weapons testing during World War 2. | Source

Gruinard Island, Scotland Paid the Price

In October of 1981, a militant Scottish group calling themselves Dark Harvest Commando left a sealed bucket of soil outside the Chemical Defense Establishment at Porton Down, a UK military science park in Wiltshire. At the same time, several newspapers received a message from the group demanding that the government decontaminate Gruinard (grin'-yard), a tiny Scottish island that had been poisoned 39 years earlier during World War 2 when the British military had conducted biological warfare tests there.

Dark Harvest threatened to leave samples of the soil, which they had dug up on the island, "at appropriate points that will ensure the rapid loss of indifference of the government and the equally rapid education of the general public". The soil in the bucket tested positive for Anthrax spores.

Anthrax Infection

Anthrax infection of the skin caused by contact with anthrax spores.
Anthrax infection of the skin caused by contact with anthrax spores. | Source

Anthrax... a Peaceful Death?

Anthrax is a deadly disease affecting mostly grazing animals that ingest anthrax spores, but can also infect humans who eat the meat of an infected animal or themselves come in contact with the spores. When humans inhale the spores, the death rate is 90% (even with modern treatment). Inside the welcoming environment of the human body, the anthrax bacteria emerge from their hardened spores and cause symptoms like internal bleeding and septicemia (blood poisoning) and even meningitis. The active anthrax bacteria can reform into spores and go dormant surviving under harsh conditions for decades and possibly centuries.

Death usually occurs within a week. Or, as Britain's chief scientific adviser Lord Cherwell put it to Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1944, “any animal breathing in minute quantities of these … spores is extremely likely to die suddenly, but peacefully, within a week”.

Porton Down During WW1

Chemical warfare experimental station at Portal Down during WW1. Image shows trials of 2-inch Toffee Apple mortar bombs (possibly for poison gas delivery?).
Chemical warfare experimental station at Portal Down during WW1. Image shows trials of 2-inch Toffee Apple mortar bombs (possibly for poison gas delivery?). | Source

Fear of Gas Warfare

In 1940, with Germany bombing targets in Britain, the fear that Germany would eventually gas British cities from the air was very real. After all, the Germans had introduced chemical warfare during World War 1 so it was reasonable, at the time, to assume the worst. In August of 1940, the Minister of Supply thought the Porton Down facility, which had been created in 1916 to research chemical weapons, should also explore the possibilities of germ warfare.

A markerPorton Down -
[get directions]

Fildes Arrives at Porton Down

Paul Fildes, a bacteriologist, was put in charge of the new biological weapons program at Porton Down and decided his mission was to prepare a massive offensive capability as soon as possible. It wasn't until October 1940 that, upon querying about research into crop destruction, Churchill was informed of Fildes' activities. Churchill approved Fildes' research into the retaliatory offensive use of biological weapons, but it wasn't until January of 1942 that the War Cabinet gave its formal approval for actual production.

A Cost-Effective Plan to Depopulate Northern Germany

Fildes decided that spreading Anthrax spores across northern Germany was feasible and cost-effective. He calculated that, pound for pound, anthrax was 100 to 1,000 times deadlier than any chemical weapon. If linseed cakes, contaminated with the spores were dropped onto pastures, cattle and sheep would ingest them and die in a matter of days. People coming in contact with the spores or eating the infected meat would also die. With much of Germany's cattle and dairy herds destroyed, the remaining, uninfected population of Germany could soon be starving. The number of dead men, women and children could be in the millions. Thus, Operation Vegetarian was born.

Porton Down Security Gate

Entrance to Porton Down military science park in Wiltshire, UK.
Entrance to Porton Down military science park in Wiltshire, UK. | Source

Operation Vegetarian – Poisoned Cattle Cakes

The firm of J & E Atkinson (royal perfumers and toilet-soap manufacturers) won the contract to provide five million one-inch diameter cattle cakes by April 1943. By the middle of 1942, the firm was producing 40,000 cakes a day.

A pump was designed to inject the anthrax into the cakes and thirteen women, sworn to the strictest secrecy, were hired to perform the actual injections. The anthrax was manufactured at a laboratory in Surrey controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

The RAF got involved and decided the easiest and cheapest way to deliver the cakes was to package them in wooden boxes that would fit onto a bomber's flare chute (normally used to drop flares and later anti-radar chaff).

