Saturday, 27 July 2013

60 Years ago: Operation Hesperus 1953

BW in the Hebrides

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 off 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.
Trials were conducted by Britain, overseen by scientists from Porton Down under the auspices of the Ministry of Supply, with the cooperation of the USA and Canada (the BW tripartite alliance). Secrecy was a prime concern. The organisms (BW agents) tested included plague, brucellosis, and tularaemia ('rabbit fever'). They were tested variously on monkeys, guinea-pigs, mice and chick embryos. At the end of the 'Cauldron' series a trawler, the Carella from Hull, passed through the danger area while the plague organism was being tested, and was kept under covert observation while returning to Fleetwood, and then 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 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.
They had got away with it and were set to proceed with the next, longer series, Operation Hesperus, in the same location in the summer of 1953. The name of Carella did not after all acquire a resonance like that of Lucky Dragon, another fishing boat that was in the wrong place at the wrong time in 1952, during atomic weapons tests in the Pacific.
Prior to 'Hesperus', the Ministry considered issuing a statement about the sea trials but the PM was 'most insistent' that there should be no publicity and nothing said unless 'some issue' was raised in the House of Commons.
As in the previous year, no breach of security was reported. After 1953 they seem to have left Lewis alone as far as this kind of activity went. The Military Branch of the Admiralty wrote to the Scottish Home & Health Department on 22 September 1953 to say that a final decision about continuing the trials was still to emerge, but they were not expected to take place in the Hebrides in 1954. In fact the weather had hampered activities more than in the previous year (1953 was particularly stormy even for Lewis), leading to some disappointment over results and exasperation at delays, and the scientists and sailors were moving to the milder climate of the Bahamas. Or as the report of the next series put it, they had consolidated the technique that they would now work on in a ‘better place’.
Extracts from the Stornoway Gazette
Stornoway Gazette,  6-6-52, p.4

Lewis Football. Friendly Games.

Athletic 7,  H.M.S. Ben Lomond 2 (played on Saturday)

School “A” 6, H.M.S. Welcome 3

Both matches against the Nay teams were won as a result of the better condition of the home teams.

Stornoway Gazette, 9-9-1952, p.4, col.7

Man In “Silent Service” Fined £10

A Leading seaman aboard H.M.S. “Ben Lomond” whose character was given as “good” and work described as “superior” was fined a total of £10 in Stornoway Sheriff Court last Monday on pleading guilty to withholding information from the police, refusing to name another sailor whom he admitted aiding and abetting to drive away a car without permission… caught last Sunday night… car being driven in a “peculiar” manner… driver escaped after a chase by another policeman.

Police conducted an investigation aboard H.M.S. “Hengist” in Stornoway Harbour but no arrest  was made. A Lieutenant on the “Hengist” gave character reference; the Navy assured them that the men would be disciplined.

Their own ship was sheltering in Broad Bay from rough weather.

[The BW danger area was patrolled by a naval-manned tug, the Hengist, on ‘clear-range’ duties.] 

Stornoway Gazette, 30-9-1952, p. 7

Letter: Ben Lomond thanks Stornoway

On behalf of the ship’s company, thanks to all who made us welcome during  last five months, including staff of County Hotel, Mrs Muir for farewell dance, those who were sociable when we were ashore; for very kind hospitality.

 “Perhaps one day we will return to Stornoway, which will, we hope, be in the near future, and on a better mission.”

H.M.S. Ben Lomond

[The last phrase is an interesting hint about what was (known to be?) going on]

Near the scene of Operations Cauldron and Hesperus:  
Beach on north-east Lewis, 
scene of family and Sunday-school picnics in the 1950s and after.

The trials took place in the vicinity of Cellar Head
Mothers and children on beach
on the Isle of Lewis, early 1950s