Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011


The island was small - just over a mile in length and half a mile wide.
It was also unpopulated for many years, which is why it was selected by British military scientists.
Holiday on Gruinard Island: don't forget the suit
In 1942, Gruinard Island, off the west coast of Scotland, was infected with high doses of anthrax. Scientists wanted to test whether or not anthrax would be efficacious in a massive biological attack on Nazi Germany.
The plan - codenamed Operation Vegetarian - was to drop linseed cakes infected with anthrax onto the German countryside. The effect would have been catastrophic: Germany’s cattle population would have been wiped out, leading to the death of millions through starvation.
'We shall fight them in the meadows'
The discussions about biological warfare were conducted at the highest level. Winston Churchill himself debated it with his Chiefs of Staff. And the outcome of their discussions was to lead to a top secret order from North America of half a million anthrax bombs.
The 1942 tests on Gruinard Island had to 
be carried out in total secrecy. The island was bought by the government under a compulsory purchase order. Soon after, 80 sheep were shipped to the island and spores of the anthrax bacterium were exploded close to the animals.
Anthrax: government health warning
The anthrax strain was Vollum 14578, a lethal and highly virulent type that took its effect within days. The sheep rapidly began to die.
The scientists were stunned by its efficacy: they realised that a mass detonation of anthrax over Germany would pollute the land for decades, making it totally unsuitable for human habitation.
More alarming was their inability to decontaminate Gruinard Island. Once the anthrax spores were there, they were impossible to remove.
Dead sheep: it worked - a rare anthrax photo
Churchill changed tack and considered the use of poison gas instead. ‘I want you to think very seriously over this question…’ he wrote to his Chiefs of Staff. ‘I want a cold-blooded calculation made as to how it would pay us to use poison gas.’
But by the spring of 1944, anthrax was back on the agenda and this time Churchill approved an order for an initial stockpile of 500,000 anthrax bombs.
Gruinard: island of death
He said he had engaged in ‘most secret consultations with my Military Advisers. They consider, and I entirely agree, that if our enemies should indulge in this form of warfare, the only deterrent would be our power to retaliate.’ An important - and oft forgotten clause - is the fact that he would only drop anthrax on Germany in retaliation for a Nazi biological attack on England.
The Inter-Service Sub-Committee on Biological Warfare said that the initial anthrax order ‘was based on an appreciation that the number would be sufficient for retaliatory attack on six large enemy cities. It has now been concluded, however, that it may be necessary to arrange provision of 8 times this number of bombs in order to achieve results on the scale originally envisaged...’
A puff of smoke on Gruinard. But it'll kill you.
The production of the initial order took time - far longer than the experts had expected. ‘The plant for manufacturing the filling of the bombs [with anthrax] should be in operation by the end of the year (1944) … We could not, therefore, engage in this form of warfare on any effective scale before the spring of 1945.’
By 1945, a top secret report to a Cabinet Defence Committee revealed that even deadlier anthrax weapons were now on trial.
‘Judging by its effect on monkeys,’ read the report, ‘[it] might kill half the population of a City of the size of Stuttgart in one heavy bomber raid and render the site of the City uninhabitable for many years to come... It is clear, therefore, that biological warfare is potentially a most deadly weapon and, if it is ever used in warfare, may have revolutionary effects.’
One Gruinard house for sale: strangely, no buyers.
But the end of the war was by now just around the corner. A new deadly weapon - the atomic bomb - had been developed and anthrax was no longer needed. The biological weapons project was quietly dropped.
But on remote Gruinard Island, the effects of a deadly anthrax attack remained a reality for decades to come.
The island was contaminated and strictly off-limits until 1990, when the removal of top soil and spraying of the island with formaldehyde solution finally rendered it safe.
There is still no one living on the island. The only inhabitants are a flock of sheep who munch on the grass, blissfully unaware of the deadly spores that until recently infected their island home.

Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War

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