THE ALLIED BIOWARFARE PROGRAM: 1942-1945
* In July 1942 Winston Churchill placed the issue on the top level of priority for discussion by Allied leadership. In fact, the British had been thinking about biological warfare since 1934. The prime mover was a Whitehall bureaucrat named Sir Maurice Hankey, who, like Shiro Ishii, had been inspired to consider bioweapons by the fact that the Geneva Protocol tried to ban them.
In the prewar period, British biowarfare efforts were minimal, consisting of a few committees issuing reports and, as war approached, funding for limited defensive measures. When war broke out in 1939, considerations for offensive biowarfare rose in importance, and the British government established a small laboratory at Porton Down, run by a medical researcher named Paul Fildes.
Fildes began to conduct small-scale experiments to evaluate pathogens and biotoxins for use as weapons, and in late 1941 recommended the production of millions of anthrax-laced cattle cakes that would be dropped by air over Germany. Production of the cattle cakes was approved, and a large stockpile of them was stored at Porton Down until the end of the war, when they were all incinerated.
Biotoxins had a particular appeal for clandestine operations in occupied Europe, setting a precedent for later interest by intelligence services in such weapons. Porton Down is known to have produced botulism toxin under the designation "BTX", and although the records are unclear, a BTX-laced grenade may have been used to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, a senior and highly competent Nazi officer who was then in charge of occupied Czechoslovakia.
The intelligence information leaking out about Japanese bioweapon experiments only increased the priority of Allied efforts to build their own biowarfare capability. In the summer of 1942, the British conducted their first large-scale biowarfare experiment on Gruinard Island, off the coast of Scotland. A film was made of the experiment, and remained classified until 1997.
Sheep were taken to an open field, secured in wooden frames, and exposed to a bomb that scattered anthrax spores. The sheep started dying three days later. They were examined and then burned. Other tests involved dropping anthrax bombs from a Wellington bomber.
Safety precautions were slipshod, and it is a wonder that there were not calamities among the personnel involved or innocent bystanders. One worker in the program recalled helping a medical researcher pour a thick soup of anthrax agent into a bomb, without use of protective clothing or any other safety measures. Despite attempts to disinfect Gruinard Island, the anthrax spores left there by the experiments kept the island in quarantine for five decades.
The final report on the Gruinard Island experiments suggested that anthrax could be used to render whole cities uninhabitable "for generations". Biological weapons were potentially orders of magnitude more effective than chemical weapons.
* In the meantime, the British had been working with the Canadian government to set up a bioweapons test range at Suffield, in the province of Alberta. The area was empty and isolated, and experiments could be performed with greater safety than any location available in the British Isles.
The entry of America into the war in late 1941 added more momentum to the Allied bioweapons effort. The US had considered the possibility of biological warfare, and government reports had been written and distributed to detail defensive and offensive measures.
With a real war on, the American Chemical Warfare Service, with British assistance, built up biowarfare research facilities, including test stations near Dugway and near Pascagoula, Mississippi; a potential production facility at Vigo, near Terra Haute, Indiana; and the master research and development center at Camp Dietrich, Maryland.
The British work on anthrax, or "N" as it was codenamed, as a weapon led in 1943 to the design of an "N" bomb suitable for mass production by the Americans. This munition weighed 1.8 kilograms (4 pounds). 106 of these "bomblets" were to be packed into a 225 kilogram (500 pound) cluster-bomb canister and dropped over enemy population centers.
The whole effort was protected by the highest level of secrecy, TOP SECRET:GUARD, which the Americans described jokingly as DESTROY BEFORE READING. An initial pilot batch of 5,000 N bombs was produced at Camp Dietrich in May 1944, and medium-scale production at a rate of about 50,000 bomblets a month followed. The bomblets were turned over to the British, who stockpiled them.
The plant at Vigo, Indiana, was designed for production of 500,000 anthrax bombs per month. The plant was never put into operation, partly because of extreme concerns over its safety. By the end of the war, it had been converted to antibiotic production, though it could have easily been converted back to bioweapons manufacture if the need had arisen.
