Written by Dave Page
When most people hear the phrase “biological warfare,” it usually brings to mind tyrannical Third World dictators or terrorist organisations. However, until their usage was banned in 1975 as part of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), most countries maintained large stockpiles of biological agents which could, at fairly short notice, be weaponised. Although such weapons were never used on a large scale, there is at least one instance where Europe came close to experiencing such usage. If these plans had been actioned, then it would’ve led to large parts of Germany being completely uninhabitable for many decades.
Today we will look into just what those plans were, how they were tested and the catastrophic ramifications of that testing.
During World War II, Britain was keen to explore any and every available option that could facilitate the end of the war as quickly as possible. To that end, in 1942, Winston Churchill
Would instruct Dr. Paul Fildes, the then head of the secret military research facility at Porton Down, to look into possible ways that biological agents could be used to achieve this goal.
Fildes would come up with the idea of dropping anthrax laced cattle cake onto rural parts of Germany from specially modified RAF bombers.
According to Fildes, this plan would result in an almost immediate eradication of Germany’s entire meat supply which would lead to millions of deaths due to starvation. It would also have the added bonus of causing countrywide contamination.
At this point, it may be worth answering the question, what is anthrax? According to the CDC:
“Anthrax is a serious infectious disease caused by gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis. It occurs naturally in soil and commonly affects domestic and wild animals around the world.”
Although it is very dangerous in its naturally occurring form, it can be made even more dangerous if the spores are cultivated and freeze dried as a fine powder. It is in this form that Fildes, planned to deploy it against the German people.
Although this plan may appear to have been somewhat drastic, even in the light of the contemporary situation, the proposal was quickly accepted by military high command, and they immediately set about organising the secret production of 5 million of these cattle cakes.
But was the plan actually viable? In order to answer this question, testing on a much smaller scale would need to be carried out…
As everybody who was involved in the project was fully aware, if the test was successful, the chosen location would have the potential to become indefinitely contaminated. A search began for somewhere that was deemed to be suitably remote. Located in the northwest of Scotland. The small, oval-shaped island of Gruinard proved to be just such a place and the Ministry of Defence set about purchasing it from its original owner, Molly Dunphie, whose husband, Colonel Peter Dunphie was a good friend of Winston Churchill. It is believed that this connection may have led, at least in part, to Gruinard being chosen. As part of the deal, the Dunphie Family would have the opportunity to repurchase the island once all experiments had been concluded. Although the Ministry of defence would eventually make good on this promise, the experiment would render the island completely uninhabitable for 48 years.
Once the base had been established, testing began in earnest. Approximately 60 sheep were transported to the island, tethered far enough apart to avoid cross contamination and cattle cake laced explosives were deployed. Within three days, all of the sheep were dead.
Between 1942 and 1943, many more similar tests were carried out. As a result of these tests, the scientists from Porton Down proved that the Anthrax spores were capable of surviving detonation and also that the planned deployment would be lethally effective. As a result of this, Operation Vegetarian was given the go-ahead and hundreds of thousands of cattle cakes were loaded into RAF bombers where they waited for Churchill’s clearance to launch.
Luckily, by 1944, the circumstances had changed. Allied forces had landed at Normandy and were continuing to advance. Deploying the anthrax was now no longer a viable option as it would pose a serious risk to the Allies, and because of this project vegetarian was cancelled.
However, this was by no means the end of the story. During their experiments, scientists had been storing the dead sheep in caves which they planned to destroy with explosives, burying the problem forever. In reality, when these explosives were deployed, many anthrax infected sheep carcasses were blown out to sea and several of these would wash up on the mainland. The Ministry of defence would claim that these had been thrown overboard from a Greek freighter that was in the area and locals who lost livestock as a result of the ensuing contamination were paid off with exorbitant financial compensation packages.
The next problem for the ministry of defence came when, after the war had ended, Molly Dunphie wanted her island back. They were forced to admit that the island was now dangerously contaminated, and after much debate it was agreed that the government would take control of the island “… until such time as it was again inhabitable by man and beast”. Only after this time would Molly Dunphie or her surviving relatives be allowed to repurchase the island at the originally agreed upon price of £500.
Between the years of 1946 and 1968, the islands contamination levels were tested once a year by the Microbiological Research Establishment (MRE) and the results were not what had been expected.
Originally, the scientists that had worked on the project believed that anthrax spores could only survive in a dormant state for about 10 years. During this testing period, this number was revised to 20 years and then later to 50 years. Throughout the entire 25-year testing program, no reduction in levels of soil contamination were ever detected. For a number of years after this, the only person who would ever visit to the island was a local man who was hired by the Ministry of Defence to repaint the warning signs every year.
In 1967, Gruinard would garner public attention when the fishing boat the Swiftsure struck a rock just offshore. Several local fishermen came to the ship’s aid and, the resulting news article in the Aberdeen press contained the first ever reports of the danger that the island contained.
As public interest grew, Mr James Davidson, Liberal M.P., would write to the ministry of defence to enquire about the possibility of decontaminating the island. The response he received stated that there was not currently any known method of successful decontamination. An extract from the response also states:
“Unfortunately, the anthrax contamination proved extremely persistent, and it is still necessary to isolate the island from the public, since there remains some hazard to anyone landing on it and a risk to animals if the infection were to spread to the mainland. The possibility of infection being spread by birds has been considered but expert advice is that the risk is non-existent.”
