Monday, 3 December 2012

More on 2012 anniversaries: 2. BW sea trials 1952 (and after)

Britain as WMD pioneer in the 1950s: The Hebridean connection
After the Second World War, five series of experiments with animals at sea were undertaken as part of the British biological weapons (BW) research programme:
·Operation Harness [a pilot scheme] in Caribbean waters off Antigua, Bahamas, 1948-49
·Operation Cauldron in Scottish waters near Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 1952
·Operation Hesperus (same location as Cauldron), 1953
·Operation Ozone in Caribbean waters off Nassau, Bahamas, 1954
·Operation Negation (same location as Ozone), 1954-55.
At the end of 'Operation Cauldron' a fishing trawler, the Carella, passed through the danger area while the plague organism was being tested, and was kept under covert observation while returning to Fleetwood and then proceeding to the Icelandic fishing grounds, until the incubation period was over. Ministers met to discuss action, and briefings were prepared for the PM. A Naval Medical Officer was on stand-by to render medical assistance; help was not to be sought in any foreign port. The Admiralty kept only one complete file on the 'incident'; all other records were to be destroyed by fire.
The ‘Cauldron’ experiments took place in a bay - on the side of the island nearest the mainland, not way out in the Atlantic - where the deadly germ cloud was released from a specially adapted warship, HMS 'Ben Lomond'. On 15th September 1952, the captain saw the 'Carella' rounding the headland to the north at 19.01 hours. Thinking that the fifteen minutes before anything dangerous could reach it was ample time to get the trawler to change course, he went ahead with the order to begin the test at 19.02. The cloud soon wafted towards its destined target, a pontoon-load of caged monkeys and guinea-pigs - and towards the 'Carella', which did not change course despite frantic signalling from the 'Ben Lomond'.
When news of the incident reached Whitehall, the masterminds of the biological weapons programme realised they had a problem. If anyone on the trawler had become infected with plague there was potential not only for a public health disaster but for a damaging breach of security. The contamination of Gruinard Island with anthrax 10 years before had been only a beginning. These top secret trials were now part of Cold War weapons development.
The authorities were certainly not going to tell the boat's crew of the threat hanging over them and advise them accordingly, since a medically appropriate response would reveal that what was being looked for was plague, with all its terrifying associations. Initially the line was that the "incident should be ignored and nothing said or done about it". The Minister of Supply who had oversight of the administrative side disclaimed any responsibility - "beyond that of having manufactured and released the bacteria".
Meanwhile, the 'Carella' returned to Fleetwood on schedule on the morning of 17th September, and thence to Icelandic fishing grounds, with the crew unaware that they were being watched all the way. In response to discreet enquiries the owners  agreed to keep the Admiralty informed about its movements, and details of the crew were elicited on the pretext of concern that they might have seen "some secret material or weapons". A Warning Notice to Fishermen posted at Stornoway harbour in June had described the prohibited danger area to be used for "special trials…  from time to time" over the summer, so that something hush-hush was known to be going on there.
HMS 'Zambesi' was instructed to be ready to give medical aid if required and to prevent the 'Carella' from entering an Icelandic or other foreign port should any disease develop. A few days later the fishery protection vessel HMS 'Truelove', was detailed to stay within 50 miles of the Carella's estimated position on the way back and keep a watch on her signals. The Naval Medical Officer (MO) should be in a position to render assistance but must at all costs avoid any occasion to call at any foreign port for urgent medical reasons. The end of the danger period for possible infection was agreed with the Ministry of Health as 19.00 on Monday 6th October, three weeks to the minute from release of the germs. If there were no reports of illness on board before then, no further action need be taken and all precautions would be stood down. Evidently this was what happened.
Orders went out ten days after the incident was officially over decreeing that all copies of the signals to HMS 'Ben Lomond', HMS 'Zambesi', and HMS 'Truelove' were to be burnt, and certificates of destruction by fire returned for all the written evidence, including War Registry copies. Only one complete record of the affair was to be kept, in a 1953 Admiralty file (eventually declassified as number ADM 1/26857 in the Public Record Office/ National Archives).
The Captain of the 'Ben Lomond' was considered by their Admiralty Lordships to have made an "error of judgment" in ordering release of the toxic agent before making sure that the trawler would not pass through the danger zone. An fogivable error, though, keenness overcoming judgment - like, as someone understandingly put it, "trying to get off the last shoot at the end of the day with the glass falling".
So the scientists and their political masters had got away with it and were all set to proceed with the next series of BW trials, Operation Hesperus, in the same location in the summer of 1953. This time the Scientific Trials Officer would conduct proceedings from a control hut to be built on a pontoon, which was to be moored further to seaward for a clear view to the north. Again no breach of security was reported: locals showed "the same lack of interest" as in 1952, and HMS 'Ben Lomond' - now with a different Captain - had allegedly become a "not unpopular feature of the North Hebridean landscape". On two occasions small freighters, believed to be Icelandic, crossed the trials area when danger signals were showing, and as no trial was actually in progress they were allowed to proceed.
The next year the trials moved to the Bahamas, where an initial test-run of the method had taken place in 1948-49. A changing political climate, and the enormous cost, brought the end of the sea trials programme in the mid1950s. Official scientific and naval reports on them generally voiced satisfaction, but MPs and doctors were among those who spoke out against BW weapons development. The phrase 'weapons of mass destruction' was current in the wake of allegations about the US deploying BW in Korea.
Forty years later, in a written reply to Parliamentary Question 20, 19th January 1994, the chief executive of the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment (yes, Porton Down as usual) gave a list of "trials into the dissemination of agent aerosols at sea" including: "Operation CAULDRON in Scottish waters off Stornaway [sic] in the Isles [sic] of Lewis in May-December [sic] 1952 which established that several pathogens could constitute a hazard if used as BW agents [and] Operation HESPERUS in Scottish waters in May-August 1953 which aimed to consolidate data and compare several dissemination and collection methods." Thus Operations Cauldron and Hesperus were written into the official record - even if blandly, sketchily, decades late, and with imperfect accuracy. The 'Carella' cover-up was almost entirely successful for rather longer.
Subsequent publicity about them was sparse and sporadic: an MP's question in 1979; a front-page article in The Observer on 21-7-85, "Germ Bomb Sprayed Trawler"; a mention in A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret History of Gas and Germ Warfare (by Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman, first edition 1982). PQs in the mid-1990s brought a little more information as noted, then, after declassification of the relevant file, Operation Cauldron received extended treatment in the (Scottish) Sunday Herald in March 2003 and the Carella incident was described in the West Highland Free Press in April 2003. More detailed accounts appeared shortly thereafter in a couple of academic journals (see below) which in turn fed into significant though short-lived publicity in other media.
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The tests tok place off the north-east coast of the island, between Stornoway and the Butt of Lewis.
 
Adapted from: ‘Plague tests were carried out by Ministry of Defence off Lewis’, West Highland Free Press 4 April 2003, p.10. <http://www.whfp.com/1614/focus.html>, and from a seminar paper presented at the Institute of Historical Research (London Socialist Historians Group}, October 6th 2003.
More on the sea trials:  E. A. Willis, 'Seascape with monkeys and guinea-pigs: Britain's biological weapons research programme, 1948-54', Medicine, Conflict & Survival Vol.19, No.4, 2003, pp.285-302. Author's pdf copy here.
More on the Carella incident:  Brian Balmer. How does an accident become an experiment? Secret science and the exposure of the public to biological warfare agents. Science and Culture, Vol.13, No.2, 2004, pp.197-228.

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