Experiments carried out in 1942 and 1943 by British government scientists on Gruinard, a.k.a. ‘Anthrax’
made the place officially unfit for human or animal habitation for decades. Island
What was done?
Official files reveal how the first series of trials began in July 1942 to explore the feasibility of producing lethal effects from an airborne cloud laden with anthrax spores. It was shown to have "enormous potentialities", with "effects on animals of an order of magnitude quite different" from either high explosives or chemical agents. "Most Secret" veterinary report told how the sheep were bought in
Inverness, and gave the gruesome post mortem findings. All the animals were destroyed whether or not the spores had got them (as is the norm in animal experimentation), the carcases covered in earth (peat in sandbags), and "the whole finally [supposedly] obliterated by rock blast".
The second series in September 1942 aimed to confirm the results of the first, obtain further information, and test the same anthrax bomb in conditions approximating to operational use. Trials one and two were considered very satisfactory from all aspects. In Trial three the bomb fell in a very boggy patch, making a three-foot crater, and no animal died. Trial four - an anti-tank project - was satisfactory, establishing a prima facie case for the use of anthrax in anti-personnel munitions.
To ensure that all deaths were due to inhalation of spores from anthrax, the sheep were not just tethered but fixed in special crates to limit head movements. The spores were thought to provide perhaps an ideal "war gas" in a cloud scarcely visible and probably odourless, of a toxicity which far exceeded that of any "pure" chemical agent so far discussed. Scientific and service personnel were thanked for participating with enthusiasm in these difficult and dangerous trials, and locally-based helpers acknowledged.
A third series of tests was conducted in July to September 1943 using four-pound aircraft bombs. Experimental staff were deemed to be at no great risk, although they needed protective clothing. When participants returning from the south of the contaminated area waded through a stream of surface water supplying washing tanks, it was thought it might be "inadvisable" to use this water for washing face, neck and hands.
Who was responsible?
A team had come from Porton Down in Wiltshire. At the end of September 1939 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had approved a proposal for an expert committee to discuss the possibilities of infection being transmitted by various forms of micro-organisms through the air. The House of Common's Defence Committee sanctioned "appropriate measures to enable retaliation (if the need should arise, i.e. after first use by the enemy) without undue delay". And, as Paul Fildes, who headed the team, observed in his report of Series three of the trials, "experiments of this sort can only be carried out in remote places". Of course it doesn’t seem so remote if you happen to live there.
What about the locals?
Unofficial reports leaked out of an outbreak of anthrax on the mainland in 1943, thought to be from one infected carcase that had been hurled too far out by the disposal blast.
News of a number of inexplicably dead animals was communicated by the Divisional Inspector for Animal Health on 28 February 1943. The death of a heifer a week previously had been reported to the police as suspected anthrax; the background was the washing up of a carcase of a breed and origin unknown locally in an inlet off
in September 1942. Local enquiries elicited suggestions about experiments of great secrecy involving poison gas dropped from aeroplanes. One soldier left at the house occupied by the Porton personnel on the mainland confirmed that experiments of some nature had been going on, “in the notion of killing [the enemy] quickly”. A Ministry of Agriculture (MAF) Area Inspector sent to investigate confirmed that at least three sheep had been washed up the previous September, although two had gone back out to sea. Gruinard Bay
A cover story would be needed if there was to be an official response to the compensation claim lodged by the dead heifer’s owner. A Mr Fish, who described himself as a security officer, had the bright idea of ascribing the anthrax’s origin to one sheep, which it was to be said had been traced to a Greek ship. The utmost secrecy as to the actual source of the sheep was essential, Fish explained, to prevent news of the Gruinard experiments reaching
. Fildes approved this “ingenious solution”, by which the payment of compensation would be presented as a charge on the Greek government, to be settled between the two allies after the war. This fishy story was said to have gone down with the natives as well as could be expected. Germany
The possibility of recurring outbreaks was a difficulty. Alfred Duff Cooper, Minister of Information, was against further payments in the event of more animal deaths. He thought the Greek ship story feasible, but the Treasury rejected it, although they could suggest no alternative other than to pay up and shut up about why. A conference extending to include Foreign Office and Scottish Office participation granted that crofters had suffered, for them, considerable loss. After discussion it was settled that officials would accept the view that the trouble was in some way related to war conditions, and that it was made on account of the death of farm animals. They would continue to monitor the situation.