* The drastic nature of anthrax was not lost on the Americans, and so they searched for a bioagent that could incapacitate, rather than kill. They found brucellosis a promising agent. The infectious dose was much smaller than that of anthrax, meaning a single bomber could attack a much larger area with the same weight of bombs, and a city that had been attacked with brucellosis would be safe to enter a week or so after the attack.
Brucellosis was, on the other hand, wildly infectious, and many of the people who worked with it in the weapons development program came down with it. However, other than a few days of nasty chills, pains, fever, and headaches, it rarely did much harm. Brucellosis weapons were in an advanced state of development at the end of the war.
* The Americans also investigated anti-crop bioagents, including "potato blights" and "wheat rusts"; "sclerotium rot", which can attack soybeans, sugar beets, sweet potatoes, and cotton; and "blast diseases" to attack rice.
There is some suspicion that crop bioweapons might have been used by the Allies. In the fall of 1944, the German potato crop was infested by a huge plague of Colorado beetles, and in 1945 the Japanese rice crop was badly afflicted by rice blast. However, in the absence of any evidence supporting such suspicions, it seems more likely these incidents were due to natural causes.
* The Soviet biowarfare program during World War II remains somewhat mysterious, and considering the fact that many records were destroyed later, will probably always remain so.
Ken Alibek (originally Kanatjan Alibekov), a senior official of the Soviet "Biopreparat" bioweapons organization in the late 1980s and early 1990s, emigrated to the United States in 1992 and provided a history of the Soviet bioweapons program. While Russian expatriates have been known to tell exaggerated stories for self-serving reasons, Alibek's comments sound entirely plausible.
According to Alibek, the Soviet bioweapons effort began in 1928, three years after the USSR signed the Geneva Procotols. The initial focus was to "weaponize" typhus, with the work supervised by the state security apparatus, the "GPU", which would eventually evolve into the KGB. The effort then expanded, with new facilities built in the network of GPU prison camps. The prime testing ground was at Solovetsky Island, in the Arctic, north of Leningrad in the White Sea.
Prisoners may have been used in tests of biological agents. Certainly there were many casualties among researchers and workers as well, whose lives were made even more miserable during the purges of the 1930s by the influence of Trofim Lysenko, a quack biologist who managed to get Stalin's ear. Those biologists who differed with Lysenko were sent to prison camps or worse, and Lysenko did much to hinder the Soviet biowarfare effort.
When the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler's forces in the summer of 1941, bioweapons facilities in the west were relocated by train to the east, in the Ural mountains. A train carrying pathogens and other materials was passing though the city of Gorky when the Germans decided to bomb the place, panicking supervisors on the train, who ordered the train to keep on rolling through the city. The town of Kirov became the main bioweapons facility after the move. The Soviets also found a new testing ground, at Rebirth Island in the Aral Sea.
During the summer of 1942, when the Germans were pushing through the USSR towards the Caucasus and Stalingrad, there was an outbreak of tularemia of unprecedented magnitude among both German and Soviet troops. Alibek felt certain the outbreak had been a bioweapons attack that had gone wrong, and "old-timers" in the Biopreparat organization told him stories that reinforced his suspicions.
There was also an outbreak of "Q fever" among German troops on leave in the Crimea in 1943. Alibek never investigated the matter in detail, but believed it might very well have been a bioweapons attack or test. Q fever, once known as "Query fever", is a bacterial disease of sheep, goats, and cows carried by ticks. Animals can be infected by breathing dried tick feces, and humans in proximity to the animals can be infected as well.
Q fever causes a sudden fever, aches, and general ill health, but it rarely leads to complications, except for pneumonia, lasts only a few weeks, and is rarely fatal. Q fever was unheard of in the Soviet Union before that time and it was heavily investigated as a biowarfare agent by Soviet researchers later.
Sunday Herald - 14 October 2001
Allies World War Two shame
UK planned to wipe out Germany with anthrax
By George Rosie
AS THE world recoils at the horrific possibility of al-Qaeda terrorists waging anthrax war against United States citizens, the Sunday Herald can reveal that Britain manufactured five million anthrax cattle cakes during the second world war and planned to drop them on Germany in 1944.
