World War 2 History: Britain Prepared to Depopulate Northern Germany With Anthrax
Gruinard Island Poisoned
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... 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
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.
Location of Porton Down
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
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).
Location of Gruinard Island
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.
Location of Accidental Bombing
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
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.
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