In September 1943 anthrax was found again, confirmed in another dead heifer. No clue to the origin of the infection could be found other than the ‘centre’ at Gruinard. A letter went out on 10 July 1944 stating that no compensation was being offered, but payment was being made with reference to the death of the animal. An envelope in the file contains a certificate of infection with anthrax.
In June 1945 Fildes admitted that
was very heavily infected, and would not be fit to restore for normal purposes for a very long time, at least 30 years. MAF was to be consulted on any necessary action to prevent it being “a menace to the mainland”. Fildes in fact abdicated responsibility. It was all very difficult, he wrote on 22 May 1945, and he himself hoped to be out of the subject in a few weeks, except perhaps advising - not to much purpose since he declared “I must say I have no idea how to clean the island up”. It was purchased by the Ministry of Supply in 1947. Gruinard Island
In April 1962 the Member of Parliament for Ross and Cromarty was prompted by some of his constituents to pursue the matter of the island. Three years previously he had been sent a letter stating the place was still unfit for human habitation. Certain areas of soil contained organisms dangerous to man and beast, and this hazard was thought likely to persist. An MRE (Microbiological Research Establishment, i.e. from Porton) inspection party visited each year to take samples.
"When safe again" the island would be offered to the former owner. It was likely, though, to remain contaminated for the foreseeable future, was dangerous, and should not be approached. In 1963 people wanted to know what progress had been made, and the media were on the case; the MP had suggested decontamination, until convinced by the authorities that it was not possible. A press release was prepared for that year's inspection, admitting for the first time the nature of the contamination, giving the official line on how and why it occurred, and the need for the annual check.
As a civil servant explained to the Minister concerned, they had hitherto always refused to disclose details as not being in the public interest. Indeed, a former Under Secretary of State had banned use of the word bacteriological "unless cornered". But this was no longer enough. There were rumours, for example, about radioactivity, and incidents of trespass or inadvertent landings, and efforts to maintain secrecy had become an embarrassment. To stop the rot, on 1st August 1963 it was decided that the "Secret" classification for Gruinard files could be abandoned.
How to clean it up?
The annual testing of soil samples, begun in 1948, was continued until 1968, then again in 1972 MoD staff found viable spores although accurate counts were not made. In 1981 experts from the Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE - there were many name changes) at Porton Down published their report on the results of the first full survey conducted in 1979. Areas around the gantry where the anthrax bombs were suspended remained contaminated at detectable levels, along with a much wider surrounding zone of undetectable contamination - possibly containing localised high concentrations of spores, which could also constitute a hazard.
Within a year it was announced that the MoD intended to try to clean up the island, after a small spate of Parliamentary Questions. In 1982-83 preliminary results of field trials and laboratory tests showed that decontamination was possible. The work was to be undertaken by a small party from the CDE with a Scottish Home and Health Department representative in attendance.
The Ministry's refusal to give details of the chemicals to be used raised some concerns, while the leading science magazine Nature was fairly relaxed about the anthrax itself and claimed that tourists frequently strayed on to the island without falling ill. Journalists were allowed on in July 1986, the largest group of people to visit the island since the experiment.
All better now?
Finally in 1990 it was announced that
was to be sold back to the heirs of its former owner on 1st May for £500, matching compensation paid at the time of its compulsory purchase. The island as a whole had been passed as safe in 1988 by "independent scientists", after a local farmer had grazed a flock of 40 sheep there for several months with no observable ill effects. Gruinard Island
The fears and misgivings aroused by the name of Gruinard may be still more difficult to eradicate.
Mostly adapted from: ‘Faraway places: The post-war fate of
’, West Highland Free Press 6 Sep 2002, p.10, http://www.whfp.com/1584/focus.html. The article was partly based on: E. A. Willis, Landscape with Dead Sheep: What they did to Gruinard Island ', Medicine, Conflict & Survival Vol.18, No.2, April-June 2002, 199-210. Gruinard Island
For the 1943 ‘compensation’ story, see E. A. Willis, 'Contamination and compensation: Gruinard as a 'menace to the mainland', Medicine, Conflict & Survival Vol.20, No. 4, Oct.-Dec 2004, 333-42.