A markerGruinard Island, Scotland -
[get directions]

Anthrax Bombs

With Operation Vegetarian underway, Fildes turned his attention to developing an actual Anthrax bomb, which would be even more efficient and could be used directly on cities (modern estimates suggest that 100 kg/220 lbs of anthrax spores sprayed on a city could kill 3 million people). Work was started on a bomb that, when dropped, would disperse Anthrax spores in an aerosol cloud. These tests required a remote, secure area and the uninhabited island of Gruinard, about 1 km wide and 2 km long, just off the northwest coast of Scotland was chosen and requisitioned in the summer of 1942. The owners were paid £500.

Will the Anthrax Survive?

The tests needed to prove that the anthrax spores could survive detonation and retain their virulence. To that end, sheep were tethered at various distances downwind from various experimental bombs which were suspended on six-foot high wooden scaffolds. When the bombs were remotely detonated, they released a fine aerosol mist which floated away in the wind. The tests revealed that sheep as far away as 400 yards became infected and died within days, proving the anthrax spores could still do their job.

A markerPenclawdd, Wales -
[get directions]

Oops

Later, a Wellington bomber, flying at 7,000 feet, dropped an anthrax bomb on the island, but it landed in a bog and didn't explode. The experiment was repeated, this time on a beach at Penclawdd, Wales. The bomb was dropped from 5,000 feet, exploded on target and sheep as far away as 300 yards were infected. It was another success.

And Oops Again

Tests continued for a year, until August of 1943, when a heavy storm struck the Scottish coast. Apparently, the heavy rains washed several contaminated sheep carcasses buried on Gruinard Island into the bay and across to the mainland, which infected and killed a number of “civilian” livestock. It was quickly contained and blame was cast on a passing Greek ship which the government said had discarded contaminated carcasses overboard. The farmers were compensated and operations on Gruinard Island were halted. But by then the tests had mostly been successfully completed.

Looking Glass Logic

Fildes and others absolutely believed the Germans were working on a similar anthrax bomb, though there were vehement objections from many in both the government and military against pursuing biological weapons. There was no intelligence to back it up, but the fact that the British were succeeding was taken as proof that the Germans were developing or had developed similar weapons. So goes the Alice in Wonderland logic of war.

US Biological Cluster Bomb

The M33 Cluster Bomb was a US 500-lb biological cluster bomb deployed in 1952. It was filled with 108 4-lb M114 biological bomblets. The M33 was very similar to British WW2 specifications.
The M33 Cluster Bomb was a US 500-lb biological cluster bomb deployed in 1952. It was filled with 108 4-lb M114 biological bomblets. The M33 was very similar to British WW2 specifications. | Source

America to the Rescue

An electrically-triggered four-pound anthrax bomb was designed. One hundred and six of these could be packaged cluster-bomb-style into a single 500-pound bomb. Estimates indicated that one thousand of these (containing a total of 106,000 anthrax bomblets) could extinguish life in a 25-square-mile area. Berlin, Wilhelmshafen, Frankfurt, Aachen and Hamburg were considered potential targets.

Britain, with everything else going on, could not produce the anthrax bombs on such a scale and so they turned to the industrial capacity of America for help. In March 1944, Churchill ordered 500,000 anthrax bomblets from the United States. An American plant (possibly at a secret Terre Haute, Indiana facility) promised to deliver 250,000 by the end of 1944.

Fortunately, D-Day Worked

In June 1944, the Allies invaded Normandy, France. Operation Overlord was touch and go for a while until the beachheads were secured and the troops moved away from the coast and further into France. The generals knew full well how precarious the landings were and how tenuous their position was. Had the Germans thrown their full weight against the beach areas, D-Day could easily have been a utter and complete disaster, leaving the western Allies unable to launch another cross-channel attack for literally years-- if at all, should the British government have fallen because of the defeat. As it was, the Germans threw a nasty scare into the Allies in December when they blind-sided them in what came to be called the Battle of the Bulge.

But Operation Vegetarian was at the Ready

Although the American production of the anthrax bombs was already falling behind and wouldn't be ready until 1945, Operation Vegetarian, Fildes' plan to poison the German countryside, was ready. It would have devastated northern Germany for decades at least. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions would have died. There would likely have been world-wide condemnation. But it was ready. If the Normandy landings had failed, if the Germans had thrown the Allies into the sea, who knows whether Operation Vegetarian would have been put into action? But it was ready. And so were thousands of anthrax bomblets.