The aim of Operation Vegetarian was to wipe out the German beef and dairy herds and then see the bacterium spread to the human population. With people then having no access to antibiotics, this would have caused many thousands -- perhaps even millions -- of German men, women and children to suffer awful deaths.
The anthrax cakes were tested on Gruinard Island, off Wester Ross, which was finally cleared of contamination in 1990. Operation Vegetarian was planned for the summer of 1944 but, in the event, it was abandoned as the Allies' Normandy invasion progressed successfully.
Details of the wartime secret operation are contained in a series of War Office files (WO 188) at the Public Record Office in Kew. Some of the files are still classified . The man whose task was to carry out Operation Vegetarian was Dr Paul Fildes, director of the biology department at Porton Down near Salisbury in Wiltshire. Fildes had previously been in charge of the Medical Research Council's bacterial chemistry unit at Middlesex Hospital.
In early 1942, Fildes began searching Britain for suppliers and manufacturers of linseed-oil cattle cake to make five million small cakes. Large quantities of the bacillus itself had to be produced, while special containers to carry the cattle cakes had to be designed and made. Some RAF bombers had to be modified to deliver the anthrax-infected payload. And all of it had to be done as cheaply as possible.
The raw material for the cake was provided by the Olympia Oil and Cake Company in Blackburn. The contract to cut the cattle cake into small pieces went to J & E Atkinson of Bond Street in London, perfumers and toilet-soap manufacturers and suppliers to the royal family. The Atkinsons calculated that they could produce 180,000 to 250,000 cakes, each 2.5cm in diameter and 10 grammes in weight, in a 44-hour week. The price was to be between 12 and 15 shillings per thousand . The firm pledged to deliver 5,273,400 cakes by April 1943. By the middle of July 1942, the Atkinsons informed Fildes that 'we are now producing at the rate of 40,000 per day'.
The anthrax was manufactured by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries at its veterinary laboratory in Surrey. An Oxford academic named Dr E Schuster was set to work devising the pump to inject the bacilli into the cattle cakes. The Porton Down scientists settled on cube-shaped cardboard containers, 18cm square, to carry the infected foodstuff.
Each held 400 cakes. They would be fitted with a steel handle 'of a size which enables the operator to grasp the handle without difficulty when wearing thick leather or moleskin gloves ...' Thirteen women were then recruited from various soap-making firms, sworn to secrecy and given the job of injecting the cattle cakes with anthrax spores.
At the same time, Fildes and his team were working on the best way to deliver the diseased cattle feed to the German herds.
The RAF's research unit came up with a simple solution -- easily made wooden trays that fitted on to aircraft flare chutes. Their Bomber Command Lancasters, Halifaxes and Stirlings were chosen for the job.
By the beginning of 1944, Operation Vegetarian was ready to go. It was crucial to mount any attack in the summer months. Fildes said: 'The cattle must be caught in the open grazing fields when lush spring grass is on the wane.' 'Trials have shown that these tablets ... are found and consumed by the cattle in a very short time. 'Cattle are concentrated in the northern half of Oldenburg and northwest Hanover. Aircraft flying to and from Berlin will fly over 60 miles of grazing land.'
Fildes calculated that, at an average ground speed of 300mph, the distance would be covered in 18 minutes. 'If one box of tablets is dispersed every two minutes, then each aircraft will be required to carry and disperse nine, or say 10, boxes.'
One Lancaster bomber returning from a raid on Berlin would be able to scatter 4000 anthrax-infected cakes over a 60-mile swathe in less than 20 minutes. A dozen aircraft would have been enough to litter most of the north German countryside with anthrax spores. Operation Vegetarian was a seriously deadly project.
But, by the time Fildes's operation was ready to go in the summer of 1944, the Normandy invasion had taken place and Allied armies were crashing through northern France and up through Italy. The war against Nazi Germany was instead being won by conventional means. At the end of 1945, five million anthrax-infected cattle cakes were incinerated in one of Porton Down's furnaces.