From this point, it seemed that the ministry of defence was prepared to leave Gruinard to its fate. An abandoned monument to one of the more reckless plans conceived during the war.
30 years after the initial tests, Charles Fraser, writing for the Aberdeen journal, described the island in the following words:
“It is a pretty island — an island which, set among the panoramic beauty of the West Coast of Scotland, looks the picture of peace. At first glance, it seems just the sort of place a family would choose for a quiet Sunday picnic. But only at first glance. For the calm which fills the air around this haven of tranquillity is not the calm of nature. It is the calm of death… For this is the deserted island of Gruinard where disease lurks beneath the heather and pestilence flourishes in every blade of grass.”
During an interview with Dr Gordon Smith, the director of Porton Down at that time,
Fraser was told that “It is likely that the ground will remain contaminated for 100 years or more”. Smith would go on to say that “While something may be done to accelerate the process of clearing the contamination, it would be immensely costly”.
In June 1979, further extensive testing was carried out in order to ascertain whether it would be viable to attempt to decontaminate the worst affected parts of the island. This would both reduce the threat of contamination spreading and potentially save the government millions of pounds.
Two years later, it was revealed that this idea had also been dropped and that the island was to be left to its fate and, if it wasn’t for Operation Dark Harvest, it is highly likely that this would have been the final word on the matter.
Operation Dark Harvest first came to light on the 10th of October 1981 when a note was attached to the Scottish Parliament building. The writers of this note claimed to be members of the “Dark Harvest Commando of the Scottish Citizen Army”. They also claimed to have removed somewhere in the region of 300 pounds of soil from Gruinard and, if something was not done, bags of this soil would be deposited all around the UK.
They wrote: “This year is the fortieth anniversary of this problem. That we still have the problem to worry about today is due to 40 years of total official indifference. This indifference is about to end… Over the next twelve-month period these bags will be deposited at appropriate points that will ensure the rapid loss of indifference of the Government and the equally rapid education of the general public with regard to this particular problem”.
It soon became clear that this organisation was not bluffing. Later that same day, a 10-pound bag of soil was located outside Porton Down and, after immediate testing, it was not only found to match soil samples previously taken from the island but also to contain a high concentration of anthrax spores.
Several days later, a further package was discovered on top of Blackpool Tower during the Tory party conference but, this package, although undoubtedly taken from the island, was not contaminated with Anthrax.
Although there was initially a large public outcry against this organisation, when the Blackpool package was found to contain no anthrax, the tide of public opinion began to turn. One newspaper would write that: “With germ weapons, if the wind changes you are liable to get your own back, which was the lesson Porton learned this weekend.”
The Dark Harvest manifesto even included some suggestions as to how the island may be made safe:
Option 1 — Burn off the vegetation, cover the island with sealant and reinforced concrete, and then add new soil on top. “Total thickness four or five feet. Total cost; several million pounds.
Option 2 — Strip all the infected soil from the island. “We believe that this solution would merely end up by spreading the spores further than they already are.
Option 3 — Soak Gruinard in potassium permanganate solution (a common treatment for fungal infections). “This may or may not kill the spores. It would certainly turn large areas of the North Atlantic purple.
Option 4 — Heat the island to 1000° Centigrade (1832°F) for two minutes. “As Gruinard Island is only a mile away from a ‘second strike’ nuclear target this still remains, curiously enough, the most likely option at the present”
Due to the increase of both public and political pressure, scientists would again return to the island in 1982. The object of this visit was to discover whether or not any disinfectant would prove effective in the destruction of anthrax spores. Out of the six different types of disinfectant that were tested, it would be the cheapest that would prove the most effective. It was discovered that a blend of formaldehyde and seawater killed off all of the spores in a test sample of soil.
While the government decided whether or not the 10,000,000 litres of the solution would prove to be financially viable, a warning prediction contained within the Dark Harvest manifesto would come true. During a fishing holiday around the Outer Hebrides, two foreign tourists came across the infected island and decided that it would be a perfect location for a picnic and some fishing. As neither of them either spoke or read English, the warning signs meant nothing to them and so they proceeded to spend the day enjoying the peace. Fortunately, they were spotted leaving the island and were subsequently put through a rigorous decontamination process. However, had this not been the case, they could potentially have spread lethal anthrax spores onto the mainland. It is believed that this near miss is what finally persuaded the government that action was necessary.
In the spring of 1986, the clean-up began. Although it was initially believed that the entire island would have to be disinfected, it had been discovered that the contamination was contained within about 10 acres of hot spots located across the island.
This meant that the estimated clean-up cost of several million pounds was drastically reduced to approximately £500,000. In August 1986, this treatment was completed and, although Molly Dunphie had since passed away, her widow repurchased the island and the sale was completed during the summer of 1990.
Until recently, the island remained inhabited only by the birds and the rabbits, kept company by anybody who visited from the mainland but, on the 27th of March 2022, the island was completely decimated by a wildfire. As of this date, there are no plans for the island save for allowing nature to take its course.
Also as of this date, none of the members of Dark Harvest have ever been identified. Although their actions were undoubtedly reckless and there is little doubt that in today’s day and age they would’ve been hunted much more vociferously as terrorists, there is also little doubt that, without their intervention, the island would have been simply abandoned as just another piece of collateral damage caused by the Second World War.