Paul Fildes

Paul Fildes (later Sir Paul Fildes) (1882 - 1971)  portrait painted in 1919.
Paul Fildes (later Sir Paul Fildes) (1882 - 1971) portrait painted in 1919. | Source

After the War was Won

Of course the Allies did win the war, laying waste to Europe-- and Germany in particular-- in the conventional manner, as Germany had done to the Low Countries, Britain, Poland, the Soviet Union and other countries. When the Americans used atomic weapons on Japan, interest in biological weapons waned, though research continued. Fildes' five million anthrax-laden cattle cakes were incinerated at Porton Down, but the fate of the hundreds of thousands of American-made anthrax bomblets was never revealed.

Paul Fildes was knighted in 1946 and continued his biological weapons research, conducting his tests in the Caribbean Sea near the island of Antigua. He died in 1971, a year before the Biological Weapons Convention prohibiting the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons convened in 1972. The US was a signatory to the agreement, though President George Bush decided in 2001 that the proposed protocols for verification and compliance were not in the US national interests.

Gruinard Island Scrubbed and Declared Fit for Man and Beast

Sporadic tests after the war and into the 1980s showed Gruinard Island remained contaminated and its quarantine was not lifted. Five years after Dark Harvest Commando's bucket of Gruinard soil showed up on Porton Down's doorstep focusing attention on the island's sordid past, decontamination commenced. An English company was paid £500,000 to soak the entire 500-acre island with a mixture of formaldehyde and seawater and to remove (and presumably incinerate) the “worst-contaminated” topsoil from 10 acres.

A flock of sheep was allowed to graze on the island and, finally, in 1990, seeing no adverse effects, a junior defense minister was ferried to the island where he removed the quarantine sign and declared Gruinard Island to be safe once more for both people and animals-- 48 years after the first anthrax tests were conducted. The heirs of the owners of the island were allowed to purchase it back for the original sale price of £500.

Declassified Testing on Gruinard Island

© 2015 David Hunt

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Comments 21 comments

lions44 profile image

lions44 18 months ago from Auburn, WA

Amazing info. Great article. I knew the Brits were prepared to anything but this still surprised. Voted up and shared.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 18 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi lions44. Just goes to show, you can't put the genie back in the bottle. As I was working on this yesterday came the news that the US military had accidentally shipped "inactive" anthrax samples with live spores to various states and South Korea. "The spores are so tough, and so tiny, that the irradiation procedure used to deactivate the spores might not have killed every single one." Thanks for the comment and share.


Ericdierker profile image

Ericdierker 18 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

A most interesting article. Really quite depressing. At least it ended with a semi-clean island.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 18 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Depressing indeed, Eric. And I agree completely with your "semi-clean" statement-- despite assurances from the junior defense minister. Actually, there are "learned" people who still won't step foot on the island. I just wish I could find more about that beach in Wales. Thanks for commenting.


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 18 months ago from Northern California

Hi David,

What? Those sporting Brits do not conduct all of their wars according to Queensbury Rules? I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked!

Seriously though, you've written yet another outstanding historic hub. It truly deserves to go viral.

Oh no! Bad pun. Bad Larry. *slaps self on wrist*


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 18 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Yes, Larry, I would love to infect the internet with a viral hub. I tried to think of a witty pun as a comeback to your punny comment and wrote down 10 possible candidates that would reveal how clever I am. But as I looked them over, I realized . . . that no pun in ten did.

I think I deserve more than a slap. Thanks for the great comment.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 18 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

Such an attack would've been godsend for Dr Goebbels. Fancy these underhand Englishmen getting up to such an un-sporting activity? It's not cricket, is it? Something for Lord Haw-Haw to gloat about on behalf of the Fatherland!

(Never mind using rat poison in the showerheads at Auschwitz. Not for the squeamish, eh, David?)

How'd you chance on the information? In the light of today's sensitivities, it sounds fairly barbaric. In those days about par for the course (and ranks with US research on pigeon-controlled missiles in the eyes of animal rights activists).


