Monday, 17 March 2014

BW Sea Trials continued, 1954

Protests at last: the Cuban Connection

After Operations Cauldron and Hesperus the British BW sea trials programme changed location from Hebridean waters [So long, and thanks for all the fish] to what was expected to be the less hostile climate of the Bahamas, for Operations Ozone and Negation, 1954-55. (The thinking, if any, behind the latter name is not clear). The weather may indeed have proved more favourable, but public opinion was not: the last series provoked sustained agitation in Cuba.

Publicity about the trials had of course been determinedly avoided, but this policy had become impossible to sustain by the spring of 1954. The Governor of the Bahamas, via the Colonial Office, had expressed worries about possible danger to tourist traffic, predicting a leak once animals started to arrive, and arguing that he should be authorised to publish his own announcement. Eventually a Press notice was issued at midnight on 11 March “because a journalist had got to know something”, and was widely reported. As foreshadowed, the statement, in the name of the Minister of Supply, Duncan Sandys, announced that in view of the need to be prepared for all kinds of attack, trials had been carried out off the coast of Scotland in recent years to obtain the technical data on which precautions should be based. Certain further trials were to be held in Bahamas waters, far out to sea, at least 20 miles form normal shipping routes, after full consultation and with the full cooperation of the local authorities.

Nassau’s reservations may have been set side, but trouble was brewing over the plans, not in Britain nor the Bahamas, but in Cuba. In May a Mr Castro (not Fidel) wrote from New York, anxious about what might happen to his native land. The Ministry drafted a reply assuring him that the trials could not possibly result in inconvenience or danger, and referred his letter to the Foreign Office. Widespread serious agitation on the issue was occurring in (pre-revolutionary) Cuba itself. The British embassy in Havana had been getting protests, pleas, and threats in the mail for weeks; there were daily press reports of discussions, and resolutions passed by various bodies. Britain‘s categorical assurances had had no effect. The ambassador blamed “effective and contagious Communist-inspired propaganda” using “subtle and plausible” arguments to raise and exploit the fears of the ignorant masses and hoodwink a number of quite respectable and intelligent groups, including members of the medical and scientific professions. The ‘Lucky Dragon’ incident, when a Japanese fishing-boat’s crew were exposed to radioactive fallout from an atomic test, had been used as a warning. Local apprehension was only intensified by UK government statements about ‘remoteness from civilisation’.

The National Medical Association of Cuba protested; grocers in Havana had held a one-hour strike, and a publication called Bohemia had been vociferous in opposition to the tests. A planned students’ demonstration had been ‘headed off’ by counter-propaganda The National Association of school teachers went as far as to (allegedly) call for Cuban troops to occupy the Bahamas and prevent the trials. A Time magazine feature ‘Bug-Bomb Bugaboo’ (10 May 1954) assiduously trivialised the risks and included the assertion that ‘no actual germ bombs’ were involved. The Cuban government, embarrassed by the agitation, had offered the embassy every protection, but the Under Secretary of State would have preferred the Bahamas not to have been used. Any untoward weather or public health event in the next few years was, they feared,  likely to be blamed on the BW trials, and the government held to account for not acting to stop them.

At the end of the Ozone series (the exercise was considered to have justified itself well, with no more PR problems at Nassau than at Stornoway), the Foreign Office asked to be consulted in advance of any resumption of Bahamas trials, but decided it would not raise objections, despite protests from the Cuban government. In July a Reuters report stating trials would be held again the following year gave rise to fears of further protests and agitation; equipment had been left behind, so it was not hard to guess at a planned return visit.

In September 1954 the PM agreed to resumption of trials in the Bahamas in October. Operation Negation, was to study loss of viability during airborne travel of bacterial agents and viruses. A Press release was issued in the Bahamas about the new season’s trials. The Bahama Daily Tribune reported that they involved animals, live germs, and a new secret device for recording their effects. Afterwards, the Bacteriological Research Advisory Board was informed Ben Lomond had been on site for just over 20 weeks from 11 November 1954 to 2 April 1955, during which 42 days had been used, to do 160 experiments. Once it had been necessary to delay until a local craft cleared the area, and one fishing boat had been persuaded to go elsewhere. The boats’ crews and Pontoon Party did not receive inoculations and this occasioned no anxiety.

In spite of the optimistic tone of the final scientific and naval reports’ assessment, ‘’Negation’’ was the last of the BW Operations at sea.

At the 11th Tripartite (UK, US, Canada) Conference on BW  in 1956 it was announced that there was to be no more 'offensive' CBW research at Porton Down, where the sea trials programme was elaborated and supplied, For a long time  this was 'highly classified' information since it revealed that there had been dedicated 'offensive' research; the lie that it was all defensive had been spouted repeatedly by official sources for pubic consumption.

National Archives Files (as consulted about 10 years ago):

  • AVIA 54/2257 Operation Ozone: Publicity 1953-54.
  • DEFE 55/256 Operation Ozone: Small scale experiments with biological weapons agents over water 1954.
  • WO 195/13261 Biological Research Advisory Board: Operation “Negation” preliminary statement 1955.
  • DEFE 55/261Operation Negation 1954-55: Biological weapons agents tested over the sea.
  • WO 195/13458 Biological Research Advisory Board: Operation Negation 1955. (As ref. above but excludes some ‘retained’ pages).

SmothPUBS online 
A letter in the Lancet of 30 January 1954 referred to a report in the issue dated 3 October 1953 of a resolution on microbial warfare unanimously passed at the Sixth International Congress for Microbiology in Rome, in September 1953. He (or she?) took the journal to task for failing to print the resolution in full. It was an appeal to all governments who had not done so to adhere to and ratify the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Another letter appeared around the time of the March press release (carried in the same issue), expressing the hope that medically qualified persons involved in BW would have the ‘tact to remove their names from the Medical Register as such activity is quite contrary to the ethics of the Hippocratic Oath’.   - Lathe GH. Microbial warfare [letter]. Lancet 1954 i: 265; Day TD. Bacterial warfare. Lancet 1954 i: 629, 632.

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