Date: Saturday, March 08 @ 10:56:08 MST
During the dark days of World War II, the British government took over a small island in Scotland and tested
the world's first anthrax bomb. |Read More|
In its crudest form, biological warfare is nothing new. During the middle ages invading armies often catapulted disease-ridden corpses into enemy strongholds. Then during the 1930's, the Japanese conducted extensive investigation into the use biological warfare. This led to the formation of the covert Unit 731, who during WW2 accounted for approximately 500,000 deaths in China during the course of their 'research'.
Anthrax, derived from anthrakis, the Greek word for "coal", is naturally found in soil and many animals, including sheep. Humans generally contract the disease through an open wound, with the infection causing a black ulcer. Most cases of this "cutaneous anthrax" can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
However, in the late 1800s, medical science identified the far more lethal "inhalational anthrax," first
noticed among English wool workers. Within days of inhaling anthrax spores, victims develop flu like symptoms followed by a fluid build-up and haemorrhaging in the lungs. Even with aggressive treatment, this type of anthrax is fatal in 95% of cases.
Interested in the potential of inhaled anthrax, in 1940 the British government established a research unit at Porton Down in southern England. This was partly in response to intelligence that Nazi Germany was developing them, but also that the lethal possibilities of germ warfare were too great to be ignored.
By the summer of 1942, British scientists were ready to conduct actual tests of an anthrax bomb. In order to limit potential contamination, a remote and uninhabited spot was required for the trial. After a survey,
Gruinard Island in Scotland was deemed suitable and the island was compulsorily purchased.
Just 520 acres, Gruinard seemed the perfect place. It was unpopulated and more than a mile from the nearest house, yet it was close to the big Allied military base at Loch Ewe.
Eighty Sheep were taken to the island, and secured in wooden frames downwind of the test areas. The type of anthrax chosen was the highly virulent strain known as "Vollum 14578" - named after R.L. Vollum the Oxford University Professor who supplied it.
The first weapon tested was a modified 25-pound mustard gas bomb, loaded with a 'thick brown gruel' of
concentrated anthrax spores. The bomb was ferried from the Scottish mainland, and dropped from a Wellington bomber. Another later test involved the release of spores from small ground-based explosive devices.
The test sheep became infected with anthrax and began to die within days of exposure. The infected sheep carcasses were burned in purpose-made incinerators; others were buried in a cave on the island.
Decontamination attempts following the testing were unsuccessful due to the durability of anthrax spores. Then in 1943 the island was quarantined, and Visits strictly prohibited except to check the contamination levels.
At the same time the anthrax bombs were being tested on Gruinard, the British manufactured five million anthrax impregnated 'cattle cakes' that were to be dropped on Germany. Dubbed "Operation Vegetarian", the plan was that German beef and dairy herds would eat the cakes and then spread the disease to humans.
By the time Operation Vegetarian was to start in the summer of 1944, the Allies had invaded Normandy and the tide was turning against the Nazis. The plan was scrubbed and the cattle cakes were eventually incinerated.
Assured of it's place in the history of weaponry, Gruinard Island slumbered on through the rest of World War II and most of the Cold War. Finally, in 1986, the British government hired a private contractor to decontaminate "Anthrax Island." Workers in protective gear injected 280 tons of formaldehyde, diluted with seawater, far into the ground, and tons of topsoil were removed in sealed containers. A flock of sheep was then placed on the island which remained healthy.
On April 24, 1990, after 48 years of quarantine, the then-junior defence minister, Michael Neubert, visited the island and announced its safety by removing the last of the "Landing is Prohibited" signs. In its place, a
small plaque was laid in the ground. It read:
"For air, stone and the equilibrium of understanding. Welcome back Gruinard".