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 18 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Good to hear from you, Alan. I can't remember exactly how I first came across Dr Fildes' efforts, but I tucked it away until recently and started further research. I actually didn't think it would go very far-- maybe it would just be a rogue mad-scientist performing a few dangerous, unsanctioned experiments. If only. I ended up piecing together information mainly from ten sites (web pages, online books, etc), though I visited many more. Apparently, the lid was kept on this until some documents were declassified in 1981 (the year Dark Harvest Commando got involved). It also looks like Porton Down has been involved in other questionable research after the war, but this article was already getting pretty long.


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 18 months ago from USA

Superb hub that deserves wide readership. Voting up and more, sharing, recommending for HOTD. Such a quality piece of work here.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 18 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Such a flattering comment, Flourish. I'm glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the vote-up. I thought it might be a little too long, but I honestly couldn't decide what to cut. Every time I re-edited, I found I was sneaking in a bit more. Thanks again.


AlexK2009 profile image

AlexK2009 18 months ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

The "looking glass logic" you mention seems to me to parallel the mythical Iraqi "Weapons of mass destruction" without even the sexed up dossier. Some things do not change.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 18 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Funny you should mention the WMDs in Iraq, Alex. As I was researching this, I thought back to when Hans Blix and the UN inspectors were unsuccessfully scouring Iraq for those WMDs. I remember watching the news when some impertinent reporter pestered then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld about proof that the Iraqis had them. Rumsfeld, answering as if to a child and somewhat impatiently, declared that the US knew exactly where the WMDs were. For me, that was proof enough that they had no proof . My simple, amateurish mind wondered why we didn't just tell the inspectors where to look. Looking Glass indeed.


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 17 months ago from Northeast Ohio

David, this was another amazing historical hub from you on World War 2. I've learned some interesting stuff in this hub, too. Voted up!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 17 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thank you, Kristen. I have to admit, the more I dug into this, the more depressing I found it-- but not that surprising, given the nature of modern war.


Gary Malmberg profile image

Gary Malmberg 15 months ago from Concon, Chile

Terrific write-up, David. No surprise to me that this took place but it's a very interesting read.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 15 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, Gary. I haven't really researched it, but I believe German scientists were very involved in bio-chemical investigations of their own and Hitler personally forbade their use. Perhaps the one spark of humanity he had or, more likely, being gassed during WW1 he didn't want an escalation whereby poison gas, etc would be used on Berlin.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 15 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

That 'spark of humanity' manifested itself in the V1 and V2 flying bombs as well as plans for a V3 Cannon intended to bombard south-eastern England on an hourly basis. It was based in NW France and destroyed before it could be used, but there are no records of it being tested before the bombing. There is very little difference between being gassed or bombed out of existence. As it happens the V2 was much worse, as it could not be stopped. Explosions were ascribed to 'faulty gas mains', as the facts might have sparked riots.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 15 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Right you are, Alan. Not only couldn't V2s be stopped, they couldn't be heard before they detonated as they were supersonic. I'm sure you don't think I admire Hitler. He loved his dog, Blondi (awww!) and when he wanted to verify the potency of his and Eva's cyanide capsules in the bunker, he had them tested on Blondi (whaaat?). When Blondi died, Hitler was inconsolable( insane).


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 15 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

We've got to thank Hiter's anti-Semitism for not pushing the development of the A-bomb in Germany. He called it 'Jewish technology' and was only persuaded into the development when he saw his territory begin to shrink in 1943. He was insane well before he came to power in 1933. Then again, most Germans weren't 'followers' until their army had taken the Lowlands, Scandinavia and France in 1940. (So what does that make them?)

An interesting fact that arose in a programme (on the Yesterday channel) about the Jews after WWII. It raised the makings of a plot by some of the Jewish Brigade and eastern Eueopean Jewish survivors to poison the water in Germany to avenge the lives of 6m Jews. David Ben Gurion wouldn't sanction it, saying he would only sanction vengeance in the form of 6m Germans converting to Judaism. The members of the group still in Germany planned to kill SS POW's in a camp through poisoning their breakfast bread and nearly pulled it off but for the Americans sending the afflicted to hospital to have their stomachs pumped.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 15 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

I've never heard of the plot to poison Germans by the Jewish Brigade. There's always something to learn (well, actually, we probably don't know much at all really). Very interesting, Alan.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 15 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

The plot was thought up by a survivor of the Lithuanian 'Einsatz' Group's massacre, who had joined Russian partisans for the duration of the war. He got together with the others around the time of the War Crimes trials because he felt not enough of the Nazis were tried at Nuremberg and persuaded them to carry out the poisoning.

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